Early in July this year, I returned to a part of Portugal from where my mother’s family originated – a rugged landscape in the north east that was once a battle ground between Islam and Christianity as well as between rival crusader armies.
The region is called Tras-os-Montes – behind the mountains – and I’ve always joked to cousins there that it’s a land of “Templars and Jews”. What I mean by that is that is the presence of the Knights Templar can be seen everywhere as can the cultural footprint left behind by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in neighbouring Spain.
In the town of Mogadouro, you can still see an impressive Templar fortress built in the first decades after the foundation of the order. What you have to remember is that a crusade was being fought on the Iberian peninsula at this time as half the land mass was under the control of a Muslim caliphate.
Mogadouro was also in the front line against neighbouring Spanish Christian kingdoms like Leon and Castile. They didn’t much welcome the emergence of a new kingdom called Portugal and its impetuous ruler Dom Afonso Henriques. He was connected by ties of blood to the Templar’s founders in Burgundy, France. It’s often speculated whether the creation of Portugal was indeed a Templar project to hit the Islamic world in its western flank.
The fort still looks impressive, as I hope my photos suggest. And it was lit up for a local festival to Saint Anne – the mother of Mary. Nearby is an ancient stone pillory with four strange protrusions at the top. I once asked a local farmer what they were for and he remarked blandly: “Oh, we used to hang the Jews from there”.
It is true that the Inquisition eventually caught up with the Jewish population after the Templars themselves had been crushed. They then faced forced conversion or the flames of execution. But there is still a dialect in that region, Mirandense, which some claim contains Hebrew references.
Here are some photos from my recent visit to the Templar fortress at Mogadouro. You can get there by taking the Douro train from Porto to Pocinho and then a coach from there.
We think of the Crusades as a series of battles between Christianity and Islam that took place in the Middle East. But in fact, the Crusades were fought in many places including modern Spain and Portugal.
When the Knights Templar were founded in 1119, the Iberian peninsula was divided between an Islamic caliphate in the south and several Christian kingdoms in the north. Separating these two very different and warring realms was a buffer zone that swapped hands over and over.
Between the rivers Mondego and Tagus in Portugal lay lands referred to in the medieval period as ‘nullis diocesis’ – territory with no bishop or patriarch. Church and state had no firm hold over these lands. Instead, crusaders and Moors (the Muslim armies) fought each other bitterly gained and losing the advantage.
It fell to the Knights Templar to try and hold the line. The king of Portugal gave the Templars control over nullis diocesis hoping their combination of religious zeal and military courage would be enough to push back the Moorish invaders.
The knights built a string of castles to defend their position. One such was the fortress at Tomar, which you can still see today. It’s famous for an octagonal church that lies within it referred to as the ‘charola’ – allegedly modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The Portuguese Templars at Tomar elected a grand master for their new nation and the most famous of these was a formidable character called Gualdim Pais. You can still see a statue of him in the town square. He holds a kite shield and resembles a Norman knight of that period.
He had served in the Holy Land and been present at the Siege of Ascalon in 1153 – when Fatimid Egypt had been soundly defeated. Back in his native country, he fought yet another crusade. The difference being that this war, by and large, was moving in favour of the Christian side. Bit by bit, the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, that had ruled much of Spain and Portugal for four hundred years, was gradually being driven back.
However, in 1190, Gualdim faced a dire threat he might never have anticipated. A vast army from Morocco surged through southern Portugal and arrived at the mighty stone walls of Tomar. So bitter was the hand to hand combat that a door into the city is still called the Gate of Blood. The ground was crimson as both sides thrust and cut at each other.
Five years later, Gualdim died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Olival, which you can visit today.
Get read to find out where the treasure of the Knights Templar is buried – when the History channel airs Buried on 31 January, 2018. And guess who appears as an expert when they arrive in Portugal? Yes – me!
I’ll be seen clambering around tunnels in Tomar, once the nerve centre of Templar operations in Portugal. This is where the knights fought off repeated invasions of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim forces in the south. It’s also where the Templars transformed into the Order of Christ after they were banned in 1307.
Buried is accompanying the History channel drama series Knightfall – which you will know all about if you follow this blog! So….look out for me on screen soon!
In 1312, Pope Clement V ordered all Christian rulers to seize the assets of the Knights Templar and hand them over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. One king refused to obey. In Portugal, King Dinis took over the Templar assets himself. In effect, he used his royal power to protect and reshape the order so that it could continue. The result was the formation of the Order of Christ.
By 1319, King Dinis had convinced Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to recognise his new order. Dinis argued that Portugal still faced a significant threat from Muslim armies to the south. 150 years before, the Templars had helped the first kings of Portugal to create their country. This had involved conquering cities like Lisbon and Santarem from Muslim control to forge a new Christian nation.
The Templars had always been in the front line pushing the frontier ever further southwards. They had done so at considerable risk to their own safety. For this, Portugal was grateful. And so when the king was asked to suppress the Templars, he recoiled. Dinis came up with a novel and unique solution. Today, we would call it rebranding. He took brand Templar and relaunched it as brand Order of Christ.
As with the Templars, the new order followed the Cistercian rule – the code by which those monks led their daily lives. The Cistercians and Templars had always been closely interconnected. From 1357, the Order of Christ was moved to the same headquarters the Templars had used and built – the castle at Tomar.
King Dinis was a complex character. A poet who resisted church power and did more than any king before him to promote a strong Portuguese identity.
His son Afonso IV continued his father’s legacy nurturing the Order of Christ which was soon to play a leading role in the age of discoveries, which would see navigators from Portugal sail around Africa and discover Brazil.
This year, I went to a historical reenactment festival in northern Portugal called the Medieval Journey – Viagem Medieval. Every year, huge crowds turn out to see battles and short plays about a particular monarch. This year, it was the turn of King Afonso IV.
The festival slogan was a bit grim: Hunger, Plague and War. But Afonso IV reigned during a stormy period that included the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated populations across Europe. He also had to see off attacks from both Muslim armies and those of neighbouring Castile, another Christian kingdom that would evolve in future centuries into modern Spain.
Here are some images from my visit and a video of the battle scene – enjoy!
I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal!
SPOILER FREE! I’m not going to give away one tiny morsel of the thrilling documentary on the Templars that the History Channel is planning to accompany its Templar drama series Knightfall – coming out in the autumn.
Forget Game of Thrones – that was fiction! Knightfall and other content on the Templars coming your way will be about brave knights who really existed. Winter is indeed coming. But it’s a Templar winter for us – not a Targaryen one!
I had the honour and pleasure of filming with the History Channel team in Tomar, central Portugal just three weeks ago. This is a historic town dominated by a Templar castle.
It was once the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe about 800 years ago. On top of a hill, the Templar castle stares solemnly down at the small town. Within its walls is an eight sided chapel modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It also may borrow from the shape of the Dome of the Rock, another sacred site in Jerusalem, which at the time Tomar was built – from 1160 – was under crusader control. The Dome of the Rock had been shut down as a mosque and consecrated as a Christian church, the Templum Domini. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, was what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. That had been taken over by the Knights Templar as their global headquarters as it was believed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon.
But enough of Jerusalem – back to Portugal!
While Jerusalem was the front line between Christianity and Islam in the east, Tomar was the front line between the two faiths in the west. A Muslim caliphate had ruled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Now a huge reconquest by Templars, crusaders and Christian kings was underway. The Templars used Tomar as their base of operations. In 1190, it even came under direct attack from a vast army that stormed out of Morocco determined to crush the knights once and for all.
But what is underneath Tomar? For decades, rumours have swirled of secret tunnels that may have been used for initiation rituals or for storing treasure the Templars brought back from Jerusalem via Cyprus and the Paris temple. Here are some of the old books I’ve used in my research on Tomar – often picked up in Lisbon bookstores and street markets.
The theory is that one tunnel links the Templar castle to their church and mausoleum of Santa Maria Olival. That church was built at a surprisingly remote location very vulnerable to Muslim attack. It housed the bodies of Templar grand masters of Portugal. It’s believed to have been built on top of an earlier Benedictine monastery after those monks fled in the face of Muslim armies in the eighth century. That monastery in turn may have been constructed atop a Roman temple and even earlier pagan places of worship.
The Templar castle on the hill is also slap bang on top of Roman and Moorish (Muslim) remains and you can see a stone from a Roman altar embedded in its medieval walls.
Tomar became a place of safety for the Templars when in 1307, the rest of Europe turned against them. Led by the French king and the papacy, there was a movement to crush the Knights Templar forever.
But the Portuguese did not forget that the Templars had fought bravely against Muslim warriors and so they let them continue at Tomar though under a new name – the Order of Christ. The Portuguese king – Dinis – protected them and allowed the knights to continue to serve the kingdom.
The question remains though – when the Templars retreated to Tomar, did they bring their wealth with them? Did that wealth include sacred items from Jerusalem that might have included something we term today as the Holy Grail?
The Order of Christ would play a leading role in Portugal’s voyages of discovery around the world. The ships that rook the great discoverers to Brazil, India and South Africa bore the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ – and the Templars – on their sails. Why? Did the Order of Christ possess knowledge that the Portuguese could ill afford to do without?
I’m half-Portuguese myself. I’m always pleased to see how bright Jewish people were able to contribute to Portugal for far longer than in other countries. Many, posing as “New Christian” converts, would be at the forefront of the discoveries and scientific and artistic accomplishments that were a hallmark of that period.
But there was also the Order of Christ – that emerged from another persecuted group of people, the Templars. Was it Templars and Jews together who led Portugal to its period of greatness? More on the role of Portugal in the Templar story in subsequent blog posts. Your comments welcome as ever!
I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal – in the next few blog posts, I’ll share my discoveries with you:
Lisbon is the capital of modern day Portugal and a thriving, bustling city. But let’s go back 800 years and we find a very different place. Lisbon was called Al-Usbunna and was a Muslim-controlled metropolis surrounded by thick walls, a great mosque in the centre of the downtown area (medina in Arabic) and a Muslim governor living in an Al Qasr (Alcazar in Spanish) at the top of the hill.
What we now call Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in the year 711. A Christian kingdom that covered the whole of the Iberian peninsula was overthrown and the Muslim/Arab armies went even further, crossing the Pyrenees mountains and attempting ton conquer France as well.
Four hundred years later and Christians had taken back the north of Spain and Portugal but the more prosperous and populous south still remained in Muslim hands. Portugal was half the size it is today, just the northern half, and its king got together with a new order of knights to try and conquer the south. These knights were our very own Knights Templar.
King Afonso Henriques asked the Templars to patrol and effectively control the border areas between Christian Portugal and the Muslim south. They did, setting up a base in Tomar – in what is now central Portugal. This August, I was filming with the History Channel in Tomar looking for secret Templar tunnels – more on that in another blogpost.
Lisbon was besieged by an army under Afonso Henriques that included Templars and crusaders from all over Europe. Its walls eventually succumbed to this army and Afonso gave the crusaders permission to ransack the city for three days. The great mosque became the new cathedral and the old palace of the Muslim governor became St George’s castle – which you can still see today.
For a long time, the Portuguese swept their Muslim past under the carpet. But now, excavations in the cloisters of Lisbon’s cathedral have revealed evidence of the mosque as well as earlier Roman habitation. It’s always amazes me to see how civilisations build on top of each other. Layer after layer of human activity. I enclose some photos of the excavations for you to enjoy!
I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.
I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.
I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.
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
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.
Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.
Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.
So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?
Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.
This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.
For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.
Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.
In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.