Winter is coming – but courtesy of the History Channel, it will be a Templar winter. Forget the dragons and white walkers, give me the Knights Templar any day of the week. Here is the trailer for the series you must not miss this fall. Or autumn for my British followers!
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:
SPOILER FREE! I’m not going to give away one tiny morsel of the thrilling documentary on the Templars that the History Channel is planning to accompany its Templar drama series Knightfall – coming out in the autumn.
Forget Game of Thrones – that was fiction! Knightfall and other content on the Templars coming your way will be about brave knights who really existed. Winter is indeed coming. But it’s a Templar winter for us – not a Targaryen one!
I had the honour and pleasure of filming with the History Channel team in Tomar, central Portugal just three weeks ago. This is a historic town dominated by a Templar castle.
It was once the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe about 800 years ago. On top of a hill, the Templar castle stares solemnly down at the small town. Within its walls is an eight sided chapel modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It also may borrow from the shape of the Dome of the Rock, another sacred site in Jerusalem, which at the time Tomar was built – from 1160 – was under crusader control. The Dome of the Rock had been shut down as a mosque and consecrated as a Christian church, the Templum Domini. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, was what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. That had been taken over by the Knights Templar as their global headquarters as it was believed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon.
But enough of Jerusalem – back to Portugal!
While Jerusalem was the front line between Christianity and Islam in the east, Tomar was the front line between the two faiths in the west. A Muslim caliphate had ruled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Now a huge reconquest by Templars, crusaders and Christian kings was underway. The Templars used Tomar as their base of operations. In 1190, it even came under direct attack from a vast army that stormed out of Morocco determined to crush the knights once and for all.
But what is underneath Tomar? For decades, rumours have swirled of secret tunnels that may have been used for initiation rituals or for storing treasure the Templars brought back from Jerusalem via Cyprus and the Paris temple. Here are some of the old books I’ve used in my research on Tomar – often picked up in Lisbon bookstores and street markets.
The theory is that one tunnel links the Templar castle to their church and mausoleum of Santa Maria Olival. That church was built at a surprisingly remote location very vulnerable to Muslim attack. It housed the bodies of Templar grand masters of Portugal. It’s believed to have been built on top of an earlier Benedictine monastery after those monks fled in the face of Muslim armies in the eighth century. That monastery in turn may have been constructed atop a Roman temple and even earlier pagan places of worship.
The Templar castle on the hill is also slap bang on top of Roman and Moorish (Muslim) remains and you can see a stone from a Roman altar embedded in its medieval walls.
Tomar became a place of safety for the Templars when in 1307, the rest of Europe turned against them. Led by the French king and the papacy, there was a movement to crush the Knights Templar forever.
But the Portuguese did not forget that the Templars had fought bravely against Muslim warriors and so they let them continue at Tomar though under a new name – the Order of Christ. The Portuguese king – Dinis – protected them and allowed the knights to continue to serve the kingdom.
The question remains though – when the Templars retreated to Tomar, did they bring their wealth with them? Did that wealth include sacred items from Jerusalem that might have included something we term today as the Holy Grail?
The Order of Christ would play a leading role in Portugal’s voyages of discovery around the world. The ships that rook the great discoverers to Brazil, India and South Africa bore the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ – and the Templars – on their sails. Why? Did the Order of Christ possess knowledge that the Portuguese could ill afford to do without?
I’m half-Portuguese myself. I’m always pleased to see how bright Jewish people were able to contribute to Portugal for far longer than in other countries. Many, posing as “New Christian” converts, would be at the forefront of the discoveries and scientific and artistic accomplishments that were a hallmark of that period.
But there was also the Order of Christ – that emerged from another persecuted group of people, the Templars. Was it Templars and Jews together who led Portugal to its period of greatness? More on the role of Portugal in the Templar story in subsequent blog posts. Your comments welcome as ever!
I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.
I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.
I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.
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.