Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

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Ten accusations made against the Knights Templar

Templar artworkIn 1307, the Knights Templar were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured under secret orders issued by the King of France. The trials of top Templars would last for years and lead to many being burnt at the stake including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. He was incinerated in public in front of Notre Dame cathedral.

A string of scandalous accusations were made against the Knights Templar to justify smashing the order. I recommend Malcom Barber’s detailed account of The Trial of the Templars if you want to learn a lot more.

MolayHere were some of the most noteworthy charges:

  1. New entrants to the Templar order had to deny Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints
  2. Templars were told that Christ was a false prophet and there was no hope of receiving salvation through belief in him
  3. Knights were ordered to spit on a crucifix and even urinate or trample on it
  4. The order worshipped a head of some description, possibly that of a cat or with three faces or an idol called Baphomet
  5. This idol was encircled with cords, which the Templars then wore around their waists
  6. The Knights Templar rejected the sacraments of the Catholic church
  7. It was thought that the Grand Master and other leading Templars could absolve sins even though they were laymen and not priests
  8. New entrants were kissed on the mouth, the navel, the stomach, the buttocks and the spine and homosexuality was encouraged
  9. The Templars were only interested in financial gain and pocketed donations for their own use
  10. Chapter meetings and initiations were held in strictest secret with only Templars present and those that revealed any details to people outside of the order would be punished with imprisonment or death

A short film from the Smithsonian includes a reenactment of what the alleged initiation ritual looked like.

Where did all the Templar treasure disappear to?

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.

Templar sealNobody 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.

Paris – the beating heart of the Knights Templar

Templars in ParisOn this very sad day, it’s worth remembering what a great historical city Paris is – and why it will endure. It was, after all, the de facto headquarters of the Knights Templar. In what is now the Marais district, there was once a huge preceptory run by the knights. They drained the marshy land, evidencing their ability to be industrious farmers as well as fearsome warriors. This was in the first half of the 12th century, the first decades of the Order’s existence.

Eventually, they threw up a monumental tower complex that lasted into the nineteenth century. It took many years to tear it down. This impregnable building was used during the French Revolution – long after the Templars had disappeared – to imprison King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, prior to their execution on the guillotine. Napoleon had it demolished in all likelihood over fears that royalists would turn the fortress into a pilgrimage site for their late monarch.

As you all know, it was a French king – resident in Paris needless to say – who decided in 1306 to move against the Templars with a compliant Pope in his pocket. Philip the Fair had noted the wealth contained in the mighty fortress and figured it would serve him better if it was moved to his treasury. In order to do that, Philip had to crush the Templars. The leaders of the Order were arrested, tortured and the last Grand Master – Jacques de Molay – were burned to death on a small island in the Seine.

Last Templar Grand Master executed on March 18th

Templars burned at the stake.
Templars burned at the stake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year was 1314 and in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burnt at the stake in front of a huge crowd. After two hundred years of crusading, it was all over for the Order of the Temple.

The glory years for the Templars were far behind them, back in the 12th and 13th centuries. By the start of the 14th, it was clear that Jerusalem was unlikely to be reconquered from the Saracens and that the last Christian strongholds taken from Islam in the early crusades were now back in Muslim hands.

This rather left the Knights Templar with a diminishing lack of purpose. It also left the wealth they had raised from all over Europe to fund their activities sitting in their preceptories with nowhere to go. Unfortunately for the Templars, the king of France Philip IV had a very clear idea where the money should go – into his coffers!

Philip had debts – big debts. He’d already had a go at fleecing the merchant classes, the church, the Jewish community and then his attention turned to the Templars. The king owed them money and had no intention of paying them back. Far from it, he was going to raid the Temple’s assets. In order to do that, he rounded up the Templar leaders, tortured them and extracted lurid confessions to damn the order’s good name for eternity.

The arrests and imprisonments took place in 1307 and it would be another seven years before the king rewarded himself with the ultimate Templar scalp – executing the last Grand Master. The shameful deed occurred on March 18th, 1314 – a day of indisputable infamy.

Who was Jacques de Molay – last Templar Grand Master?

Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lit...
Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lithograph by Chevauchet

Everybody knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky because it was the day that Jacques de Molay and the last Knights Templar were rounded up and imprisoned by King Philip of France. De Molay would eventually be burnt to death in front of Notre Dame in Paris and with his demise, the order was crushed. But who was Jacques de Molay?

He was born in 1244 in Franche-Comte – in the region of Burgundy, where the first Templars had originated. Aged just over twenty, in around 1265, he became a Templar knight. De Molay came from a noble background, as did most knights in the order, and once initiated, he made his way to the Holy Land.

From 1273 to 1291, the Grand Master was William (or Guillaume) de Beaujeu. Some accounts say that De Molay disliked De Beaujeu and felt his posture towards the Saracens was far too passive and peaceable. Even that the Grand Master was guilty of treachery, betraying the order’s interests in outremer (the term used to describe the Christian crusader kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coastline). De Molay reportedly spoke out against De Beaujeu, making it known that he’d make a far better job of running things if he ever got the chance.

That opportunity presented itself when Acre fell to the Saracens in 1291. De Molay may have been at the siege where De Beaujeu was killed. Reportedly, the old Grand Master was found staggering from the walls of the city. He revealed a fatal wound saying: “I am not running away. I am dead. Here is the blow.” His death led to the short reign of Tibald Gaudin. In 1293, at Gaudin’s death, De Molay was finally proclaimed as the new Grand Master. Things – he declared from Cyprus – were going to change. Not, however, as he intended.

The fall of Acre may have opened up the Templar leadership to De Molay but it also dealt a heavy blow to the image of the Templars. Some argue that the crusader mission in the Holy Land was already of diminishing interest in the west. The world was changing. Old feudal values were being eroded. Increasingly powerful kings were less willing to bow their knee to papal power. Ideas of nationhood were, it’s said, starting to emerge. This not only threatened the universal Catholic church but also an order like the Templars that operated like a state within a state, a church within a church. What late medieval monarch could tolerate such an uncontrolled power within his realm?

De Molay, presumably oblivious to these trends, went on a long journey round Europe drumming up interest in a renewed crusade. Templar chapter meetings were convened in Montpellier (1293), Paris (1295/6) and Arles (1296). He pleaded the Templar cause to the kings of Aragon and England. And De Molay was present at the election of pope Boniface VIII in December, 1294.  This was the pope that the writer Dante would portray in hell in his book The Divine Comedy and it was this pontiff who would clash bitterly with king Philip IV of France – the ruler who would prove to be the nemesis of the Templars. Boniface demanded that Philip acknowledge papal supremacy and the king responded by arrested his legate and sending an army to spell things out to the pope.

De Molay discovered that Europe’s rulers were thoroughly preoccupied with fighting each other – pouring money into the Holy Land was not a priority. Back in 1095, Pope Urban had been able to galvanise Europe to defend the holy places in response to an appeal from the embattled Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Things had changed though. Byzantium was an obviously declining force. Jerusalem had long been lost to the Saracens. Italians, French and English had their swords drawn at each other’s throats while rulers of what would become Spain were rolling back the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and Seville. Muslims were being driven back in western Europe – so why waste time on a lost battle in the east?

The Hospitallers, some believe, took the temperature and began to re-invent themselves as a kind of anti-piracy maritime police force in the Mediterranean based in Rhodes. This, however, was not something De Molay was prepared to countenance. The Templars were about conquering the Holy Land for Christ or they were nothing. And so, De Molay persisted with attacks on the Saracens from his island base in Cyprus, which incongruously called itself the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This only reinforced the sad fact that the Templars had no territory on the mainland – they had lost everything.

No money and no support from the west did not seem to daunt De Molay who flung his men into battle with the Saracens. Some say that the Grand Master was pigheaded and even stupid. It’s argued that he was impervious to the changing times and not too bright. But, De Molay clearly felt that his order was not about to go through some re-branding exercise, a cynical change in its mission statement. No – De Molay was going to go down fighting. To hell with reality – there were Saracens to fight!

His one hope in the Middle East was the presence of Mongol armies. They had arrived from faraway China and fanned out over the region terrorizing Muslim armies and wreaking havoc. To the Templars, they seemed to be a godsend. De Molay sent a force of Templars (and Hospitallers joined them) to try and retake Tortosa (in modern Syria) linking up with a Mongol force. The Christian force made their way to the island of Ruad, just off the Syrian shore, and prepared to attack. But the Mongols failed to show on time and the crusaders drifted back to Cyprus leaving a small force behind on the island. In the meantime, the Mamluks – Egypt’s rulers – drove the Mongols back and launched a devastating attack on Ruad. The Templars remaining there were either killed or ended up in Cairo prisons.

This would be the Templars’ last and pretty ignominious battle – hardly a glorious swansong. De Molay was summoned back to Europe by a new pope, Clement V. En route to the pontiff, De Molay went to Paris and met the king. It’s possible he had no idea that something was afoot. But Philip of France was constantly short of money and had not been shy when it came to imposing new taxes, expelling the Jews and confiscating property. Maybe De Molay thought the king would show deference to this great military order with its impressive fortified Temple in the middle of Paris. The Treasurer of the Temple, Hugh de Pairaud, was – after all –  the king’s warden of the royal revenues – so why shouldn’t De Molay believe the cash strapped monarch was on the order’s side?

Things – however – were not as they seemed. De Pairaud might have been closer to the king than De Molay realised. The treasurer had run against De Molay to become Grand Master and failed. He had sided with king Philip against Boniface. As for pope Clement V – unlike Boniface, he was a compliant tool of the French king. There were no more demands for papal supremacy and Clement would move the papal court from Rome to Avignon, beginning a period of total French dominance over the popes (though Rome would have rival so-called “anti-popes”).

Poor Clement. No matter how much he tried to appease his French overlord, the king just kept demanding more. Occasionally, the pope would summon up the dignity of his office and try to express his own view but Philip IV was by far the stronger figure. As De Molay – it seems rather innocently and naively – made his way round France, the king was already dripping poison into the pope’s ear. He’d heard some very choice rumours about those Templars – De Molay included. Their secret rituals and initiation ceremonies. Talk of them leaving Cyprus and outremer altogether and moving all their forces and wealth to the west – maybe trying to overthrow kings like….Philip! The Templars were treacherous – the Templars were a law to themselves – the Templars….had to be crushed.

Clement VClement, who comes across as a timid bureaucrat, seems to be have been paralyzed by indecision as the king bullied and cajoled him. He probably suspected that Philip just wanted the order’s fabulous wealth. As pope, he might have felt a little conflicted. On the one hand, the Templars had always been answerable directly to him and he should have protected them. But on the other hand, his election to the papacy had been largely thanks to Philip – who could destroy him as easily as he had raised him. What was a pope to do?

In the end, it was De Molay who may have precipitated the decisive move to official trials. A bluff soldier and not well versed in courtly politics, the Grand Master lost his cool and demanded that all the whisperings about the order be brought out in the open. On the 12th October, De Molay and others carried the coffin of king Philip’s sister-in-law, Catherine of Valois. To the old warrior, he must have felt that two centuries of fighting for Christ must count for something.

The very next day – he and five thousand French Templars were arrested.

Templars’ Lost Treasure – on National Geographic

Two Templars burned at the stake, from a Frenc...
Two Templars burned at the stake, from a French 15th century manuscript 

They only existed for barely two centuries – but the Knights Templar continue to fascinate….so says the National Geographic channel and we certainly wouldn’t object. The knights formed the top of the medieval fighting machine and were based in the Temple of Solomon – what is now the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. With preceptories all over Europe, they were bequeathed huge amounts of money and ran a kind of medieval banking system. But all good things must come to an end – and King Philip the Fair of France decided to crush the Templars. So it came to pass that on Friday 13th in 1307, a dawn swoop resulted in the arrest of Templar leaders.

Heresy was the charge. Torture got the desired answer. Spitting on the cross, etc was confessed to and the pope – under pressure from the French king – suppressed the order in 1312. Eventually, the elderly grand master Jacques de Molay was burnt at the stake before Notre Dame cathedral – at a spot still marked by a monument in Paris. From the flames, De Molay demanded that within the year – the pope and French king would meet him before God. And sure enough – both men died in the following months.

So – what happened to the treasure of the Templars? Could it lie hidden in a Templar treasury? That’s what National Geographic set out to find discover!

When the French went to arrest the knights at the massive Temple in Paris in 1307 – they found no treasure. Legend has it that some Templars fled to England with untold riches. At a Templar preceptory in Gisors, northern France – there is some enigmatic graffiti left by Templars held prisoner in their own castle. It seems to show large carts being moved piled high with something.

In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo – author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame – was intrigued by Gisors and the images left by these imprisoned Templars. In the 1920s, an enthusiastic caretaker set about excavating Gisors to see if the treasure had been left there. He kept digging for decades, even through the Nazi occupation of France, and eventually claimed to have found a vault with nineteen stone caskets and thirty chests – full of treasure. When local authorities went to check – they found nothing. No underground room and no treasure. The caretaker was sacked.

Subsequent digs at Gisor have yielded zilch. So attention turns to England and specifically the Templar church in London. But no sign of gold and jewels there. So it’s off to an eighteenth century stately home at Shugborough in the English countryside. Templar enthusiasts will know that in the grounds there is an intriguing folly called the Shepherds Monument. Inscribed on it are ten letters that don’t appear to make any sense. National Geographic invokes a quote from Nostradamus that infers it’s a clue to the existence of an underground chamber that if discovered will result in the trial of the world’s leaders – attractive thought, eh?

etinarcThe monument is a copy of a structure that appears in Poussin’s famous painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ and National Geographic goes into a theory linking Poussin to a future pope and a possible coded interpretation of the title of his painting that suggests knowledge of divine secrets. All of which propels the programme out of England and off to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome. There we find a bust of Poussin and an ancient throne occasionally used by the pope.

I’m a little disappointed that a reference to king Louis XV is accompanied at this point by an image of Louis XIV – c’mon National Geographic! Anyway, we’re now asked to believe that the carving on the Shepherd’s Monument is actually a reference to Nova Scotia. L’Acadie in French being the old name for that Canadian province. Joel Doucet – a descendant of early French settlers in eastern Canada has been investigating Templar links to Nova Scotia. There seem to be clues of sorts. Not least that a local native American tribe in the region uses symbols not dissimilar to the Templar cross. Could the Templars have brought their treasure all the way to this part of the world?

A very deep pit at Oak Island has captivated treasure hunters for a century and many digs have been conducted to find Templar treasure. Incredibly, a young Franklin Roosevelt – the future US president – dug at the site. And National Geographic has a picture of FDR with his spade and a gang of like minded treasure seekers. But is this pit and others really the work of the Templars? Well, some Templar experts are prepared to say yes.

Back in France, a massive coin horde has been found by Bernard Delacourt. It’s not a mystical treasure from Jerusalem – but it could be wealth squirreled away by the Templars as the order was crushed.