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!
Here’s a great idea for a Templar holiday this year – visit all the Templar hotspots mentioned in my book Quest for the True Cross. I’ve been to all of them (barring one) and can guarantee – they are fascinating places. So – let’s start our quick journey!
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT ONE: Edessa
This city is now in modern Turkey – which is appropriate as it was the Seljuk Turks who drove the crusaders out of Edessa on Christmas Day in 1144. The city had been the capital of the County of Edessa, one of the first Christian kingdoms established after the First Crusade. The unsuccessful defence of the city was led by its Latin archbishop Hugh who was either trampled to death by his own fleeing flock or killed by the Seljuks as they stormed the city’s fortifications. I begin Quest for the True Cross with the siege of Edessa in full swing and two unscrupulous thieves using the tumult to steal the True Cross from a church in the city.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT TWO: Jerusalem
Jerusalem had been taken by Christian forces in the First Crusade – in the year 1099. A contemporary chronicle claimed that the massacre perpetrated by crusaders against the populace was at such a level that blood splashed up from the streets on to the knights’ stirrups. In the years that followed, a crusader kingdom was established with the Al Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock converted from Muslim to Christian use. This was reversed back again when Jerusalem fell to Saladin eighty years later. We meet the hero of Quest for the True Cross, Sir William de Mandeville, in Jerusalem as he helps to defend it from encroaching saracens.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT THREE: London Templar church
The Temple church in London was the second Templar preceptory in the city and stands between Fleet Street and the river Thames. You need some imagination to picture it as part of a complex of medieval buildings long gone that would once have served the knights’ requirements. It’s now surrounded by law firms. In my novel, Sir William returns to the Temple to discover his father’s body hanging from an apple tree. This is based on a factual account of a failed rebellion by the 1st Earl of Essex Geoffrey de Mandeville’s against King Stephen. The Earl was subsequently declared an outlaw and killed. His body was forbidden a Christian burial but was rescued by the Templars. I won’t spoil what happened next – you’ll have to read Quest for the True Cross.
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FOUR: Cressing Temple
Sir William is forced to return to the Templar preceptory where he began his life as a knight. It’s an unhappy return. The preceptory is run by a bitter old curmudgeon by the name of Wulfric who detests the young and valiant Sir William. Cressing Temple is in Essex and was once a major centre of the Knights Templar in England – founded during the unhappy reign of the aforementioned King Stephen. You can still see remains of a huge barn that I mention in the novel. I grew up in Essex and it’s with great pride that I bring this Templar gem to your attention!
TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FIVE: Clairvaux
Leaving England, Sir William journeys to Clairvaux to see his old mentor – Bernard. The French Cistercian Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was a titanic figure in the Middle Ages – a reformer, ascetic, advocate of the crusades and supporter of the Templars. With the fall of Edessa to the Turks, he gave a series of rousing sermons urging the European nobility to make haste to the Holy Land and defend the Christian kingdoms. I depict Sir William as being one of many knights swept up in this fervour. Unfortunately, the Second Crusade suffered many setbacks, which hit Bernard hard. In my book, I convey his bitterness at the turn of events. I also touch on the intellectual battle that Bernard fought against a rival cleric called Peter Abelard. The latter was a worldly philosopher who offended the more spiritual Bernard.
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.
Europe’s leading publisher Bertelsmann has just published Quest For The True Cross through its Euromedia imprint in the Czech Republic. Three hardback copies arrived for me in the post today – very exciting! Unfortunately, I don’t speak a work of Czech though I can make out what’s going on vaguely. So – for you Czech speakers, a great Templar day!!
His father was the Earl of Essex but died in gruesome circumstances after rebelling against King Stephen
William’s older brother becomes the new earl and soon reveals a cruel streak
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
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
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
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!
In 1976 when I was only 12 years old, my parents took me to the English county of Somerset. We passed through the Roman town of Bath with its ancient ruins and eighteenth century additions. Then to Wells with its impressive cathedral. But it was Glastonbury that really fired my imagination.
The Isle of Avalon was surrounded by sea at the end of the Ice Age but that gave way to reedy swamps that could be navigated with small boats or crude wooden walkways. Rising above the mists and fetid water was a hill called Glastonbury Tor. It can be taken as read that for pagan Britons this would have already had a magical or mystical significance. And not surprisingly, the sites that were venerated by pagans were appropriated by the later Christians.
In the villages of Somerset, the talk went round that Jesus – the son of God – had worked in the county as a boy together with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea. They had built a wattle and daub church (though it’s sometimes claimed that Joseph did this on his own after the death of Jesus). It was even claimed that Jesus had toiled in a specific village called Priddy, where there was open cast mining. Jesus of course went on to be crucified in the Holy Land but his uncle returned to Somerset with a cup used by his nephew at the Last Supper and containing some of the blood of Jesus after being speared by a Roman soldier. The cup is best known to us as – the Holy Grail.
Resting on Wearyall Hill, near the Tor, for the night – Joseph stuck his walking staff in the ground and dozed off. When he woke up, it had taken root and was sprouting leaves. This became the Glastonbury Thorn. A cutting from the Thorn would later be planted in the grounds of the medieval abbey that would be built nearby and this tree can still be seen. Indeed a cutting is sent to the Queen every Christmas. What she does with it – I have no idea!
The Holy Grail was buried by Joseph at the entrance to the kingdom of the dead near the Tor. From that spot gushed a spring still called Chalice Well and it was said that this was the real fountain of eternal youth. You may test the veracity of this claim should you wish – take a cup and try it. The original wattle church was held very sacred by the early Christian church in England and over time became encased in a larger structure – and over the centuries, a monastic complex sprang up around it. King Ine of Wessex in the eight century, seeing how many pilgrims were coming to worship there, promoted a new stone building to cover the ‘old church’.
Indeed, Glastonbury really became the most holy place in England during the Dark Ages. As abbot of the monastery in the tenth century, St Dunstan enlarged and enriched it still further and though the Norman invasion brought some disruption, the Domesday Book recorded it as the richest monastery in England. But disaster would eventually strike – and strike hard. In 1184, fire destroyed the Norman buildings and the wattle church.
The monks not only lost their home and place of worship but – and let’s be frank about it – they lost a wealth creating machine. But medieval monks were an industrious bunch. Possibly a little unscrupulous too. So, after a handful of years, they announced to the world that while clearing the site and digging around a bit – they’d found the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. This was in the year 1191. And why wouldn’t Arthur have been there – after all, he’d have been looking for the Holy Grail which had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea.
Arthur’s tombstone was handily available and in latin was inscribed his name and last resting place on the Isle of Avalon: “Hic iacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in insula Avalonia”. The remains were put in pride of place and King Edward I built a black marble tomb over them. All this was smashed up during the Reformation of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and only a marker in the grass shows you were the tomb was once situated.
By 1278, when Arthur’s new improved tomb was unveiled, the abbey was simply vast. St Mary’s Chapel had been built on the site of the Old Church and was relatively modest structure. It was now linked by the Galilee Porch to a cathedral which rivalled Canterbury and St Paul’s in London for size. A behemoth of a church stretching 580 feet.
One of the last additions was the crypt built by Abbot Richard Beere in 1500 which you can still lower yourself down in to. A really atmospheric space and well worth seeing. The abbot served guests sumptuous meals cooked in the octagonal pyramid shaped kitchen which is one of the few buildings still surviving. Unbelievably, the abbot’s palace was demolished as late as the eighteenth century.
In this palace, kings were entertained. One king entertained there was Henry VIII. A monarch who started out as the staunchest defender of the Pope and the Catholic church against the heresies of Luther in the early sixteenth century. But one divorced wife later, Henry turned on the monasteries and their enormous wealth. Though never a Lutheran, he established himself as head of the church and set above the dissolution of the monasteries – including and especially Glastonbury.
Even though Abbot Richard Whiting took the oath of allegiance to the king when he broke with Rome – keen to keep his head – it didn’t work. He was tried and hung, drawn and quartered before a crowd up on the Tor. In case any of the monks were thinking of returning to the abbey, his head was stuck on a pole over the gateway. Other limbs found their way to Wells and Bath to deliver a similar warning.
Over the next three hundred years, the mighty abbey became a source of stone for the local town as it expanded. These were days before a tourism industry and a society where resources were scarce. You could say, everything was recycled including the abbey. So with little sentimentality, it was stripped down until the ruins that can been today. But they are still incredible ruins that dwarf you and a visit is thoroughly recommended.