Friday, 9 June 2023

Tomar and the Knights Templar


I wanted to be a Knight Templar when I was eight. It didn't come to pass

The Convent of Christ within the castle walls

Could that be Dan Brown?

The entrance to the castle. Note the plants to the left

No idea what plant this is, but it's thick as leather and attracted graffiti.

I looked for Gualdim Pais Loves Abu Yusuf al-Mansur, but without success.

The Castle gardens.

A rather nice bench, Moorish influence fairly obvious, within the Castle's garden walks.

An orange tree for those Templars partial to marmalade on toast

Walls within walls, the Convent of Christ peeping out in the background

Gardens within the walls of the castle

Outer walls

Built on a steep outcrop of impenetrable rock

Those forests could hide an army

Tomar from the battlements

And its history

The Knights Templar became a supra European organisation of vast wealth and power, its tentacles  everywhere and becoming even more powerful as the years passed. It’s one of history’s great ‘what ifs’ —what if the Knights Templar had continued to grow? How might it have changed history. 

But, as every schoolchild knows, the Templars were brutally disbanded by Philip ‘The Fair’ of France. Desperately short of money and with the Pope in his back pocket (Avignon) he accused The Templars of foul heresies, satanism, and spitting on the crucifix amongst other heinous crimes. In 1307, every Templar in France was arrested on the same day. 

The process of destroying such a powerful order took some time and considerable savagery, but by 1314 it was over. In that year, Jacques de Moley, Grand Master of the Templars was burnt at the stake, but not before laying a curse on the Pope and the French king. Pope Clement V died in April, a month after the Grand Master. His body was placed in a church overnight; the church caught fire and Clement was burnt to a cinder. Philip IV lived a little longer, dying in November that year, broken, it is said by the immorality of his daughters, and perhaps remembering the Templar’s curse.   

Though disbanded elsewhere, things were a little different in Portugal, where King Dinis persuaded Pope Clement’s successor, John XXII, to create a new organisation: the Order of Christ. This new Order took over Templar assets as well as  its membership, the Knights Templar carrying on, as it were, under a different name. It assumed control of the great fortress of Tomar in 1357 and over the years added to it—a new cloister in 1557 being one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Portugal.  

Within the castle is the great Convent of Christ that boasts a fabulous mix of Gothic, Arab and later Renaissance elements, worth a final post next week. 




Friday, 2 June 2023

Lisbon is hilly

Without Sat Nav, or anything approaching the communication systems we now take for granted, fighting battles during the English Civil War was akin to ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ or 'Pinning the Tail on the Donkey.’ Before you could join in battle, the two armies had first to find each other and arrange a time agreeable to both for fighting to commence. I was reminded of this in Lisbon when we hired an Uber from our rented apartment to the station. What we didn’t realise was that we had just hired the most incompetent Uber driver in Lisbon. First of all, he couldn’t find our building, even though it was numbered and on a major road. He suggested a well-known café a quarter of a mile away. Off we trudged, our wheeled suitcases clattering like a seventeenth century army on cobbles. 

No Uber.

 For a reason we couldn’t quite fathom, he suggested another meeting point, Praça Luis de Camoes a famous square dominated by the statue of Portugal’s most famous poet. It was, though half a mile farther on. Uphill. 

We got there. No Uber. We waited, were just about to give up, when his car turned a corner and crawled into sight. No explanations, no recriminations, we were too angry for that and more importantly had a train to catch. 

“Santa Apolonia,” we said and sat back in relief as he navigated the streets and took us to an obscure Lisbon suburb, so obscure it doesn’t even appear on google. 

“This isn’t the station,” we said.

“You didn’t say the station,” he said.

This was hard to compute. Imagine an American or German family in London laden with luggage asking for Paddington or Kings Cross or a Spanish family in New York asking for Grand Central. Where would they expect to be taken, the station or an obscure cul-de-sac in Kensington or Queens? 

“The fee would be another 4 euros,” he said, if we expected him to take us to the destination he should have gone to in the first place. 

Much later, I Googled Santa Apolonia, Lisbon. Page after page hit upon the station. Nothing else. I’m guessing our driver had licked his finger and held it up to the wind. 

The monastery of Sao Vincent de Fora

A fragment of the interior

Mausoleum. All those dead bodies.

The Nativity in terracotta with more than a few spectators. Flamboyant, ornate and far from the Protestant tradition. 

The Pantheon seen from the monastery of Sao Vincent de Fora

Lisbon is an exciting city, intensely cosmopolitan, and  with a brilliant subway we didn’t discover until our second visit. The only problem is it’s built on bloody hills. Imagine a particularly complex Escher diagram with hills instead of stairs. Insanely steep hills. A rollercoaster in every direction. Give me a flat Texan plain where mountains know their place—beautiful from a distance. 

We sat back and sighed in relief as our train trundled north to Tomar, which was mercifully flat. Portuguese railways are state owned and presumably subsidised. The fares are cheap, and the trains are clean and punctual. 

But why Tomar? A wedding.

All weddings are special; this, held outdoors, especially so—an advertiser’s dream—it was like walking into a film set: golden sunlight streaming through fig trees, olives and vines; the confetti, dried wildflowers taken from the ground we were standing on. 

The setting was an advertiser’s dream; the food and unlimited wine were Mike Keyton’s dream, and then there were the people, intriguing, open and friendly. I confided in my godson, whose wedding it was, that everyone looked so interesting, it would be fun to get to know them all. “Go for it,” he said. “Everyone we’ve invited are your kind of people. They’ll talk to anyone.” (I don’t think he meant ‘even you.’) I took him at his word and like a merry dodgem car bumped into one group after another and discovered new worlds.

Above and below, the Praça Republica dominated by Tomar's founder and Templar knight, Gualdim Pais. The entire town forms  a strict grid system designed by the Templar knights, and a 'sacred geometry' is revealed in the four main streets forming a perfect four armed cross, each arm pointing to four of the city's convents. 
Credit all  photos: BM Keyton

We had a day to recover, a day spent in Tomar before returning to Lisbon and eventually home. And Tomar is interesting, let me tell you….note the statue and what's floodlit in the night sky.  (to be continued.)

Friday, 19 May 2023


I go back to Liverpool on special occasions. When my mother was alive I went often, and the highlight of Sunday mornings was the Billy Butler show: ‘Hold Your Plums’. (Don’t ask)

The format was simple, a phone-in quiz. The result was comedy gold, as callers struggled to find an answer despite clues that all but gave it it to them.  I’m not too sure I’d recommend listening to these short clips (5mins average) all in one go, but even now I found myself snorting with disbelief and laughter, much like I did all those years ago. They also bring back memories of teaching, where I would be determined to tease out an answer, and the pupil would be equally determined not to give it. 

Words change in meaning. Gay is a good example. Banter a less obvious one. When the word emerged in the C17th it was seen as aggressive street talk verging on bullying. For much of my life it’s been defined as affectionate teasing between friends, an important bonding exercise. 

More recently its definition seems to be reverting to the original C17th meaning – at least if HR Departments are to be believed. Women’s groups too. The term banter is itself gendered, argues UCL gender studies professor Katherine Twamley who, while acknowledging women also indulge in banter, argues that it has become more closely aligned with ‘lad culture.’  “I know plenty of men who can banter without racially slurring others or making misogynist comments,” Twamley continues. “However when a word is used to mask behaviour that is fundamentally abusive, vindicating it as ‘just a bit of fun,’ banter becomes a damaging concept that can result in victims feeling silenced.” 

Bullying is bullying. It shouldn't  be redefined as 'banter'. Judge for yourself whether those on ‘Hold Your Plums’ feel silenced. I’ve never met a silenced Scouser in my life. The glory of the city is that from an early age people have learnt to laugh at themselves and laugh at others. May it continue until the end of time 


Friday, 12 May 2023

The Hellfire Club

In the early 1950's the local vicar told the Daily Mirror: ‘my tummy wobbles like jelly every time I pass the entrance.' I was just desperate for the toilet. But this is the entrance to the famous Hell Fire Club.

The knights of St Francis of Wycombe (aka Sir Francis Dashwood) better known as the Hell-Fire club started in about 1742. Its members were drawn largely from the friends and circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Few records exist, but a full Chapter meeting took place twice a year - autumn and summer. It was attended by the twelve inner members in flowing white robes, the Abbot wearing a crimson gown and hood edged with rabbit skin. Ladies were admitted so long as they were of a ‘cheerful, lively disposition to improve the general hilarity of the company.' They wore masks and a badge: ‘Liberty and Friendship.’ And nobody knows what happened there, though one can make a good guess. 

The club flourished until 1763 when it broke up, partly from political disagreements, partly from the famous ‘baboon incident.’

One of the members, the Radical John Wilkes, dressed up a baboon to look like the devil and hid it in a box in a recess of the Chapel. When released, the frantic animal jumped onto the back of Lord Sandwich who nearly died on the spot. Both he and the terrified baboon ran out, the distraught Lord crying aloud: 'Spare me, gracious devil: thou knowest I was only fooling. I am not half as wicked as I pretend.’ The club finally closed in 1774.

The caves themselves had charitable origins. There had  been a serious of bad harvests, and the poor of the locality were in dire need. A new road was needed between West Wycombe and High Wycombe, and Sir Francis Dashwood devised, in effect, a job creation scheme. Men were paid a shilling a day to excavate and extract chalk from a nearby hill to be used for the new road. They did it to a plan, copied from an ancient underground Greek temple. The resulting caves are a quarter of a mile long and at their deepest 300 feet underground. 

Sir Francis was no dilettante – though he co-founded the Society of Dilettantti.  ­­He studied architecture and antiquities, was widely travelled, and one of the few Englishmen to visit Russia. For twenty years or more, he was an active politician, and was, briefly,  an unsuccessful Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also an intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was a regular visitor and a great fan of the Caves. Together, the two men wrote a revised Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England. “…its purpose was to prevent the old and faithful from freezing to death from long sermons in cold churches,  to make the service so short as to attract the young and lively, and to reprieve the well-disposed from the infliction of interminable prayer."

Ignored in England, it provided the basis for the new American prayerbook after the War of Independence—speaking of which the war might have been avoided had the Government accepted The Plan For Reconciliation drawn up by Franklin and Dashwood in 1770 and championed in England by both Dashwood and William Pitt.

Progressive in many respects, it’s likely old Ben Franklin would not have met the approval of our modern Puritans. Advising a younger acquaintance that though marriage was preferrable, an older woman was an acceptable substitute: ‘as in the dark all cats are grey, the pleasures of corporal enjoyment with an older woman is at least equal, and frequently superior . . . and they are so grateful for the attention!’  

So, the caves themselves.

And yes, I wish I'd read this before going this far down

Though of course, they would say that wouldn't they. You're not going to have a TV programme where 'nothing happened.'

Even so

The Banqueting Hall

The Banqueting Hall is a cavern 14 metres in diameter and 130 metres from the entrance. The hall has a compass design with four niches called ‘the monks cells’ and were used by club members for privacy with the ladies (though with twelve or more monks, one imagines a discreet but impatient queue.)

Those waiting could, however, enjoy food and drink. A large refectory table was supposedly  placed in the cavern’s centre attended by liveried footmen who served food and wine in gleaming silverware.


The club became so popular it had two orders: the Superior and the Inferior. For Chapter meetings, only the Superior were permitted beyond the Banqueting Hall to perform their 'devilish' rites. As the port was finished at the end of their feast, the Abbot rose and made a toast to the devil. 

Thus fortified, they then made their way to the Inner Temple which included crossing the 'River Styx.' 

And from there through a triangular section, which was said to represent part of the female anatomy, (oh, those naughty, naughty aristocrats!) and finally the Inner Temple. What occurred next remains veiled in secrecy.

This, the  Inner Temple is 100 metres below a church on the top of the 'satanic' chalk hill. 


For about two hundred years, the caves were all but forgotten and fell into disrepair. It was a second Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th Baronet who, in 1951, reopened the caves as a tourist attraction. A surveyor warned him they weren’t safe and at least £5000 was needed to stabilise them. Sir Francis only had £50 in his pocket. He got no help from his father, who called the whole thing ‘a damned silly idea.’ Undaunted, the second Sir Francis opened them to the public at a shilling a time, free candle included. Publicity did the rest. The local vicar told the Daily Mirror that ‘my tummy wobbles like jelly every time I pass the entrance.’ This was followed by a sermon denouncing the waves of evil emanating from the cave. Publicity to die for; tourists flocked, enjoying a satanic vibe without endangering their souls, and the money rolled in. 

The question lingers: were these a group of talented but libertine aristocrats having a good time, with a touch of ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ or did something overtly satanic take place in these caves? 

Friday, 5 May 2023

And we have Damien Hirst

We went to the Donatello Exhibition last week. I never knew the ninja mutant turtle to be so talented, nor we so lucky. We discovered a tunnel at South Kensington Tube Station that took us under busy streets and busier roads directly to the V&A. Up some steps and ‘Bob’s your uncle’ we were there. It was like discovering the North West Passage or the Harry Potter platform at Kings Cross. 

To celebrate we had lunch in the V&A Café (not a ‘greasy spoon’ this) and took surreptitious photographs, though why surreptitious I have no idea. People were almost standing in line to snap its various nooks and motifs.

At last, our allotted time to enter the exhibition arrived and for me a name and two dates became suddenly real. Donatello 1386-1466. Until now he’d been only a name I could place in or around certain key events: The Hundred Years War, Agincourt-1415, The Battle of Nicopolis 1396, The War of the Roses, and of course, the Medici. 

Donatello though, just a name until now.

Bust of a man.

Possibly that of the Lord Mayor of Florence, Niccolo da Uzzano, or Neri di Gino Capponi, merchant and politician. We shall never know, though personally I think it looks like the present day Lord Adonis. Uncanny resemblance. I love the way his expression changes as you look at him from different angles.

The Reliquary Bust of San Rossore

Earlier Reliquary busts created idealised images of a saint. Donatello’s San Rossore appears as a real person, a harbinger of the Renaissance to come. 

Head of a bearded man, possibly a prophet. Art historians see his gaze as one experiencing a vision. I was caught by the attention to detail and how long I enjoyed studying it.

Not Donatello but Beltramino's  God The Father. What’s truly striking, apart from the obvious is the painstaking craftsmanship. A copper sheet was hammered from the back to create the complexity of the front that was then gilded. The attention to detail in the contours of the face and beard is staggering. Great art, along with the myriad and unrecorded acts of kindness and  generosity are flashes of light in an age of deprivation and brutality. 

And I’d never heard of rilievo schiacciato before, still can’t pronounce it to the amusement of my wife. It literally means ‘squashed relief’. The technique, mastered by few, conjures up a sense of space and depth within just a few millimetres of carving. 

The Ascension with Christ giving the keys of Heaven to St Peter

Donatello’s use of ‘squashed relief’ conjuring up a sense of space and atmosphere within the shallowest depths of carving.

The Betrayal of Christ. Ligolino di Nerio 

Ligolino was an earlier Sienese painter who undoubtedly influenced Donatello in his use of rocky terrains and inter-reacting figures. I love St Peter’s grumpy expression as he attacks one of the guards with what looks like a pencil.

Another contemporary, Lippo di Dalmasio’s The Madonna of Humility (1390)

Its name derives from The Virgin actually sitting on the ground with the Christ Child on her lap.

Virgin and Child (about 1270)

Not an imitator but one who likely influenced Donatello. Giovanni Pisano 1248 to 1319(?) here combines classicism with the Gothic. When viewed from the left, the Virgin’s hand points to the infant, who directs a blessing to the onlooker. It might be just me, but there’s an almost accusatory look in the Madonna’s expression.

The Genoa Madonna

Luca della Robbia was a younger rival and collaborator of Donatello. He used a new tin glazing technique which brought colour and protection to the terracotta surface. The heavenly blue and white figures imitate polished marble.

Madonna of the Apple

Worth contemplating the Madonna’s thoughtful gaze, perhaps signalling her meditation on Christ’s future sacrifice for humanity. The apple perhaps a reminder of the ‘fall’ about to be redeemed.

The Miracle of the Mule

One of four bronze reliefs illustrating the miracles of St Anthony. Its story is simple, the execution complex: a starving mule given a choice between food and the Host, kneels in front of St Anthony to receive communion. The use of gilding guides the eye to the focal point of the Eucharist


This is absolutely brilliant and bursting with contrasts – the texture of the draperies and armour, the flesh of the semi clad soldiers, the chiselling of the rocky landscape and roughly worked foliage. As the eye wanders, the reflective gilding draws the eye to the crucified Christ.

Dead Christ with angels.

For those interested in technique, the textiles were hammer formed, Christ’s skin given a smooth sheen, and the feathers delicately modelled in the wax mould. The hair was chiselled in the cold metal after casting for added crispness.


It’s worth focusing on the deep eye sockets and tightly drawn flesh, the fluttering of the loin cloth suggesting Christ is still alive but in his final moments.

The Lamentation of Christ 

Again, emotions are heightened by Donatello’s treatment of the  bronze—the way the polished, ‘soft’ flesh of Christ contrasts with the raw, unfinished surface of the weeping woman 

Don't tell me you don't see Morecambe and Wise here!

Virgin and Child by an unidentified sculptor but associated with a Donatello design. It was painted to imitate gilded marble.

Bronze cherub designed to decorate the organ loft of Florence Cathedral. Art historians highlight its ‘fleshy rotund body’ which made me pause


Here Donatello exploits the bronze to create something almost alive. The open breeches suggests the Phrygian Shepherd Attis, and it has the wings of a young cupid (amorino) on its back. And then Donatello gets carried away, giving him the tail of a faun, the winged feet of Mercury, and a snake, most often associated with Hercules


I took no photo here - an oversight. Credit Patrick A Rodgers

This was remarkable for the time, being the first unsupported bronze of the period and the first free standing nude made since antiquity. It makes an interesting contrast with Michaelangelo's David made 60 years later. Donatello's bronze is five foot tall, Michaelangelo's seventeen foot tall. One is youthful and slender, the other muscular and mature. 

It was a labour of love going through these photos again and browsing in close up, remembering which were mine, and which  of them were my wife's.

 Something more mundane next week. There's only so much elevation I can take.