According to one of Umberto Eco’s characters in Foucoult’s Pendulum, a lunatic can be recognised “by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars…There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious”. Judging by the results of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code the world seems to have a surfeit of lunatics.
If the spawning of numerous wild and bizarrely popular conspiracy theories about these medieval warrior-monks wasn’t started by Dan Brown; the massive (and frequently unhealthy) surge in interest about the Knights Templar in recent times is his responsibility. Conspiracy theories abound and the Templars have been given an aura of mystery out of all proportion to the reality.
Tomar, an hour drive north east of Lisbon, was one of the great strongholds of the Knights Templar, we decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give the Templars their official title, played a critical role in Portugal’s history. They were the shock troops of the Reconquista when Portugal was being reclaimed from the Moors in the 12th Century; later, their vast wealth would help bankroll Portugal’s maritime expansion during the Age of Discoveries.
Built in 1160, the Templar fortress of the Convent of the Order of Christ or Convento de Cristo is a massive and extraordinary place. Perched high on a steep hill, the whole site is surrounded by huge defensive walls. At the heart of the whole complex is the truly magnificent sixteen sided Charola, the beautifully ornate Templar church based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Elsewhere there are endless corridors of cloisters, roof terraces, gardens, a huge dining room and kitchens, store rooms with vast jars of cooking oil, shady quadrangles, ornate tiles and stone carvings and a wonderful aqueduct. You could spend days wandering around the Convento de Cristo and still find things you hadn’t spotted previously. It is an amazing place to wander and wonder on the history that these buildings have seen.
The Templars were founded in 1118 in Jerusalem. Their name derived from their rooms in the palace of King Baldwin II on the Temple Mount in what was believed to have been the Temple of Solomon. Making vows of poverty didn’t stop the Templars accumulating vast wealth and power, including owning the island of Cyprus. Soon they were wealthier than most European monarchs and increasingly viewed with suspicion and envy.
When their fall came it came hard. Initiated by King Philip IV of France, and supported by the supine and cowardly Pope Clement V, numerous false charges were levelled at the Templars. Thousands were arrested and tortured to get the confessions needed to destroy their power and appropriate their wealth. Clement V officially disbanded the Templars in 1312 but not before hundreds had been murdered on trumped up charges.
That might have been the end of the Templar tale in Portugal except that the Portuguese monarch, King Denis, cunningly reestablished them in 1317 as the Order of Christ. This time they were under royal control and the wisdom of Denis’s decision soon became clear. The vast wealth of the Templars was used to fund early Portuguese explorations during the reign of Henry the Navigator, giving rise to the Portuguese Golden Age.
The rest, as they say, is history…and what a history.