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Knights Templars South West France Pilgrimage Compostela
The Pilgrimage Route to Compostela and the knights templars and it’s link with south west France
Route of Santiago de Compostela the Pilgrimage Route to Compostela by Gail Smart for lagiraudiere.com
Shortly before the year 900AD the tomb of St. James / St. Jacques / Santiago the Great / Major / Elder was ‘discovered’ in the part of Spain known as Galicia. The news rapidly spread throughout Christian Europe and very soon pilgrims were making their way from all parts of the continent to visit the site. As Spain is a part of the Iberian Peninsula, this meant that at some time most of the travellers would have to make the hazardous journey across the Pyrenees. Many routes led to the crossing point from places further north and east, like so many tributaries feeding into a river.
The badge of these pilgrims is the scallop shell, known in French as the coquille St. Jacques. One of the meeting points for crowds of pilgrims, from the 11th century onwards, was the Romanesque church of St. Eutrope in Saintes (17 Charente Maritime); here seen rising up behind the Roman arena. The bonus for the travellers was to be able to pay their respects to the remains of St. Eutropia in the crypt, now known as the lower church. These relics are now in an elaborate ark in front of the altar of the upper church, which was rebuilt in post-Napoleonic capital times.
The lower church is infused with a reverential atmosphere, emphasised by the subdued lighting, simple floor and exquisitely carved capitals on the columns. It would be easy to imagine the throngs of pilgrims crowding into the space to pay their respects. This capital shows a soul being weighed to see if it is worthy of entry to heaven. The devil, on the right, is trying to push the scales in his favour.
A similar scene is depicted in the frescoes in the Chapel of the Knights Templar at Cressac.
Route of Santiago de Compostela
The Knights Templar
To safeguard the pilgrims on their long journeys a whole infrastructure grew up around the pilgrimage ‘business’. This system included lodgings, hospitals and abbeys where the needs of the travellers could be met. Those setting up these undertakings – religious and lay people alike- were not slow to develop the commercial and entrepreneurial possibilities.
Some of the secondary routes for pilgrims heading for the Pyrenees passed through the Charente and the Charente Maritime. Many of the wonderful Romanesque churches in the area lay claim to a connection with the provision of comforts for the travellers. Some claim a link with the Knights Templar – the warrior monks who protected those making the long journey and provided a rudimentary banking system so that travellers did not have to risk carrying large amount of cash with them. ‘Plus, a change, plus c’est la meme chose’ as a famous French author once said.
The international Order of the Knights Templar was founded during the Crusades. In about 1120 Hugues de Payns decided to create a militia to defend and guide pilgrims. The name came from their original headquarters on the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Free men, noble or not, could join The Temple if they swore the vows common to all religious orders – those of obedience, poverty and chastity.
The Templar sites are usually called ‘commanderies’. They would have consisted of a house for the commander, a dwelling for the monks, a place for pilgrims to stay, a farm, a mill, a chapel and a cemetery. Each site would also need water so there would need to be access to this commodity.
If ever you are driving in the Brossac area you will see many road signs pointing to Guizengeard, but you will never arrive there. No sign tells you that you have actually come to that place. The ‘mairie’ of Guizengeard is now in the village of chez Thomas and all that remains of the original village seems to be the church and its surrounding graveyard. It must once have been quite an important place.
At one time the Templars had a commanderie there called ‘la Maison de Land’. The chapel, dating from 1212, eventually became the parish church after the proscription of the Templars in France by King Phillip in 1307. Some stories say he responded badly to being refused entry into the order. Others maintain that he was concerned about having such a large autonomous and wealthy supranational operating within his kingdom and outside his control. The Templars were accused of all sorts of heresies and improper behaviour. Many of them died at the stake. In 1312 Pope Clement V abolished the Templars and handed all their possessions to the Knights Hospitallers.
The Chapelle des Templiers at Cressac, originally called the Temple du Dognon, just South of Blanzac, is one of the most accessible sites to visit, as it is reasonably well signposted on the route from Brossac. During the summer of 2007 a history student was employed to give guided tours of the chapel, both inside and out. Tours are available in French only but a leaflet in English was available from the tourist office in Blanzac.
The chapel is open Monday to Saturday from 15.00 to 18.00 in July and August, and by appointment during the rest of the year – ring the Blanzac Tourist Office 05 45 64 14 88, or try 05 45 64 07 31 or 05 45 67 75 32 if the office is closed. There is a modest entry charge of 2€ or 3€ with the guide. Under 16s do not pay. (Please check for up-to-date prices)
Currently the chapel is a protestant church belonging to the reformed church of Barbezieux
The geographical position of this site provides it with protection from the elements and gives it a good view of anyone approaching along the Ridgeway-type tracks which would have led to it. The well is still in situ and the chapel is all that remains of the original commanderie. In 1789 revolutionaries destroyed part of the frescoes and in the post-revolution era the chapel was used as a barn.
It was the seigneur of Chatigniers who established the site here in around 1150-1160 after his return from the 3rd Crusade. On the right-hand exterior wall (as you face the chapel entrance) you can clearly see the marks in the stone caused by pilgrims having to rub their hands a certain number of times on the wall as penitence for their sins.
The main claim to fame of this exquisite little chapel rests on the fresco friezes found inside. They date from 1170-1180 and once covered all the walls. The tale is told in them of the Crusaders in the Holy Land; specifically, the victory of the joint forces of the Knights Templar and the French army in 1163. Geoffroy Martel, brother of the Count of Angouleme, was one of the commanders of the French army fighting the Saracens, led by Nour Ed Din, at Krak des Chevaliers.
The lower frieze dates from a little later. It represents the Saracen camp and an exchange of prisoners. The east and west walls are also decorated with frescoes, some of which have been interpreted in differing ways. The kingly figure on the right-hand side of the west window has been identified as Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, and as Louis VII, ruler of France, with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, later married to Henry II of England. On the left-hand side, the story of St. George and the dragon is the theme, symbolising the triumph of Christianity over the ‘infidel’ Saracens. The east wall depicts St. Michael weighing a soul. The bishop depicted might be Adémar, the bishop of Angouleme.
A Templar Knight is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith, just as his body is protected by the armor of steel. He is thus doubly-armed, and need fear neither demons nor men. ~ Bernard de Clairvaux,
Gail Smart September 2007 – Bibliography – ‘Chapel of the Templars in Cressac Saint Genis’ published by the Blanzac Tourist Office – www.insolite.aso.fr/templiers/cressac.htm- ‘A Brief History of Religious Military Orders’ by Alain Demurger, published Fragile, Collection Breve Histoire 1997 – Photograph of the east wall of Cressac temple courtesy of Neil Entwistle. A Seal of the Knights Templar, with their famous image of two knights on a single horse, a symbol of their early poverty. The text is in Greek and Latin characters, Sigillum Militum Xpisti: followed by a cross, which means “the Seal of the Soldiers of Christ”.
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