Everyone likes a good conspiracy theory, so I thought we’d start off with some fun. In 1982, a ‘non-fiction’ book was published with the title The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
The three co-authors argued that the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend was not an actual drinking vessel. Instead, it signifies the body of Mary Magdalen, and the bloodline of the children she had with her husband, who was – Jesus. After the crucifixion, Mary apparently escaped to the south of France. She lived the rest of her life there in anonymity with their children.
According to the story, the children thrived and multiplied. Many of their descendents eventually married into the French Merovingian dynasty, later monarchs of France. Holy Blood says there are people alive today who can claim to be sharers of the bloodline of Jesus Christ.
However, so their story goes, the Catholic church vehemently opposed the idea that Jesus had enjoyed a normal married life. It directly contradicted the idea of celibacy within the Roman Catholic priesthood. More importantly, a descendent of Jesus could very well – with popular backing – claim the position of pope, sweeping away the church’s hierarchy.
So, over the centuries the church brutally suppressed the idea that Jesus had married. They hunted down and killed descendents of Jesus, and stamped on any heretical suggestions of their existence, with church-sanctioned burnings, murders and massacres.
In order to protect the offspring of Jesus and Mary from the malevolent intentions of the church, a group of nobles set up a secret society, called the Priory of Sion. Their task: to protect ‘descendents’ of Jesus over the centuries, and ensure the bloodline continued. Members of the society included, allegedly, luminaries such as Isaac Newton and – yes, you’ve got it – Leonardo Da Vinci.
A pan-European state
The military strength of the society was provided by two monastic military orders – the Cathars and the Knights Templar. These two orders later came under the baleful eye of the Catholic church, and were in turn brutally suppressed. But, according to the book’s authors, the Priory of Sion still continues their secret work to this day. They aim to restore a Merovingian monarch to the throne of France, choosing a person with the precious bloodline. Also, to establish a pan-European state, with the Merovingian monarch as its head. (They must have been seriously perplexed when Brexit scuppered these plans!).
Author Dan Brown loved the premise of the book so much, he appropriated much of the plot and crafted it into the best seller The Da Vinci Code. He was sued by the Holy Blood co-authors for plagiarism, but they lost the case. Part of the problem was that sales of their own book increased dramatically, following the publication of Brown’s. Mmm, hard to argue financial damage…
Phew, what a story! The year of publication, I spent an idyllic summer holiday in the south of France, reading it voraciously. But it’s only a story, of course. Holy Blood offers no hard evidence, just a whole volume of sensationalist innuendo, conjecture and assumption. The lack of evidence was not a problem to the writers. One actually said:
“it is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts.”
This particular amateur historian turned pale with shock at that.
But the book, for all its historical fudging, does offer us the excuse to look a bit closer at the Knights Templar. Those much misunderstood mythical bruisers might be the fantasy baddies of Assassin’s Creed, as my gamer son informs me. But they were also very much a historical reality. And they were very much part of British medieval society – with the evidence of their presence still here to see – hence this post.
The order arose across Europe, because of the crusades. Once the forces of Christendom captured Jerusalem from Islamic forces in around 1099, pilgrims started to travel there on a long and dangerous return trip. The whole area of ‘Outre Mer’ (which means, beyond the sea – the Mediterranean) was politically unstable, dangerous and always open to attack from enemy forces.
So, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (the Templars for short) was created in 1139, as a military monastic order, with the aim of protecting pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. They took their name from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. They were indeed poor to start with, and celebrated their poverty with their symbol of two impoverished knights riding on the one horse.
They established outposts of their order all over “Outre-Mer” and Europe, including Britain – and that’s when their wealth started to increase dramatically. First, they benefited from some really good positive spin by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order. (His nephew had helped set up the order, as luck would have it). This endorsement attracted wealthy benefactors.
Letters of Credit
And then, its network of international outposts really started to pay off. When a prospective pilgrim was about to undertake the dangerous journey to the Holy Land, they would need a great deal of money, but would be reluctant to travel with gold. So, they would approach their local Templar branch and ask for a ‘letter of credit’. They’d deposit gold with the Templars, who would then, for a fee, give them a promissory note. After the long journey east, this could be redeemed at the headquarters of the Templars in Jerusalem. An early form of travellers’ cheques!
So, the Templars have a claim to be the first commercial, international bankers, a couple of hundred years before the Lombards of northern Italy set up shop doing the same thing, in Lombard Street, in the City of London. One economist stated that, with its medieval cross-border outposts, the Templars can justly claim to be the world’s first multinational corporation.
They raked in management fees too. Many wealthy pilgrims left their assets in the care of the Templars, for the duration of their journey, to be profitably managed – so, they were the earliest fund managers too. As their wealth increased, they invested in real estate, bought farms and fleets, built castles, and went into the business of lending. They must have had some canny financial brains in-house.
The end of the road
They were disbanded in 1312 – finally suppressed by Pope Clement because of their heretical secret purpose (if you believe The Holy Blood ). But in truth, the Holy Land had succumbed to the forces of Islam, and so the pilgrimages had stopped. Their protection services were no longer required. And, more to the point, they had seriously antagonised Philip IV of France, who put pressure on Clement. Philip owed eye-watering amounts of loans to the Templars, and so he saw an easy way out of his troubles. No mystery there.
Temples and Tubes
For the two hundred years or so of their existence, their industry and enterprise resulted in the places you can still find today as their legacy. Templar sites are scattered over Britain. You can often identify them by place names: Temple Newsam in Leeds, Temple Hirst in Yorkshire, Temple Cloud in Somerset, and a dozen or so others – their churches and chapels were invariably called temples. East-Enders reading this post may be surprised to hear that Temple Mills in Stratford, the site of the 2012 Olympics, were mills on the river Lea owned by the Templars, to grind the corn grown on their estates on Hackney Marshes.
And what about Temple Station on the Circle and District Line, on the London Underground? It takes its name from the Templar church, a stone’s throw away, in the Inns of Court. You’ll know the church, if you’ve seen the film version of the Da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks ran around the tombs of the Templar crusaders, in a quite spooky scene. You can still visit the church and tombs, (lock-down permitting), and pair it with an amble through the Inns of Court.
Talking of which: of course, two of the four inns – Inner Temple and Middle Temple – take their names from their premises near Temple church. The lawyers rented the premises from the landlords – the Templars.
There’s an even more mysterious Templar church, in Royston, Hertfordshire. In the 1740s, a workman accidentally stumbled upon a hidden underground Templar church. It was built within a cave, and has some very strange wall carvings of saints and knights. There’s no written evidence, but local rumour says that it was built during the period of Templar persecution, so they could worship there safely in secret. That’s possible, but arguing against that idea, the persecution of the Templars was never as fierce and violent here as in continental Europe. It’s another mystery.
There’s no doubt Royston Cave looks like a good place for the budding historian to visit. And if you’re a hunter of ley lines, following my recent post: the Michael and Mary ley lines cross bang in the centre of the Royston cave! Ley hunters warn that you might feel a distinct buzz at that spot.
Wheat and Barley
But I’ll finish with the impressive Templar building which was the main trigger for me to research this post. Two buildings, actually – the two timber storage barns at Cressing Temple, in Essex. They are the oldest timber-framed barns in the world, built in the 1200s. The barns stored grain grown on the Templar’s massive farm estates at Cressing. One barn was for barley and one for wheat. The land had been given to the Templars by King Stephen’s wife, Matilda, in the 1100s, and the Templars soon became one of the biggest landowners in the area.
It was a massive estate of over 1400 acres, with windmills, dovecotes, fishponds and a bakehouse and brewery. But the crowning glory were the grain barns. Inside, they are like wooden cathedrals. I idled away an idyllic summer’s afternoon in one, at a folk festival, before this current madness. Gazing up, camera in hand, I wondered how on earth those medieval builders managed to construct the giant wooden frames of the barns, without modern tools.
Learning the ropes
And I found the answer – ropes, knots and simple geometry. You take two ropes, and fold them in half. You tie a knot at their midpoints. Now, lay rope A out, and put one end of rope B at one end of rope A. Make an arc. Now do the same at the other end of rope A. From where the two arcs cross, lay a rope down to the midpoint knot in rope A. You’ve now got a perfect right angle! You can now construct your first wooden strut, following the lines of the ropes, or the marks in the ground that you’ve made next to them.
No more complicated than the geometry we’ve all done at school, with a set of compasses. But so effective! Do go and visit Cressing Temple, if you’re in that area of Essex. It’s an interesting day out and brings home to you that not all wonders of architecture are built from stone.
Hiding in plain sight
The legacy of the Templars in this country is of course in the place names, and in the churches and other buildings that still stand. But there are other clues, besides lurid conspiracy theories in fictional thrillers, and fantasy computer games.
The red cross on a white background, the battle dress of the Templars representing martyrdom, of course, became the cross of Saint George and then of England.
But the Templars live on here in another guise. When they were disbanded in England, their assets were transferred to the rival Order of the Hospital of Saint John, and many Templars moved over to this order. The Hospitallers prevailed through the centuries in England, and eventually became an official order of chivalry, created by Queen Victoria. You’ll recognise one of their most famous institutions, founded in 1887: the Saint John’s Ambulance Brigade.