I must confess to having known little to nothing about Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire until the announcement this month that it will be hosting an exhibition on the Knights Templar.
Why an exhibition here? Well, several knights were imprisoned down below in the dungeons of the castle after the order was crushed by order of Pope Clement. The English dragged their feet initially in suppressing the Templars but then got on with the job. The poor knights were rounded up, locked away and tortured to confess to various trumped up charges.
Intriguingly, the imprisoned Templars scrawled religious symbols on the walls – something they seemed to have done wherever they were imprisoned. For example, Gisors in France.
The dungeons were incredibly grim and disease ridden. Many of those incarcerated would have survived a matter of days and death might have been a sweet release. Food was basic and disgusting while the only drink would have been ale brewed in the castle. That at least might have eased your suffering.
Like many Norman castles, it started out as a wooden construction commissioned by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Later on, a stone fortress replaced the wood. As happened to quite a few medieval castles, it was partially demolished after the English Civil War in the 17th century to stop royalists threatening the newly founded republic of Oliver Cromwell.
Five years ago I blogged about a network of caves with a chapel of sorts where black magic rituals were being practised, causing concern to the local community and predictable interest for the media. The story has rumbled on and the satanists have continued to lower themselves down into the catacombs to do…well…whatever they do!
The accepted wisdom was that these caves were hewn out of the sandstone in the 17th century by people calling themselves Knights Templar but three centuries too late to be the real thing. But then along comes a local historian asserting that the Caynton caves are not a folly but a genuine Templar place of worship. It seems they do date back to the Middle Ages.
And there’s more. It appears that the last grand master of the order, Jacques de Molay, visited nearby and our local historian sees no reason why he wouldn’t have dropped by to pray in this sacred spot. De Molay went on to be put on trial by the king of France and burnt at the stake bringing the Knights Templar to a violent end in 1314.
You can read more about the recent local press coverage HERE.
Here’s a great idea for a Templar holiday this year – visit all the Templar hotspots mentioned in my book Quest for the True Cross. I’ve been to all of them (barring one) and can guarantee – they are fascinating places. So – let’s start our quick journey!
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT ONE: Edessa
This city is now in modern Turkey – which is appropriate as it was the Seljuk Turks who drove the crusaders out of Edessa on Christmas Day in 1144. The city had been the capital of the County of Edessa, one of the first Christian kingdoms established after the First Crusade. The unsuccessful defence of the city was led by its Latin archbishop Hugh who was either trampled to death by his own fleeing flock or killed by the Seljuks as they stormed the city’s fortifications. I begin Quest for the True Cross with the siege of Edessa in full swing and two unscrupulous thieves using the tumult to steal the True Cross from a church in the city.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT TWO: Jerusalem
Jerusalem had been taken by Christian forces in the First Crusade – in the year 1099. A contemporary chronicle claimed that the massacre perpetrated by crusaders against the populace was at such a level that blood splashed up from the streets on to the knights’ stirrups. In the years that followed, a crusader kingdom was established with the Al Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock converted from Muslim to Christian use. This was reversed back again when Jerusalem fell to Saladin eighty years later. We meet the hero of Quest for the True Cross, Sir William de Mandeville, in Jerusalem as he helps to defend it from encroaching saracens.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT THREE: London Templar church
The Temple church in London was the second Templar preceptory in the city and stands between Fleet Street and the river Thames. You need some imagination to picture it as part of a complex of medieval buildings long gone that would once have served the knights’ requirements. It’s now surrounded by law firms. In my novel, Sir William returns to the Temple to discover his father’s body hanging from an apple tree. This is based on a factual account of a failed rebellion by the 1st Earl of Essex Geoffrey de Mandeville’s against King Stephen. The Earl was subsequently declared an outlaw and killed. His body was forbidden a Christian burial but was rescued by the Templars. I won’t spoil what happened next – you’ll have to read Quest for the True Cross.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FOUR: Cressing Temple
Sir William is forced to return to the Templar preceptory where he began his life as a knight. It’s an unhappy return. The preceptory is run by a bitter old curmudgeon by the name of Wulfric who detests the young and valiant Sir William. Cressing Temple is in Essex and was once a major centre of the Knights Templar in England – founded during the unhappy reign of the aforementioned King Stephen. You can still see remains of a huge barn that I mention in the novel. I grew up in Essex and it’s with great pride that I bring this Templar gem to your attention!
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FIVE: Clairvaux
Leaving England, Sir William journeys to Clairvaux to see his old mentor – Bernard. The French Cistercian Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was a titanic figure in the Middle Ages – a reformer, ascetic, advocate of the crusades and supporter of the Templars. With the fall of Edessa to the Turks, he gave a series of rousing sermons urging the European nobility to make haste to the Holy Land and defend the Christian kingdoms. I depict Sir William as being one of many knights swept up in this fervour. Unfortunately, the Second Crusade suffered many setbacks, which hit Bernard hard. In my book, I convey his bitterness at the turn of events. I also touch on the intellectual battle that Bernard fought against a rival cleric called Peter Abelard. The latter was a worldly philosopher who offended the more spiritual Bernard.
This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.
But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.
In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.
It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.
Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.
The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.
I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.
Therapy and counselling may have been in short supply in the Middle Ages – compared to our modern society – but that doesn’t mean some knights weren’t psychologically affected by the horrors of war. After all, how would you expect anybody to react when boiling oil drenched a battle comrade or a crossbow bolt skewered a fellow soldier? Even allowing for the adrenalin of warfare and the medieval familiarity with scenes of death, it still seems more than likely that some knights would have been deeply disturbed.
Both my parents worked in psychiatric care – in one of the old asylums closed down in the UK when mental care was overhauled in the 1980s. During their time as medical staff in a big institution in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw patients traumatised by wartime experience. Those affected might be combatants or civilians who were caught up in bombardment or the loss of loved ones. Wars take a toll on human beings no matter how close to the front line they are.
So what about our medieval knights? Did they really need therapy? This 2011 article – Medieval Knights may have had PTSD – quotes a professor at the university of Copenhagen who looked at contemporary chronicles for evidence of medieval post-traumatic stress. A 14th century French knight Geoffroi de Charny wrote some revealing remarks:
“In this profession one has to endure heat, hunger and hard work, to sleep little and often to keep watch. And to be exhausted and to sleep uncomfortably on the ground only to be abruptly awakened. And you will be powerless to change the situation. You will often be afraid when you see your enemies coming towards you with lowered lances to run you through and with drawn swords to cut you down. Bolts and arrows come at you and you do not know how best to protect yourself. You see people killing each other, fleeing, dying and being taken prisoner and you see the bodies of your dead friends lying before you. But your horse is not dead, and by its vigorous speed you can escape in dishonour. But if you stay, you will win eternal honour. Is he not a great martyr, who puts himself to such work?”
De Charny didn’t seem to be suffering from PTSD himself but he and other commentators refer to horrors – such as knights having to hold in their own guts or resorting to cannibalism – that makes one wonder how much a human being can take before they crack.
In my book – Quest for the True Cross – I decided from the outset that my main protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, would be suffering from PTSD. In fact, I credit my parents in the book’s acknowledgments section with helping me to portray his symptoms. Given that William was living in the Middle Ages, I had his madness expressed through ecstatic religious visions and a devilish creature called the Basilisk who comes to haunt him at night.
The trigger for his PTSD is a massacre of a Saracen village in the Holy Land – a reprisal by the Templars against earlier attacks on them. I refer to this during a major anxiety attack that strikes William when he arrives in medieval Portugal and witnesses villagers worshipping a pagan god. It seems that any major elevation in tension gives our hero a turn.
Only by recovering the True Cross – a great treasure stolen from the Knights Templar – can William recover not only his family honour but his wits as well. We do medicate the mentally ill in our own society so I allowed William’s Syrian companion, Pathros, to medicate his master in a very questionable manner.
It should finally be noted that even great commanders succumbed to what looks like PTSD in ancient times. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle relates a battle in the year 1003 where a military leader called Alfred was unable to lead his men as he was seized by a vomiting fit. This and other incidents are mentioned on the Vietnam Veterans blog.