Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Knights Templar Conspiracy: the secrets on the wall...


Everyone likes a good conspiracy theory don't they. Everything from 'Who really shot President Kennedy' and 'Area 51', to 'Richard III and the Princes in the Tower' and 'Why the Marathon bar was really re-named Snickers'. There's simply no getting away from it. People love a good mystery; the idea that there is a 'real' and 'hidden history' to which only a few worthy types know THE TRUTH. I suppose it fits rather nicely with mankind's general paranoia; that because we rarely understand everything that is going on in the world about us, that there must be something that is being deliberately kept from us. Some great secret that, if only we could hunt down the clues, might help us understand what is REALLY going on. That there are mysterious and shadowy organisations out there, hidden from the rest of humanity, that have for centuries been quietly pulling all the strings - steering the world in the direction that the 'Secret Masters' have mapped out for us all.

Well, when it comes to medieval studies there really isn't a more enduring and popular conspiracy theory than that concerning the Knights Templar. According to 'received wisdom' (the general term applied to something for which there is no evidence - but which will sell paperbacks by the tens of thousands) the Templars were a shadowy military order whose mysterious rise to power and subsequent downfall has been linked to everything from the Holy Grail to the hidden bloodline of Christ (which, according to some works are actually one and the same thing). According to some theories they were the guardians of a 'great treasure' of 'great secret', that they had found something in the remains of Solomon's Temple that allowed them to blackmail the Pope and hold the whole Catholic Church to ransom. That they, the military arms of the Church, were the true rulers of the Christian Middle Ages. The most enduring of all the conspiracy theories concerning the Templars is that they themselves actually endured; that after their order had been disbanded and destroyed elements of the order remained in hiding, carrying on their secret work down through the centuries. Protecting their great secret until the time of revelation is upon us...

Interestingly the shadowy presence of the Knights Templar has also wormed its way into the study of medieval graffiti inscriptions. At any one time there will be half a dozen dedicated souls out looking at the medieval churches of England looking for the 'hidden signs' left behind by the Templars - and what could be better than to discover hidden graffiti on the walls; messages that have been seen by no one for centuries? As a result you'll be amazed (or not) at the number of messages I receive from individuals who claim to have either found these secret messages of the Templar, or who want to point out that some of the graffiti WE have been finding was undoubtedly the work of the Templars. That the inscriptions were secret messages left by the Templars for those that came after them, leading them one step closer to discovery of this 'great secret'. Sadly, it appears that nothing I can say or do, that no hard evidence presented before them, will deter them from this view. Indeed, by arguing against their view, WE become part of the conspiracy - part of the mysterious organisation(s) designed to keep people from THE TRUTH! We're probably responsible for that whole Marathon/Snickers thing too...

The problem with medieval graffiti though is that there are some sites that simply ASK to have conspiracy theories woven into their very fabric. Royston Cave in Hertfordshire is one such site and it is here that the ideas/theories/conspiracies of Knights Templar graffiti has really found its greatest flowering. The cave was discovered by accident in the middle of the eighteenth century beneath the town of Royston itself. It was carved out of the soft local chalk and is actually rather small, being only about three metres in diameter. When discovered it was found that just about every wall surface in the cave had been craved and inscribed with symbols, motifs and images - many of which were clearly medieval in origin. However, at the time none of the local antiquarians had ever seen anything quite like it. They had no idea what function the cave had originally served, although some speculated that it might have been a chapel, and no idea at exactly what date it had been made - and by whom. It was a complete mystery; and eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarians, when faced with a medieval mystery, always had one idea to fall-back upon - the Knights Templar!

And so it began. The association between the Templars and Royston cave. It has been described as a hidden Templar chapel, and secret meeting place for members of the order and a secret chamber in which the English Templars would keep their great treasury - and their own secrets. Even today crowds of Templar enthusiasts visit the site - trying to decipher the hidden meaning on the walls...

Right, well here's the thing chaps - and you probably aren't going to like this one little bit - but the carvings at Royston cave aren't unique. In fact, except in terms of quantity, they aren't even very unusual - and they certainly have absolutely nothing to do with the Knight Templars. Sorry! You see, the thing is, we come across carvings and graffiti like the ones in the cave absolutely all the time. The symbols and motifs are EXACTLY what we would expect to find in any late medieval chapel, and those at Royston are most probably just that - late fourteenth or fifteenth century - centuries after the disbanding of the Templars. Indeed, if you look at the medieval chapel that survives in Norwich castle, or the passageway to the chapel at Carlisle Castle, you will find exactly the same thing - and I do mean 'exactly'. "Ah.. castles", I hear the conspiracy theorists whisper, "castles where knights would be...". It isn't just castles where such graffiti is to be found either. Cathedrals and parish churches across England are crammed full of just such inscriptions; St Catherine and her wheel, scenes of the crucifixion and images of swords, shield and daggers are scattered across the medieval stonework. All of these inscriptions, as far as my studies have made clear, were created by the  everyday folk of the medieval parish. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge (and I'd love to be proved wrong on this) there isn't a single piece of medieval graffiti in this country that can be positively identified as being Templar in origin.

Sorry. But there it is. There is no hidden message from the Templars scratched into the walls of our churches. And why would there be? By the time of the great rebuilding of many of our East Anglian churches the Templars had been gone for centuries. And what message would they want to leave behind anyway? Seriously? Would members of one of the richest and most prestigious military orders in medieval history really scratch hidden messages into the walls, leaving details of their 'secret dealings', just so that they can be rediscovered centuries later by a bunch of conspiracy theorists? And let's be honest here. I don't know about you, but I suspect that if there really are 'Secret Masters' out there, shadowy organisations of illuminati, then they are pretty unlikely to have their own websites and facebook groups are they? Tell you what, you can decide on that one...

Here's the thing though. The walls of our churches ARE full of hidden messages. The do conceal great mysteries and many of them haven't been seen for centuries. However, rather than being the mysteries of long lost knights and crusaders bent on world domination, they are the everyday mysteries of medieval faith and belief. They are the mysteries of life, love, marriage and death in the medieval parish; the mysteries of people dreams, hopes and fears. For me, wandering the stunning medieval churches of eastern England, that is more than enough of a mystery...

 

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