Treasure of the Knights Templar

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.

Temple-of-Solomon
Baldwin lets the Tempars base themselves at the Al Aqsa mosque – the temple of Solomon

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.

Nicolas_Poussin_-_Et_in_Arcadia_ego_(deuxième_version)
Is this painting trying to tell us something about the Templars?

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.

 

Advertisements

Some more movies set in the Middle Ages

With an emphasis on some non-Hollywood movies this time – you may recall I did a top ten of medieval flicks before. I named some obvious classics but here’s some you may not have heard of. For example, the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made an epic about the Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, telling the story of how he repelled the Teutonic Knights – an order similar in many ways to the Templars. The film was released in 1938 and students of history will appreciate that Nevsky, the Russian hero, might have been intended to be Stalin while the evil Teutonic Knights could have been Nazi Germany.

You may have seen later versions of the story of Joan of Arc – the French heroine – but this 1928 silent French film is extremely potent and strangely modern. The actress has an incredibly expressive face.

Turning to Hollywood for a moment, there is a movie you may be unfamiliar with by Cecil B Demille whose movies were always on an epic scale and The Crusades was no different. The only problem – it was about as factual as Fox News. The Crusades invents some bunkum about Richard the Lionheart going on crusade to avoid an unwanted marriage and the woman he does get hitched to ends up being kidnapped by Saladin. None of that happened. Here is the Siege of Acre (which did happen).

Here’s a crusade you may not know much about – the attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor to stamp out the Hussite heresy in what’s now the Czech Republic. At the Battle of Vitkov Hill, a crusader army was beaten by the Hussites in a surprise defeat. This 1956 communist era movie captures that moment in technicolor.

Rutger Hauer playing the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, may not have lived up to its promise. Barbarossa was a Christian king who took a vast German army across what is now Turkey and posed a fatal threat to Saladin. Unfortunately and pretty inexplicably – he managed to get himself drowned in a river. His army then melted away – only 5,000 men making it to Acre. Here is Rutger trying on the role.

 

Pagans in Europe who refused to convert

Just how long did it take for Europe to become wholly Christian?  Well the answer is – a lot longer than you think.  In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire but at that time, it’s estimated only ten per cent of Romans were Christian.  Once the imperial household had adopted the new religion, plenty of Romans saw it as good politics to climb on board.  But there came a point when even evangelizing in market squares, big donations to the church, tax breaks for priests, career opportunities for the ambitious, etc reached the limit of what it could do to convert everybody.  So….coercion was adopted as a method.  With the emperor Theodosius we see the full use of the Roman state brought to bear to make everybody Christian – and that being the Catholic version of Christianity, not the Arian or Nestorian or any other heresy that sprung up in this period.

So – done deal.  Everybody Christian then?  No.  The historian and Yale professor Ramsay MacMullen has written brilliantly on the subject of how the Roman Empire struggled to bring everybody on board. Pagans resisted at all levels of society including the aristocracy. Many found Christianity intellectually vapid while others held on to the old gods that they believed had given them glory and good fortune in the past.

But surely by the early Middle Ages – centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire –  the crucifix was accepted all over Europe?  Again the answer is negative.  Both Rome and Constantinople – with their differing versions of Christianity – rushed to convert northern Europeans who still rejected Christ.  The old Viking religions succumbed to the sway of the Pope and the eastern Christians, backed by the Byzantines, penetrated deep in to eastern Europe and Russia.

Two movies reveal how royal rulers adopted Christianity quite late on in Europe and how persistent old religions were.  In Army of Valhalla – we see pagan Vikings and pagan Polish tribes fighting in the ninth century – two/three hundred years after England had been re-converted to Christianity, having first adopted it in the fourth century under Roman rule.  We are told at the end of the movie that Poland eventually became Christian…Catholic to be precise.

Iron Lord is a Russian movie that deals much more explicitly with Christian conversion in Russia as a the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being espoused by the Byzantine empire.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.   The motivation of those neighboring kingdoms for wanting to convert these people is of course entirely suspect – they coveted their lands – but converted they were and to a large extent destroyed as a culture.  The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust.

However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.  Here is a Russian advert for crisps which explains what might have happened.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody went willingly.