With the success of best-selling novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown and the subsequent movie, interest in the mysterious, medieval military group known as the Knights Templar has grown exponentially with many travel itineraries now planned around places associated with them.
One of the foremost of such places is the historic town of Tomar on the Nabao River in central Portugal in the heart of the Ribatejo wine growing region. Here stands the Convento San Cristo, a magnificent castle constructed in the 12th century by the legendary Templars and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Templar church of Santa Maria dos Olivais (Saint Maria of the Olives).
The question as to why the Templars erected such an extensive complex in this small town, is best answered by historical experts and knowledgeable tour guides there including England-born Peter Moore and Sylvia Anginotti. The couple, from Sheffield and former councilors, now spend much of the year living in the village of Casalinho just outside Tomar and have accrued much information about the Templars in running their tour company, Knights Templar Tours. Reflecting that interest, Anginotti, who graduated from Sheffield University in history, has produced a small booklet simply entitled ‘The Knights Templar of Tomar.’
She explained that the Templars emerged as a military group, an order of fighting monks, out of the Christian Crusades in the 11th century which were launched to recover Jerusalem from the Moors. It was founded by nine knights under the leadership of Hugh De Payne to keep the roads open and safe for pilgrims going to the Holy Land. and was given the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem as their headquarters.
After receiving the formal support of the Pope, they were given property in different countries and expanded in number. In Portugal, they were given land and buildings in the town of Braga which became the headquarters for the Order, but in 1160, under the leadership of the fourth Grand Master, Gualdim Pais, the knights began building a castle in Tomar, right on the border between the Christians and Moors.
In guiding us around the castle and its extensive grounds, Moore explained how it was besieged by the Moors for six days but that the knights managed to survive and hold the fortification. So respected is Pais for his exploits in extending Christianity and building castles to protect the lands he conquered from the Moors, a statute to him stands proudly in a town square of Tomar. His remains lie within the church of Santa Maria dos Olivais.
By the 14th century, however, the Templars had become even more powerful in Portugal and throughout Europe, so much so that the King of France, fearful of their power and in deep financial debt to them, decided to take action.
He invited the Grand Master Jacques de Molay to Paris under pretext of a festivity, then had him and other Knights arrested and put in prison and on mock trials accusing them of crimes including murder, rape and idolatry. As Anginotti explains in her book, “One of the Templars who had escaped tried to get an audience with Pope Clement the Fifth, but Clement refused to meet him.”
The Pope then abolished the Templars in 1312 and two years later on Friday the 13th (which is why today we still consider it an unlucky day) King Philip had Molay burned at the stake. Much of the Knights Templar Order’s riches and property were subsequently given to the Order of the Knight Hospitallers.
But some kings, queens and regional leaders of Europe did not obey the French King and the Pope, including King Dinis of Portugal, who protected them, pretending he had wiped them out but actually forming a new Order of Christ as a disguise.
Anginotti clams that due to their navigation skills, the Knights became deeply involved in the discoveries of ‘New Lands’ by the Portuguese, especially in the 15 century, with one member, Vasco De Gama, well-known for his adventures.
No-one knows with certainty today whether the Knights Templar continued its existence in different forms throughout the succeeding centuries until the present day, with some claiming that Freemasons are linked to them. There is also still widespread discussion as to whether the Knights Templar discovered an important secret in their excavations of the Temple of Solomon, including unearthing what is termed the ‘Holy Grail’ and the Arc of the Covenant. With its colorful frescoes, intriguing architecture, including Gothic, and knights’ use of mathematical numbers, perhaps the castle holds clues that might help reveal some hidden truths.
For those interested in history and particularly the legends and truths of this intriguing medieval military group, Tomar is a key place to visit and Peter Moore and Sylvia Anginotti important guides in that search.