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.
According to the medieval chronicler William of Tyre – who wasn’t a huge fan of the Templars – the order appeared in the year 1118. They promised to live as canons of the church living under vows of chastity and obedience. Nine knights banded together to form the Knights Templar with two playing a particularly prominent role: Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St Omer.
They pledged to guard the routes to Jerusalem for pilgrims, protecting them from robbers and assassins. In an act of supreme generosity but also laden with meaning, this new militaristic religious order was given what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as its new headquarters. In 1118, it was under crusader Christian control and believed to be the temple of Solomon. Nearby was what’s now the Dome of the Rock but had then been renamed the Temple of the Lord with a crucifix placed on its golden dome.
They wore secular clothes for the first nine years of operation but then in 1129, a group of knights appeared before pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes – where he gave them permission to wear a white habit, signifying their purity. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his day, drew up new rules for the order. The Templars did not have to answer to any power in Christendom except the pope himself.
It’s aroused some curiosity as to how the Templars rose so fast to a point where the pope would take them under his wing within a decade of their formation. By 1170, according to William of Tyre, there were about 300 Templar knights and “countless” Templar sergeants – who were not permitted to wear the white habit, which had now acquired a red cross as well.
From this point onwards – their military, political and financial power increased rapidly.
In an early nineteenth century book in my library I came across a fascinating story that I’d like some historical sleuths out there to confirm or deny. The claim in the book is that on the Throne of St Peter in the Vatican – held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church – is inscribed the declaration of faith made by all Muslims (the Shahadah): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger)”
I came across this because the book is a calendar of holy events during the year and the 18th January, just gone, is The Feast of St Peter’s Chair. The book describes the throne at the end of the nave in St Peter’s basilica – the centre of the Roman Catholic church:
A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair on which St Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated
The chair has not been seen in modern times. It is indeed a worm-eaten relic donated to pope John VIII in the 9th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. He gave the pope this present in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pontiff, thereby making him the divinely anointed ruler of central Europe. This papal ceremony had been initiated by his grandfather Charlemagne.
Pope John VIII was in terrible trouble. The Muslim Saracens had overrun Sicily and southern Italy and were menacing Rome. He needed the help of the emperor. In the end, Charles couldn’t give the papacy the support it badly needed and the pope turned to the Byzantine empire for assistance. This angered some in Rome and he became the first pope to be assassinated.
Fast forward to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The French leader took Italy and, as in other places, Napoleon’s soldiers looted religious sites. They were imbued with the anti-clerical ideas of the revolution and not cowed by the holiness of the Vatican. Once they got into the basilica, they had the throne of St Peter in their sights. By now, the ancient relic was encased in seventeenth century statuary – a magnificent ebony and gold construction.
The sacrilegious curiosity of the French broke through all obstacles to their seeing the chair of St Peter. They actually removed its superb casket and discovered the relic. Upon its mouldering and dusty surface were traced carvings, which bore the appearance of letters. The chair was quickly brought into a better light, the dust and cobwebs removed, and the inscription faithfully copied. The writing is in Arabic characters and is the well-known confession of Mahometan faith – “There is but one GOD and MAHOMET is his prophet!”
The book speculates that the chair might have been crusader spoil from the east – though that would be contradicted by the account of it being an earlier donation in the ninth century, 200 years before the First Crusade. The statement inscribed on the chair is known as the “Shahadah” – which only has to be recited three times in order for somebody to become a Muslim. In our time, it’s also the Arabic statement on the flags of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State.
Coincidentally, there is another throne of St Peter held in the church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice – once the seat of the Venetian patriarchs. This church is rarely visited by tourists, though it should be. The throne is clearly modelled from an Islamic gravestone. Historians believe its journey began in the Muslim Fatimid empire. When that collapsed, it was most likely looted by Byzantine troops. Then during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it would have ended up in Venetian hands after their soldiers ransacked Constantinople.
Back to the throne in Rome – it was exposed again to public view in 1867. This was for the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Photos were taken by the Alessandri brothers at the time. The throne is one foot ten inches high and just under three feet wide. With metal rings on the side, it was clearly intended to be carried with poles – presumably with the pope seated in it. Bits had been hacked off for relics to be given away. The “arabesque” motifs were noted by spectators.
And as my book notes:
This story has been since hushed up, the chair replaced, and none but the unhallowed remember the fact, and none but the audacious repeat it. Yet such there are, even at Rome!
This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.
But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.
In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.
It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.
Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.
The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.
I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.
We always think of the crusades as something that happened in the Middle East pitching western Christian warriors against eastern Muslim saracens. In fact, the crusades of the Middle Ages were far more complex than that – and even involved a war initiated by the Pope against a group of Christians he felt had grown to powerful and influential based in southern France.
The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out. These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed. Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.
So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe. A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness. An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards. There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.
Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes. What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc. If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.
The Cathars had to be crushed. No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.
In 1207, the pope called on King Philip II of France to take action. He did nothing. Half of what we now call France was under the control of the English (or the Plantagenet kings to be more precise) and he didn’t much fancy a war against his own nobles.
But the pope wasn’t going to go away and forget these Cathars – he decided that Rome had to strangle the Cathars using all the powers at its disposal. I’ll be looking at how the Cathars were crushed in the next few posts.
The Gawker website has listed some of the current online speculations and theories about the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict – an event I blogged about when he made his announcement. Click HERE to visit the Gawker page. There’s some pretty fanciful stuff out there and one theory I couldn’t resist sharing was the the Knights Templar had a hand in it.
But hang on? I hear you cry. Which Knights Templar? Ah – details! Well, the Gawker article quotes what seems to me a pretty feeble “prophecy” from Nostradamus about somebody from “ancient France” who will be elected to steer the “trembling ship”. As with many of his predictions, I find them woefully unconvincing. But you can tell me otherwise!
Why is France mentioned? Because the next pope is going to restore the Merovingian dynasty – the line of monarchs that included Clovis, the Frankish king who accepted Christianity having driven the Romans out of what was then Gaul. This is proved by the writings of a fifty century bishop of Arles called Saint Caesar – who did indeed exist. The good saint said that a ‘great monarch’ will assist the new pope in the reformation of the whole earth, etc.
The Merovingians – you will recall – were part of the bloodline of Jesus according to Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. The end of the dynasty gave rise, it’s claimed, to the Order of Sion, which was behind the formation of the Knights Templar. I hope all this isn’t hurting your head – it’s certainly giving me brain ache.
One final thought on the Templars and Pope Benedict – a group of people claiming to be descendants of the Knights Templar did in fact attempt to sue the pontiff in 2008. The Daily Telegraph report – click HERE to read – detailed how the Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ was seeking £79bn from the Vatican for assets seized by the church from the Templars after their destruction.
Needless to say Pope Benedict didn’t pay up – could they have got their final revenge!?
The Pope announced that he intended to resign today on grounds of ill health and age – leaving office before the end of the month. In recent centuries, the view has been that popes continue until they croak but Pope Benedict’s decision to leave before dying is not without precedent. If you head back into the Middle Ages – popes stepped down for any number of reasons.
Pope Benedict IX (1032-1948) for example found the burden of the papacy too much for his eleven year old shoulders – yes, he was eleven when his family arranged for him to become pope! And why not – two of his uncles had been pope before him. He got fed up with his duties and sold the papacy to his godfather though changed his mind later on and seized it back.
Pope Celestine V (six months in 1294) decided the job really wasn’t for him and passed a law permitting a pope to resign, which he duly did. Celestine rather fancied the thought of retiring to peaceful contemplation. But his rather overbearing successor, Boniface VIII, decided to imprison him instead and possibly had him murdered. His confinement certainly didn’t last very long and was followed very shortly after by his funeral.
Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) was caught up in the Western Schism where, for several decades, there were two and sometimes more popes. One sat in Rome and the other in the French city of Avignon. To try and end this crazy situation that divided Europe, a decision was made that if one pope stepped down, the other one would. Of course, there then followed a game of brinkmanship to see who would blink first but in the end, Gregory did the noble thing. He was allowed to retire to Ancona where history records nothing terrible happening to him.
Recent times have not been without papal controversy with claims that Pope John Paul I was murdered – I have no view on this – and reports that Pius XII wrote a decree insisting that if the Nazis kidnapped him, he should be deemed to be no longer pope. I’ve no doubt in the next few days and weeks we will hear many salacious theories as to the stepping down of Benedict. Just be aware that the Vatican has been here before!