Knights Templar stories are great fodder for fantasy and fiction alike, showing up for centuries in popular culture. But facts often tell a different story, and the Caynton Caves of Shropshire "discovered" this week are no exception.
The photos are unbelievably beautiful: A shadowy, candlelit, underground sanctuary of twisting sandstone walkways, arches and deep chambers, improbably accessed via rabbit holes on an English farm in Shropshire.
These are the locally famous Caynton Caves.They were sealed up by the property’s owners in 2012 to keep out curiosity seekers, who are convinced they were used by followers of the Knights Templar, the powerful religious military order founded in the early 12th century.
So when an intrepid photographer made his way in this week and revealed his “find,” the eager British media happily jumped on the story.
But not so fast, historians say: Please, refrain from going down the rabbit hole of Templar myths like so many before!
The heritage organization Historic England believes the caves weren’t even built until the late 18th or early 19th century–hundreds of years after the Knights Templar were officially disbanded.
And Dan Jones, a medieval historian and a consultant on the upcoming HISTORY series Knightfall, whose upcoming book “The Templars: The Rise And Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” will be published in September, told HISTORY that this particular story doesn’t hold much weight. “It takes about two clicks on Google or a phone call to English Heritage to debunk this story,” Jones said. “The real question then is why has every news network from Fox to the BBC carried threadbare headlines with such glee?”
The persistent clouds of myths like this surrounding the Templars stretch all the way back to the beginning of the 13th century, when it was still active. As Jones said, “People love the romance and the possibility of the Templar story and over time the order has come to be seen as an all-powerful secret sect who operate untouched across the generations, warping history from the shadows.”
As early as 1200 A.D., Wolfram of Eschenbach incorporated the powerful order of warrior monks into his epic poem “Parzival,” a German version of the King Arthur legends, as the protectors of the Holy Grail. This launched one of the most widespread myths about the Knights Templar: that they found the Holy Grail (whether it was a stone, a plate or Christ’s cup from the Last Supper) while in Jerusalem and took custody of it.
They’ve also been credited with guarding other sacred relics, including the Shroud of Turin and the embalmed head of Jesus, secretly protecting descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, founding the Freemasons and helping plot the French Revolution. A more recent, equally unsubstantiated claim suggests that some Knights Templar made it to the New World in the late 14th century, nearly 100 years before Christopher Columbus arrived.
Modern pop culture has also played its part, with the order becoming the focal point of fictional versions of history, most notably in the novels of writers like Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. The video-game franchise “Assassin’s Creed” also capitalizes on the enduring intrigue of the Templar legend. “These stories all really pay homage to the medieval caricature of the Templars, and they are very entertaining – but it’s important to remember that they are not about the real Templars,” Jones said.
Many of the more sinister myths surrounding the Knights Templar—the idea that they might have operated from underground caves, for example–can be traced back to the way the order ended. By the early 14th century, Muslims had recaptured Jerusalem and the Knights Templar had moved their base of operations to Paris. In 1307, France’s King Philip IV set about destroying the order, possibly because he sought to seize their enormous wealth for himself.
Over the next few years, many Templars were falsely accused of heresy, perversion and other crimes; they were arrested, tortured into giving false confessions and even burned at the stake. Under pressure from the king, Pope Clement V formally disbanded the Knights Templar in 1312. Some believed the order continued its activities in secret.
Which brings us back to the Shropshire caves. While the Templars did own land in England, and even in Shropshire, there’s no evidence linking them to the site. And, as Dan Jones noted, “you have to ask yourself why an organisation whose purpose was a) to pray and b) to turn a profit from estates and farmland to fund the holy war in Palestine, Egypt and Syria would waste their time digging underground caves? Nothing that we know about the real Templars points to such activity.” And that Historic England heritage report notes that it’s architecture and decoration are an imitation of medieval style (“neo-Norman”) rather than the genuine article.
But while this latest “find” may be false, there’s much more meat left on the Templar bone. And, as Jones emphasized, the real history of the Templars is just as—if not more—fascinating than the fiction. “It was certainly spectacular – pilgrim bodyguards who became medieval Navy SEALS who became global banking titans who became despised heretics and who were then destroyed. But it is important to tease apart the truth from the rich tradition of fantasy that has attached to this extraordinary outfit.”