The Knights of the Temple and the Quest for the Holy Grail


In the course of the three centuries after the conquests of Charlemagne, the frontiers of Christendom had greatly expanded. Moravia, Bulgaria, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and Kievan Rus were converted to Christianity either in Latin or Byzantine rite and steadily the new faith made its way to Scandinavia. By then, the Greek Church in Constantinople in Byzantium and Latin Church in Rome had developed distinct liturgy and worship practices and started to vie for supremacy in the Christian world. In 1054, German Pope Leo IX, a cousin of the German Emperor, Conrad II, had dispatched his chief adviser Humbert to Constantinople and ordered him to obtain confirmation of his claims to papal supremacy. When Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, refused to recognise the legate's powers, Humbert entered Haga Sophia church in Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern patriarch, and placed a papal bull of excommunication on the high altar. And thus “One, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, split. From 1054 onwards there were two churches, Roman Catholic Church in the West and Eastern Orthodox Church in the East. To make matters worse, the Byzantine Empire began to be seriously threatened by the Muslim expansion. In the ten century, the Turkic Tribes that migrated from Central Eurasia converted to the Sunni form of Islam under their chieftain Seljuk and started to conquer new territories. Around 1040, the Seljuk Turks successfully conquered Syria and Mesopotamia with Baghdad, and started to vie for power with the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. The Turks, unlike the Arabs, did not tolerate Christians pilgrims in the Holy Land. On Good Friday, 1065, Seljuk Turks massacred 12,000 German pilgrims, which shocked the Christian community in Europe. Then, in 1071, at the battle near Manzikert (in present-day eastern Turkey), the Turks massacred the huge Byzantine army capturing the Byzantine Emperor Romanus Dogenes and taking Nicaea (present-day Iznik in Turkey), one of the most important cities of the Byzantine Empire. When in 1081, Alexius I Commenus was crowned the new emperor in Constantinople, he pleaded with the Pope Urban II to help him to repeal the Muslim invaders. For the Pope this was a plea that could not be dismissed. Both the sacred Christian places and the Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land needed to be protected by all means. Additionally, if the crusade was successful, it would allow the Pope to extend its Christian control over Byzantium and acknowledge His supremacy. It could also bring riches to the participating knights and reopen the ancient trading routes, revitalizing trade. But the cities in the East were not only associated with material riches. These cities, with their vast libraries, were the reservoir of ancient cultural and scientific knowledge that fascinated Europeans. Thus, in November 1095, Pope Urban II convened the Council of Clermont where he called upon the knights of Christendom to take up arms and push back the conquests of Islam. He held out to the Christian knights the promise of land, remission of sins and eternity in paradise and distributed Red crosses to those who promised to join campaign. After taking their vows, individual sewed the red crosses on the left shoulders of their surcoats, as a symbol of their mission and protection of the Church.27

In April 1096, a band of peasants and low-ranking knights prompted by drought, famine, and disease set off to Jerusalem led by a powerful monk and orator, Peter the Hermit. The crusaders ravaged the countries they marched – Bohemia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Byzantium and committed the first major pogrom of Jews in Europe killing up to 8,000 Jews in their progress through the Rhineland as revenge for crucifying Christ, and for their money-lending practises.28 In August, an army of knights led by the three brothers of Merovingian bloodline,29 baron Godfroi de Bouillon, Count of Toulouse, Baudoin de Boulogne and Eusatce III (sons of Eustace, Count of Boulogne), left the fields of Lorraine and Flanders reaching Constantinople by November joining other armies that were marching from other parts of Europe. Among the leading crusaders were Hugues de Varmandois, son of the king of France Henry I from the House of Capet; Count Raymond de Toulouse who headed a band of volunteers from Provence; William the Conqueror's eldest son Robert of Normandy and his relatives, Stephen II, Count of Blois; Robert II, Count of Flandres; and Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, a state in southern Italy. Byzantine Emperor Alexius was appalled by the arrival of mass of unruly men of whom only about a quarter were nobles or knights. As some of the men started to pillage Constantinople, he made their leaders swear an oath that they would “restore to the Empire whatever towns, countries and or forts they took which had formerly belonged to it”.30 The following year, the crusaders marched on Turkish-held Nicaea and captured the city within five weeks of laying siege. Then, they defeated a massive army of Seljuk Turks at Dorylaeum and marched on to Antioch (present-day Antakya in southern Turkey), previously a Byzantine stronghold. Arriving at the city on October 20, 1097, the crusaders blockaded the main gates to cut off the Turkish relief forces from getting through, but Antioch was so large that it stayed partially supplied. The siege of the city lasted almost eight months and in that period the crusaders led by Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, managed to defeat several large relief armies. Eventually, Bohemond made a deal with one of the commanders of the city wall, who allowed the crusaders to infiltrate and ultimately capture the city in June 1098. In an orgy of killing, the crusaders massacred thousands of enemy soldiers and citizens. However, only a few days later the Muslims arrived, laying siege to the former besiegers. According to Raymond D'Aguilers, the chronicler of the First Crusade, it was at this point that a monk named Peter Bartholomew claimed to have discovered, beneath the high altar in St Peter's Cathedral in Antioch, a Christian relict - the Holy Lance - with which Roman soldier Longinus pierced the side of Christ.31 The discovery, whether hoax or not, boosted crusaders' morale. Bohemond took the initiative in his strategy to leave the city and attack the Turkish forces, leading to a victory for the crusaders. He subsequently set himself as Prince of Antioch, in breach of the oath to Alexios, whilst other crusaders moved south, towards Jerusalem. In Syria, the crusaders caught up with the remnants of the people's crusade, including Peter the Hermit. Whilst Henry I returned to France, Godfroi de Bouillon, Raymond de Toulouse and others marched on. In June 1099, the crusaders arrived at the ancient city of Jerusalem. The city had outside walls and defences that were almost impregnable. With reduced troops and limited supplies, the crusaders had little chance to conquer it. Yet on June 17, a party of Genoese mariners under Guglielmo Embriaco arrived at Jaffa port and provided the Crusaders with skilled engineers and perhaps more critically, supplies of timber (stripped from the ships) to build siege engines.32 The final assault on Jerusalem began on July 13; Raymond's troops attacked the south gate while the other contingents attacked the northern wall. On July 15, a final push was launched at both ends of the city and eventually the inner rampart of the northern wall was captured. In the ensuing panic, the defenders abandoned the walls of the city at both ends, allowing the crusaders to pour in.33 What followed was a mass slaughter of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem.

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27 On the concept of the crusades see: Carl Erdmann, The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (Princeton, NJ, 1977) »

28 Further reading: Robert Chazan, European Jewry and the First Crusade (U. of California Press, 1996), pp. 55–60, 127; Christopher Tyerman. God's War: A New History of the Crusades (Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 100; Israel Jacob Yuval Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (University of California Press, 2008), p. 186; Hugo Slim. Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War (Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 47; Gerd Althoff and others (ed.), Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography (Cambridge University Press, 2002), chapter 13, The Rhineland massacres of Jews in the First Crusade; »

29 Michael Baignet, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York, Bantam Dell, 1982), p. 107 »

30 S.J. Hodge, Secrets of the Knights Templar (Quercus), p. 22 »

31 Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam (Oxford, 2004), pp. 163-187 »

32 Christoper Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge:Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 153-157 »

33 Ibid., pp. 157-159 »