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!
In the fourteenth century, the papacy moved out of Rome to France. Clement V was the first pope to be based in Avignon beginning the building of a palace that still dominates the city centre. It was Clement who would bend to the will of the King of France, Philip, and banned the Knights Templar. He was the pope who sent out orders to all the Christian rulers of Europe to round up the knights and seize their assets.
Clement’s immediate successors continued to reign from Avignon and enlarged the palace but by the end of the 1300s, the popes had returned to Rome. Gradually, the huge Gothic pile that had been erected began to decay. Decorations were ripped out and ornaments spirited away. The French revolution resulted in some damage inspired by anti-clericalism and then in the nineteenth century, the building became a barracks with a false floor installed.
Repairs were undertaken and some pseudo-Gothic additions, imaginings of what the palace would have looked like at its height. Regardless of all the indignities the palace has suffered, it is still a glorious sight today. I visited Avignon as well as nearby Arles and Nimes this year. Some images of the palace for you to view here.
I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.
I will be discussing:
The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
Did they reject church authority?
Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
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.
As we all know, on the fateful day of Friday the 13th in 1307 – the pope condemned the Knights Templar and orders went out to round up the masters and knights. King Philip IV of France pressured Pope Clement V in to banning the two hundred year old military order, which was already on the wane after failures in the crusades in the east. Jerusalem was lost to the Saracens forever along with most of the crusader kingdoms set up in the late eleventh century and twelfth century.
But the ban on the Order was not enthusiastically embraced everywhere outside of France. England seems to have dragged its feet and the tortures and executions that characterised the French suppression of the Templars were not present in other kingdoms. Portugal in particular seems to have felt a debt of gratitude to the Templars – had they not been in the vanguard of driving back the Moors, the muslim rulers of southern Portugal and Spain?
Portugal was also a smaller and less wealthy kingdom than France and probably more pragmatic in outlook. The Templars had been a wealthy Order operating across frontiers – so why not embrace all that talent (and money) in some way? King Dinis of Portugal set up a new state sponsored organisation called the Order of Christ and duly enrolled the old Templars in to it. Pope John XXII recognised the new order and it was eventually headquartered in Tomar – where the Templars had been based up to their suppression.
A hundred years later, its Grand Master would be a son of the then Portuguese king. This man was Henry the Navigator who would instigate two hundred years of Portuguese ‘discoveries’ from Brazil to India and give birth to a vast maritime empire. The cross of the Order of Christ would be emblazoned on the sails of the caravels that plied the seas from Goa to Salvador. It’s often been said that Portugal’s mastery of international trade and commerce in this period was in no small way due to the Templar spirit imbued within the Order of Christ.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, the revenues of the Order of Christ were huge. Four hundred and fifty commanderies oversaw annual revenues of a million and a half livres. The papacy often believed it had the right to appoint new members of the Order, a move resented by the Portuguese kings who insisted that the Order fell entirely under their control. Bizarrely, this dispute still rumbles on and on the Vatican website, the Holy See today indicates that it is reticent to appoint new members of the Order even though it would like to.
In other kingdoms, the estates of the Templars often transferred to the Hospitallers or in Spain, they went to the Order of Montesa.