I was overwhelmed by the turnout and lively interest shown by the audience at the Knight Templar event at the Bradford Literature Festival in the English city (in the county of Yorkshire) on 30 June, 2018.
Professor Helen Nicholson of Cardiff University, a renowned medievalist and expert on the Templars, was on stage with me as we shared our respective insights into Templar history. It was certainly a lively debate as we covered everything from the mysterious beginnings of the order to the trial and downfall.
We touched on some of the more unusual conspiracy theories that surround the Templars and how they have been depicted in the movies and literature. The audience threw some fascinating questions on the role of women in the order; the possible existence of Templar treasure and whether their crusading ideals survived their termination.
Huge thanks to the journalist and broadcaster Remona Aly who chaired our discussion. Remona is a big fan of medieval history and studied the subject for her masters degree. And I should also extend warm greetings to the book retailer Waterstones, that is stocking my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross and those good people who bought a copy on the day.
In 1314, on an island in the middle of the river Seine in Paris, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar – Jacques de Molay – was burnt at the stake. His agonising death ended an incredible two centuries old order of warrior monks – brought down by a money grabbing French king and a craven, gutless Pope. The Templars were no more.
Or is that really the truth?
Not according to an awful lot of people out there. Ever since De Molay breathed his last, rumours and stories have abounded to suggest the Templars continued in some or other guise. One of the most curious is that De Molay verbally appointed another Grand Master before he was executed. This was a man called Johannes Marcus Larmenius.
In February, 1324 – ten years after the death of De Molay – Larmenius, a Templar born in Outremer, issued a charter claiming that he was the rightful Grand Master. But now in his seventies, the old man wanted to transfer this onerous responsibility to younger shoulders. He proposed that the next Grand Master should be Franciscus Theobaldus – who was still in charge of a Templar institution of some sort in Alexandria, Egypt.
This began a phase of underground activity in the history of the Templars. Grand Masters continued to be appointed but very much out of the public eye. That was until a chap called Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat revealed the existence of the Larmenius Charter, in the year 1804, that included his name as the latest of 22 successive Grand Masters.
Needless to say there was some scepticism about Palaprat’s extraordinary boast that he owned a ‘charter of transmission’ – as he termed it – written by Larmenius and naming him as the current Grand Master. But Palaprat was not to be dismissed so easily. He produced the sword of Jacques De Molay and some of his charred bones. Everything he said was true – how dare anybody question him!
At a time when France has experienced a revolution; a century of Enlightenment thought; the undermining of traditional church and royal authority and the emergence of the Freemasons – it’s perhaps not surprising that somebody like Palaprat emerged. He was feverishly mixing bits of the Templars with gnosticism, Freemasonry and an unswerving loyalty to Napoleon. It was an eclectic hodge-podge that suited the times.
The French revolution of 1789 had briefly replaced Catholicism with a cult of the Supreme Being. Now, Palaprat used his status as Grand Master to launch a new Templar order and later what was termed a Johannite church. His religion had its own version of the bible, loosely based on the gospel of John, and a belief that Jesus had been initiated into ancient Egyptian rites.
Few believe the Larmenius Charter was authentic or that he even existed. Today, the document can be viewed in London as a curiosity.
We’re used to the idea of the Knights Templar being either vilified or heroised since their destruction in 1307 – but what’s more intriguing is the way that people wrote about the Templars while they were still up and running….and crusading.
Because the views of the Templars from contemporary sources are often pretty damning. William of Tyre, for example, seems to have dipped his pen in bile and poison before scribbling anything down about the Templars.
His account has often been taken as gospel and quoted by Muslim authors writing about the wicked knights. But these days, historians realise that some of these chroniclers had wider and deeper agendas. They were serving those who had an interest in undermining the Templars for a variety of reasons.
So what accusations and insults were hurled by the Templars’ critics? It tended to go along these lines:
They are in league with the Muslim enemy and not serving Christ at all
The Templars are only interested in money and are greedy and self-serving
They are not brave in battle but reckless and put other lives in danger
The Templar rituals include abominable acts such as spitting on crucifixes
These chroniclers undoubtedly made it much easier for King Philip of France and Pope Clement to destroy the Templars in 1307. A long legacy of brickbats being thrown at the warrior knights fostered the impression that there had always been something rotten about the order from the outset.
As early as 1170, the aforementioned William of Tyre, after describing how the Templars came into being, asserted that they had abandoned their early humility and gorged themselves with riches. Why, they had even ditched their commitment to obey the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had helped them in the early days, swearing loyalty to the Pope in Rome alone. Such ingratitude!
They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.
Another chronicler, Matthew Paris, expressed a common gripe among the mainstream clergy: as the Templars were getting so many donations, where was it all going? He wrote that the order “swallow down such great revenues as if they sink them into the gulf of the abyss”.
Some of these movies you may not have heard of – and others you might have wanted to forget! But I’ve unearthed some great popcorn chomping fun that feature the Knights Templar – so here goes!
1. The Minion (1998)
One of several spooky movies timed for the dawn of the new millennium. It’s Christmas Eve 1999 and a New York subway construction crew digs up an ancient skeleton plus a mysterious key. Whatever that key opens can only spell trouble! And it surely does. Along comes archaeologist Karen Goodleaf who unleashes The Minion – a diabolical creature that tries to possess her. But then….up pops a Knight Templar to rescue the damsel in distress. Why it’s none other than Dolph Lundgren, 80s acting hunk playing a knight called Lukas…
2. Blood of the Templars (2004)
You’re a teenager brought up by a monk because you never knew who your parents were – and one night at a party, you have a fight. And amazingly, you win the fight because….you discover your superhuman powers. Well, you’re at least a lot stronger then the college bully. Next thing you know, the Knights Templar and the Priory of Sion are in touch asking if you can help find the Holy Grail.
3. The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar (2006)
This movie is in Danish but you’ve all watched a Scandinavian cop series by now so you can cope with the subtitles. Another teenage boy goes on a quest to find out more about the Knights Templar – and even learns Latin to help him on his way. But he doesn’t bank on the danger in store…
4. Night of the Templar (2012)
This movie is so trashy, it demands to be watched. Classic shlock horror. Templar knight is killed by a band of baddies centuries ago. But he vows to return after ten generations have passed to slaughter his murderers’ descendants. And that’s basically what he does…
5. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Cheesy horror movies were all the rage in the 1970s. This one is about some Knights Templar – executed for devil worship – who come to life at night to rape and murder. Needless to say some hapless modern day travellers chance across their path with unfortunate results.
Professor Helen Nicholson is a globally recognised expert on the Knights Templar. I’m very honoured to be sharing a platform with her at the Bradford Literature Festival on 30 June, 2018 discussing all things Templar related.
Ahead of that, I want to bring to your attention Helen’s most recent book that reveals the daily life of the Knights Templar – with fascinating insights. The book is called The Everyday Life of the Templars and I heartily recommend it.
What did the Knights Templar eat and drink? What was their daily routine? If you could be transported back to a Templar preceptory (one of their rural estates), what would you have seen going on?
Well, to give you a flavour of the answers to those questions to be found in her book, I’ve just interviewed Helen and here – exclusively for my users – she gives some glimpses of the secretive life of the Knights Templar. To find out even more, you’ll of course have to get a copy of her compelling read from Amazon and other online retailers.
So, here is Professor Nicholson in conversation with me:
What motivated you to write a book about the everyday life of the Templars?
I have been researching the surviving inventories and records of the Templar estates in Britain and Ireland from the period from the Templars’ arrest early in 1308 until the point when the estates were handed over to the Hospitallers. The inventories from Ireland and the sole inventory from Wales were published many years ago but the records from England remain unpublished. There is an enormous amount of information about the crops being grown on the Templars’ estates, the livestock being raised, the people employed there, manufacture of cheese, butter, cider, wine, which brothers were living in each Templar house and the other people who lived there. So the records give an insight into life in these Templar properties early in the fourteenth century. Other scholars have studied similar records from the Templar properties in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. So I thought it would be interesting to draw this material together to give wide picture of how the Templars and their tenants and workers would have lived.
Where did you find most of the source material, given the Templars didn’t write much about themselves?
When the Templars were arrested, full inventories were made of their properties. Their properties were administered by royal or church officials, until the pope decided the fate of the Order. Many of these records survive: from England & Wales, Ireland, France, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. They give a snapshot of what was in the Templars’ properties on the day the Templars were arrested, and an ongoing picture of day-to-day activity over the next few years. Many records were not retained, or have been mislaid or destroyed, but enough survives to give an overall picture.
If we had visited a preceptory in the 13th century – what activity would we have seen going on?
There would not have been many Templars living in each house; most preceptories/commanderies in England were home to only four brothers or fewer, and many were leased out to tenants and had no Templars in residence. The rural commanderies/preceptories were like manor houses, running the estate farm. The farm workers would have been busy maintaining the fields and crops, taking care of the livestock and doing maintenance around the estate. The cook would be making potage (a type of oat porridge) for the workers’ daily meal. There might be a clerk attached to the commandery who kept the day-to-day records. There would have been household servants looking after the house. Any Templars in residence would have administered the estate, holding the manor court, ensuring rent was paid, farm work was done, workers were hired and paid as necessary. There would also be non-Templars living in the house: some of them were former Templar employees who now received a pension, while others had made a donation to the Templars in return for food and lodging for the rest of their lives. In addition, the Templars had wide networks of supporters who could come into their houses to make donations or transact other business. Some Templar houses had valuable religious relics which pilgrims would come to see. Travellers would come to find lodging, and Templar houses made regular weekly donations of food to the poor. So Templar houses would have been busy places.
Was the day punctuated by prayer?
The Templars’ regulations expected the Templars to follow the normal monastic pattern of prayers at fixed times during the day. The Templars should go into the chapel for these services, but as not every house had a chapel in actual fact they might have to say their prayers as they went about their work (as the regulations allowed them to do if they were on a military campaign). Most Templar houses with a chapel did not have a Templar priest, but employed a secular priest or a friar as priest in their chapel.
How effective were the Templars as farmers (compared to the monasteries for example) and did they engage in any other kind of business?
So far as the records show, the Templars were effective farmers who made careful judgements on the most effective way of working their land for good long-term returns. Apparently they were more generous employers than the Benedictine monks. Their livestock produced meat and other products such as wool and hides, which they could use or sell. They manufactured some food products (cheese, butter, cider, wine) and sold some of this produce as well as consuming it within the estate. The records from after the Templars’ arrests also show that some people owed money to the Templars — not large amounts — so, like other religious orders, they did make loans, but this was not a major business for most Templar houses.
What role did women play on Templar estates and were they allowed to be members of the order?
The estate records show that women were employed as cooks and to do the laundry. They were also employed on farm work: for example, picking grapes, milking the sheep, helping with the harvest. In addition, the estate records from the Templars’ commandery at Payns in Champagne refer to a Templar Sister (her name isn’t recorded; she’s simply refered to at ‘the sister’) and her female servant, Hersant. So, yes: women could be members of the order and women could live in the Templars’ houses.
Did all this activity in the preceptories across Europe really fund the military ventures of the Templars?
Yes — that was the purpose of the Templar properties in Europe! But clearly a lot of money would have been needed to maintain the Templars’ estates, invest in property, pay their workers and carry on the charitable work they did in Europe, so not all the income from their estates would have gone to the East.
How did it all end? What happened to the property owned by the Templars after 1307?
At the Council of Vienne in spring 1312, Pope Clement V gave the Templars’ former property to the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers were able to claim some of the properties, but some properties were taken back by the families of the original donors, some were kept by the kings who had arrested the Templars, some property was given to other religious orders, and in Spain and Portugal much of the property was used to found new military-religious orders.
If you enjoyed this interview and you’re in the United Kingdom on 30 June, 2018 – try and join us in Bradford, Yorkshire for what will promise to be a hugely fascinating discussion. Click HERE for tickets.
Any of you who watched the Swedish Templar movie Arn will know all about Gerard de Ridefort – or at least be familiar with the name.
Gerard was a Grand Master of the Templars who was either a crazed, over-zealous hothead leading the crusader project in the Holy Land to bloody defeat or a brave knight undermined by intrigue within the Christian court of Jerusalem. All depending who you want to believe.
It was nearly a hundred years since Jerusalem had been taken from Muslim control to be ruled by a succession of Christian crusader rulers. Their Kingdom of Jerusalem was one of several states carved out by the crusaders in the Levant (modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel basically).
The first half of the twelfth century had been all about expansion, pushing back Muslim opponents who were divided among themselves. But a leader had emerged on the Muslim side bringing both a new unity and a strength of purpose. His name was Saladin. Pragmatic genius or proto-jihadi? Historians differ in their view of the man.
He was the formidable enemy that Gerard had to face in the 1180s as Grand Master. The crusaders had managed to survive thus far through a combination of military organisation but also a degree of diplomacy and finding ways to co-exist with notionally hostile neighbours. But Saladin, having united Syria and Egypt, was in no mood to continue with crusaders sitting on his doorstep. They were going to be driven into the sea – back to the lands from whence they had come.
The Templars had emerged as the elite fighting force in the vanguard of the Christian Middle East. But Gerard had to contend with some very poisonous politics in Jerusalem. On one side of the scheming was Raymond of Tripoli, a local Christian magnate. Gerard is said to have hated him for very personal reasons.
Gerard had arrived in the Holy Land as just an ordinary knight – not a Knight Templar. He had hoped to marry a very eligible heiress called Lucia of Botrun, a daughter of one of Raymond’s vassals.
Raymond had agreed to this match but was then offered Lucia’s weight in gold if he would hand her over to a very wealthy Italian merchant. Well, Raymond wasn’t going to turn that offer down. So, Lucia was given to the merchant and Gerard had to remain a very disgruntled bachelor.
It almost looks like Gerard joined the Templars in a fit of pique. But he took to his new role. Rapidly, he rose to be Seneschal and was then elected Grand Master. His ascension to the top job came as Saladin massed his armies on the crusader borders while Christian kings in Europe had too much trouble at home to spare more resources for the war against Islam in the east.
And then the leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, died. He was succeeded by the seven year old son of his sister Sybilla – not exactly what the crusaders needed at that moment. Here was a child monarch, crowned as Baldwin V, who couldn’t even raise a sword let alone make any strategic decisions. And over his head, two men – Raymond of Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan – battled for real control.
Gerard backed Guy, the husband of Sybilla. And his support for Guy became even more essential when the child king suddenly died aged only eight. Gerard and Guy raced to crown Sybilla queen before Raymond could intervene. In an almost comical twist, the three keys to the chest containing the crown jewels of Jerusalem were held by the patriarch of the city, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.
The master of the Hospitallers, Roger de Moulins, didn’t want to hand over his key but a bit of roughing up by Gerard and others convinced him to play along with the plan. Though he did petulantly throw his key out of the window, which probably earned him another punch in the face. Sybilla was duly crowned and although she had promised to divorce Guy, as a condition of becoming queen, she then stuck a crown on his head too – and dared anybody to dissent. Gerard looked on approvingly.
Down the road in his castle, Raymond was horrified. So full of anger that he made a truce with Saladin. Worse, he then gave permission for one of Saladin’s commanders to march his forces through territory under Raymond’s control, right past the biblical town of Nazareth.
Gerard got wind off this while on his way to Raymond to negotiate peace terms between him and Sybilla. In truth, Gerard would rather have been heading towards Raymond to cut his head off and stick it on a pole. But he was under orders to patch things up between the rival factions. Instead, he ran into a seven thousand strong Muslim army.
The Templar grand master was accompanied by the leader of the Hospitallers – he of the key thrown out of the window. Together they were followed by about 140 knights dedicated to fighting for Christ.
So, let’s so the maths. 140 as a percentage of 7,000. My calculator says that’s fifty Muslims on Saladin’s side to every one crusader knight. Everybody agreed it was probably a good idea to retreat – except Gerard. He demanded they honour the Templar code and charge towards the opposing force.
They did and were cut down in a bloody massacre. Gerard narrowly escaped. Roger de Moulins wasn’t so lucky. This was seen by some chroniclers as typical of Gerard’s emotional approach to decision making. Whereas previous Templar masters had been cool and calculating, Gerard de Ridefort just ploughed in and hoped God was smiling on his endeavour. Evidently not at Cresson.
That engagement would be a rehearsal for the even bigger catastrophe at Hattin, which I’ve blogged about before and I’m returning to very shortly – so keep following!
Gerard would be taken prisoner by Saladin after the massive crusader defeat at Hattin but then negotiated his own release – showing he could do diplomacy when he had to. However, he was captured again by Saladin after the siege of Acre and this time, his head was struck off his shoulders.
Transport yourself back nine hundred years to what is now Israel…
The city of Jerusalem was like a magnet to Christians at that time. It was the ultimate pilgrimage. If you were a devout Christian in England, France or any other kingdom of the time, you would have yearned to make that long journey to the Holy Land and see for yourself where Christ was born, preached, died and rose again.
It was a dangerous trip. And it took many months. There was a strong likelihood you would never return home again. Add to that the uncomfortable fact that Jerusalem was no longer under Christian control. In 1118, when the Templars appeared, the city had been in Muslim hands for 450 years.
Now that hadn’t been an insurmountable problem. Pilgrims were still able to get to Jerusalem and the sacred sites were normally protected. But there had been outbreaks of hostility towards the Christians and the roads into the city were plagued by bandits, thieves and murderers. As you completed your long trek, you might have trudged past the skeletons of those killed for their money and belongings.
Horror stories like these were used to raise a crusader army in Europe to take Jerusalem back from Muslim control. There had also been desperate pleas from the Christian emperor in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) whose Greek speaking empire was being eaten away by Seljuk Turkish invaders. The pope and many priests, most notably Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, told their congregations to take up the sword and wield it in the name of their faith.
In 1099, the first crusade seized Jerusalem in an orgy of bloodshed. A few years later, a band of nine knights emerged with a novel proposition. They went to the king of Jerusalem – now a Christian – and submitted an idea for a new religious order. It would protect the pilgrimage routes and see off the bandits. And it would be based in what these knights believed to have been the Temple of Solomon in biblical times – a building that is now the Al Aqsa mosque.
Their leader was Hugh de Payens. Like Saint Bernard and many of the early Templars, he came from the Champagne region of France, near the important market town of Troyes. Exact details of how he came to create the Knights Templar and become its first Grand Master are very scant. Hugh probably joined the first crusade and when his liege lord, the Count of Champagne, returned to France – he stayed behind.
How did he come up with the idea for the Templars? Why was King Baldwin of Jerusalem so cooperative? What compelled Hugh to insist the order had to be based in the Temple of Solomon, from which it took its name? We don’t know for certain. But in a very short period, Hugh had established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short.
He went on a kind of fund raising and brand visibility tour of Europe. In 1128, he even made his way to London and then up north to Edinburgh setting up Templar houses. These were economic engines to create the riches to fund the order’s crusading activity. Donations started to flood in from the aristocracy proving that Hugh de Payens and his fellow knights had really tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist.
In 1129, he went before Pope Honorius at the Council of Troyes. Doing a double act with Saint Bernard, they sold the notion of the Templars to a very receptive church audience. He assured them that his knights lived according to monastic vows. They prayed regularly. They took no wives. They lives modestly. Pope Honorius was convinced and the Templars would enjoy papal protection for nearly two centuries until their downfall.
For twenty years, Hugh tirelessly built the Knights Templar until his death in the Holy Land in 1136. Then the order was led by its second Grand Master Robert de Craon. Its richest and most glorious days were still ahead of it. But Hugh must be credited with developing the concept of an order of monastic knights and turning into into a bright and shining reality.
Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.
Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!
So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:
Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe. The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.
Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.
I was in Lisbon in August of this year and made an interesting discovery…
This year, I was walking up a steep hill in Lisbon to visit the medieval cathedral. This austere fortress-like edifice was built after the city was taken from its Muslim rulers by the Templars and the Portuguese army – assisted by many foreign crusaders – in the year 1147.
What the Christians found when they entered the city was a huge mosque at its centre. This was torn down and the cathedral erected in its place.
It’s not the most attractive medieval building in Europe and with its thick walls and arrow slit windows, you get the impression that the citizenry were expecting their former rulers to try and return and recapture the place.
It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a Muslim city here, at the westernmost end of a global medieval caliphate stretching from India to the Algarve in southern Portugal. Algarve, by the way, is from the Arabic “Al-Gharb” meaning the west. The city had been in Muslim hands for over four hundred years. It’s been the capital of Catholic Portugal for the last eight hundred years. So the Islamic heritage has been largely erased.
Half way up the hill, I found an antique shop selling statues from the 17th to 19th centuries that had once adorned churches in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Curiously, many of items had lost their clothes and hair at some point. So pictured here is Jesus Christ with the bloodied wounds from his crown of thorns but the crown, his hair and robes have gone.
What you’re left with is the puppet-like body that was always underneath to be manipulated as the church saw fit. His arms could be extended, his legs crossed, his head bowed, whatever was required.
This would have been little different to statues of the medieval period and today, as in those times, these are often carried in processions around the streets on special feast days.
Quite a morbid shop I must say, but completely fascinating.
One of the great mysteries and contentious discussion points about the Knights Templar is whether the order was established by an already existing secret society called the Priory of Sion. This, as you will know, forms the basis of the story behind Dan Brown’s TheDa Vinci Code. The story goes that the priory was formed to protect the sacred bloodline of Jesus Christ from the Catholic church, which feared the threat to its power and the terrible truth that would fatally undermine the papacy’s authority and fabulous wealth.
The Messiah had conceived at least one child with Mary Magdalene, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. Her descendants were the Merovingian kings overthrown in the eighth century CE who ruled over a large part of modern France, Germany and Switzerland.
The priory’s aim was to reinstate the dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy over Europe ruled by the descendants of Jesus. The Knights Templar had been formed by the priory to achieve this objective, whatever the official reasons given for their creation.
Subsequent centuries had seen a secret battle played out between different forces including the priory, the Templars, the church and Freemasons. They were fighting and scheming for control of the Holy Grail. But what exactly was the Grail? A physical object like a cup used at the Last Supper or the bloodline of Jesus Christ? The so-called Sang Real?
This is all of course discounted by mainstream medieval historians as hokum. The history of the Knights Templar, in their view, does not require additional layers of fantasy to be fascinating. The Priory of Sion is utter nonsense invented by con artists and spread by the credulous. Well, below, we’re going to examine the case for the existence of the Priory of Sion and the case for the prosecution.
First – let’s hear from the defence – those who believe the Priory of Sion was very real.
Case for the Defence
The Priory of Sion was founded in Jerusalem after the First Crusade resulted in the capture of the city by Christian forces in 1099. It was based on the site of the Byzantine Hagia Sion, which subsequently housed a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. The Priory and Abbey were one and the same thing. This church was the site of the bodily and spiritual “assumption” of the Virgin Mary into heaven (in Catholic dogma). It’s now under the control of the Benedictines.
The Priory of Sion founded the Knights Templar to achieve its hidden objectives. This was to protect the bloodline of Jesus – the real Holy Grail. The term Holy Grail means “Sang Real” or Royal Blood. The Templars were the Grail Knights spoken of in legend. It was their role and destiny to defend the Grail, the bloodline, at all costs. This they would do until the time came to make the bloodline known to humanity.
A 19th century French priest François-Bérenger Saunière discovered the truth about the Priory of Sion after being sent to run a church in the French village of Rennes-le-Château. The church was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus Christ, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. While in this role, Saunière installed the statue of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, the hugely popular pilgrimage site. He was a pious cleric who believed he had stumbled on a great truth.
Saunière seemed to become very rich, very quickly. He built a large estate between 1898 and 1905 that included the Rococo-style edifice, Villa Bethania and the Tour Magdala with an orangery. The 1998 novel Menorah conjectures that Saunière had found the seven-branched candelabra of the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed and sacked by the Romans.
In the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail it was pointed out that Rennes-le-Chateau was located close to the ancestral home of Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar. The three authors of the book wondered if Blanchefort had buried Templar treasure in the vicinity. They believed that during the second world war, German soldiers had very likely excavated the area. Why? Because the Nazis, obsessed with the occult, were aware that their favourite composer Richard Wagner had visited Rennes-le-Château and shortly afterwards written his opera Parsifal, based on a medieval Grail quest story of the same name. Wagner knew that Rennes-le-Château was concealing a Grail mystery.
The book detailed how in 1891, Saunière had the altar stone removed in his church and inside one of two Visigothic pillars supporting it, discovered four parchments in sealed wooden tubes dating from between 1244 to the 1780s.
The 1780s parchments were the most interesting authored by a priest called Antoine Bigou who was the chaplain to the Blanchefort family just before the 1789 French Revolution. They appeared to be texts from the New Testament in Latin but were written rather oddly and clearly contained coded messages. They became the subject of three documentaries made for the BBC in the 1970s by one of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Henry Lincoln. It referred to the last Merovingian king, Dagobert II, as follows once decoded: “To Dagobert II, king, and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead.”
Another parchment contained the enigmatic message: “Shepherdess, no temptation. That Poussin, Teniers hold the key. Peace 681. By the cross and this horse of God. I complete this daemon of the guardian at noon. Blue apples.”
Saunière made the discovery of the parchments known to the bishop of Carcassonne who, realising their importance, sent him to Paris straight away. While there, visiting clerics and mixing with society people, he went to the Louvre to acquaint himself with the Poussin painting The Shepherds of Arcadia, long believed to include a Templar related secret message.
Saunière returned to Rennes-le-Château and embarked on a bizarre redecoration of his church that included a representation of the demon Asmodeus who, in Talmudic legends, built the Temple of Solomon. In Kabbalistic circles, Asmodeus was the offspring of King David and the queen of the demons, Agrat bat Mahlat.
On 22 January, 1917, Saunière suffered a stroke and died. The huge estate he had built was passed to his long serving housekeeper Marie Denarnaud. Gradually sliding in to genteel poverty after the second world war, Denarnaud sold the estate to a businessman called Noël Corbu (1912-1968). She promised to confide a secret to Corbu that would make him rich and powerful but tantalisingly died before she could impart this knowledge.
The author Dan Brown took the story of these hidden parchments and brought the story of the Priory of Sion back to public prominence with his book The Da Vinci Code. The adventure starts with the murder of a curator at the Louvre called Jacques Saunière (same name as the priest who served at Rennes-le-Château) , who also happens to be the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. His killer is a Catholic monk under the direction of a “teacher” who wants to use the secret of the Holy Grail to destroy the Vatican. The real meaning of the Holy Grail is the bloodline of Christ and it leads the book’s hero to the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, located under the Louvre.
Dan Brown has asserted strongly that the Priory of Sion is fact and not fiction.
Case for the Prosecution
The Prioriy of Sion was an invention of a French convicted fraudster called Pierre Athanase Marie Plantard (1920-2000). In 1953, he served a six-month prison sentence for fraud. This was revealed in a BBC2 programme called The History of a Mystery, part of the “Timewatch” documentary series. Timewatch was the successor to an earlier documentary strand called “Chronicles”, which in the 1970s had promoted the whole Priory of Sion thesis.
Three years after his prison sentence, with an accomplice called André Bonhomme, Plantard created an organisation called The Priory of Sion in 1956. Bonhomme was president and Plantard was secretary general. Initially, it was not intended to be viewed as an ancient sect pre-dating the Templars, but just a pressure group campaigning for better local housing. It also took a traditionalist Catholic line and wanted to work with the local church on things like running a school bus service. Sion refers to a hill near the town of Annemasse where Plantard lived in the Auvergne region of France. The priory folded later the same year.
Enter Robert Charroux, a man who believed that aliens had visited humanity in ancient history and imparted wondrous knowledge. A very similar theory was popularised in the 60s and 70s by the Swiss author Erich Von Däniken with his book Chariot of the Gods. In 1962, Charroux wrote a book Trésors du monde. It gave details of hidden treasures all over the world. Charroux had come across the aforementioned Noël Corbu who had bought the estate built by the priest Saunière. Corbu had serialised a story in the local paper claiming that the priest Saunière had discovered all or part of a 28.5 million gold pieces fortune gathered by Blanche of Castile to pay the ransom on King Louis of France during the Crusades, when he was being held prisoner by the Saracens in Egypt. This was detailed, he claimed, in the parchments found in the pillar of the altar in his church by Saunière. Cynics countered that Corbu was just trying to drum up business at his restaurant.
A great deal is made of the sudden wealth acquired by Saunière as proof that he had indeed found part of the wealth of Blanche of Castile and possibly other treasure. The reality, as evidenced by several church disciplinary hearings and the stripping of his priesthood, is that he was utterly corrupt, selling masses which was against church law. This view was corroborated by a local historian, René Descadeillas, in 1974 as well as a Channel 4 documentary in the UK called The Real Da Vinci Codebroadcast in 2005 and a CBS 60 Minutes investigation, Priory of Sion, aired the following year. All came to the conclusion that Saunière’s wealth did not derive from discovering secret treasure but by exploiting his gullible parishioners.
CBS also questioned the veracity of the discovered parchments and revealed that Plantard had been investigated by the French secret services during the second world war and described as a “fantasist”. He had come to their attention as an extreme right-wing activist.
Plantard seems to have latched on to the Corbu story and developed it. In fact, all the protagonists in this conspiracy theory grabbed the Priory of Sion story baton and ran with it awhile – developing new angles before handing it on to another author.
Plantard and others then developed a lineage for the Priory of Sion transporting it back way beyond 1956 into the mists of history. It was linked by Plantard to an abbey in Jerusalem, the Hagia Sion or Church of Zion. This was originally built in the early 5th century, then destroyed by invading Persians and later occupied by a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. As Plantard rightly pointed out, they were absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. But experts say that order had nothing to do with Plantard’s Priory of Sion.
Plantard hooked up with an author called Gérard de Sède (1921-2004) who was the Baron de Lieoux and a man heavily influenced by surrealism. The result was a tome calledL’Or de Rennes, the gold of Rennes, published in 1967. The two of them concocted the yarn that the last Merovingian king was buried at Rennes-le-Château in the eighth century and that the Priory of Sion had been working clandestinely ever since to bring the Merovingians back to power.
Plantard had taken his Priory of Sion organisation from a defunct housing pressure group to an ancient brotherhood protecting the Merovingian line of which he now decided he was a descendant. The central proposition was that a Merovingian monarch would rule France, and possible Europe, fulfilling a prophecy of Nostradamus. Plantard styled himself “Chyren”, a pseudonym referring to “Chren Selin”, an anagram used by Nostradamus to refer to this future king.
Enter Philippe de Chérisey, another aristocrat influenced by surrealism, who became buddies with Plantard in the early 1960s. He undoubtedly forged medieval parchments, allegedly found by Saunière, to back up the idea of the Priory of Sion being an ancient organisation. With Plantard, he created a load of allegedly secret documents, which they placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (bit like the Library of Congress or the British Library) De Cherisey seems to have viewed these forgeries as a bit of a hoot. In later confessions, he conceded that he enjoyed setting false trails.
Henry Lincoln, author of Holy Blood Holy Grail, admitted that Plantard had told him De Cherisey had created the documents on which the whole Priory of Sion hoax rests.
The Italian author and academic Umberto Eco was fascinated by the Knights Templar and the fantasy that surrounds them. He satirised people like Plantard in his book Foucault’s Pendulum where three publishers develop a fraudulent conspiracy theory only to be sucked in to a real one. This is surely a post-modern chuckle at the fantasists and hucksters.
What we have with the Priory of Sion is a total fabrication half-believed by all those involved.
It sounds pretty damning for Plantard and his Priory of Sion. But then there’s another hypothesis put forward by Templar historian and fantasy writer Graeme Davis in his book Knights Templar A Secret History. Should mention that he also co-designed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Davis argues that the whole point of the Plantard hoax was to throw people off the scent of the real location of the Holy Grail.
In 2007 Davis met an academic who had taught at the University of Toulouse called Dr Émile Fouchet. They were at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Fouchet shared his notes on the foundation of the Knights Templar with Davis three days before he was killed in a car accident in 2012 just outside Troyes, a town in France with strong Templar connections. Accident? Suicide? Murder? Who knows.
Fouchet developed a complicated account of the Holy Grail being fought over down the centuries by Freemasons, the Inquisition and a secret continuation of the Knights Templar in various guises. One of the Templar tools was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte who they allowed to demolish the Paris Temple to cover his tracks.
The Holy Grail was hidden by the Templars at Rennes-le-Château where Saunière, an Inquisition agent, set about trying to find it. The Templars created false trails to confuse both the Inquisition and Freemasons who desperately tried to locate the Grail in Rennes-le-Château even though it had already gone. The Templars had whisked it out of the country. Eventually, the Inquisition realised Saunière’s efforts had come to nothing and they hung him out to dry with charges of corruption.
Fast forward to the Second World War and the Templars had got an ultra-right-wing nationalist called Plantard to start writing a load of baloney about secret documents and his connection to the Merovingian dynasty and Mary Magdalene. All of which, Fouchet asserted, was another false trail created by the Templars. They wanted the Inquisition and Freemasons to believe the Grail was still in Rennes-le-Château when it had left in around 1897. Where was it now? A town called Sion in Switzerland is one possibility.
One nagging problem I have with this hypothesis is that I can’t find anything about Emile Fouchet except in this book. And there’s a reason for that – he is entirely fictional!! The author Graeme Davis has contacted me since this blog post first went live to say that Fouchet was his own invention and he is not a scholar but a master of fantasy. See his comment below.
So back to the drawing board again when it comes to proving the Priory of Sion!
I hope you have enjoyed this investigation of the Priory of Sion!