The planning was meticulous. Signed and sealed, laden with accusation and instruction, the letters were sent by the king to local authorities throughout his realm. They were to act exactly one month later, simultaneously and at the crack of dawn — on a Friday the 13th, as it happened. The targets were unaware of what lay in store, their leader even spending time with the king and seeming to enjoy his favor. The hour came, and armed men launched their surprise, summarily carrying off hundreds to the king’s dungeons, and many ultimately to their deaths. It was a performance reminiscent of a Stalinist purge or Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives.
The year was 1307, and the month was October. The king was Philip IV of France. And his victims were all members of the order of “the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem,” better known as the Knights Templar — or simply the Templars. Over a period of two centuries, this charitable and military order of Crusaders had grown in power and wealth. At a stroke, and with the acquiescence of a weakened pope, Philip destroyed the order, imprisoning its leaders and burning many at the stake. “God will avenge our death,” said James of Molay, the last Grand Master, as he faced the flames on an island in the Seine.
And, in a way, God has. The Templars live on in popular culture — from the video game “Assassin’s Creed” to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Philip IV does not.
Dan Jones, the author of well-regarded histories of the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses, obviously gives no credence to the conspiratorial fantasies that have been spun around the Templars over the years. No, they do not guard the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, and never did. No, a surviving remnant does not protect the identities of the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdelene. No, the order does not secretly run the world — that’s the Trilateral Commission or maybe Skull and Bones. In “The Templars,” Jones relegates this curious afterlife to an epilogue. His aim is to present a gripping historical narrative, and in this he succeeds.
The raw material is rich. Founded by a French knight in 1119, after the successful First Crusade, the Templars began with a mission to protect throngs of pilgrims now traveling to the Holy Land. The members of the order wore white robes with a distinctive red cross, embraced personal poverty and lived according to a regime codified by the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. A papal charter was followed by a papal decree granting the Templars an exemption from taxes and local laws, effectively creating a transnational entity whose members could go anywhere. As Jones describes it, the order comes across as a combination of Blackwater, Goldman Sachs, Kroll International, FedEx, Fort Knox, Bechtel and, well, the Red Cross.
The financial acumen of the Templars was considerable. In the post-“Da Vinci Code” era, visitors to London often make their way to the Temple Church, between Fleet Street and the Thames, built in the mid-12th century. The circular nave — typical of Templar churches — is the oldest part of the structure and was used as a repository by English nobles and by the Crown itself. “By the 1240s,” Jones writes, “the order was providing diverse financial services to some of the richest and most powerful figures across Christendom.” The Templars “guaranteed debts, ransomed hostages and prisoners of war on credit, and could arrange very large loans — such as the one made in 1240 to Baldwin II, the emperor of Constantinople, and secured by his very own fragment of the True Cross.”
The order’s military record was mixed. In 1187, an army of Templars and others, under King Guy of Jerusalem, was surrounded and slaughtered by the sultan Saladin in his successful campaign to restore Palestine to the Muslim fold. Saladin had played his hand skillfully: stopping up wells even as he enticed the Christians farther into the searing flats; pausing long enough to allow dehydration to take its toll; then moving in for the kill. Some 200 Templars were captured, and Saladin beheaded them all.
That was an unhappy episode, but the Templars had another century of influential life in front of them, until that Friday the 13th in 1307. Philip IV was pious, paranoid, unscrupulous and mercurial — and deeply in debt to the Templars. It was all too easy to manufacture charges of heresy, blasphemy and sexual depravity: urinating on the cross, having sex on the altar — the usual allegations. The power and secretiveness of the Templars only fueled the charges. The decisive blow was struck in France, but within a few years the Templars were extinct throughout Christendom, except in the popular imagination.
“The themes of the Templar story resonate powerfully today,” Jones observes. He rightly does not pontificate about this and draws no specious parallels, but the reader can’t help recognizing familiar territory. There is the preoccupation in the West with what we now call the Middle East. Religions collide and atrocities abound. Cries of “Allahu akhbar” pierce the din of battle. The power of states is threatened, or seen to be threatened, by unaccountable forces with global tentacles. Information is unreliable and easily manipulated, allowing conspiracy theories to take root and spread.
Nothing is left of the Templars except words on parchment and ruins in stone. An older crusading order with certain similarities, the Knights Hospitaller, does still exist, after a fashion — its genetic progeny are the Knights of Malta. They have a palatial headquarters on the Aventine in Rome. They have a papal charter and enjoy quasi-sovereign status. They can issue their own passports. They maintain diplomatic relations with a hundred countries. And, like the Templars, they do not rule the world.
By Cullen Murphy in The Washington Post
Tom Cullen Knightfall Interview:
Did you have to do any extra training or had you already known how to use the sword?
Tom Cullen: “In drama school in the UK we do a lot of fight training, and so I’d done a lot of sword training prior. And,I found that I had the propensity for killing people, ironically. (Laughing) So, I’d actually done extra exams and had some practice while studying in drama school but that was about eight years ago. I hadn’t swung a sword in about eight years, so it was all very new in many respects.
The stunt team that we had was led by an amazing Frenchman, Cédric Proust. He is a top stuntman and fight choreographer. He really put us through it and we had a great swordsman called Roman. The entire team wanted us to be at a very, very high level. Every day on set they would drill us and I did about three months of physical training beforehand to get myself and my body ready for the fighting portion of my character and the series.
We also did a two and a half week boot camp where we would walk in the morning and do some circuit training and then do fighting in the afternoon. Later, we’d go horse riding and do some more sword training and then we would go to the gym. When it came to the actual filming, because there were a lot of fight scenes I was filming 14 hours a day doing scene work and then I’d have to do my fight training either on my lunch breaks or on the weekends. Any kind of second in the day that I did have I would fill it by going up to the stables and ride.
Working on Knightfall was a full-on experience because the team wanted it to look authentic and real, and when you watch the fights they are absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of all of the actors who’ve participated in the battles because we’ve really done a great job. The stunt guys have really trained us well and they’re epic battles and muddy and gruesome. And they feel very real, which I think is something I’m very proud of.
There is an incredible battle sequence in the final episode which is the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. We had like 400 guys on a battlefield fighting for about two weeks. It’s epic and amazing. And the real geek, nerd in me – because I am one – just can’t believe that I’m in it. I’m extremely proud of it.”
How much research did you do?
Tom Cullen: “Whenever I have done a historical piece, I think it’s imperative that you have to bathe yourself in as much literature to understand the world as much as possible, so that when you get onto the set, the world is just vibrating inside you. I wanted to know as much about the Crusades and about the politics at the time. Not just the politics in Europe or in the Middle East, but also Mongolian politics because they had a huge influence.
You just need to immerse yourself in the world and know everything that these men would have known, understand every single permutation and the political permutation that is affected where they are at this point and what drives these men and women to do the things that they do. I think that’s something that you have to do, otherwise it’s just lazy and in a way unforgivable because at that point that’s where you make mistakes.
You take history for granted and history should never be taken for granted because it’s essential for us furthering ourselves as a society and as a culture, because the one thing that history teaches us is that it’s cyclical. And so, yes, I read a lot and we had a fantastic historian on set. His name is Dan Jones. He’s just released an amazing book that you must read called The Templars which is on the New York Times Bestseller’s List. It’s brilliant. He was there on hand at all times feeding into us and making sure that what we were portraying was as accurate as possible. Anything that would come up in the script that we didn’t know, we would use him as a source of knowledge and he would say, ‘Go and read this, go and read that,’ or just tell us because he’s a real fountain of knowledge.
And that wasn’t just the access that put me in the world of the Knights Templar. […] The costume design, the art direction, the production design, makeup, etc. it was all so dense and real that you feel like you’re right in it as soon as you turn up on set. It’s just all there for you, you know, and you can really immerse yourself into the world.
The days we spent on set were amazing. We filmed on the biggest sets in Europe at Barrandov Studios. They built Medieval Paris. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. In the show, I have to do this shot where I’m riding down this nearly 200-meter long street that they built. And there are 350 extras and each extra has a job, each extra has a name. And it’s live, real world and you just forget that the cameras are there because it’s so extraordinary.
Our costume designer, Diana Cilliers, was amazing. I remember the first time we did our screen test, which is where you put on the costume in front of camera and you kind of like pose and walk around so they can see what it looks like on camera with the makeup and the hair and all of that kind of stuff. I remember putting the costume on, the chainmail and everything, and it weighed 50 pounds which was like an insane amount of weight. I struggled to walk down the corridor to get to the studio to do the screen test.
I was like, ‘Guys, why is the costume so heavy? How are we supposed to move and fight in this?’ And the answer was that Diana tried out lighter material such as plastics and other materials but they just didn’t look authentic. And so they put us in the most authentic costume that they could and we just had to deal with it. We got bigger and we got stronger, and so very quickly we were able to run and jump, get on horses in the 50-pound costumes and do everything that we needed to do to play our parts. But, you know, you can see the difference in the way that the costumes move and the way that your body moves in them. It’s just authentic and I think it makes for a very real experience when watching the show.”
Can you talk about Landry’s relationship with Godfrey, played by Sam Hazeldine?
Tom Cullen: “So the relationship that Landry has with Godfrey runs throughout the entire first season. And so in episode one, Godfrey is Landry’s surrogate father. Landry was an orphan and Godfrey essentially took him in and saved him from this orphanage. And so because of the promise Godfrey saw in him, Landry became a Templar at the age of 11 which is very, very, very rare.
One of the Templar rules is that you must become a Templar of your own volition because it’s such a monastic lifestyle where you do things like eat your food out of the same bowl as another man. There’s no vanity, there’s no possessions. It’s completely monastic. And so it’s very rare for a young boy to join the Templars like Landry did.
So, Godfrey becomes Landry’s father and as the season goes on, in episode one there is a truth revealed to Landry about Godfrey that he didn’t know. And Landry, like a classic hero that we all know, as the protagonist, he hunts and searches for the truth at all costs. He is like a boar who gets physically beaten, emotionally beaten and he just gets back up by himself and charges towards the truth.
Godfrey is pivotal in that circle of truth that Landry is striving towards and it isn’t a very easy journey for Landry to go on throughout the first season. But, it’s a very satisfying journey for the viewers. Every time the scripts would come in there would be a new revelation and it would be a new shock and a new turn and it was very cool to read and really fun to play. I hope that the audience enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.”
Is any particular theme or aspect to Knightfall you think will really resonate with the viewers?
Tom Cullen: “Yes, sure. I think what I’m very proud of in the show is that you can kind of look at the show objectively from the outside having not seen it and say, ‘Oh, this is about guys swinging swords and that’s what the show is about,’ but the show is so much more than that. The show is about politics. We have a lot of stuff that takes place in the French Court at the time, dissecting and breaking down the politics and the machinations of political interplay, which I just love that kind of stuff.
It has a fantastic central spine through the show; an amazing love story which I’m surprised at how strong and moving that story was as we were filming it. It kind of grew into this thing that we had no idea it would become. The show talks about revenge and betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, faith, humanity and mortality. I think that it raises really big questions about who we are whilst at the same time being really kind of fun and entertaining. So, that takes you on a really wild journey.
And, so I truly believe the show has something for everybody. I think that it is by no means a gendered show. I think that women would love it as much as men will love it and that is something I’m really proud of, too. It has fantastic, strong female characters. They are actually probably stronger than all of the male characters and they’re just as complex and rich as the male counterparts, and it’s very moving. I’ve watched the last episode three or four times now and I’ve shed many tears every single time. It’s a great rollercoaster.”
What do you like about the medieval time period?
Tom Cullen: “I’ve always been obsessed with the Medieval time period because I think it’s a time that we can look back on and learn from. And, actually, 800 years isn’t that long ago and that this is the time really when the world that we live in today was created and formulated. We’re still feeling the repercussions of the actions and choices the people made in the medieval period today.
It’s also a period that is grimy and dirty and dangerous. The line between life and death is so thin, it’s really interesting to learn about. And I think that’s a fantastic place to make a drama in. It’s a very rich world since life and death was so next to each other, and it’s world rich in terms of human wants and needs. Nowadays our lives are reasonably comfortable for certain people, especially in America. We typically don’t have that kind of life and death threat every single day where we are going to drop down with scurvy or have to go into battle.
So, our choices aren’t as drastic. But if you have a lifespan of 35 years, every choice you make is loaded. And so I think that the world of the Medieval period is one of very high octane and people making life and death choices every single move. And that, for me, is an exhilarating period of time to make a drama in.”
How do the scenes in Knightfall resonate in your own life? How do you draw on your own life to play the part of Landry?
Tom Cullen: “That’s such a good question. On the paper, it isn’t necessarily very easy to draw on myself, and I think that I like to work as an actor from the places of truth instead of drawing on myself as an empathetic being. Well, I’ve had some experiences personally that I put it into Landry but not many. I worked in an empathetic way, anyway where I try and put myself into the character’s body and some kind of lose myself as much as possible. And so my thoughts and my character’s thoughts were somewhat separate as opposed to my own.
I don’t really like to draw on my own experiences. I feel that’s confusing and muddied and I don’t think it’s very healthy. So, it wouldn’t have been very healthy for me to continue working in that way and it’s not why I’m an actor. But the themes that were very resonant with me in the show, that resonated with me as a reader and as a viewer and as an actor, are ones of brotherhood and loyalty, love and lust, and denying one’s own happiness, complexity in relationships with a father and feelings of abandonment. All of that stuff really resonated with me.”
Do you believe that because Landry became a Templar at such a young age that’s why he was able to rebel against that part of his vow and enter into a romantic relationship?
Tom Cullen: “I think that when we first meet Landry at the top of episode 1 he is 20, and he is brash and young. He is a maverick, incredibly cocky, and is kind of emboldened by the fact that he has God on his side and he thinks that he’s invincible, which I think a lot of 20 year-olds think, regardless of whether they have God on their side or not. I know I certainly felt like that.
But what we see at the top of episode one is his entire life flipped upside down when they lose Acre, the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land and they lose the Holy Grail. And so we flash forward 15 years and when you’ve been brought up as a as a warrior, and that’s all you know, everything you know, it’s a tough reality to deal with. He’s like a caged animal, unable to fulfill what he thinks is his only purpose and duty which is to fight.
And so when we meet him, he is this very, very complex, pulled apart guy in episode one. He is battling with his humanity and he is secular yet he is also still mentally devout. He is very loyal to his brothers, his family, yet he is lying to them. He is having an affair with a woman yet he is a monk. He is the bravest, most fearless warrior, yet he’s starting to feel a sense of his own mortality. I think that’s why he kind of falls in love with this woman. It’s not that he’s doubting God or that he’s doubting the Templars or religion, but that he’s doubting himself. He is in a conflict, in a battle with himself, which are the stories that I love to watch where your hero is so full of contradiction and battle and personal complications. And throughout the first season, we see him work through that and battle through that and try and find out who he really is. It’s an awesome journey for me to play and to take viewers on.”
Did you discuss what would happen moving forward with the series, where it might go in seasons two, three or four? Were you given an idea of Landry’s entire arc beyond the first season? And if so, to what degree does that influence your approach to the character? How much are you able to build into the character as the series goes on?
Tom Cullen: “We love the show and we really hope that we can continue making it for as long as possible because we’re a real family and we’re very, very proud of it and we love making it. There’s also still a lot of the Templar history that has yet to be told. We have an idea of where the show will go and where it will take us. But what actually happens is that while you’re making a show, it becomes this dialogue that happens between the writers, the actors, directors, the costume designers, the art director, the production designer, makeup artists, etc. where you’re constantly kind of feeding into this pot which is the show. It evolves and changes and moves in ways that you would never expect it to.
It’s like a living organism but that surprises you. And so though we have an idea of where this is going, actually the truth is that we don’t in many respects. We have the structure of history and what actually happened which we have to stay with but in terms of the characters, and their fuels and wants and needs and how they navigate their way through that history is something that we’re constantly being surprised by with the characters. And that’s a really exciting place to work with.
And especially as an actor, I don’t want to know where the character is going because in life I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow or how it’s going to pan out. I can only be in the present and I can only make choices in the present, and so that’s what you want your characters to do. And so the writers actually withheld scripts from us and didn’t tell us what was happening later in this first season so that we could be surprised in the moments whilst we were making the episode, which is a really fantastic and authentic way to work. And then once we get the script, we kind of talk about them and collaborate on them.
Dominic Minghella is an incredible showrunner. He is a force of nature and an amazing man and a brilliant writer, and he really values the actors’ input. He is always very good at fielding ideas and whether he takes them or not is up to him, but it feels like a very collaborative process where everybody is feeding into it and we all have ownership over the show and that’s really exciting.”
in showbizjunkies.com by REBECCA MURRAY
History’s Knightfall delivers a fascinating story centered around the Knights Templar and their quest to find the Holy Grail in the early 14th century. Like the network’s flagship series Vikings, Knightfall proves why History needs to develop more original dramas.
Knightfall goes big and bold right from the beginning with a large-scale battle set in the city of Acre. For a TV budget, the assault on the stronghold looks great, but it’s the use of intricately placed cameras that make the sequence shine.
Typically, an actor that wears a helmet, like Thor, finds a reason to take it off, in order to better show the actor’s face. Studios don’t want to pay someone millions of dollars to hide beneath a helmet. Instead of taking the helmets off, Knightfall puts the cameras inside the helmets. It’s a brilliant choice because it creates a feeling of claustrophobia that adds to the intensity of the fights.
The combat is well choreographed and believable. It’s not as flashy as Vikings, but with warriors wearing armor that heavy, it must be difficult to move. The only complaint is the ineffective use of slow motion throughout the episode. It doesn’t ruin any of the skirmishes, but it is distracting. It feels like the show is trying to be overly stylized when it doesn’t need to be.
The characters that inhabit the story are remarkably realized. Landry (Tom Cullen) is one of the lead knights in the order. Cullen (Downton Abbey) brings all the good looks, charm, and toughness needed to carry a historical epic like Knightfall. Early on, Landry’s close relationship with the King is revealed to be a sore spot between Landry and the rest of his brothers. This conflict should make for a compelling story down the road — especially if you know a little bit of the history concerning the Templar order.
Knightfall takes place around the time of the Templars’ downfall, which according to some historical accounts, has to do with the troubled financial relationship between King Philip IV of France and the Templars. This version of the King, skillfully portrayed by Ed Stoppard (The Crown), doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would betray his friends. These are merely first-impressions, but I’m excited to see how it all plays out. History is a network that’s not afraid to toy with expectations, even in a historical setting (e.g. Vikings). Remember, this is a television show after all.
Some of the supporting characters based on their names alone add to the mystery surrounding the Grail legend. Parsifal (Bobby Schofield) is one such character. Schofield (Black Sea) effectively plays the wide-eyed farm boy who’s in over his head. What’s fascinating here is the historical significance of his name. In the legends about King Arthur, Parsifal (Percival) is one of Arthur’s most trusted knights and he’s also part of the Grail legend. It looks like the writers are using various legends and historical accounts to shape their story. This mixture of fantasy and history makes Knightfall all the more delightful.
It’s nice to have a series that gives the Templar’s a story from their point of view. Properties like Assassin’s Creed haven’t painted them in a good light and while there are reasons for that — having a different perspective on the ancient order is enjoyable to watch. Landry and his brothers are seen as protectors of the people, as opposed to cold-blooded killers.
Knightfall creates an engaging story centered around the Knights Templar and their search for the Holy Grail. With gorgeous costumes and wonderfully designed sets, Knightfall does a great job of bringing 14th century Paris to life. Backed by a strong performance from Tom Cullen, Knightfall should have enough staying power to see it through until the finale.
in ign.com by DAVID GRIFFIN
Note: This review is reprint from IGN. The OSMTHU has no official review of Knightfall. However, we should point out that Knightfall is a ficcional series with the Templars as a background. It’s not History. You should enjoy it as you enjoy any other great fictional story.
If you’re looking to get fit, Tom Cullen, star of History’s Knightfall, has a suggestion for you: wear chain mail.
The actor stars as Landry, leader of the Knights Templar, in the newest scripted drama from the network home of Vikings — which meant wearing 50 pounds of armor nearly daily for the better part of a year.
“I didn’t want to weigh the costume early on, because otherwise it would just become a thing in my head. I have weighed it since and it has become a thing in my head,” Cullen, who played Lord Gillingham in Downton Abbey, told Rotten Tomatoes. “The costume weighed 50 pounds, which is a lot to be carrying for 14, 15 hours a day when you’re fighting and riding horses. My body changed shape. I went from fit and kind of slender to muscular and big, just from the fact that I was carrying this amount of weight, this heavy costume.
“I couldn’t even get on a horse when I first started,” he confessed. “I had to have a stepladder because I didn’t have the power in my legs to get over the horse. But by the end of the shoot, I was leaping and running and jumping on horses. It was intense.”
So if you want to “get swole,” try the Chain Mail Workout!
“It’s where you wear 50 pounds of chain mail for seven months, every day, 15 hours a day,” Cullen said. “That’s all you have to do. And you’ll end up [muscular]. I’ve had to go to my wardrobe and buy all new trousers because my ass is so big. Honestly, if you want an ass like Kim Kardashian, become a knight.”
Knightfall takes place in the 1300s and follows the Knights Templar as they hunt to recover the Holy Grail in the final days of their reign, ahead of their eventual downfall. The series was shot in Eastern Europe on a Prague backlot — “they built medieval Paris, they built a temple, a palace, streets, a market, a moat, castle walls, a church, shops, alleyways, a pub — it was extraordinary,” Cullen said. The show tackles the later days of the Knights Templar’s reign of power.
“They were such a fascinating, clandestine sect,” Cullen said. “That the myriad of lies and layers that they bathed themselves in — it’s very difficult to unpack all of that. It was fascinating to learn about them. It was a real educational process for me.”
While, like most people, Cullen had a working knowledge of the group, he learned a lot while simply researching for his role.
“One of the things that really stuck with me was that they invented to first bank,” he said. “They created the banking system, and they created the first checks. They became the wealthiest fighting force in the world. And they answered to no country, no king, no queen. They only answered to God and to the Pope. No borders. You could cash your money in France, and you could take it out in Jerusalem. They were kind of untouchable. Fascinating guys. The thing that really surprised me was the level of their power. You learn about how they were in the battlefield. They were extraordinary. They would never leave. Even if they were losing, they would never turn their back and run. They would basically only surrender when the last man had been killed. That level of bravery and intelligence is an extraordinary combination, I think.”
Cullen’s character, Landry, was taken in by the Knights Templar as a 10-year-old orphan.
“All he’s known is war, fighting, and God. When we first see him in episode 1, he’s a very brash young maverick knight who ultimately loses the Holy Grail and loses Acre, the last stronghold in the Holy Land, which is the one thing that he understands himself through. The series is set 15 years after that event, and we find him questioning everything about himself. He’s questioning his faith and his own identity. He’s a very contradictory, very complex character. He is lying to his brothers. He’s having an affair with a woman. But he is immensely loyal. He is maybe the most fearless, brave knight. Yet he is starting to discover his own humanity and his mortality. He is a very pious man and is still a very faithful man, yet he is starting to discover who he is outside of his brotherhood.”
Yes, that’s right — there’s still plenty of sex on this show about religious monks, and Landry’s dedication to the Knights Templar only wavers when his chastity vow is involved.
“He’s very faithful to her,” Cullen said. “He’s a one-woman kind of guy.”
Except he’s supposed to be a no-woman kind of guy.
Added Cullen, “He’s a very complex guy, which is the kind of guy I’m interested in watching.”
The season will include major developments about Landry’s love — in the first episode, even — but his relationship will take a back seat to his main quest: to recover the Holy Grail.
“Landry goes on a pathological hunt to try and find the Grail, because I think that he entwines a lot of his own identity into that piece of pottery,” Cullen said. “I think that he hopes to find it not only to garner enough power to go back to the Holy Land, which is what he thinks that he should be doing, but also to return himself back to who he was — search for his identity before he became this very complex guy. What’s great is that on the way, we see his life fall apart, and as he discovers more about himself, he discovers more about the people around him and the lies that are entwined around his whole life and his whole existence.”
in rottentomatoes.com by Jean Bentley
MODERN authors don’t have to look far for inspiration. Often, it’s right there on their shelves in learned tomes of history.
Some of the stories are truly fantastic. Others are simply amazing examples of human behaviour.
Dr Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University school of History and Politics says she finds the use of history in popular modern fiction fascinating.
“These are clearly engaged with much of the historic literature, particularly for the medieval period,” she said. “And, as a historian, you watch it, and you’re constantly thinking ‘yeah that’s good’, and ‘no, that wouldn’t happen’, except it’s fantasy so you can’t get annoyed!”
Dr Barclay points out that history and fantasy have had a long and close relationship: The first novels were called “histories” and purported to be based on real events.
“They often were,” Dr Barclay said, “at least to the level that they featured real historical characters if re-imagined to suit the sensibilities of the era”.
And such “re-imagining” is central to the history-fantasy link. The same story is often retold in different ways over hundreds of years, with each incarnation pitched at the tastes and expectations of a new generation, she said.
“But the most inspirational tales for modern writers and audiences are not necessarily those based on the most outlandish stories or supernatural events, but those that relate to unexpected human relationships.”
Here’s just a sample of some of the most eye-catching historical sources you may recognise in popular books, films and television shows.
CAUTION: There are some Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
SCOTLAND’S ‘RED WEDDINGS’
The “Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones had fans in shock, with several characters cut down. However there is a precedent — clan-based slaughter in the north of Britain.
“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” Dr Barclay said.
The brutal slayings, while not weddings, were regarded as particularly heinous as they breached strict moral codes of hospitality.
In 1691 a terrible betrayal saw most of the key members of clan MacDonald massacred.
The Scottish clans had been summoned to produce a signed document swearing allegiance to King William of Orange. The MacDonald clan, delayed through a series of misfortunes, delivered their oath several days “too late”.
Several months later, a troop of 120 men under the king’s Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonald’s estates in Glencoe and claimed shelter from the harsh weather.
Hospitality was duly offered, but, after a fortnight of enjoying the MacDonalds’ food, drink and card-games, the soldiers slew about 40 of the clan as they slept in their beds in what would become known as the Glencoe Massacre. The 40 or so women and children that escaped died of exposure.
An earlier, similar, massacre has gone down in history as “The Black Dinner”.
In 1440 the young Earl of Douglas (traditionally called the Black Douglas), 16, and his younger brother David were invited to dine at Edinburgh Castle with 10-year-old king James II.
The story goes that the young nobles were getting along like a house on fire, enjoying food, entertainment and each other’s company until deep into the evening. Suddenly, legend has it, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the dining table.
The two Black Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, and beheaded.
The young king was not likely to have been to blame. The Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, had issued the invitations as he felt the Black Douglas clan had grown too powerful.
THE REAL DRAGON SLAYER
If “Smaug” the dragon from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gets your blood racing, imagine what impact the real thing would have had on medieval Europe.
The only encounter with a “dragon” recorded in history happened on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in the 1340s. The question is, what was the beast really — a crocodile? A giant lizard?
According to the Order of St John’s archives, the beast had established a lair to the south of the fortified city of Rhodes. There, it had begun preying on the local livestock and maidens.
Several Knights Hospitaller are said to have set out to prove their valour by tackling the dragon. After they failed to return, the Order’s Grand Master firmly ordered a stop to such expeditions.
One, however, ignored the order. The French knight Dieudonne de Gozon decided to take on the beast personally. He gathered as many descriptions as he could of the animal from the country folk who had seen it and built a scale model.
He then trained his dogs to attack the creature and practised angles from which he could attack it with his sword and lance.
Once confident, he sallied forth into the countryside and slew the dragon. He was then summarily expelled from the Order for disobedience.
But the public outcry from the peasants about how poorly their hero had been treated soon saw “the Dragon Slayer” restored to the Order and he ended up becoming Grand Master himself in 1346.
“The Rhodes story is not the only crocodile as dragon story going around,” Dr Barclay said. “There is one for St George too — only the crocodile got to Essex! We don’t really know if it was a crocodile, that’s just what a 19th Century scientist thought when he saw a skull in Rhodes that they claimed belonged to the dragon. Given that selling relics was big business during the medieval period and there was 600 years for a ‘dragon skull’ to go missing, decompose (or never exist in the first place) and be replaced with that of a crocodile by an entrepreneurial relic salesman, we don’t really know the truth here. Maybe there really was a dragon!”
HISTORY’S HORRIBLE FAMILIES
There is a reason why the likes of the Tudors keep appearing in books and on our screens. Many were truly awful people from absolutely horrible families.
“Games of Thrones is fascinating,” Dr Barclay said, “not just because of the gruesome deaths and sex, but because these are families defending lineages, committing incest, being wiped out in a single generation.
“We get behind the families because of their relationships to each other, not just because they have dragons.
“Wendy Moore’s Wedlock (a tale described by The Independent as a “misery memoir” of how Georgian Britain’s worst husband met his match; it is “crammed with corrupt surgeons, questionable chaplains, fallen women and gossips”) is also fascinating because of the manipulative and abusive relationship between husband and wife. Then there was Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire — which became the movie The Duchess — a story about a dodgy threesome.”
There is also the true story of James Annesley, the heir to the estate of Anglesea. He was abducted as a child in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Britain to discover his uncle had inherited his estates. He won the first trial, but died during a drawn-out 10-year appeals process. This inspired stories such as Memoirs of an Unfortunate Nobleman, Peregrine Pickle and The Wandering Heir.
The magic of a glittering, all-dominating sword is a powerful icon of hope and victory. In the case of magic swords, it may be an idea burnt onto our cultural heritage by history.
Some say the legend of Excalibur could have been born from the impact a high-quality Roman sword would have had if it had survived into the Dark Ages of Britain. Such a refined, well-made and strong weapon could indeed win almost magical status among its enemies.
This is likely what happened some centuries earlier, as the Bronze Age collapsed before the onrushing Iron Age. The new grey metal swords cut through bronze as if it was butter. Whole armies could fall in the face of a smaller band of iron-equipped men.
Iron’s impact was not just felt on the battlefield. The entire economy and social structure of Europe was turned on its head as it shifted away from bronze to the tougher, easier, more common metal.
Even the story of pulling Excalibur from the stone may be a cast-back to a long-forgotten time. Bronze blades were cast in moulds of stone before being pulled out and polished.
Iron was to experience a similar revolution when the refinement of steel emerged. It’s an arms race that has never ended. And each age would most likely have had its own “Excalibur”.
But such magic-history links are rare, Dr Barclay said.
“The ‘magical’ element of fantasy allows us to set aside our practical concerns (’that wouldn’t happen’) and go with the story (‘it isn’t real, so that’s fine’), despite the fact that what drives the story could often happen without the magical elements,” Dr Barclay said.
THE BLACK WATCH
The romantic notion of a band of outcast warriors living on the fringes of civilisation who have taken a binding oath to protect the ignorant and ungrateful people they left behind is a common one.
It was no less popular when it was a reality.
The Knights Templar are well known for their supposed mystical secrets and the staged trial that accused them of such. But their real purpose also has passed into legend.
In the early 1100s, a small band of knights resolved to police the roads of the newly captured Holy Land for pilgrims making the dangerous journey from Europe.
To save their souls and prove their devotion the knights adopted the rigid rules and lifestyle of monks, with the added responsibility of protecting Christendom from all its enemies.
The idea spread like wildfire: Soon every second son in Europe was clambering for permission to win glory (and a secure lifestyle) within a rapidly expanding network of farms, forts and fleets all designed to feed equipment, knights and soldiers to a distant chain of castles protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Many other Orders sprung up, imitating the idea: The Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights were among the largest.
However, the trials and tribulations of the hot and volatile Holy Land soon caused the chivalric dream to lose much of its gloss. As such, many in the later ranks of the Templars were drafted from “grey knights” who had committed crimes or lost the support of their lords. In return for their service, these warriors were promised the limited freedom the Order offered — as well as a chance to fight, pursue a career and save their souls.
WINTER IS COMING
In fact, it’s already been. Several times.
We’re talking weird seasons that last for years — not the typical annual event.
In 536AD a 10-year winter kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere. Scribes in Europe and Asia reported bitterly cold conditions that seemed to never end. The sun was darkened, they said, and remained “small” even into the depths of summer.
Famine, war and plague quickly followed as crops failed and hungry hordes started streaming south.
Tree rings and ice core samples have since confirmed these events and tied the decade-long winter to the eruption of a supervolcano in El Salvador. But many academics consider that is in itself not enough to explain the duration of this winter. Some say Earth may have also passed through Halley’s Comet’s dusty tail.
Another unusual winter struck Europe in 1816. Known as “The Year without Summer”, hunger once again quickly swept across Europe as crops shrivelled up.
This event has been tied to the 1815 super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dust in the upper atmosphere from this eruption produced an average 1C drop in temperatures worldwide.
From Game of Thrones to The Narnia Chronicles, myth continues the reality.
Fr+ Bryant Jones, Prior of the United States OSMTJ sent us the link to his Conference at the Dighton Rock Museum. I hope you enjoy.
CHRISTIAN knights and Mameluke warriors were fighting on the walls. Now the wreck of a 13th century ship reveals the desperate bid to save the Holy Land.
The port of the city of Acre was a vital lifeline for Crusader knights and settlers alike. Through it streamed European pilgrims, horses, fighting men and manufacturing goods, all vital to sustain Christianity’s tenuous hold in what would later become Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
In return, ships carried precious cargoes of sugar, spice and exotic textiles.
But, in 1291, it all came crashing down.
The Egyptian Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil — leading an army of 100,000 men and horses — rolled back the Christian defences, weakened by almost two centuries of fighting to maintain control over the Holy Land.
European interest was failing — despite efforts by Pope Gregory X to summon reinforcements. And the militant orders — international organisations of warrior-monks — established to defend the Holy Land had become engrossed by their own wealth and the games of thrones back home.
What support did arrive for those few on the front line was invariably too little, too late.
Eventually, the European knights fell back to their final fortress — the city of Acre.
Here, besieged, they were totally reliant on support from the sea.
According to the news service Haaretz, a Crusader-era shipwreck recently found in the bay of Acre has been dated to the time of the desperate last stand by a handful of knights and mercenaries on the walls of the city.
Acre is now part of northern Israel.
The wreck had been severely damaged by dredging. But parts of the timber hull, including its keel, survived.
Excavation work began last year.
The wood has been carbon-dated between 1062-1250, which neatly brackets the Crusader era.
But archaeologists led by Doctor Ehud Galili and Professor Michal Artzy of Haifa University have uncovered traces of its cargo — and a stash of 30 gold florins.
These narrow its date down to that of the final siege of the nearby city.
Fragments of ceramics, including jugs and bowls, reveal the ship was carrying imports from Cyprus and Italy. There are also rusted remains of a few metallic objects, including anchors.
It is possible the wreck may have belonged to King Henry II of Cyprus who had reportedly sent a force of 40 ships filled with reinforcements. Just one month later, King Henry’s forces would retreat by sea as the city fell.
Historic records of the disaster tell the tale of fleeing nobles attempting to bribe boat and ship owners for safe passage out of the Middle East. But few managed to make their way on-board.
A handful of Templar, Teutonic and Hospitaller warrior-monks fought stoically to buy time for the civilian population, but were eventually forced back to their strongholds after the city’s walls collapsed.
But, by May 18, the Grand Masters of the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights had fled. The Grand Master of the Templars had been killed. Only a few equipped and trained knights remained alive.
Defeat, they knew, was inevitable.
The last stand was fought in a Templar tower at the very edge of the sea. Accounts tell of the city’s inhabitants throwing themselves into the harbour in a desperate bid to reach the departing ships.
The Templar knights were only overcome when Mameluke engineers undermined their fortress’ walls. Among the rubble were 100 of the Sultan’s best men who had been inside, fighting the Crusaders hand-to-hand.
Western Christianity would never again establish a firm foothold in the Middle East. After repeated attempts to mobilise yet another crusade, the Templars were accused of witchcraft and homosexuality in an effort by French King Philip IV to seize their wealth. The order was eventually disbanded, and its key officers burnt at the stake.
The Hospitallers retreated to Rhodes, where they established a navy in anticipation of a fresh crusade. The Teutonic Knights shifted the focus of their holy war to the Baltics.
The entire city of Acre was levelled, and left abandoned until rebuilt nearly three hundred years later.