I must confess to having known little to nothing about Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire until the announcement this month that it will be hosting an exhibition on the Knights Templar.
Why an exhibition here? Well, several knights were imprisoned down below in the dungeons of the castle after the order was crushed by order of Pope Clement. The English dragged their feet initially in suppressing the Templars but then got on with the job. The poor knights were rounded up, locked away and tortured to confess to various trumped up charges.
Intriguingly, the imprisoned Templars scrawled religious symbols on the walls – something they seemed to have done wherever they were imprisoned. For example, Gisors in France.
The dungeons were incredibly grim and disease ridden. Many of those incarcerated would have survived a matter of days and death might have been a sweet release. Food was basic and disgusting while the only drink would have been ale brewed in the castle. That at least might have eased your suffering.
Like many Norman castles, it started out as a wooden construction commissioned by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Later on, a stone fortress replaced the wood. As happened to quite a few medieval castles, it was partially demolished after the English Civil War in the 17th century to stop royalists threatening the newly founded republic of Oliver Cromwell.
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?
One of the greatest mysteries relating to the Knights Templar is whether the order discovered some form of treasure in Jerusalem that would offer an explanation for their fabulous wealth.
Nine knights at the start of the 12th century went to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and asked for permission to guard the roads in to the holy city to safeguard pilgrims. They wanted to form a new order that would combine militaristic valour with monastic discipline and piety. The Patriarch and secular authorities gave the knights the green light and so the Templars were launched.
They asked to be based in the Al Aqsa mosque, which they believed dated back to the reign of king Solomon – pre-dating the destruction of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. King Baldwin of Jerusalem agreed to them being based at this auspicious location. These crusaders were to become the knights of the Temple – the Templars.
In a very short period of time, they began to amass significant wealth. How was this achieved? There are several explanations. The nine knights themselves were well connected aristocrats plugged into a network of well-heeled supporters in the church and state. Bequests began to flood in from those looking to support the crusade in the Holy Land and hoping for divine favour in the afterlife.
As the Templars grew establishing preceptories across Europe, they created a complex financial and economic network to fund their activity in the Middle East. The order even developed the first banking cheques allowing knights to travel great distances without having to carry their wealth in chests. The Templars became money lenders to princes and ran an efficient farming enterprise. So is this where all their money came from?
Well, not according to sources down the centuries. In the 19th century, evidence emerged of excavations underneath the Al Aqsa mosque suggesting the Templars had been digging away for something. Of course, this gave rise to speculation that they had found some form of treasure – possibly the Holy Grail (with little agreement on what that actually is) – explaining their sudden leap in wealth.
As the crusades crumbled in the 13th century, the Templars were forced to abandon Jerusalem. The theory then goes that they hauled their treasure off to be stored in their most formidable and well guarded preceptory in Paris. This building with its thick walls still stood during the 1789 French revolution but was demolished in stages in the years that followed.
So did the Templars get their wealth out of Paris as their leaders were put on trial for heresy by king Philip the Fair of France – a monarch always short of money who fleeced the Templars, the church, the Jewish community and anybody else who could pay for his wars?
When the Templars were rounded up and arrested in 1307, some were imprisoned at the fortress of Gisors in France. Graffiti on the walls was said to include the image of a large cart carrying treasure away. A caretaker at Gisors in 1929 claimed to have found an underground chapel crammed with vast riches. However, when the local authorities turned up to investigate further, there was nothing at all. He was duly fired.
In the 1960s, the French culture minister Andre Malraux ordered a new dig at Gisors using the army instead of archaeologists. But even their heavy muscle failed to reveal a thing. There was no Templar treasure.
When King Philip of France – scourge of the Templars – sent his forces to raid the Templar headquarters in Paris in 1307, the cupboard was indeed bare. There’s no doubt there had been a great deal of loot within its walls because the king had seen it himself on a previous visit but now….nothing. Had the Templars under cover of night spirited away their treasure?
Some were convinced they had. So where did it go? One theory was that the surviving knights headed to the port of La Rochelle and took their ships, loaded with riches, to England and then on to Scotland. There, they helped the plucky Scots beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn – a claim the Scots dislike as it infers they couldn’t win their own battles!
There were already Templars in Scotland, dating back to the order’s earliest days. The knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney. In the late 14th century, the story runs that Sinclair and the knights used old Viking routes to sail to Iceland, Greenland and then to Vinland in modern Canada. There, they founded a kingdom that the native Iroquois referred to as Saguenay.
Stories of Saguenay and the Scottish connection were picked up by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries who duly reported back to the Vatican. One theory is that the 17th century French artist Poussin hints at knowledge of Templars in the New World in his painting Et in Arcadia Ego, also referred to as The Arcadian Shepherds.
I will explain this theory in more depth in another blog post.
Five years ago I blogged about a network of caves with a chapel of sorts where black magic rituals were being practised, causing concern to the local community and predictable interest for the media. The story has rumbled on and the satanists have continued to lower themselves down into the catacombs to do…well…whatever they do!
The accepted wisdom was that these caves were hewn out of the sandstone in the 17th century by people calling themselves Knights Templar but three centuries too late to be the real thing. But then along comes a local historian asserting that the Caynton caves are not a folly but a genuine Templar place of worship. It seems they do date back to the Middle Ages.
And there’s more. It appears that the last grand master of the order, Jacques de Molay, visited nearby and our local historian sees no reason why he wouldn’t have dropped by to pray in this sacred spot. De Molay went on to be put on trial by the king of France and burnt at the stake bringing the Knights Templar to a violent end in 1314.
You can read more about the recent local press coverage HERE.
Did the Knights Templar reach America? I hear a resounding “no” from medieval scholars everywhere but let’s go through the various theories about how the Templars may have been in the New World a century before Christopher Columbus.
Our starting point is the decision in October 1307 by the king of France, Philip the Fair, to round up every Knight Templar in his realm and put them on trial for heresy, idolatry, sodomy and corruption. Philip knew the Templars were astoundingly wealthy and he had big debts to pay. But when his men turned up at the Paris Temple, the order’s heavily fortified HQ, the cupboard was bare. Knights had fled with whatever treasure was behind those immense walls.
So where had they gone? It’s normally assumed they fled to La Rochelle – a port where the order kept a large fleet. This port is in south west France so the fleet then rounded the French coast past Brittany and on to England. From there, the Templars are said to have hugged the coastline until reaching Scotland. It is then asserted that they helped Robert the Bruce win his famous victory against the English at Bannockburn after which – some while later – the knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney.
This would have happened decades after the Templars were disbanded in 1307. The Sinclairs – or St Clairs – already had a Templar connection. In 1128, the second baron of Roslin, Henry St Clair, had met the founder of the Knights Templar, Hugh de Payens, when he visited Scotland to spread the word about the new order. Rosslyn chapel had not been built at this time by the way.
So – Henry Sinclair and the Templars embarked at the end of the fourteenth century in a fleet of ships bound for Iceland then past the declining communities in Greenland following old Viking routes. These would eventually lead them to Vinland, the fabled settlement established by the Vikings in the New World – roughly corresponding to Nova Scotia. It is claimed that the local Mi’kmaq Indians still tell tales of white-skinned people who came from lands over the seas in their folklore. Some of their art incorporates a red cross on a white background, as does their tribal emblem.
The most bizarre claim is that the Mi’kmaq worshipped Sinclair in the form of a god called Glooscap. This has been rubbished by one blogger who has researched the subject and believes that Glooscap was actually a giant in the form of a beaver. That would rather rule out Sinclair!
Why would the Templars have undertaken such a long and dangerous journey? Because they were running off with the treasure found under the Temple of Solomon and/or a bunch of precious relics plus alchemical secrets etc. Where is this fabulous wealth today? Somewhere in north America waiting to be discovered.
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.
On this very sad day, it’s worth remembering what a great historical city Paris is – and why it will endure. It was, after all, the de facto headquarters of the Knights Templar. In what is now the Marais district, there was once a huge preceptory run by the knights. They drained the marshy land, evidencing their ability to be industrious farmers as well as fearsome warriors. This was in the first half of the 12th century, the first decades of the Order’s existence.
Eventually, they threw up a monumental tower complex that lasted into the nineteenth century. It took many years to tear it down. This impregnable building was used during the French Revolution – long after the Templars had disappeared – to imprison King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, prior to their execution on the guillotine. Napoleon had it demolished in all likelihood over fears that royalists would turn the fortress into a pilgrimage site for their late monarch.
As you all know, it was a French king – resident in Paris needless to say – who decided in 1306 to move against the Templars with a compliant Pope in his pocket. Philip the Fair had noted the wealth contained in the mighty fortress and figured it would serve him better if it was moved to his treasury. In order to do that, Philip had to crush the Templars. The leaders of the Order were arrested, tortured and the last Grand Master – Jacques de Molay – were burned to death on a small island in the Seine.