Rob Riggle Global Investigator!

I am appearing as a contributor on the new Discovery channel history investigation series Rob Riggle Global Investigator presented by Mr Riggle – who you will have seen previously on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show as well as several comedy movies.

Scottish Grail quest for Rob Riggle Global Investigator

He brings his comedic talents, military background and ability to connect with TV audiences to this new fun history series. I was honoured to be asked to appear with Rob on his special investigation into the Holy Grail.

We filmed at Kilwinning Abbey – a Scottish ruined medieval structure. Some believe that when the Templars fled the wrath of the King of France – they ended up in Scotland with their treasure.

So we went hunting to see what we could find!

Templars, Grail and off to Scotland!

The story behind this episode of Rob Riggle Global Investigator is that when the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, they fled France with all their treasure. A very popular theory – though contested – has them boarding ships at the French port of La Rochelle and setting off for Scotland.

Once there, they helped Robert the Bruce defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. In gratitude, the Scottish kings let the Templars hole up with the monks at Kilwinning Abbey. Over time, they blended and merged with the monks and used their skills as masons to erect a beautiful place of worship.

One local historian claims that the Grail chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper was brought to the abbey by the Knights Templar and is hidden in a secret chamber. While another claim is that a wooden cross that once stood there included part of the True Cross – on which Jesus was crucified.

The Masonic connection

In Freemason lore, the Heredom of Kilwinning dates back to the 12th century while the Rosy Cross was a Masonic rite established after the Battle of Bannockburn. The two were merged and the clear inference is that the Templars were indeed the first Freemasons.

The Mother Lodge of Scotland – numbered as zero – is based at Kilwinning. It’s sometimes referred to as Mother Kilwinning.

There are reputedly secret tunnels under Kilwinning – one of them leading from my hotel. But for some curious reason, the hotel owner built a toilet over the tunnel entrance. She showed it to me with some trepidation. And claimed that a Catholic priest had warned her to block it (the tunnel not the toilet!) so nobody could go down. I suppose a toilet is an effective obstacle!

Anyway – enjoy!! And tune into Rob Riggle Global Investigator!

Murder of Jewish exiles in London – 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

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They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Notre Dame – seizing an opportunity from a tragedy

I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris this year and made two visits to Notre Dame in February and March. It made me sick to my stomach to see the cathedral in flames yesterday. But almost immediately, having immersed myself in the history of Notre Dame, I recognised an opportunity that could arise from this tragedy.

Getting rid of 19th century “improvements”

It may be too soon to say this, but I’ll stick my neck out and take the risk. Notre Dame has been subject to some major changes in its 800 year history.  In the 17th century, classical pillars were added to the nave and stained glass replaced by plain glass. But it was the 19th century and a revival of interest in the medieval Gothic that led some to some very controversial changes to buildings like Notre Dame.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect who set out to tart up medieval buildings in France that had either fallen into disrepair or been damaged during the French Revolution of 1789. He came under fire from critics at the time for removing the 17th century classical elements put up under Louis XIV, re-introducing (as he saw it) loads of grotesque gargoyles and re-building the central spire – removed as unsafe in the 18th century.

Eugene_viollet_le_duc

Viollet-le-Duc

It was this spire that collapsed during the fire yesterday. Also destroyed would have been stained glass put in by Viollet-le-Duc and other “restorations”.  The question that should now be reviewed again is whether his changes were in keeping with the original cathedral or a 19th century Romantic era idea of the Middle Ages.

The English Gothic revivalist architect Augustus Pugin seems to have despised Viollet-le-Duc calling him a “monster of architectural depravity”.  He has been rehabilitated to a degree in recent decades, particularly as his intervention stopped some medieval churches from literally toppling over.

But it’s worth considering whether everything he did to Notre Dame – some of which may now have been reduced to ashes – needs to be reconstructed as before. Might this be an opportunity to take the cathedral back to its real medieval appearance – and not Viollet-le-Duc’s imagining?

My visits to Notre Dame this year

I visited Notre Dame twice this year and here are some of my photos from inside the building – sad to look at them now. More interestingly, a digital mapping of Notre Dame was conducted recently and it revealed the need for major repairs. Wired magazine has just run a timely article on this you can read HERE.

 

The Green Children of Wulpet

Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.

The strange green children of Wulpet

This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box.  It’s a strange tale.  We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.

It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation.  Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife.  And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150.  He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.

Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet

Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’.  While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground.  A boy and a girl.  Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance.  William of Newburgh explains:

“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”

Their skin was completely green!  Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit.  The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods.  And they gobbled them down.

Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!

Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade.  With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl.  This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died.  The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”.  She even got married.

All of which begs the question – who were these children?  This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:

‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.

Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’

They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated.  Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.

‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’

So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’.  But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.

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There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc.  It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.

One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor.  In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.

Sounds like something from X Men!

Filming with the History Channel in Templar Tomar

I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grail and is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.

This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.

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Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.

Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.

One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.

I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.

After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?

Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!