How would a Knight Templar celebrate Christmas?

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 12.32.14
A Victorian take on the medieval Christmas

Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.

Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!

So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:

  • Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
  • Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
  • Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
  • No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
  • Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
  • Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
  • Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe.  The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
  • Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.

Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.


Sacred statues without hair and clothes

2017-08-05 14.28.56I was in Lisbon in August of this year and made an interesting discovery…

This year, I was walking up a steep hill in Lisbon to visit the medieval cathedral. This austere fortress-like edifice was built after the city was taken from its Muslim rulers by the Templars and the Portuguese army – assisted by many foreign crusaders – in the year 1147.

What the Christians found when they entered the city was a huge mosque at its centre. This was torn down and the cathedral erected in its place.

It’s not the most attractive medieval building in Europe and with its thick walls and arrow slit windows, you get the impression that the citizenry were expecting their former rulers to try and return and recapture the place.

It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a Muslim city here, at the westernmost end of a global medieval caliphate stretching from India to the Algarve in southern Portugal. Algarve, by the way, is from the Arabic “Al-Gharb” meaning the west. The city had been in Muslim hands for over four hundred years. It’s been the capital of Catholic Portugal for the last eight hundred years. So the Islamic heritage has been largely erased.

2017-08-05 14.28.27-1Half way up the hill, I found an antique shop selling statues from the 17th to 19th centuries that had once adorned churches in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Curiously, many of items had lost their clothes and hair at some point. So pictured here is Jesus Christ with the bloodied wounds from his crown of thorns but the crown, his hair and robes have gone.

What you’re left with is the puppet-like body that was always underneath to be manipulated as the church saw fit. His arms could be extended, his legs crossed, his head bowed, whatever was required.

This would have been little different to statues of the medieval period and today, as in those times, these are often carried in processions around the streets on special feast days.

Quite a morbid shop I must say, but completely fascinating.


Five Templar hotspots mentioned in Quest for the True Cross

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!


220px-Battle_of_Edeesa_1146This 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.


source_4b7ebd592258c_hartmann-schedel-hierosolima-1493_2-bw-1147x965Jerusalem 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

Knight Templar church in LondonThe 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.


The_wheat_barn_at_Cressing_Temple, 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!


Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206Leaving 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.

Find out more about all these places when you order Quest for the True Cross on Amazon.

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.

Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – my visit today

What do I need to say? This is the church that all Templar churches were based on. A hugely historic site that covers the site where Jesus was crucified, Jesus was laid out on a slab and the tomb of Jesus. The church is carved up between different – often conflicting – Christian denominations and it’s a scene of very active worship and veneration by people from all over the world.

The original Constantine era church (4th century AD) was demolished by a Muslim ruler then rebuilt by the Templars and crusaders. It’s an astonishing circular building and there’s an incredible atmosphere – I would honesty say the most wonderful place to visit in Jerusalem. I went back three times and here’s some photos to try and convey why.

Maundy Thursday – the day of the Last Supper

As regular visitors to this blog know – last week I visited the site of the Last Supper in Jerusalem.  Today is the very day that Jesus is believed to have eaten that meal with his disciples in advance of being crucified and the resurrection.  The day is more properly referred to as Holy Thursday though I quite like Thursday of Mysteries – as it’s called in the Maronite church.

So the photograph below is the Coenaculum – site of the Last Supper – situated of course in Jerusalem. But most interestingly is the religious history of this building. The Coenaculum is an upper story room that was originally identified by Helena – mother of the Emperor Constantine – as the site of the Last Supper. Helena had some form when it came to identifying places to do with Jesus – his crucifixion, burial, scourging, trial, etc, etc…you name it, her imperial nose sniffed out the locations.

But a church she ordered built on this site was flatted by the Muslims when they invaded. It took the Templars to re-build it and that is the building you see today except…note the minbar. Because the Ottoman Turks subsequently converted it in to a mosque. And so it remained for five hundred years until the British Empire handed it back to Christian use. Quite a history for one room!

Downstairs – by a spooky coincidence – is the tomb of King David!

The birthplace of John the Baptist

Today I visited the birthplace of John the Baptist as part of my journey to Israel. The Franciscan monastery at Ein Karem – a village now swallowed up by Jerusalem – is a nineteenth century construction sitting on top of an earlier Byzantine church destroyed during a huge revolt by the Samaritans in Israel during the fifth century. This is a revolt I knew little about before my current visit to Israel but the destructive wave it unleashed is becoming ever clearer – worth a blog post in the future I think!

Anyway – here is the church and the spot at which John the Baptist – dear to the Templars – was conceived.

A saint for your lottery numbers

National-lottery-results-UK-draw-numbers-latest-results-checker-984198Saint Pantaleon is the patron saint of the lottery – proving there really is a saint for everything. I have even found several prayers online beseeching Pantaleon to pick the right numbers for the faithful. One went like this:

Dear St Pantaleon, wrap me with your Holy spirit, help me to win Lotto, and bingo..I want to have a new house and apartment for rent.Thanks lord, guide me always and my family. Amen

Saint Pantaleon is one of those saints that was very popular at one stage in history and then fell away.  He was a physician to one of the late Roman emperors who co-ruled in the east – either Galerius or Maximian.

This was when the empire was divided between two senior and two junior rulers – a system called the Tetrarchy.  Diocletian, the emperor who devised this ingenious way of running the vast imperium, also launched the last and most determined persecution of the Christians.

We are led to believe that Pantaleon was convinced that faith was more important than medicine and he duly accepted a rather gruesome martyrdom.  Many of the stories that circulate about martyrs under Diocletian are faintly ridiculous.  They all have common themes about saints having their heads cut off or being boiled alive and yet somehow miraculously surviving, etc.

Whoever told the story of Pantaleon got very carried away because he was pretty much subjected to every horrific mode of execution you could imagine and yet proved impossible to kill.  Only when he himself consented to die, did the blade cut his head off – out of which, by the way, spouted a mixture of blood and milk.

This is a statue I found in Portugal but he also features in the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral and his relics are scattered from Armenia to Italy.  In the latter country, there is a belief that Saint Pantaleon will very obligingly come to you in your dreams and tell you the winning lottery numbers.  He is presumably very selective about how many people he visits during their slumbers.

Saint Pantaleon

Franciscan missionary work among Muslims

IMG_1636I was in Porto, Portugal a few years back in the church of Saint Francis when I saw a gruesome image of a Saracen beheading a Franciscan friar – and another lying on the ground without his head.  Couldn’t resist a sneaky photo, which I’m sharing with you here.

All of which raises the question – how did these friars get in to this situation?  Where were they martyred?

Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination is a good starter on the subject and its author John Victor Tolan gives some interesting detail.  The Orders of Friars Minor – Ordo Fratrum Minorum – was found in the early 13th century, just under a hundred years after the founding of the Templars.  Saint Francis of Assisi took an early view that the Muslims needed to be brought back to Christianity and his friars were well suited to the task.

The trouble was, Tolan relates, they resorted to abuse as a primary approach – insulting the Prophet and seeking the ‘palm’ of martyrdom….which they got.  Tolan makes the point that Christians in the early days of the Islamic caliphate in Spain, four hundred years before, had also insulted Mohammad in order to die an honourable death and the Muslims had obliged.  So the friars followed this largely unproductive example.  In 1212, Francis tried to get to Morocco where he clearly hoped to be martyred but fell ill and only reached Spain.

But this hostile approach proved unsatisfactory for the growing number of more intellectual Franciscans and as the century wore on, they tried to dispute on very serious terms with the Muslims.

Saint Francis however was not up for round table debates – he still wanted to go and tell the forces of Islam exactly what he thought and didn’t care much if he was slain in the process.  So he joined the Fifth Crusade full of zeal and believing he could win over the heretics.  He was apparently captured by Egyptian soldiers, beaten badly and then presented to the Sultan whose main weapon against Francis seems to have been excessive kindness and bribery – he offered lots of lovely gifts which the ungrateful friar turned down as “so much dung”.

Francis egged on the Sultan to martyr him but the Muslim ruler refused to oblige.  Fellow Franciscan, Thomas of Celano, who wrote up this story shared Francis’ discomfort at having to return home very much alive and un-martyred.  So he concluded that God had something far better in store for Francis and was saving him for now.  Eventually, the saint died a pretty painful death – a prolonged illness – and Thomas cheerfully noted that this was a kind of martyrdom.

Before dying, Francis was told of five Franciscans martyred in Marrakesh and this seems to have cheered him up enormously.  I’m assuming the tableau below is those friars coming to their grisly end.