Anybody who has been following this blog for any length of time knows that I’m obsessed with the Templar history of Portugal. I’ve been all over Europe and the Middle East to see Templar sites, but I always come back to Portugal. Being half-Portuguese of course has nothing to do with it 🙂
August will see me visiting some incredible places and events and blogging to you direct from them:
Tomar – the evocative headquarters of the Knights Templar. A small town now dominated by a Templar fortress on top of a hill. The peaceful beauty of Tomar today belies its violent past as the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe in the Middle Ages. I’ll share with you some thrilling Templar stories and great pictures
Santa Maria da Feira – this town hosts an extremely popular festival called the Medieval Journey. They stage a huge mock battle and this year the theme is King Afonso IV. He was the son of King Dinis of Portugal who saved the Templars by cunningly renaming them the Order of Christ and giving the knights royal protection
Viana do Castelo – I’ve been visiting this town for over forty years and in August, it stages a festival for Our Lady of Agony This includes several women who dress as Mary, mother of Jesus, with fake swords plunged in their chests (well, they appear to be!) to symbolise the agonies she endured at the crucifixion
Sintra – A forest just outside Lisbon with fairytale castles, a huge wall built by the invading caliphate in the medieval period and tunnels some believe are linked to the Knights Templar
Porto and Lisbon – the first and second cities of Portugal both dripping with history but quite different. Porto, the launchpad for the crusader invasion of Lisbon, which was then under Muslim control and called Al-Usbunna
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.
In 1095, His Holiness resolved to launch a new kind of war against forces in the Middle East he believed threatened Christianity. The Byzantine emperor had sent him a desperate letter warning that unless action was taken, Christian holy places would be barred to pilgrims. The pope reacted by launching the First Crusade.
The enemy was Islam. Urban fired up his audience with blood curdling rhetoric. Whether any of his stories were true is another matter. It’s certainly hard to imagine a pope today using the kind of language that tripped from Urban’s tongue.
Speaking to a huge crowd at Clermont in France, he painted a very ghoulish picture of the Saracens, Christianity’s enemy, in the Holy Land:
They will take a Christian, cut open his stomach and tie his intestine to a stake. Then, stabbing at him with a spear, they will make him run, until he pulls out his own entrails and falls dead to the ground.
Urban said that those who had been attacking Christians or waging war on their families and communities could sign up on the dotted line and do something useful instead. Basically, the crusade was going to give violent outlaws and brigands the opportunity to wipe their personal slate clean.
At this time, the Turks had made their entry on to the stage of history pushing into the Islamic caliphate and the Byzantine empire. The pope called on everybody to rush to the east and destroy “that vile race” that had overwhelmed the friends of Christianity.
The result was three hundred years of crusade that started well but became increasingly futile. It was also the era that would bring us our very own Knights Templar. All because a pope roused Europe to action with a gory speech.
I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.
I will be discussing:
The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
Did they reject church authority?
Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
Those of you who asked for a free copy of Quest for the True Cross (up to the 50 people limit) will now have a book making its way to you via registered mail from London. Prepare to be transported back to the 12th century and a story that will immerse you in those stormy times. Happy reading!
Researching my Templar novel was an adventure in of itself taking me to Jordan, Israel, Egypt, across southern Europe and to Templar sites in the United Kingdom. All in the name of authenticity – while keeping the book a real page turner!
Now – it just so happens that I have several T-shirts and mugs for the book with the very attractive Templar logo to give away. An ideal start to the day would be a coffee or tea in a Templar mug – don’t you think? So what do you have to do?
Well – it’s a small quest befitting any wannabe Templar. You have to buy the book on Amazon (.com, .co.uk, etc) and then review it. Once you’ve done that – send me an email at email@example.com to say the review is there. Then I’ll mail out a mug or a T-shirt. I even have some Templar coasters left and lucky winners will get one of those too.
So – invest in a great adventure (modestly priced) and write your review!
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.
For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.
The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.
The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday. Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.
Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.
So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.
Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.
New evidence unearthed in England has revealed that medieval villagers in the county of Yorkshire were genuinely terrified of the dead coming back to life. So much so that they mutilated their bones, chopped up bodies and burned them. The University of Southampton and Historic England have just released their findings and it makes gruesome reading.
The bones were found in Wharram Percy, north Yorkshire. They were covered in knife marks and very obvious attempts to break up the skeletal remains. Heads were cut off and thigh bones snapped before being thrown into a bonfire. The bodies were of people aged between four years old and fifty.
From the 11th century onwards, there are writings on so-called ‘revenants’ who would come back from the grave – often wicked people who could not rest at ease after death. Possibly brought back to life by the devil himself, they were believed to be capable of attacking the living.
The archaeologists toyed with the possibility that the bodies may have been cannibalised at a time of famine. But the knife marks didn’t suggest de-fleshing and were concentrated in areas like the head and neck. This horrific practice seems to have endured from the 11th to the 14th century.
Needless to say this covers the period of our very own Knights Templar.
Of course we are still obsessed with the subject of zombies – witness the success of The Walking Dead. I’ve also just discovered a Twitter site called Medieval Death Bot where real stories of curious deaths in the Middle Ages are tweeted every day.