Were the Knights Templar heretics?

What heretical ideas might the Knights Templar have adhered to or imported from the east into the very heart of western Christendom?

There’s an interesting section in the book The Templars History and Myth by Michael Haag on medieval heresy in relation to the Templars that is a good starting point. Let’s look at three heretical movements that could have influenced the Templars:

  1. The Cathars

burning_heretics_02Guillaume de Puylaurens was born in Toulouse some time after the year 1200 and lived to witness the region he grew up in convulsed by a heretical movement called the Cathars. He was in turn a priest, then worked for the local bishop and eventually rose to become chaplain to Raymond VII of Toulouse – who was basically a medieval warlord resisting the authority of the King of France.

Guillaume would spend his closing years freelancing for the Inquisition and sending heretics to the flames. The 13th century saw the emergence, through clerical orders like the Dominicans, of that frightening ecclesiastical phenomenon that would bring so much misery to Europe – the Inquisition or Tribunal of the Holy Office.

Guillaume spotted heretics all over the place in southern France. Arians, Waldensians and Manichaeans were actively spreading their ideas if his chronicles are to be believed. Common themes in all these heresies, particularly the Cathars, were a questioning of the divine nature of Christ, the promotion of poverty as a virtue, a rejection of the material world and a scathing criticism of the wealth and power of a church that falsely claimed it ruled in the name of Christ.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time when the Catholic church exercised total authority over the people of Europe but the truth was very different. Ask a priest, bishop or pope at the time and they’d have listed the many threats out there to church dominance. It would have felt to these men that Roman Catholicism was under constant attack from powerful and evil forces.

The Languedoc region, with its capital at Toulouse, was the centre of the Cathar heresy that led to a papal crusade and the burning of their leaders, many of whom were local aristocrats. It was also a region where the Templars had ties of family, wealth and property. Michael Haag argues that some of the Templar patrons were known Cathar supporters.

It would take forever to detail all the Cathar beliefs that so offended Rome. In short, they continued a dualist tradition that had existed in early Christianity with a belief that the world was so corrupt and evil, it could not have been created by a good God. Therefore, a malign force had conjured up the material world while the true God was calling us all to rejoin him in the spiritual realm.

If this was true, Jesus Christ could not have been tainted by human flesh and was therefore an entirely spiritual entity. Again, an idea that many early Christians adhered to. This meant the Virgin birth story was a lie. This contempt for the carnal led some Cathars to reject meat and dairy products as well as abstaining entirely from sex.

TLSMacCullochThe argument runs that the Knights Templar were noticeably absent from the so-called “Albigensian crusade” launched by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars. That name derives from the town of Albi, a hotspot of Cathar activity. It’s also conjectured that the Templars wanted to carve out their own state in southern France, in opposition to the king, with the help of local magnates and Cathars.

Some have argued that the Cathars were in possession of the treasure found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. They reputedly hid it down a well in the fortified town of Caracassonne.

The problem with arguing a Templar/Cathar connection is that the knights were repeatedly held up as exemplars of the church militant.  They were protected by the papacy, lauded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and fought tenaciously to extend Catholic dominion in the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula. So surely they were on the pope’s side against these accursed Cathars?

However, the Templars also came to a barbaric and disgraceful end at the hands of that very same church. Their leaders and last Grand Master faced the same flames that engulfed many a Cathar. Both Templars and Cathars endured horrific torture and interrogation from priests and bishops. So can we deduce some kind of link from this?

It’s maybe not so surprising that the man entrusted with crushing the Templars, the King of France’s keeper of the seal Guillaume de Nogaret, was from a family that had fallen in with the Cathars. Possibly, Nogaret felt he had to over-compensate for this unfortunate treachery in his background by being ultra-loyal to king and pope.

  1. The Gnostics

I shudder every time I decide to touch this subject. Gnosticism almost defies description. But let’s have a go. I apologise in advance for the crudeness of this summary if any Gnostics are browsing this blog.

gnosisFirst thing to say is that elements of Gnosticism predate Christianity. You can find some of the basic tenets in Plato and other philosophers as well as the beliefs of certain ancient religious cults.

Basically, there have always been thoughtful people who have looked at the horror of the world around them and thought – this runs counter to who I am and what I should be. This world is false and empty. It’s a distraction. There must be a path back to a better kind of existence in tune with a true God who would not have wanted this to happen.

“Gnosis” = knowledge. Our world is the result of a cosmic catastrophe. We must acquire the knowledge that takes us back to our true essence. That will reunite us with the true God. When the catastrophe occurred, it sent millions of pieces of divine essence hurtling through the universe. Some of us have a piece of the divine within us and our aim must be, through total rejection of everything we see around us, to make our way back to God.

Like the Cathars, the idea of a bodily Jesus being born and dying was complete anathema. Jesus had come to impart knowledge – not drink wine, eat bread and die on a cross. The Gospel of John reads in a very Gnostic manner once you know the basics. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word”. Gnosticism on a plate!

abraxasThose who support the idea of a Templar/Gnostic connection point to the use of certain symbols on their seals, for example the demi-god Abraxas. This entity had the body of a man and head of a cockerel.

Abraxas was one of the Archons – servants of the evil or creator God that had landed us in the mess we find ourselves in today. These Archons, 365 in total, stand between humanity and the true God to whom we must return, though not all of us can.

The Catholic church viewed Abraxas as a pagan god so what is this creature doing popping up on Templar seals?

  1. The Assassins

assassinThose of you acquainted with Assassin’s Creed will view the Templars as diametrically opposed to the Assassins, locked in a centuries old conflict. But there’s a different view.

James Wasserman, in his book Assassins: The Militia of Heaven, writes that through contact with the Assassins, the Templars imbibed Islamic forms of Gnosticism.

Wasserman thinks the Templars were swayed by the occult practices and teachings of the Assassins. They also shared the selfless bravery of this murderous organisation. Templars were always first in and last out of any battle and never flinched in the face of furious Saracen onslaughts. The Assassins performed a ritual where their own adepts were ordered to leap to a certain death from a precipice – which they duly did.

There is also a sense of both the Templars and Assassins being outsiders. The Templars were feted then rejected and crushed by the Catholic church. They had their own organisation, ethos and objectives. The Assassins, who belonged to the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam, killed both crusader and Saracen leaders.

Allegedly off their heads on hashish, the Assassins turned political assassination into something of an art form. They managed to murder Raymond II, count of Tripoli in 1152; Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem, in 1192 and made an audacious but unsuccessful attempt on the life of Saladin. The Templars justified their killing for Christ by calling it “malecide”, the murdering of evil, not people. These were two groups with very strange morals from our point of view.

The Templars and Assassins were physically based very closely to each other in the Holy Land. Did that proximity lead to a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

Your thoughts on this would be very welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

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Investigating the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: THE PRIORY OF SION

Priory_of_Sion_LogoOne 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 The Da 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

  • Incredible_Facts_Templars_knights_crusades_7The 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.
  • Saunière1852-1917A 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.
  • 71mFQClUroL._SL1260_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.”
  • Nicolas_Poussin_-_Et_in_Arcadia_ego_(deuxième_version)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.
  • Asmodeus / Devil at Rennes-le-ChateauSaunière 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

  • davinci-code_0004The 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. BlancheofcastileCorbu 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 Code broadcast 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.
  • GdeS06Plantard 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 called L’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.

davisIt sounds pretty damning for Plantard and his Priory of Sion. But then there’s another hypothesis put forward by Templar historian 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. My journalistic curiosity demands that I know who this guy was and his background and qualifications. Can anybody shed any light here?

I hope you have enjoyed this investigation of the Priory of Sion!

 

The cult of Santa Muerte claims some victims

Santa Muerte
Santa Muerte (Photo credit: Anuska Sampedro)

A growing number of people in Mexico are turning to the worship of Saint Death – a figure who appears to be a combination of Catholic imagery with pre-Columbian beliefs. This blending of religious beliefs is called ‘syncretism’ and is a common feature of most faiths. In this case, Mexicans have taken the blood stained effigies of latin Catholicism imported from Spain and mixed them with the macabre ancestor worship of pre-Columbian peoples.

But in a disturbing turn – a family in Mexico is now being investigated in connection with several murders which are allegedly sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The victims were two ten year olds and a 55 year old. The alleged killers are part of a very poor family whom the local community had felt rather sorry for…but no longer. Several media outlets including the BBC and Fox News have reported on the story.

The offering of blood to the deity has an eery chime with Aztec blood sacrifices – if you recall, prisoners taken in war by the Aztecs would be dragged to the top of a pyramid where a priest would carve open their chest with an obsidian dagger and tear out their still beating heart. In this way, the sun god would be appeased and crops would grow, battles would be won, etc.

It should be emphasised that most devotees of this cult do not endorse ritual murder but the growth of worship to Santa Muerte suggests this syncretic beflief is fulfilling a spiritual need in modern Mexico – particularly among the poor – that the mainstream Catholic church cannot satisfy.

Christianity is no stranger to syncretism – from the start, it has absorbed elements of other religions possibly without being aware of the fact. Mithraism, Manicheanism, Greek philosophy, Roman gods, etc have all influenced the iconography and views of Christians. Who, for example, could look at an image of Isis and the baby Horus and not see the Virgin and child?  Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that early Christianity was heavily influenced by other faiths around it and you have, for example, the efforts of one emperor, Heliogabalus, to combine both Judaism and Christianity in to his Syrian god cult.

Turning back to Mexico, one of the country’s best actors Gael Garcia Bernal has narrated this documentary on the growth of the Santa Muerte cult and it makes fascinating viewing.

Sir William de Mandeville – Templar hero!

Sir William de Mandeville is the hero of my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross. Some key facts about William:

  1. templar3He is a Templar knight from Essex in England
  2. His father was the Earl of Essex but died in gruesome circumstances after rebelling against King Stephen
  3. William’s older brother becomes the new earl and soon reveals a cruel streak
  4. William returns home from the crusades in the Holy Land after a spell of madness and challenges his brother’s tyranny, rescuing a poor boy who is about to be mutilated for theft
  5. Back in the Holy Land, the True Cross – the most sacred Templar relic – has been stolen by the Saracens. It is now in the city of Al-Usbunna
  6. Crusader and Templar armies mass to take Al-Usbunna from Muslim control and William joins them to try and retrieve the True Cross. He hopes by doing so, he can restore his family honour disgraced in different ways by his father and brother
  7. William also hopes to conquer his own growing insanity, caused by the terrible carnage he had seen on crusade in the Holy Land

I won’t spoil the conclusion – buy Quest for the True Cross to find out what happens!

 

Paganism in Europe at the time of the Templars

alexamenos1
Ancient Roman anti-Christian graffiti depicting Jesus as a crucified donkey

We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.

When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.

The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?

Blood was spilt over these questions.

jupiter
Jupiter – didn’t go quietly

But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.

The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!

By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.

And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.

justinian
Justinian

So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.

Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.

ironlordIron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.

The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.

The Templars, Sodomy and the Bishop

The_Magi_in_flagrante_delicto
Medieval representation of sodomy – the Three Kings in bed admonished by an angel!

This month’s edition of ‘History Today’ mentions in passing a certain bishop called Adam of Orleton who in a sermon on October 15th, 1327 declared that King Edward II of England, who was in the process of being deposed by his wife and a rebel army, was a sodomite.  The magazine says this is the first known reference to Edward II being gay – or a ‘sodomite’ to use the unpleasant terminology of the time.

Orleton didn’t actually specifiy who King Edward had sodomised or when – he was just a sodomite.  As History Today then points out, this was a tried and tested way of denigrating somebody and had even been used against a Pope.  What makes Orleton’s accusation interesting was that he had previous form.  Because just a few years earlier, the good bishop had condemned the Templars as sodomites before the pope at his residence in Avignon.

If only Freud had been alive in the Middle Ages, we might have put Orleton’s obsession with homosexuality down to a latent desire to do some sodomising himself.  But hey ho, no psychoanalysis for another six hundred years.

So who was bishop Orleton?   Well, he seems to have been something of a serial bishop, starting with Hereford.   He got that bishopric in the teeth of opposition from Edward II – who he later accuses of being a sodomite.  The pope who appoints him is John XXII – often claimed to be the pontiff who initiated an interest witch-hunting that would take off in succeeding centuries.  He would be charged with treason by Edward II and had to be placed under the protection of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Once Edward II had been overthrown by his wife and her associate Mortimer, Orleton had the joyful experience of visiting the imprisoned king to force him to abdicate.  What happened to Edward II next has always been the subject of salacious gossip.  The goriest account is that he had a red hot poker shoved up his backside – some say to leave no mark on his body but others as a kind of commentary on his sexual preferences.  But the one person who claimed to have witnessed the king’s death later retracted his remarks and some claimed to have seen the ex-king alive years later.

As I said, Orleton had spoken against the Templars a decade before in Avignon accusing them of sodomy.  At the trial of the Knights of the Temple, they were said to have kissed each other on the mouth, anus, end of the spine (in anca), naval and ‘virga virilis’.  Some say this was done to awaken the ‘kundalini’ serpent of knowledge.

Orleton died in 1345 a wealthy man as bishop of Winchester.  His alleged role in the death of Edward II was immortalised by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.