To understand why the Knights Templar based themselves in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the mysterious biblical figure of Joseph of Arimathea is worth knowing. He was, according to the Gospel of John, a secret disciple of Jesus – a rich Jewish merchant who may even have been the great uncle of Jesus.
One blogger has noted that he would have to be the great uncle as being uncle would have meant he had the same name as Jesus’ father. Hardly likely two brothers would both be called Joseph. Another source stipulates that he was Mary’s uncle and so that problem is solved.
Joseph was an unusual choice for a disciple given that apparently, he was a Pharisee – the class of priest that gets a particularly bad write-up in the New Testament. You’ll perhaps remember that the Pharisees were deemed to be total hypocrites – moral on the outside, but corruption within.
It was Joseph who would provide a tomb for the body of the crucified messiah and also the shroud in which he was wrapped. The gospels claim he got permission from the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to take the body away. This begs the question how exactly he got in front of the governor to put forward this request and why it was accepted. Was he a very senior figure in local Jewish society? Did he bribe the governor?
Some have poured scorn on the idea of Jesus being removed so quickly noting that it was far more likely the Romans would have left the body of a trouble maker like Jesus to rot in public for a while on the cross and not allowed something as civilised as a tomb burial. But of course he had to be buried in order to be resurrected. And given that resurrection was supposed to be bodily – not just the soul – the idea of Christ’s body being pecked to bits by crows was never going to be very palatable.
More importantly for the Templars, Joseph was believed to be the man who collected some of Christ’s blood in a chalice as he hung on the crucifix. That chalice we know as the Holy Grail. It’s then claimed that Joseph travelled to England to spread the gospel. He arrived in Glastonbury – known as Avalon at that time – and baptised 18,000 people in one day at the nearby town of Wells. The Holy Grail was hidden away, maybe placed in a well that to this day is known at Glastonbury as the Chalice Well.
At this point I should also point out that it was widely believed in the Middle Ages that Joseph had brought Jesus as a youth to England before returning to the east. It’s even asserted that Jesus worked as a farm hand or a miner during his stay.
So with Joseph you have a lot of associations with important and sacred relics:
The holy shroud in which Jesus was buried
A chalice used to collect his blood that may also have been held by Christ at the Last Supper
The tomb of Jesus
Joseph also possessed the lance that pierced Christ’s side according to some accounts
Were the Knights Templar established to protect these relics from being found or stolen? Or they were lost for centuries and the Templars were desperately looking for them under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? If they found these relics, did that account for the Templars’ sudden wealth and power? These and many more theories have circulated for centuries and at the centre of it all is a rather enigmatic figure of whom we really know very little: Joseph of Arimathea.
Five books that transport you back to the world of the Knights Templar – capturing the sense of time and place, bringing to life the mysteries and secrets. Which novels should you be taking on your summer holidays? Here’s some good reads!
This was one of a trilogy of books that introduced us to a troubled Swedish templar knight called Arn Magnusson. Gillou was more famous in the 1970s for writing novels and journalistic exposes about the intelligence community, even being accused of being involved in espionage himself. But for this blog, it’s his Templar trilogy that catches my eye and the excellent movie Arn that resulted from those novels.
Cold-blooded murder has transformed Simon Puttock’s official obligation into something horrid, and he will need the able assistance of his friend, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, to draw a criminal out. A former Knight Templar, Sir Baldwin knows much of duty and servitude and of evil freely indulged in the name of godliness or greed. Now, justice must be served, even if their search exposes extortion, foul corruption, rule by fear, and killers willing, even eager, to shed more blood.
This book takes you on a journey through Paris, London, Egypt and Palestine at the eve of the last crusade. A young knight is a on quest to find a dangerous book that belongs to an organisation within the Knights Templar called the Anima Templi. But it seems that a lot of other people want the book as well.
Whyte wants to strip away the conspiracy theories and take a long hard look at the real Templars. His books set out to immerse you in the gritty contemporary history of the order bringing the medieval world to life.
This was a US best seller beginning with four Templar knights in modern day Manhattan who storm into an art gallery on horseback to steal some Vatican exhibits. An FBI agent must journey across three continents to find the long lost secret of the Templar order.
Oh and I forgot one novel – Quest for the True Crossby….me! Order it by clicking on the image in the left hand margin. Now on Amazon in paperback and kindle.
The Knights Templar were accused of rejecting the divinity of Christ, spitting on the crucifix, not believing the church sacraments and conducting their own masses without a properly consecrated priest. They emerged in France in the 12th century at the same time that a very dangerous heresy had gripped the south of the country: Catharism.
The Cathars were Christians who rejected the Pope’s authority and that of his church of priests and bishops as well as holding “gnostic” views such as the existence of an evil deity in constant conflict with a good God. They found a great deal of support not only among ordinary people but even sections of the aristocracy, most notably Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse. Unfortunately for Raymond, his tolerance of the Cathars led to a direct conflict with the most powerful pope in history, Innocent III.
Innocent sent a papal legate Pierre de Castelnau to try and turn Raymond away from the Cathars but not only did the count reject these overtures, Pierre was murdered on his way back to Rome. A furious pope ordered the French king to head a crusade against the Cathars and armies poured into the Languedoc region of France. The surrendering Cathars were either put to the sword or burnt to death.
But their ideas persisted. Many agreed with their view that the church should return to traditions of poverty and piety. Their questioning of the Catholic view that the bread in the mass literally becomes the body of Christ continued to be discussed in low whispers before erupting to the surface centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. Many of France’s elite had family connections to the Cathars including Guillaume de Nogaret, the top adviser to King Philip of France and scourge of the Templars. His parents and grandparents were reportedly Cathars. It seemed that in spite of the success of Innocent’s crusade, Catharism still lurked in dark corners of French society.
Many of the charges levied against the Templars by King Philip of France and his adviser De Nogaret smack of Cathar beliefs. The charges certainly would have resonated with medieval public opinion, familiar with the scandalous views and practice of the southern French rebels.
There may have been genuine fears that as the Templars had operated at the same time as the rise of Catharism that they had imbibed some of their philosophy. Or that the Templars were influenced by ancient Christian beliefs in the east that were very similar to those held by the French heretics. Worse, there may have been an underlying fear that Templar military might could be used to carve out a Cathar sympathetic state in southern France. As the crusades in the Holy Land crumbled, where might Templar energy and know-how be expended?
Possibly what King Philip of France saw in the order was an unimaginable danger that needed to be rapidly snuffed out.
Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.
Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.
That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.
It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.
It’s vexed many down the ages. The Templars were warriors, monks and medieval bankers. They ran a financial system through their preceptories that spanned Europe and funded their crusades in the Holy Land and Al-Andalus (modern Spain and Portugal). Kings and princes left bequests to the Templars while the living deposited their assets with the order and could draw an early type of cheque from any Templar preceptory in Europe or the Middle East when they needed ready cash. This was far better than dragging your wealth in iron chests behind you.
Nobody doubts that the Templars accumulated an awful lot of money. At key points in the crusades, they were asked to pay off ransoms for aristocratic warriors captured by the Saracens. More generally, they lent money to kings, princes and even popes becoming Christian moneylenders, an occupation in the medieval period normally associated with the Jews.
At the start of the fourteenth century, king Philip of France faced a riot in Paris when he decided to devalue the currency. Fearing for his life, he fled to the Paris Temple – the order’s headquarters. This was a well fortified building with thick walls and sturdy towers. It had to be – because inside was a huge amount of money. Philip was always cash strapped and having seen what the Templars possessed, he resolved to get his hands on their wealth. It would wipe out his debts and fund his wars with the English.
On 13th October 1307, he arrested the knights Templar throughout France and imprisoned their leaders. But when his men turned up at the Paris Temple, they found nothing. The wealth had disappeared into the ether. Accounts then circulated that the order had been tipped off about the forthcoming arrests and a group of knights had been seen transporting sacks of bullion on carts away to the Templar port of La Rochelle. There, the order’s fleet set sail with the treasure bound for England and never to be seen again.
So where did it go? We enter the realm of the fanciful now with all kinds of theories. Did the wealth include priceless artefacts found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? Did the ships crawl up the British coastline and eventually end up in Scotland? Some have argued that a group of Templars even set sail with the earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, and following ancient viking routes made their way to the New World. There, they buried the treasure in what is now Nova Scotia.
Whatever the answer – King Philip of France was left very much out of pocket.
When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that their initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross. So what is true?
Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth. But it was the desecration of the crucifix that shocked medieval opinion. These were supposed to be religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land and they were denouncing their own faith in private.
The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.
This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…
As for some of the other more lewd aspects of the initiation, Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question. Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand.
However, this failed to convince king Philip who viewed this bizarre rite as a very strong excuse for banning the Templars, burning dozens of them and confiscating their property.