Winter is coming – but courtesy of the History Channel, it will be a Templar winter. Forget the dragons and white walkers, give me the Knights Templar any day of the week. Here is the trailer for the series you must not miss this fall. Or autumn for my British followers!
I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal – in the next few blog posts, I’ll share my discoveries with you:
SPOILER FREE! I’m not going to give away one tiny morsel of the thrilling documentary on the Templars that the History Channel is planning to accompany its Templar drama series Knightfall – coming out in the autumn.
Forget Game of Thrones – that was fiction! Knightfall and other content on the Templars coming your way will be about brave knights who really existed. Winter is indeed coming. But it’s a Templar winter for us – not a Targaryen one!
I had the honour and pleasure of filming with the History Channel team in Tomar, central Portugal just three weeks ago. This is a historic town dominated by a Templar castle.
It was once the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe about 800 years ago. On top of a hill, the Templar castle stares solemnly down at the small town. Within its walls is an eight sided chapel modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It also may borrow from the shape of the Dome of the Rock, another sacred site in Jerusalem, which at the time Tomar was built – from 1160 – was under crusader control. The Dome of the Rock had been shut down as a mosque and consecrated as a Christian church, the Templum Domini. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, was what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. That had been taken over by the Knights Templar as their global headquarters as it was believed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon.
But enough of Jerusalem – back to Portugal!
While Jerusalem was the front line between Christianity and Islam in the east, Tomar was the front line between the two faiths in the west. A Muslim caliphate had ruled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Now a huge reconquest by Templars, crusaders and Christian kings was underway. The Templars used Tomar as their base of operations. In 1190, it even came under direct attack from a vast army that stormed out of Morocco determined to crush the knights once and for all.
But what is underneath Tomar? For decades, rumours have swirled of secret tunnels that may have been used for initiation rituals or for storing treasure the Templars brought back from Jerusalem via Cyprus and the Paris temple. Here are some of the old books I’ve used in my research on Tomar – often picked up in Lisbon bookstores and street markets.
The theory is that one tunnel links the Templar castle to their church and mausoleum of Santa Maria Olival. That church was built at a surprisingly remote location very vulnerable to Muslim attack. It housed the bodies of Templar grand masters of Portugal. It’s believed to have been built on top of an earlier Benedictine monastery after those monks fled in the face of Muslim armies in the eighth century. That monastery in turn may have been constructed atop a Roman temple and even earlier pagan places of worship.
The Templar castle on the hill is also slap bang on top of Roman and Moorish (Muslim) remains and you can see a stone from a Roman altar embedded in its medieval walls.
Tomar became a place of safety for the Templars when in 1307, the rest of Europe turned against them. Led by the French king and the papacy, there was a movement to crush the Knights Templar forever.
But the Portuguese did not forget that the Templars had fought bravely against Muslim warriors and so they let them continue at Tomar though under a new name – the Order of Christ. The Portuguese king – Dinis – protected them and allowed the knights to continue to serve the kingdom.
The question remains though – when the Templars retreated to Tomar, did they bring their wealth with them? Did that wealth include sacred items from Jerusalem that might have included something we term today as the Holy Grail?
The Order of Christ would play a leading role in Portugal’s voyages of discovery around the world. The ships that rook the great discoverers to Brazil, India and South Africa bore the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ – and the Templars – on their sails. Why? Did the Order of Christ possess knowledge that the Portuguese could ill afford to do without?
I’m half-Portuguese myself. I’m always pleased to see how bright Jewish people were able to contribute to Portugal for far longer than in other countries. Many, posing as “New Christian” converts, would be at the forefront of the discoveries and scientific and artistic accomplishments that were a hallmark of that period.
But there was also the Order of Christ – that emerged from another persecuted group of people, the Templars. Was it Templars and Jews together who led Portugal to its period of greatness? More on the role of Portugal in the Templar story in subsequent blog posts. Your comments welcome as ever!
I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal – in the next few blog posts, I’ll share my discoveries with you:
Lisbon is the capital of modern day Portugal and a thriving, bustling city. But let’s go back 800 years and we find a very different place. Lisbon was called Al-Usbunna and was a Muslim-controlled metropolis surrounded by thick walls, a great mosque in the centre of the downtown area (medina in Arabic) and a Muslim governor living in an Al Qasr (Alcazar in Spanish) at the top of the hill.
What we now call Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in the year 711. A Christian kingdom that covered the whole of the Iberian peninsula was overthrown and the Muslim/Arab armies went even further, crossing the Pyrenees mountains and attempting ton conquer France as well.
Four hundred years later and Christians had taken back the north of Spain and Portugal but the more prosperous and populous south still remained in Muslim hands. Portugal was half the size it is today, just the northern half, and its king got together with a new order of knights to try and conquer the south. These knights were our very own Knights Templar.
King Afonso Henriques asked the Templars to patrol and effectively control the border areas between Christian Portugal and the Muslim south. They did, setting up a base in Tomar – in what is now central Portugal. This August, I was filming with the History Channel in Tomar looking for secret Templar tunnels – more on that in another blogpost.
Lisbon was besieged by an army under Afonso Henriques that included Templars and crusaders from all over Europe. Its walls eventually succumbed to this army and Afonso gave the crusaders permission to ransack the city for three days. The great mosque became the new cathedral and the old palace of the Muslim governor became St George’s castle – which you can still see today.
For a long time, the Portuguese swept their Muslim past under the carpet. But now, excavations in the cloisters of Lisbon’s cathedral have revealed evidence of the mosque as well as earlier Roman habitation. It’s always amazes me to see how civilisations build on top of each other. Layer after layer of human activity. I enclose some photos of the excavations for you to enjoy!
I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.
I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.
I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.
Like most of you – I love watching historical TV series. Even the ones that are a little suspect from a factual point of view. Some lists of medieval TV series include stuff I wouldn’t regard as being strictly medieval. Hope I’m a bit more authentic here. We’ve been spoilt in the recent past so let’s look at what we’ve been offered.
PILLARS OF THE EARTH
Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. It was a period called The Great Anarchy that tore families apart and reduced some aristocrats to outlaw status. This was at the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.
THE DEVIL’S CROWN
This was a BBC series about the Plantagenet kings that never got repeated after a controversial airing in the late 70s. It’s quite gory in parts including a very disturbing castration. The style is a bit dated but to get to grips with English history at the time of the Templars, I can’t recommend this enough.
DA VINCI’S DEMONS
Total nonsense about a young Leonardo da Vinci on a quest to find the “book of leaves”. Set at the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. The series was pulled as it got sillier and sillier. But it’s a decent enough romp through the corruption of Italy at its most artistic and innovative.
GAME OF THRONES
It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well. Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist? I’m always of the view that the Targaryen family are basically the long reigning Plantagenets of England who went a bit off the rails with Richard II. The dynasty ended with his murder and a usurper Henry taking over. Sounds familiar?
WORLD WITHOUT END
Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he? Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.
THE WHITE QUEEN
BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.
Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.
This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest! It’s a classic depiction of the Templars all neatly laundered white tunics and long flowing hair. Nobody seems to ever get filthy and dirty in the battle scenes.
This cartoon series was part of the goofy 1960s/70s kids show Banana Splits – it completely shaped my early view of the saracens.
I was brought up to believe that the Middle Ages ended at the Battle of Bosworth and you couldn’t really call the Tudors medieval. But I think that view might be simplistic. The Tudors were as much medieval as modern and so I’ve included the delightful Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. Henry is depicted as rather dashing and good looking – which he was to start with – but he never becomes the corpulent ogre that he did in real life in this series.
Many of these TV series exerted a huge influence on the writing of my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross which you can download on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback in the US and UK. See if you can spot the TV historical influences! And watch the book trailer promo video here:
Last month, I visited the Portuguese town of Ponte de Lima – a beautiful Roman and medieval settlement that still has an ancient bridge and part of its old walls. Standing guard over Ponte de Lima is a statue of Teresa – the town’s founder and a friend of the Knights Templar (though not of her own son).
Teresa was born in 1080 at a time when the 350 year old grip of the Muslim caliphate on what is now Spain and Portugal was loosening by degrees. Christian kingdoms had formed in the northern half of the Iberian peninsula and Teresa was the daughter of king Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon. She was married off to Henry of Burgundy, a nobleman from a part of modern France which would be the cradle of the Templar order and home to the great saint and protector of the Templars, Bernard of Clairvaux.
The Burgundians lent their muscle to the fight against the Muslim rulers of what would become Portugal. A new territory was carved out that became known as the “County” of Portugal. Teresa took the lead in pushing south past the Mondego river towards what is now Lisbon but was then an Arabic city called Al-Usbunna. In this endeavour, Teresa began to grant land to the Templars as shock troops – particularly in the area between the rivers Mondego and Tagus where neither Christians nor Muslims seemed to have the decisive upper hand. It was a very dangerous no-mans’ land.
The Muslim “Moors” were not about to lie down and let Teresa push them back and attempted to take back the city of Coimbra, which she successfully defended. As a result of that victory, Pope Paschal II referred to her as “Queen” of Portugal – thus recognising Portugal as not just a county but a kingdom.
This infuriated the Christian kingdom of Leon, which regarded Portugal as just a county, an appendage of their realm. To complicate matters, Alfonso VI of Leon had died and his kingdom was now ruled by a legitimate daughter called Urraca – effectively half sister of Teresa. They now went to war and an additional source of friction was that the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela (firmly in Urraca’s lands and home of James the apostle’s relics) was trying to assert ecclesiastical supremacy over the Archbishop of Braga (firmly in Teresa’s territory).
Teresa saw off Urraca but her star wanes from this point onwards while her son, Afonso Henriques, took a more intransigent position than his mother asserting full independence from Galicia for Portugal. By one of those strange twists of fate, Teresa found herself at war with her own son defending Galicia’s interests – I’m not going to even try to explain how this happened in a short blog post – you’ll have to read it up. But it is completely bizarre and typical of medieval dynastic power politics. At the battle of Sao Mamede – Afonso Henriques defeated his own mother and became first king of a truly independent Portugal.
Here are ten movies with great medieval battles!
The first is the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 where the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV managed to defeat a numerically superior Saracen force. Here’s how the movie Arn portrayed it. An incredible crusader victory!
Ten years later and Saladin turned the tables on the crusaders defeating them at the Horns of Hattin – depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. A miserable crusader defeat!
This is a mythical medieval battle from Game of Thrones but really brings the sights and smells plus unmitigated horror of conflict to your screen. The Battle of the Bastards!
Scotland and England were forever at war with each other in the Middle Ages and some believe the Knights Templar helped the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. Here’s Mel Gibson and a lot of men in kilts killing the English.
The 13th Warrior is about a Muslim young man forced to live among the Vikings in the Dark Ages. This movie has its fans and detractors in equal measure. I loved it. It’s trashy and confused but I come back to it again and again.
More Vikings – why not? This time from the History Channel.
This takes us 100 years after the Templars were suppressed to the life of Joan of Arc leading her French army to defeat at the hands of the English. She would later be burnt at the stake.
Before Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings was giving us a mythical take on the Middle Ages.
Maleficent – another fantasy set in an imaginary medieval kind of landscape. Didn’t happen of course but the battle scene is interesting nevertheless.
And finally – a battle that really happened between the Russians and the Teutonic Knights – on ice! This is an old black and white movie but a fantastic music score, amazing atmosphere and released shortly before the Russians went to war for real with Nazi Germany. So just imagine how terrified audiences in Moscow felt.