Sunday 3 December 2023

Napoleon (2023)

 The other day I saw the film 'Napoleon', directed by Ridley Scott. Worth seeing on the big screen for the spectacle, the battles being both impressive and gruesome. I wasn't sure I would buy Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, because he doesn't look much like him, but he becomes more believable in the role as it goes along. 

I would say I had a reasonable but not extensive amount of knowledge about Napoleon before seeing this film, which is probably the ideal, as it is enough to be able to understand what is going on, without getting too finickity about the historical inaccuracies. I also had mixed feelings about the historical Napoleon, and didn't mind him being depicted as a bit of a brat at times. (I'm not sure if the film wants the viewer to like or admire Napoleon. It ends with a tally of the death toll of his various battles, without making it quite clear whether it blames him exclusively for all that).

The film covers the entirety of Napoleon's career so clearly has to skip over quite a lot. Much focus is given to Napoleon's marital relations with Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby). There is little time for Napoleon's civic achievements, restoring stability and prosperity in the wake of Revolutionary chaos, which I would rate among the more laudable aspects of his legacy- things like the church settlement, the inviting back of emigres, the improvement of state infrastructure, education and the legal system. 

Regarding the military campaigns, Italy is barely mentioned. (The Peninsular War is also ignored, nor is there any mention of Nelson, the Battle of the Nile...). In Egypt we see Napoleon shooting at the pyramids (which he didn't do) and putting his hat on a mummy. The Acre expedition is also skipped, which is probably just as well... We were already treated to a glimpse of Napoleon's less savoury deeds with the ruthless suppression of the royalist uprising, where artillery fire was unleashed against the disgruntled Parisians. The scene is brief but pulls no punches.

Other gruesome scenes include Napoleon's horse being hit by a canon ball at Toulon. At Austerlitz we are treated to the sight of Austrian troops and horses drowning in the water under ice that has been smashed up by French canon fire, the water stained red with blood. (Recalling the plagues of Egypt as depicted in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'.)

The Battle of Waterloo is shown in condensed form (no sign of Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte), albeit that there is time to invent a scene where Napoleon takes part in a cavalry charge. (Ridley Scott also likes to include plenty of flags in his battle scenes, and rather surpasses himself here- the British like looks like the Last Night of the Proms). At least he has the redcoats form squares to receive cavalry, albeit at the last minute. 

Another invented scene is a meeting between Napoleon and Wellington aboard HMS Bellerophon, after Waterloo, and before his second exile. I'm not sure why that was necessary as all Wellington does is tell Napoleon about the destination for his second banishment.
A lot of the filming was done at locations in the UK. The throne room scene in Moscow was filmed in Westminster Cathedral, by the looks, though the exterior scenes were done at Blenheim Palace, with onion domes digitally added. The mansion used for where Josephine was packed off to (after the divorce) was West Wycombe Park, (I visited West Wycombe earlier in the year, it is an interesting place, formerly the home of Sir Francis Dashwood, notorious leader of the Hellfire Club, and host to such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin). West Wycombe also had a digital makeover, they added a higher roof on it in post-production (presumably) to make it look more French. Someone in the graphics department had the tricky job of inserting the roofline behind Josephine's moving head, in a couple of scenes. Lincoln Cathedral stood in for Notre Dame de Paris, for the coronation scene, and HMS Victory was used as the Bellerophon, and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich was also used for some Parisian street scenes. Pentworth House was also used for some grand interiors. Other filming was done in Malta, which stood in for Egypt and Elba, among other places. Napoleon's actual conquest of Malta (depriving the Knights of St John of ownership, which he did while on his way to Egypt) was among the bits of history that were left out.

Stott has a record for changing history to suit his films. In 'Kingdom of Heaven', he made Balian of Ibelin into a blacksmith in France, and who had an affair with Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem, when he was actually a nobleman born in the Latin East, who was married to Sibylla's step-mother. In 'Exodus', Scott made Ramesses II fight the battle of Kadesh while Seti I was still alive, and had him wearing a lady's Nekhbet headdress while he was doing it. There is nothing quite as egregious as that in 'Napoleon', though (as I almost forgot) it does teleport Napoleon into the crowds at Marie Antoinette's execution, in the opening scene. 

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Lost Relics of the Knights Templar

I recently started watching the TV series 'Lost Relics of the Knights Templar', which is showing on Blaze. It concerns items that were said to have been unearthed in Tomar, Portual by treasure hunters in the 1960s. These were sold to various buyers, and subsequently tracked down and reassembled by wealthy collectors Hamilton White and Carl Cookson, (who aside from these Templar items boast a marvellous and eclectic hoard of stuff, from gold bars to sports cars.)

Supposedly the people who unearthed the hoard in Tomar were looking for Roman gold and didn't really grasp the significance of what they had found. That seems rather odd, for though though there was a Roman settlement on the site of Tomar, the place is better known for its medieval, Templar history. The city was re-founded by the Master of the Templars in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, who now has a statue in the main square. Tomar became the regional headquarters of the Knights Templar, who had a fortress there complete with an impressive circular chapel. The city also boasts the church of Santa Maria Do Olival, where prominent templars were buried. When the Order of the Temple was suppressed, in the early fourteenth-century, by papal edict, a new military-religious order, called the Knights of Christ, arose to take their place. The Knights of Christ received all the Templar's lands and properties in Portugal, and Tomar became their HQ. Several other new orders in the Iberian Peninsula were beneficiaries of the Templar's confiscated assets, whereas elsewhere ex-Templar estates were mostly transferred to their long-standing rivals the Knights Hospitaller. It's not inconceivable that certain valuable items could have been hidden in the meantime. 

One must be cautious, of course. There are a lot of fake artworks and antiques out there, and a lot of clever forgers. It has been said that as many as half of the antiquities on the market may be fakes. (It is a similar story to the cult of religious relics in medieval times, with demand for these prestigious rarities out-stripping supply.)

One of the supposed 'Templar treasures' can't have come from the Tomar haul, if such there was. The 'Himmler Helmet' is a medieval (apparently) great helm, which has been augmented, with the emblem of the Ahnenerbe, on a brass plate attached to its brow, purporting to show that the helmet was around in Nazi Germany. This helmet is said to have been in a collection of medieval arms and armour of formerly kept by the SS at their HQ at Wewelsberg Castle.

Perhaps the most impressive 'Templar relic' that we are shown is a large chalice made of obsidian, a volcanic glass which is one of the hardest substances in nature. This is decorated with crosses of a type used by the Templars. The chalice was taken to be examined by Jonathan Tokeley Parry, former British Army officer, smuggler and apparently antiques expert and restorer. (He gained notoriety a few years back after receiving a criminal conviction for whisking authentic antiquities out of Egypt disguised as cheap tourist tat.) 'John T' reported that the obsidian of the cup could only be worked by scratching or tapping it with corundum, a harder stone. No metal tool would dent it, and therefore he estimated that it would have taken up to four years to make. He also found calcium deposits on the piece indicating that it had spent some time with water dripping on it, possibly in a cave. He identified the glue used in a mend as probably dating from the 1960s, when the chalice was discovered by the 'Portuguese Lovejoys', and he seemed to have few doubts about the chalice having authentic Templar origins. Later in the programme, he was shown a carving, on a stone, also in the collection of White and Cookson, of two monks venerating a chalice. This is said to be of twelfth-century Portuguese origin. He seemed to think this was not something that could have been shown outside without provoking a riot, and it was generally spoken of as evidence of some secretive 'grail-worshipping cult'. I wouldn't agree with that analysis. The liturgical chalice and holy wafer signified the Host, the body and blood of Christ, and would not have been particularly unorthodox objects of veneration. (The monks in the carving appeared to be Benedictions, as traces of brown paint remain on their habits.)

Another dubious claim, made in the programme, repeated by Tim Wallace Murphy, is that Obsidian was known as 'dragon stone', and that a winged dragon or serpent is one of the symbols of sacred knowledge. I'm not sure where this idea comes from. The narrator also refers to raw obsidian as 'dragon glass', (A fictional, obsidian-like substance called 'dragonglass' appears in the work of George RR Martin, in his 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series, but that is the only thing I can find. No reference to 'dragonglass', according to Google Ngram Viewer, predates the mid 1990s when these fantasy novels were written.)

Tim Wallace Murphy is one of those who present the Templars as Gnostic initiates. He sees them as members of an esoteric tradition in opposition to a repressive Catholic Church. In the imagination of such people, a perfectly common cross design, cut into a cup, becomes a symbol of secret knowledge that the religious authorities sought to supress. I'm not sure how such opinions can be justified.

Another item in the collection is a sword embellished with inlaid crosses, which somehow came to be associated with a Templar Grand Master, namely Guillaume de Beaujeu, who fell in 1291 at the Siege of Acre. The sword looks correct for the period, design wise, and suitably time-worn, but beyond that there is not much more that can be said. Apparently it was recorded that de Beaujeu's sword was saved after the disaster at Acre, which effectively marked the end of the Crusader presence in the Holy land, but what happened to it subsequently is unknown. 

Other featured 'Templar' items include a metal reliquary-type box, and a stone cup with four bearded faces carved around it. Neither of these initially struck me as particularly likely candidates for being authentic Templar objects. One thing I noticed is that the reliquary had a scene of a figure fighting a dragon, and the man is holding an oval shield. A templar-era object ought to show a kite-shaped or triangular shield, I would think. The box is believed by Hamilton White to be post-Templar, but in a style that harps back. He associates it with Henry the Navigator (d. 1460), the Portuguese Prince who was master of the Order of Christ. The collectors' hypothesis seems to be that these treasures from Tomar were not buried by the Templars, but by the successor Order, which itself came under scrutiny from the Inquisition in later centuries, and felt the need to distance itself from its Templar legacy. Hence the burying of Templar-related artefacts.

The vessel with the heads on it, identified as heads of John the Baptist, was supported as an authentic piece by John Tokeley Parry, who noted marks on it left by plant roots which apparently would have taken some time to develop while it was buried underground. (The plant roots gave off moisture which caused crystals in the stone to grow in affected areas). Similar evidence was found on a marble chalice which is also part of the collection, (similar in design to the obsidian one, although smaller.) It's hypothesised that these two stone vessels were buried in a wooden box which subsequently disintegrated. The stone chalice differs from the obsidian one in having four letters carved in the spaces between the four crosses, namely 'I H S V'. This would likely stand for 'In Hoc Signo Vinces', i.e. 'by this sign conquer', a reference to the vision of the Emperor Constantine, who was told to put a Christian sign on his soldiers' shields before the battle of Milvian Bridge. ('IHS' is also a common abbreviation of Jesus, and the 'V' could be for for Vincit. Hence it could also signify 'Jesus is victorious'). 

It is all very interesting, but I would not put it beyond the capability of a master forger to replicate signs of age, and thereby to falsify history, so would I remain cautious concerning the artefacts in question. 

Saturday 29 July 2023

The Mummy

 I recently re-watched 'The Mummy', 2017. The one with Tom Cruise. It's growing on me, somewhat. The introduction of crusader knights at the start is an idea with potential, but nothing much is done with this. (I always thought the idea of crusaders stumbling across some potent ancient mystery during their activities in the East would make for a good story.) The film's pretty bad, from an historical point of view, in that it's claimed that a crusader graveyard found in London dates from the time of Sixth Crusade , and that the knights would have been veterans of a campaign in Egypt. The actual Sixth Crusade (1228-9) fizzled out after a failed siege of Damascus, and went nowhere near Egypt. Several Crusading endeavours, before and after the Sixth Crusade, did go to Egypt. The former included a joint Crusader-Byzantine campaign, and  the latter including the Fifth and Seventh Crusades, so why the film-makers couldn't have looked it up and gone with one of those, I don't know. 

The Egyptological errors in the film are equally egregious if you know anything about these things. For example the same 'expert' who claims the sarcophagus is '5000 years old' also says that it is from the New Kingdom, which was more like 3000 years ago. It doesn't look like an Egyptian sarcophagus, either, and the tomb, which looks like a cavern and not at all like a tomb, is somehow situated in Iraq, a land quite a long way from Egypt, which the Ancient Egyptians never ruled. It was not somewhere the Egyptians would have been in a position to be building tombs:

The tomb also featured a well of liquid mercury into which the sarcophagus was sunk. Apparently mercury was known in ancient Egypt and has been found in tombs. I doubt there was anything like this (although the tombs of Chinese emperors were said to contain rivers of mercury, and mercury has also been found in a pre-Aztec pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico.). 

The eponymous mummy in question is one Amunet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who made a pact with Set (portrayed incorrectly as a diabolical god of death) after being ousted from her place in the royal succession when her father sired a baby son. (After being turned into a monster she proceeds to murder her father and half-brother). This might be the silliest/least explicable part of the plot, as Egyptian royals were quite capable of getting rid of rivals, including inconvenient siblings, without resorting to satanic pacts that play havoc on the eyeballs. The career of Cleopatra, at the end of the Ptolemaic era, exemplifies that fact well enough. 

Cleopatra lived closer to our time than to the time of the pyramid building pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty, who themselves may have been the inheritors of a much older legacy. (The Ptolemies were the 32nd dynasty, and they lasted the better part of 300 years.) The longevity of Egyptian culture is quite astonishing to contemplate, and they must have known something or been doing something right to achieve so much. Nor did Ancient Egypt die with Cleopatra. The funerary custom of mummification remained popular in Egypt for centuries to come, under Roman rule, albeit with more naturalistic portraits attached to the wrappings. The emperors, though absentee landlords, continued to sponsor temple building, in the old style. Caesars were portrayed on the walls in the garb of ancient pharaohs, as had been the Greek/Mascedonian-descended monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The last known  hieroglyphic inscription to be carved, before the Pharaonic civilisation and its knowledge started to slip from memory, dated to 394 AD. That was inscribed in the temple of the goddess Isis on the island of Philae, in Southern Egypt, (a goddess whose cult had meanwhile spread throughout the Roman word.) Isis's island temple was the last bastion of the old religion, only being closed on the orders of the Emperor Justinian in 530s AD, a mere century before the Islamic conquest of Egypt.

The spoken language, with a substituted Greek-based script, survived rather longer as the language of the Coptic Christian. Another legacy of pharaonic civilisation was the kingdom of Nubia, in Sudan, which outlived classical Egyptian civilisation by many centuries, and where rulers continued to build temples to the gods, and to be buried in pyramids (albeit on a more modest scale). 

Anyway, thought this was a suitable enough subject to touch upon when I'm bringing this blog back from the dead.

More of a fan of the 90's version of 'The Mummy'. That sort of film seems to work better with a period setting (1900s-1930s) rather than being set in the prosaic present. The idea of Ancient Egyptian mummies coming back to life and terrorising the living began as a sub-genre of gothic horror, with its origins in late 19th and early 20th century fiction. The idea of cursed tombs was present in the culture well before the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, and the subsequent death of Lord Carnarvon, a century ago.

Regarding atmospheric literature in the genre, one could do worse than the following:

The Jewel of Seven Stars (Bram Stoker)

Under the Pyramids/Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (HP Lovecraft)

Romance of a Mummy, and The Mummy's Foot, (Theophile Gautier).

The Ring of Thoth (Arthur Conan Doyle).

Crocodile on the Sandbank (Elizabeth Peters).

Monday 31 July 2017

Witchcraf interview for

I recently answered some questions on witchcraft, the witch cult, night flights and hallucinations, for the website related to 'All About History Magazine'.

This coincides with the publication of my latest book 'Maleficiun: Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West', wherein these and other matters are considered in more depth. Out now from Amberley Publishing.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

A - Z of the Knights Templar reissued.

My A - Z of the Knights Templar is being reissued by Spellmount in Pocket Gide format, which merits dusting off this blog to mention...

Here it is on Amazon...

I was very pleased to hear that Spellmount were printing a new, pocket edition of my work 'A to Z of the Knights Templar', especially as this enabled me to make a few tweaks and additions during the editing process. Authors, like artists, I suspect, are often glad of a chance to revise their creations with the befit of a little hindsight.
I first conceived of an encyclopaedia or dictionary format work on the Knights Templar to address a need I perceived. Although many books are printed on the Templars and the Crusades, some may contain references and terms that may mystify the general reader. The story of the Templars takes place over two centuries, and covers a substantial geographical area, from Scotland to Spain to Syria (and possibly beyond.) There are a lot of names of place and people - various illustrious Raymonds, Bohemonds and Baldwins that crop up. I thought a reference work would come in handy, to help readers keep track of them all, and to say how they were connected to the Military Order. I wrote 'A to Z of the Knights Templar' concurrently with doing an MA in Crusader Studies, so many of these individuals and themes were fresh in my mind.
Books concerning the Knights Templar broadly fall into two types - speculative, mystical and conspiratorial works of alternative history, one the one hand, and perhaps somewhat forbidding academic works on the other. I hope my 'A to Z' may enable readers of the former to ground themselves in real, established history - concerning the Templars, who they were, what they did, what they believed, and what happened to them - and to probe the origin of various myths. At the same time, the book may serve to clarify things mentioned in the more weighty books on the topic (as well as in original sources) that might pass without explanation. The book can be used in conjunction with other books, or else be dipped into for general browsing.
The entries give facts about kings, queens, popes, preceptors, sultans, barons and brigands, and about many of the individual Templars themselves, whose names, stories and sometimes words have come down to us. As well as alphabetical entries, cross-referenced, including many named individuals, locations, objects, battles, events and themes, the work contains an overview account of the history of the Order, and  select chronology of Templar history.


I have mostly been concentrating on art for the past few years, much of it however reflecting my historical interests.
On the subject of the Templars, I designed some Templar-themed jewellery for Eastgate Resource, which I may not have mentioned hitherto hereabouts....

Thursday 30 May 2013

Mary Magdalene: biography of a legend ebook

Greetings all. I have been a bit quiet on the historical front but there is some news. I have just published my first e-book, on Kindle. The title is Mary Magdalene: Biography of a Legend. (The myth and veneration of the saint, from Biblical antiquity to the era of the Crusades).

The cover I chose features a detail of a painting by the Russian artist Alexander Ivanov, which I feel suits very nicely.

A review of my draft manuscript commissioned by Boydell and Brewer contained the following:

'In this book, Gordon Napier sets out to “tell the story of the Magdalene’s story,” in a way that transcends “conspiracy theory and mythology.” The author intends to examine and evaluate the historical evidence in order to piece together the history of Mary Magdalene’s image and cult through the “early Middle Ages” and into “the age of the crusades”. Particular strengths of the book are its examination of the saint and her cult in both orthodox and heterodox contexts and in both the Western and the Eastern church – cultural worlds which few scholars are willing or able to address jointly. The author considers that the age of the crusades was a pivotal moment in the cult, bringing an unprecedented degree of contact between different Christian (and non-Christian) traditions and leading to the cult’s promotion by a series of different groups for very different religious and political reasons. 
In a post-Dan-Brown world, in which much nonsense is written about Mary Magdalene in particular and early Christianity in general, and in which it is crucial for history rather than mythology to reach the general public, this book has much to recommend it. For the most part it is engagingly written, in an accessible but not elementary style. It is enlivened by many references to and quotations from primary sources. Its treatment of such large historical developments as the crusades and the history of the mendicant orders is largely accurate, though necessarily superficial. The book’s division into two parts, one chronicling the evolution of different understandings of Mary Magdalene’s place in the Christian story and the other exploring the cult in and beyond the crusading era, is sensible. Its thematic chapters likewise are sensible and create an engaging structure... The conclusion is particularly well-written and engaging, and the epilogue and appendices are useful.'

Monday 4 February 2013

The Resurrection and Rehabilitation of Richard III.

Have been quite interested by the recent news of the reidiscovery of the body of Richard III, under a car park in Leicester, the site the old Greyfriars convent. The extraordinary circumstances of the discovery, which was the first thing found when the diggers tore up a section of the car park, under a painted letter 'R' was rather reminiscent of medieval accounts of miraculous discoveries of saintly relics- almost too good to be true, yet the evidence stacks up in favour of the identification. This evidence includes genetic, a match was found with a descendant of Richard's sister.

The body was found to have curvature of the spine, so the king was a hunchback after all. It seems fans of Richard III have egg on their faces in that regard, as they have long insisted that Richard was not a hunchback, and that this image was part of hostile Tudor propaganda. One suspects that the group, whose instinct has been to stick up for the underdog, has led to them somewhat idolising Richard, and assuming that he has been over-vilified and caricatured.

I am not so keen on the Wars of the Roses, which seem internecine and regrettable. However the wounds evidenced by the skeleton seem to confirm the impression that the king died bravely in battle. As one of the last real warrior kings, and one who gained battles in vain despite a physical handicap, he deserves a certain new respect. In this regard he may also be compared to Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. (This example also goes to show the presumptuousness of assuming that a medieval king had to be entirely able-bodied in order to be effective on the battlefield.) I hope Richard's reburial is with suitable pomp.