Below are some of the key stories associated with the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar. I won’t pass judgement on some of the tales. I’ll leave you to decide what you think is true and what is false.
So here goes!
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE HOLY GRAIL?
There are different theories.
One is that it was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper where the first communion was performed. Christ invited his disciples to share in his blood, the blood of the new and everlasting sacrament. Catholics to this day believe that the wine held up by the priest during Mass becomes the literal blood of Jesus.
While the cup at the Last Supper held wine, it was later used at the crucifixion to receive blood flowing from the lance wound to Christ’s side. Although, there are depictions of the blood being collected in a shallow bowl by somebody sitting at Christ’s feet.
A central figure in this story of the Grail and the crucifixion is Joseph of Arimathea. He is described as the great uncle of Jesus and collected the blood of his grand-nephew while he hung on the cross. Joseph was apparently quite well off and paid for the tomb in which Jesus was placed. He got permission from Pontius Pilate to do this as traitors and rebels would normally have been left exposed to rot as an example to others. It’s Joseph and a man called Nicodemus who wrap the body of Christ in a linen shroud that turns up as a holy relic several times in the centuries that follow.
Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders that had condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion. For conniving behind their back, the elders put Joseph in a sealed tomb, similar to the one he had bought for the body of Jesus. But the Grail produced food and water every morning for Joseph allowing him to survive this ordeal. This story is covered in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which is not in our bible today.
Having survived his incarceration, Joseph of Arimathea travelled to England where he lived at Ynys Witrin, which is often reputed to be Glastonbury. The name Ynys Witrin meant Island of Glass in Celtic. Glastonbury is on a hill surrounded by fertile low lying farm land. That farm land was under water in the Dark Ages and so Glastonbury was effectively an island. Hence the Celtic name. The area is also referred to in some chronicles as Avalon, a sacred site where King Arthur was brought after a battle to be healed and from where his famous sword originated.
Joseph was accompanied by the Grail of course. One account has him hiding the Grail – in the form of two vials containing respectively the blood and sweat of Jesus – in a well now called the Chalice Well. Or it was taken to a place called Corbenic and guarded in an impressive castle by the Grail Kings, descended from Joseph’s daughter Anna and her husband Brons. Corbenic is mentioned in the 15th century account of King Arthur’s Grail quest, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
Some stories claimed that Joseph paid a much earlier visit to England with the teenage Jesus. It’s alleged that the youthful Messiah and his great uncle visited St Just in Roseland and St Michael’s Mount on their journey. Some accounts have Joseph and Jesus becoming miners or Joseph as a merchant buying Cornish tin. More plausibly, Joseph is said to have been one of the first Christian missionaries sent to Britain, possibly by Philip.
HOW DOES KING ARTHUR GET INVOLVED?
Who was King Arthur? What was his association with the Holy Grail? These are two key questions on our Templar Grail Quest.
Arthur is perceived by many as a Briton, that is a leader of the Celtic people that inhabited England before the arrival of the Romans under Julius Caesar and afterwards when the empire collapsed in western Europe. As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the fifth century AD, kings like Arthur had to repel waves of barbarian invasions. In Arthur’s case, he was fighting the Saxons who had rowed across the North Sea looking for land and booty.
This account of Arthur’s life comes from a history of Britain by a medieval chronicler called Geoffrey of Monmouth. Arthur not only drives the Saxons back but builds an empire across northern Europe and even threatens what is left of Roman rule in Gaul (modern France). At his court at Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table ruled Britain. They dreamed of the most noble quest of all – to find the Holy Grail. The knights were convinced that somebody would emerge who could fulfil this quest, most likely a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea.
A knight did indeed come forward. Dashing Galahad, bastard son of Sir Lancelot. He arrived at King Arthur’s court at the holy feast of Pentecost and sat in a seat normally kept empty, the so-called Siege (from the French for seat) Perilous. Why Perilous? Because if you sat in it, you normally died. But Galahad didn’t. Therefore, he had to be the knight destined to discover the true location of the Grail.
Should mention at this point that the Grail appeared in a vision to the Knights of the Round Table doubling their resolve to go and find it. Galahad eventually discovered the Grail at Corbenic, still guarded by the Grail Kings. In this case, a man called King Pelles, who was descended from Bron, husband of Joseph of Arimathea’s daughter Anna. Pelles was also the maternal grandfather of Galahad, so provided a sacred link back to the life of Christ.
Pelles was injured in battle in the groin and so was impotent. Forlornly, he spent his days fishing and so is often referred to as the Fisher King. This barren status applied to both the king and his kingdom – the land was desolate.
Galahad was told by Pelles to take the Grail to the holy city of Sarras. This was located somewhere between Jerusalem and Babylon. It was asserted that the term “Saracen” referred to Sarras. On their quest, Galahad – accompanied by Sir Perceval and Sir Bors – encountered a vision of Joseph of Arimathea. Galahad was so enraptured he asked to die there and then and be transported upwards to heaven. He got his wish. And with that – the Grail vanished into thin air.
To get the full low down on the story of King Arthur, start with Geoffrey of Monmouth and then work on to the account by Chretien de Troyes and best of all, Thomas Malory’s rendition of the Arthurian legend.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOLY GRAIL AFTER KING ARTHUR?
The Middle Ages saw an explosion of pilgrim activity across Europe and the Middle East. The religious would travel great distances to venerate bits of bone, splinters of wood and pieces of cloth associated with saints or biblical figures. These would normally be housed in bejewelled reliquaries proudly displayed by a church or cathedral. This was big business. And it led to some unscrupulous claims by monks and bishops.
Relics included anything that Jesus might have left behind during his life on earth. That included his foreskin and finger nails – no, I’m not kidding. The Middle Ages witnessed some incredible lateral thinking by monks eager to cash in on the craze for relics. The maternity dress of Mary, the cloth on which Jesus wiped his face on the way to his crucifixion and the arm of Mary Magdalene. A church in York claimed to have the silver tray on which the head of John the Baptist was given to Salome. Three other churches said they had the actual head of John the Baptist. Clearly they couldn’t all have been right.
The Holy Grail emerged in several places. In 2008, I saw the Antioch Chalice on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London at an exhibition of religious art from the Byzantine empire. The chalice consisted of a plain inner cup with a very ornate outer covering. The outer portion dated to six centuries after Christ, most likely during the reign of the all-conquering Christian emperor Justinian – about a hundred years before Islam burst across the Middle East and five hundred years before the founding of the Knights Templar.
That was one candidate for the Holy Grail. Another is the cup still held by the cathedral of Valencia in Spain. It’s made of agate and the cathedral on its website reports it has been dated back to around 100-50 BC. The alabaster base is in an Islamic style, which the cathedral candidly admits. So only the cup and not the stand could date back to the life of Christ. In all, there may be up to two hundred vessels all claiming to be the Holy Grail.
But what if it never left Jerusalem?
THE TEMPLAR CONNECTION
Now we can go in all kinds of directions with the Templars and the Holy Grail. Let’s start with the notion that the Holy Grail isn’t so much a vessel as the holy blood (line) of Jesus. The ‘Sang Real’ much beloved of the Da Vinci Code. But this theory predates Dan Brown. And it goes something like this:
- Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and she bore children
- Ancient Gnostic beliefs asserted that Jesus may even have survived the crucifixion
- Mary Magdalene fled to France
- Her descendants inter-married with the Merovingian dynasty of French kings who ruled from the 5th to 8th centuries
- These descendants are the sacred blood line, or Sang Real, of Jesus – the Holy Grail
- The Priory of Sion was sworn to protect the descendants of Jesus from the Catholic church
- Past members have included Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton
- The Priory based itself in Jerusalem after it was taken in the First Crusade in 1099 and then created the Knights Templar as an instrument to protect the Holy Grail, reinstate the Merovingians and defeat the church of Rome
Other accounts linking the Templars to the Holy Grail view it as secret knowledge hidden in Jerusalem that gave the Templars huge power over the church and accounts for their sudden increase in wealth. It goes something like this:
- The Templars were Gnostics, influenced by an early form of Christianity that sought to liberate the soul through true understanding of the divine – and did not recognise the earthly priesthood of the Roman church
- The nine knights who founded the order deliberately based themselves in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque under Muslim control but was in fact the site of the Temple of Solomon. Having obtained permission from Baldwin, the crusader ruler of the city, to take over the building, they began furiously digging underneath it
- They found something that allowed them to go to Rome and extract concessions from the papacy. This might have been a gospel written by Jesus himself. It may have been the Ark of the Covenant
WHAT HAPPENS ONCE THE TEMPLARS ARE SUPPRESSED?
The Holy Grail, now in Templar hands, is believed to have gone in one of two directions. As the Holy Land fell by degrees to Muslim armies, the knights might have gone with their treasure north or south:
- NORTH: Up to the Paris Temple. A secure fortress that was impenetrable. But when the French king, Philip the Fair, turned on the Templars, they spirited away the Grail towards Scotland and Rosslyn Chapel. If they ventured further along Viking routes to the Americas, could the Grail be in the United States today?
- SOUTH: After leaving Cyprus, the Templars went to a country that they had helped to create – Portugal. The king there protected the Templars and renamed them the Order of Christ. From their base in the city of Tomar, they hid the Grail away.
Either way – it disappeared once more.
IS ANY OF THIS TRUE?
May seem an odd question to ask. In a recent podcast for BBC History, the broadcaster and historian Dan Jones rubbished what he said are the myths that surround the Knights Templar.
Although he assisted the History Channel on its recent drama series Knightfall, Jones nevertheless has no truck with the idea that the Templars had any secret treasure, rites or power over the church. In his view, we should stick to the story of the Knights Templar as recorded at the time by both Christian and Muslim chroniclers. Jones himself has just produced a magisterial tome on the Templars covering their story from start to finish, which I don’t hesitate to recommend.
Conversely, the story of the Templars still puzzles. The meteoric rise of this order of military monks. The rather implausible account of nine knights claiming they can protect all the roads into Jerusalem. Trial documents from their fall that made scandalous claims about what the Templars were up to. And I suppose ultimately a sense that there’s no smoke without a little bit of fire underneath.