Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.
Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?
The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.
Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.
But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.
Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.
None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?
Publishing the Grail
My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?
The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.
Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.
Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.
In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.
Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.
in theconversation.com by Leah Tether
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
A DARK Age palace has been discovered, strengthening the likelihood that the legend of King Arthur may be based on a grain of truth.
A DARK Age palace has been uncovered on Cornwall’s windswept coast, strengthening the likelihood that the legend of King Arthur may be based on a grain of truth.
Myth has it that King Arthur will return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need. It could certainly do with some help right now.
Whether or not a new archaeological dig at his supposed birthplace of Tintagel Castle will prompt such a second coming is another matter.
But it may already be adding to the evidence that the myth surrounding the warrior king who, with the knights of his roundtable, struggled to hold back a “Dark Age” from enveloping Britain.
The Dark Age has long since proven to have been not so dark. But the scant records from the time have made pinning down one historical character that best fits the outline of the tale near impossible.
Now, archaeologists have returned to Arthur’s traditional birthplace of Tintagel for the first time since the 1990s. They’ve just completed their first dig in a new five-year excavation.
Last month they sank four trenches into previously unexcavated areas of the ancient island settlement.
What they found may be the remains of a 1500-year-old palace.
BIRTHPLACE OF A LEGEND
Like many prominent British landmarks, Tintagel has long been associated with Arthurian legend.
Like all the others, the evidence has been largely limited to hearsay.
The ruined castle that dominates the Tintagel landscape is believed to be from the Medieval 13th century. This would make it some 700 years younger than the Arthurian tales.
But it’s long been thought that the castle may have itself been built upon the ruins of an older structure.
But it was the discovery of a stone engraved with a name linked to Arthur’s in 1998 that reinvigorated interest in the windswept ruins on Cornwall’s coast.
Archaeologists believe it to have been a foundation/dedication stone dating from the 6th century. It is engraved with the name Artognou.
It’s these ruins that may have been linked to the Arthur of legend.
The tales tell of the seduction — some say by magical means — of the beautiful wife of a local lord by the then King of Britain. The illicit act conceived Arthur.
Mythology goes on to say the young boy was raised as a squire — a knight’s assistant — until fate took its hand and placed the rightful king on his throne.
The first written record of the mystic king comes from a monk named Gildas in the sixth century.
But it was a time where books were scarce and the most common form of transmitting history — and telling tales — was through memorised songs and poetry.
It took two several more centuries before a more detailed account of King Arthur and his actions would be recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138AD.
Unwinding his tangle of myth, legend and history has been a challenge for authors and historians ever since.
At the time of Monmouth’s writing, historians believe Tintagel would likely have been little more than a windswept pile of rubble.
So the notion of it being a powerful palace would have had to have been handed down verbally through the generations.
Just like the tale of Arthur himself.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
The archaeologists were guided in their efforts by geophysical surveys of the rocky outcrop’s terraces earlier this year.
Among the ultrasound and radar echoes were outlines of what could be up to a dozen buried buildings, one-metre thick walls and winding paths.
The strategically positioned trenches, two on an upper east terrace and two to the south, have all provided a glimpse of the stonework foundations of long-lost buildings.
From the scattering of potsherds and glass, this places the site smack between 400 and 600AD — precisely the time Arthur is supposed to have led his war band against the invading hordes.
None of this proves Arthur existed.
But the new finds add substance to the idea that the site could have produced cultured but strong warriors as well as influential political figures.
It would have been a beacon of lost civilisation in a world of economic chaos and roving, marauding tribes.
Much of the 150 fragments of glass and pottery recovered had been imported from the far reaches of the then collapsing Roman Empire — indicating a place of both great wealth and trade importance.
One piece was the lip of a Turkish-Phocaean red-slip plate or bowl. It was a particularly fine and highly prized ceramic that would likely have held pride of place on the table of nobility.
Original excavation work in the 1930s led archaeologists to believe the cliffside landmark may have once been an Early Christian monastery.
Later work has steadily strengthened the idea that it may have been an important Dark Age fortress, held by the king of Dumnonia who filled the void in Cornwall left when the Romans abandoned Britain in 410AD.
The story of England’s heroic King Arthur and his arch enemy Mordred has been a popular tale since the medieval era. It has been told and retold and been the subject of paintings and films as well as a succession of books. There are many differences between the narratives. For instance, sometimes Mordred is depicted as Arthur’s illegitimate son from his half-sister, or he might be portrayed as the son of the King of the Orkneys. He is also sometimes described as a member of King Arthur’s court who rebelled against him. However, the conflict between these two warriors and Mordred’s death in battle with Arthur are subjects of general agreement.
From the British Isles the legend of Arthur was carried to the European Continent and later to other English speaking countries around the world. The popularity of the first name Arthur in so many countries can also be traced to the fame of this legendary hero monarch. Today it is going to be hard to find someone educated in one of these lands who has not heard of King Arthur and is also able to name a few other of the characters and places featured. Although parts of the story are so well-known, its history and significance are not so widely appreciated.
The Origins of the Legend
Historians continue to speculate if King Arthur, Mordred and the other scenes and players in the legend have any historical basis. For the most part the story is associated with fifth or sixth century Wales. If a prototype for Arthur did exist he might have been a Celtic chieftain rallying his forces to fight off the Saxon invaders. References have been found to figures that might have been the model for King Arthur in some of the scare writings that survive from the Saxon period in British history, but none of the associations made are conclusive. Two Medieval writers share the responsibility for publicising the tale and incorporating in it many of the elements familiar to us today.
In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history of the Kings of Britain. Many allege that he drew more on his imagination than on any older records that had come to his notice. Others claim that some of what he wrote corresponds with information in earlier documents that have now come to light. Whatever the authenticity of his facts, Geoffrey introduced his readers to a King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin the Wizard and of course, King Arthur’s arch enemy Mordred. In this version of the tale King Arthur goes to fight against the Roman Empire in Gaul (France of today). The evil Mordred takes advantage of the opportunity to usurp Arthur’s throne and take Queen Guinevere as his wife. The news reached King Arthur on campaign. He returns to his kingdom and fights a fierce battle with Mordred at a place called Camlann, Mordred is killed but Arthur is mortally wounded.
In the late medieval period Thomas Malory published a revised and comprehensive version of the Arthur stories, entitled “The Death of Arthur” (Le Morte d’Arthur). The publication of this work coincided with the introduction of the printing press. Malory’s work became one of the first books printed in England and standardised many aspects of the Arthur legend, for example, the idea of Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table dates from this publication. The bitter enmity between Arthur and Mordred continues to form a key part of the story but in a key change from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative Queen Guinevere remain loyal to King Arthur.
Why have these tales survived the years?
The fact that the reader of this article is likely to be familiar with tales of Arthur and Mordred is a testimony to their enduring power. Yet they are more than simple stories. The Arthur tales have contributed culturally to the shaping of Britain’s identity. Over all these years they continue to serve a useful purpose. People are attracted by the idea that there was once an age when chivalrous knights rode about the British countryside fighting treacherous enemies like Mordred, or even supernatural dragons and other monsters. During World War Two, tales of Arthur’s bravery against the country’s enemies provided a rallying point for resistance to German aggression. Today the interest is probably largely of an escapist nature. Regardless of whether or not there is a basis in history, it seems that tales of Arthur and Mordred still serve a purpose in our hi-tech age.
By: Jane Richardson in newhistorian.com
Why did Hitler crave the missing panel in the famous Ghent Altarpiece? Maybe because the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a map to the Holy Grail.
On the night of 10 April 1934, one of the twelve oak panels that comprise Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Often referred to as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” this monumental oil painting is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. It is also the most-frequently stolen, having been burgled, in its entirety or in parts, at least six times—quite a feat, considering that it is the size of a barn door (14 x 11.5 feet) and weighs about two tons. It was the most-desired artwork by the Nazis, including Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.
The two Nazi leaders actually raced one another to be the first to steal the altarpiece. The Nazi art theft unit, the ERR, captured it first for Hitler, from its hiding place at Chateau de Pau, in the south of France, where the Belgian government had sent it for safe-keeping. But an emissary from Göring appropriated it for the Luftwaffe head’s massive stolen art collection, which included some seven-thousand masterpieces, displayed at his country estate outside Berlin. Hitler got wind of this, and intercepted the altarpiece, sending it first to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, where it was restored, and then for storage in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, where the twelve-thousand most famous stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied Europe were kept in secret, destined to feature in Hitler’s planned “super museum,” which would be the size of a city, and display every important artwork in the world. From the Altaussee salt mine, the Ghent Altarpiece and its fellow captives were ultimately rescued, thanks to the combined efforts of Austrian miners and a pair of Monuments Men, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein, who only learned of the Altaussee hoard thanks to a fortuitous toothache that led them to a former SS officer, an art historian who was in hiding as the war drew to a close. The upcoming George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, dramatizes some of these stories, though taking a great many liberties in the process.
The iconography of The Ghent Altarpiece has long fascinated scholars. The painting was immediately the most famous in Europe, when it was completed in 1432. It was the first major oil painting. Oil had been used to bind pigments to paintings since the Middle Ages, but Jan van Eyck was the first to demonstrate the true potential of oils, which permit far greater subtlety and detail than largely-opaque egg-based tempera paint, which was preferred before The Ghent Altarpiece popularized oils. The altarpiece contains over 100 figures, and is an elaborate pantheon of Catholic mysticism—at its center stands a heavenly field, brimming with uniquely-depicted figures around a sacrificial lamb, representative of Christ (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb from which the work draws it title). The lamb stands upon an altar and bleeds into a chalice—the Holy Grail.
Hitler so craved the Ghent Altarpiece because it was one of the most famous artworks in history, and it was by a Germanic artist, in the realistic, Northern Renaissance style that Hitler preferred. It had also been forcibly repatriated to Belgium after the First World War, before which certain panels of the altarpiece had been displayed in Berlin. The Treaty of Versailles mentioned only four works of cultural heritage, foremost among them The Ghent Altarpiece. Hitler wanted to correct the humiliation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, and recapturing the altarpiece would go some way toward that goal.
But there may also have been a more fantastic reason why Hitler wanted this painting above all others. Rumor had it that he was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, the so-called Arma Christi, or instruments of Christ’s Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. Hitler believed that the possession of the Arma Christiwould grant their owner supernatural powers. As the tide of the war turned ever more against the Nazis, Hitler cranked up his efforts to seek some supernatural way to bring victory to the Third Reich.
Cue the soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’sübermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The idea that the Nazis had teams of researchers hunting for supernatural treasures, religious relics, and entrances to a magical land of telepathic faeries and giants might sound like a bad History Channel documentary, or out-takes from an Indiana Jones movie. But despite the considerable popular interest in all things Nazi-related, and all things supernatural, relatively few people are aware of a very real organization that was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones plots: the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization.
The Ahnenerbe (which literally means “Inheritance of the Forefathers”) was a paranormal research group, established by order of SS head Heinrich Himmler on 1 July 1935. It was expanded during the Second World War on direct orders from the Fuhrer. Hitler and other top Nazi leaders’ (Himmler foremost among them) interest in the occult is well and widely documented. The Nazi Party actually began as an occult fraternity, before it morphed into a political party. Himmler’s SS, ostensibly Hitler’s bodyguard but in practice the leading special forces of the Nazi Army, was wholly designed based on occult beliefs. Wewelsburg, the castle headquarters of the SS, was the site of initiation rituals for twelve SS “knights” that was modeled on Arthurian legend. The magical powers of runes were invoked, and the Ahnenerbe logo features rune-style lettering. Psychics and astrologers were employed to attack the enemy and plan tactics based on the alignment of the stars. Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’s übermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The Ahnenerbe sent expeditions all over the world. To Tibet, to search for traces of the original, uncorrupted Aryan race, and for a creature called the Yeti, what we would call the Abominable Snowman. To Ethiopia, in search of the Ark of the Covenant. To the Languedoc, to find the Holy Grail. To steal the Spear of Destiny, which Longinus used to pierce Christ’s side as Christ hung on the cross, and which disappeared from a locked vault in Nurnberg. To Iceland, to find the entrance to a magical land of telepathic giants and faeries called Thule, which Hitler and most of the Nazi brass believed was the place of origin of the Aryans, and was very real. If they could find this entrance, believed to be accessible via a secret code hidden in a Medieval Icelandic saga called The Eddas, then the Nazis might accelerate their Aryan breeding program, and recover the supernatural powers of flight, telepathy and telekinesis that they believed their ancestors in Thule possessed, and which was lost due to inter-breeding with “lesser” races.
As crazy as all this may sound, it was fervently believed by many in the Nazi Party—so much so that huge sums of money were invested into research, along with hundreds of workers and scientists. This pseudo-scientific institute both sought supernatural advantages for the Nazi war effort, but also had a propagandistic agenda, to seek “scientific” evidence to support Nazi beliefs, like Aryan racial superiority.
With all this in mind, it is entirely plausible that Hitler believed that the Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded map to supernatural treasure. After all, the Ahnenerbe was hard at work looking for a secret entrance to the magical land of Thule in the Icelandic saga, The Eddas. Whether such a map is in The Ghent Altarpiece is another matter, one that scholars dismiss out of hand, though it is tempting to interpret the complex, enigmatic iconography and disguised symbolism of van Eyck’s masterpiece in terms more exotic than those in the average art history textbook. But there is also another component to the story that fuels this theory, and it is linked to the 1934 theft of that single panel.
There has never been a convincing explanation for the motivation for the theft of the Righteous Judges panel, referred to as such because it depicts a group of Biblical wise men (while also hiding several portraits, including one of van Eyck). While the man who masterminded the theft of the Judges panel, Arsene Goedertier, is known, he could not have acted alone, and his motivation is uncertain. The panel was ostensibly stolen in order to ransom it back to the bishopric of Saint Bavo—but Goedertier had more money in his bank account than was asked for in the ransom demand. For lack of a clear motive, various theories have arisen, one of which is linked to a Nazi art detective, Heinrich Köhn, who was sent to Ghent to find the stolen Judges panel several years before the Nazis seized the other eleven panels of the altarpiece.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, along with Himmler, conceived of the idea to find the lost Judges panel and give it as a gift to Hitler at the tenth anniversary of his assumption of power in Germany, in 1943. Köhn investigated throughout the city of Ghent, even taking apart portions of the cathedral (for one theory held that the panel had been hidden on-site, never having left Saint Bavo). He found nothing, and was sent to fight in the Eastern Front for his failure. Why would the Nazis wish to locate a single stolen panel? They surely had designs on seizing the entire altarpiece, and did not wish it to be incomplete when they did so. Some have suggested that the coded treasure map leading to the Arma Christiwas missing a key component that was hidden in the Judges panel. In order for the map to bear fruit, that panel was needed. It was stolen in 1934, therefore, to keep it out of Nazi hands, should the nascent Adolf Hitler follow through with his plan to recapture The Ghent Altarpiece and make it the focal point of his super-museum.
While there are plenty of non-supernatural, non-Da Vinci Code-y rationales for Hitler to desire The Ghent Altarpiece above all other objects, it is entirely plausible that Hitler might have believed in the coded treasure map theory. It seems far-fetched to us today, until we consider the other crazy theories that were truly believed by Hitler and his cronies. If The Eddas might contain a code to gain entrance to the magical land of Thule, where Aryan ancestors lived as flying telepathic faeries and giants then, according to Nazi logic, then the world’s most important painting might indeed contain a treasure map leading to the Holy Grail.