10.11.14

Cycling In Portugal: Tomar and the Knights Templar

Tomar's Convento de Cristo

Bestriding the banks of the Rio Nabão, Tomar is one of Portugal’s most historical treasures. Born inside the crenellated walls of the Convento de Cristo, it became the hub of Portuguese expansion during the 15th century, under the vision and resolve, of Grand Master Henry the Navigator.

Perched high above the town, its convent, built by the Order of the Knights Templar, along the then-volatile Muslim-Christian border, still presides today. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it contains a rare mix of architectural styles, from Roman to Renaissance, that reflect its diverse history over eight-and-a-half centuries.

From here, the Templars ruled a vast region of central Portugal that they pledged to defend against Moorish incursions. In exchange for their military service, they had in a matter of centuries, accrued power and wealth of gargantuan proportions; and of course jealous rivals.



An example of the Manueline
architectural extravagance.

In wider Europe, support for the Order, dressed in their characteristic white mantles with a red cross, was waning. The Christian Crusades in the Holy Land had finally been lost, while rumours of mistrust and the cult-like nature of the Templar’s secret initiation ceremony were beginning to spread. Allegedly seizing the opportunity to regain much of his kingdom’s wealth and control, Philip IV of France, along with the backing of the French pope Clement V, initiated a sinister decade of persecution, directed first and foremost against the Order’s powerful and wealthy leaders. In 1307, many of its members were arrested for crimes ranging from corruption to sodomy, heresy and idolatry, tortured into giving false confessions and burned at the stake. Seven years later, in Paris, the last remaining Templar leaders were gruesomely executed, including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay.

Conversely to what transpired in France and all other sovereign states under the influence of the Catholic Church, Portugal’s treatment of the Knights Templar was markedly more libertarian. Under its peace-loving monarch, King Dinis (Denis), they were granted asylum, largely for the role they played during the Reconquista and in the rebuilding of Portugal after the conflict had ceased. If that wasn’t enough, he created the ‘Order of Christ’, a virtual continuation of the ‘Order of the Temple’, as well as negotiating with Pope Clement's successor, John XXII, for the new Order's recognition and right to inherit the Templar assets and property.

Tomar's Aqueduto de Pegoes, with its 180 arches, built
around the 16th century to supply water to the Convent.

A century later, during Henry’s Age of Discoveries, the Order’s cross was emblazoned on the sails of his caravels which traversed the Atlantic. Enriched by these overseas expeditions, he became the first ruler to improve the buildings within Tomar’s Convento de Cristo since its inception in 1160. He also used this newly-gained wealth to build dams to control the Rio Nabão, as well as draining flood-prone areas to allow the emerging town to attract more settlers.

While the original Order of the Knights Templar lasted but a breath above two centuries, before it was disbanded by Pope Clement V, its virtues and vices, along with its sudden demise, have given rise to legendary-status and supposition. You only have to visit a history class of young students or read a book like Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code', or even turn on your television to watch Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, to realise that it’s still alive and well today.






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