The Templars and Magna Carta

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 00.38.31Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John – one of the least liked monarchs of the Plantagenet dynasty.  What is often unappreciated is the role that the Knights Templar played in the background to this momentous occasion.

John was forced by the barons to agree not to use royal powers in an arbitrary manner.  Magna Carta also covered a whole range of distinctly medieval issues that have long become irrelevant but this is the clause – buried quite deep in the charter at the time – that excited lovers of liberty in subsequent centuries.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Other more arcane clauses related to a proper system of weights and measures for ale, cloth and corn (no, really!) and the release of hostages John had taken from the Welsh and Scottish royal families.

There wasn’t actually a fully written charter in front of John on the day he was surrounded by angry barons – it was written up afterwards in full by court scribes and then circulated.  Four copies exist – two in the British Library in London and one in Salisbury and another in Lincoln.

Magna Carta wasn’t signed as such by King John – but acknowledged with his wax seal…nothing unusual in that.  He may or may not have been literate though John did boast to owning a big library, which suggests he may have had some reading and writing ability. It seems astonishing to us now but illiteracy was widespread beyond the clergy and even extended into the upper reaches of society.  Though the notion that everybody outside of the church was illiterate before the Reformation is now not accepted as having been the case.

The role of the Knights Templar is shadowy.  We know that John stayed with the Templars the night before he had to place himself in front of the barons to agree Magna Carta.  Brother Aymeric accompanied John to Runnymede – where the charter was assented to – in his role as Grand Master of the Templars in England.  Contrary to the enjoyable but historically inaccurate tosh in the movie Ironclad – the Templars were not opposed to John.  They were, after all, his bankers, advisers and played a lead role in the crusades in the Holy Land.

John made a series of gifts to the Templars during his reign and they in turn paid a thousand pounds – then a vast sum – for the confirmation of their privileges in the first year of his reign.  John bestowed on the Templars the Isle of Lundy and manors at Huntspill, Harewood, Radenach and Northampton.  Hardly the act of a king on bad terms!

As we near the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, I’ll share more insights with you – and happy to hear your views of this seminal historical event.  Here we have some glorious historical inaccuracy in Ironclad:

A more considered view of Magna Carta

 

 

Advertisements

Constantinople – at the time of the Crusades

ConquestOf Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204
ConquestOf Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time the Templars were formed, THE city – the most important metropolis in Europe – was still Constantinople.  It may no longer have dominated the Mediterranean as it had done in the late Roman period and under Justinian and his immediate successors, but it remained a wealthy and prospering entrepot.

The armies of Islam – against whom the crusaders and Templars would fight throughout the 12th and 13th centuries might have taken north Africa and the Levant from the Christian emperor in Constantinople – but it still exerted a huge political, cultural and occasionally military pull on the region.  It was, after all, an appeal from the emperor that led the pope to call for the First Crusade.

Constantinople survived because it sat behind huge, thick walls built in the 5th century AD to withstand attacks from Huns and other barbarians.  It saw off the Arabs, Bulgars, Avars and Turks in succession.  By the year 1200, the population believed their mighty city could see off any invader and yet, four years later, fellow Christians would attack and devastate the city, breaching its walls, in the Fourth Crusade.

There have been several attempts to recapture the glory of Constantinople through simulation and I share a couple here.

Maps of the Templar world

I have always loved historical maps – they never give a wholly accurate view of what the reality was on the ground but they’re fascinating to pore over. And here are some images of Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Knights Templar. What a different world they present!

Going from left to right across Europe, these maps reveal the tempestuous political climate of the period.  The Norman aristocracy of England had begun its slow invasion of Ireland as you can see by a smattering of pink on the east coast, Wales and Scotland were still independent and the English crown still claimed vast swathes of what is now France.

The Iberian peninsula is even more striking. Half of it was still under Islamic control – having been completely invaded in the year 711CE.  Christian kingdoms like Leon, Castille, Portugal as well as Aragon and Navarre had begun the ‘Reconquest‘ aided by crusaders and Templars from all over Europe.

Central Europe was dominated by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire that stretched down into northern Italy meeting the Norman controlled southern half of the boot.  Venice was independent and increasingly challenged the fading power of the Byzantine Empire – which it would eventually deal a huge blow against in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.

Beyond the Byzantines – the Greek speaking inheritor of the eastern Roman empire centred on Constantinople – was the encroaching realms of the Seljuk Turks.  The Seljuks had become the dominant force in the Islamic Middle East and would crush crusader controlled Edessa in 1144.

Enjoy the maps!

Map of medieval Europe map of medieval europe map of medieval europe

The mistaken statue of Saladin

At Kerak castle, built by crusaders in the 12th century, there is a block of stone in the walls depicting a very muscular figure. For centuries, it was believed to be Saladin – scourge of the Templars and crusaders and the Muslim ruler who re-took Jerusalem.  In fact, it definitely isn’t Saladin and is much, much older.

The figure is a Nabatean warrior – the civilisation that built the legendary tomb city of Petra. It dates back to the 2nd century AD and shows a cavalryman equipped for the afterlife. So what on earth is it doing in a crusader castle? Well, masonry from much older monuments (this would have been nearly a thousand years old when Kerak was built during the crusades) was often incorporated into new buildings. So this chap – whose name we shall never know – found himself immortalised in the wall of Kerak castle.  Even if he was given an incorrect identity subsequently!

Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

Historic Tomar to host its first Templar festival

Tomar is a beautiful Templar town in Portugal where the order held out after being crushed throughout Europe. On top of a hill overlooking the winding streets of the medieval town is a Templar ‘charola’ or octagonal church built like a fortress. Attached to it is a semi-ruined convent constructed in the 16th century Manueline style.

Down in the valley is another church called Santa Maria Olival where the Portuguese Templar masters were buried including the legendary Gualdim Pais – vanquisher of the Moors!

Tomar was recently chosen to be the global HQ of The International Order of the Knights Templar – OSMTH – and this has led to the first ever Templar festival being held in the town. Quite why it hasn’t happened before I can’t imagine. Having visited Tomar every year since 2009, I can assure you that this is a must see for any Templar.

I wish I could have given you more notice but I only found out about the event yesterday, which is happening between the 23rd and 26th of this month. Full details in Portuguese can be found HERE.  If you can’t make it – then please browse the images below from my last visit in August, 2012.

Cyprus and the Knights Templar – a grim Easter anniversary!

coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus
coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A political map of the en:Near East in 1135 CE...
A political map of the en:Near East in 1135 CE. Crusader states are marked with a red cross. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is now racked by a financial crisis.  Demonstrators have taken to the streets in their thousands as savers have been forced to hand up to as much as 10% of their savings to bail out the bankers. Little wonder that bankers are extremely unpopular.

But it won’t be the first time that Cypriots have raged against bankers on the island. Back in 1192, the Knights Templar were in control of Cyprus having bought it a year earlier from Richard the Lionheart.  He in turn had taken it from the Byzantine empire, the eastern Christian remnant of the Roman empire that was notionally, though not always, on the crusader side against the Muslim Saracens.

King Richard was busy trying to defend the mainland crusader states and so when the Templars offered to buy it off him, he seized the chance. And of course the Templars had the money to make good on the deal. They were not only first class soldiers – but also first class bankers. It may have been a primitive form of finance that they operated, but it was advanced for the age. The Templars issued an early form of travellers’ cheque to their customers allowing them to go on crusade without having to take all their bullion around with them. Templar preceptories operated a bit like high street banks where nobles could pop in and cash a cheque to keep them going far from home.

But bankers have never been loved. And the locals soon got weary of these warrior monks – cum – bankers running their island. There weren’t many Templars present, as few as twenty according to some accounts. The islanders had spent centuries staving off Saracen attacks plus they were religiously and culturally more affiliated to Constantinople than Rome. Add to that the Templars would have been trying to recoup their investment quite aggressively by extracting whatever wealth they could from Cyprus. Templar books needed to be balanced in order to pay for crusading in outremer.  Needless to say, these Latin Christian crusaders  soon outstayed their welcome.

Concerned at rumblings of revolt, the Templars retreated within their garrison. There were reports that the Cypriots were planning to massacre the knights on Easter Day, 1192.  So, after regaining their courage, the Templars stormed out of their castle and embarked on a wholesale massacre of anybody they met. This isn’t exactly the finest hour in the history of the Knights Templar – but it happened. The killing quelled the rebellion and an uneasy peace returned. But shortly afterwards, the Templars sold Cyprus on to Guy de Lusignan – who you will recall from the movie Kingdom of Heaven – had just lost the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies. So he needed somewhere to rule.

Here is Guy de Lusignan fighting Balian in the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.