Day 15 – Portomarín to Palas de Rei (30.7 km)
As always, when I left the hostel it was pitch dark – so dark that, when leaving Portomarín, I missed the sign to a narrow path branching off. I had to retrace my steps when I saw torch lights in the distance disappearing to the left. From there the footpath snaked to the footbridge crossing the río Mino. The bridge was covered with iron floor plates and every step reverberated like an explosion. On the other side of the river the footpath continued through a bushy forest and a head-lamp would certainly have been useful. Not having any light, I had to stay close to others.
To reach Mount Sierra Ligonde at an altitude of 720 m the fifteen kilometres long path was almost continuously uphill. The way downhill from Sierra Ligonde was less strenuous, but the closer I came to Portos, a distance of twenty one kilometres from Portomarín, the slower I advanced.
Because of my interest in the history of the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of Santiago, a visit to Vilar de Donas was a must, although this meant a five kilometre detour. I branched off on weary legs and put more instead of less distance between me and the next albergue in Palas de Rei.
The church El Salvador, built by the Knights of Santiago, was constructed with very large rectangular stone blocks stacked without mortar to the vaulted ceiling. The church is rectangular in shape with an apse at one end; there were no transepts and aisles. Despite the damp and cold interior I took off my shoes to allow my feet to breathe and walked around in socks.
A nunnery and accompanying infrastructure dating back to the 10th century and the 14th century church once formed a major stronghold, today only the church remains and vegetation covers the land surrounding it. Inside the main attraction was a centuries-old, extremely faded mural with motifs of the Knights of Santiago, faintly visible and covering most of the apses. I find it amazing that the murals could be seen at all: the church was very draughty, there were no windows that could be closed, just wall openings higher up, and the lower parts of the walls were wet and green with algae. After many centuries of the murals being totally exposed to the elements, it is no wonder that they are hardly noticeable. Apart from the frescoes, there were stone sarcophagi and lids as well as stone effigies from the Knights of Santiago. This imposing church building, very high and exceptionally bulky in construction, seemed very medieval and forbidding ‒ it was not a place suited for long sermons.
The Knights of Santiago were noble warriors affiliated to catholic orders. Their stronghold was in Galicia and during the 12th century they participated in the crusades against the Moors in Spain. They also fought in the Middle East under the banner of the papal crusades. Having achieved success in these campaigns the Knights received a bull from Pope Alexander III in 1175, granting them the privilege and responsibility to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago and this event is depicted in the painting I saw in the St. Marco Gallery in León.
The Knights Templar was a secular order of dedicated nobles and their followers. They also played a major military and political role at the time of the crusades against Muslim expansion in Jerusalem and the Levant. It is likely that the Knights Templar were rivals of the Knights of Santiago.
Christian crusaders to Jerusalem consisted of detachments of nobles with their private armies. They functioned rather independently, often lacking strategy and cohesion. No wonder that in time the Christian cause lost its drive, while Islam amalgamated their warriors into well-organized army units. In 1187 the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to Islam, the Knights Templar had to retreat to Tortosa (Tartus in Syria today) and from there to the island of Arwad, their last foothold in the Middle East. In 1302 the Knights Templar and all other Christian armies were finally defeated and the crusade ended unsuccessfully.
In Europe the Templars had countless properties and castles and when their crusading ventures to the Middle East came to an end, they focused their energies on this part of the world. They continued their banking ventures in western kingdoms, acted as diplomats and policy advisors and expanded their influence. In the end they were perceived to be fabulously rich and powerful.
The Knights Templar had always followed a strict code of conduct, apparently with some mystical rituals added for uniqueness. Because of their alleged riches and their secretiveness the French king, Philip IV, and Pope Clement V decided to act against them at the beginning of the 14th century and they eventually confiscated their castles and belongings.
Based on the original agreement reached with Pope Innocent II in 1129, the Knights Templar were responsible solely to the Papacy and not to any secular powers. In this way, for instance, the Knights Templar with their military forces were able to move about freely through any sovereign state without hindrance. This is rather like someone having access to a property without the owner having any say in the matter. It could not have been to everyone’s liking, and with the power the Knights Templar had wielded, they most probably displayed a degree of arrogance and entitlement. After the crusades they became displaced knights with an illustrious past and a less glorious present.
As the majority of their activities and property holdings were located in France, Philip IV, the French King, was most affected and decided to put an end to their existence. He also intended to benefit financially from their demise.
Other interesting events occurred simultaneously: For fiscal and political reasons King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VII in Rome were at loggerheads and in a letter to Philip the Pope had written, “Listen, my son, God has set Popes over Kings and Kingdoms……” This did not go down well with the French monarch and made the feud even more intense. By the end of 1302 Boniface issued a bull, declaring that spiritual and temporal powers were under his jurisdiction, and that Kings were subordinate to the power of the church.
In reply to the Pope’s letter, Philip, aided by the Colonna family in Italy, which had some private issues with the Pope, demanded Boniface VIII’s resignation. The Pope refused and was assaulted by Colonna and his henchmen. He was badly beaten and humiliated and died shortly afterwards.
Clement was elected as the new Pope with the assistance of French Cardinals, over whom King Philip IV had great influence. The new Pope, now being in the pocket of the French king, no longer felt safe in Italy and the seat of the Papacy was transferred from Rome to Avignon.
Philip IV, now ruling with a sympathetic Pope close by, needed funds. He owed the Knights Templar vast amounts, which had been loaned to him to finance the crusades and other skirmishes.
Heresy, with its trumped-up charges against the last remaining Cathars, was still practiced and the French authorities probably saw enough reason to extend similar oppressive treatment to the Knights Templar.
With the Pope being the only legitimate authority to which the Knights answered, Philip persuaded him to accuse the Order of heresy, just as the church had done with the Cathars,. On Friday the 13th October, 1307, (hence Friday the 13th having a bad reputation) hundreds of Knights Templar in France and other parts of Europe were arrested, interrogated and tortured.
The warrant stated “God is not pleased; we have enemies of the faith in the Kingdom”. False confessions were extracted under pain and suffering – a common practice during inquisitions. When the Pope and his Bishops eventually came to their senses and questioned the guilt of the Knights Templar, Philip, seeing a fortune slipping through his fingers, threatened the Pope militarily in Avignon and the Pope relented and disbanded the order in 1312.
On their demise, the Pope declared that most of their properties and Castles be transferred to the Knights Hospitaller and in the end King Philip IV was not able to enrich himself as he had expected – but at least his debt to the Order was written off.
In March 1314 the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay and some of his followers were slowly burnt alive upon a scaffold on an island in the middle of the Seine in Paris. According to legend, when engulfed by the flames, de Molay shouted the following words: “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death” – – – Pope Clement died only a month later and Philip died from a hunting accident before the end of the year.
It appears that the Knights Templar had prior warning of their imminent arrest in 1307. Many fled in advance and joined other similar orders in various countries. It is said that before they lost control, the Knights Templar shipped out a great part of their fortunes from La Rochelle, in France, where their main fleet was anchored. These treasures have never been found. There are, however, other theories which suggest that the Knights Templar never really amassed great treasures and that they remained devoted Christians and lived simple lives rather than lives of luxury. The belief that they were wealthy might have arisen because, being bankers, they administered vast amounts of their clients’ money ‒ not their own.
The Roman Catholic Church currently accepts that the persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust and that there was nothing inherently wrong with the order or its rule. Pope Clement V had been pressured to act against them by the dominating influence of King Philip IV.
Another Order that protected the pilgrims on the Camino was the Knights Hospitaller. Like the Knights Templar they had their origins in the crusades to the Holy Land where they worked as ‘protectors of the sick’, which explains the origin of their name.
At the end of the crusading period the Knights Hospitaller became the Knights of St. John. They built massive fortifications on the island of Rhodes near Turkey, but were defeated in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks. The Knights fled to Europe and ultimately Emperor Charles V offered them the island of Malta for a yearly token payment of a falcon. They made this island their new stronghold, from which they successfully fought against piracy and Ottoman domination in the Mediterranean.
Finally, in 1798, the Island of Malta was conquered by Napoleon’s forces and the Order’s influence was seriously diminished. Today the headquarters of the remaining few Knights are in Rome. Their spirit, however, lives on in the form of the St John Ambulance service with the Maltese cross still their emblem.
After the inquisition of the Cathars, there was no longer any prescribed ‘pilgrimage of penance’ to Santiago and by the beginning of the 14th century people were too exhausted from the turbulence of previous centuries and the number of pilgrims declined.
As a result of the Great Famine in 1315 and the Black Death plague between 1348 and 1350, the population in Germany shrunk by about 40%, in France by 50%, around Tuscany by 70% and other parts of Europe were not spared either. Millions of people were decimated in a fairly short time. In the end the population was so drastically reduced that it further affected the pilgrimage to Santiago, which slowed to a trickle.
It is alleged that prior to the catastrophe of the pest the population in most parts of Europe had peaked. Most of the land was occupied by landlords leaving little for subsistence farming and the population could not be sustained. Crop yields were low and food supplies had run short.
The wealth in the hands of a few and oversupply of labour had resulted in drastically reduced income for the workers which negatively affected their living conditions. When decimation caused an enormous population decline, labour became rapidly and unexpectedly scarce. Landowners nevertheless kept wages low for as long as they could, which in 1381 led to the disruptive peasant revolt which eventually brought about higher wages and other benefits, thus resulting in greater economic participation by the lower class. It is said that these events were the onset of the stable middle class that characterizes Europe today.
In comparison, many disadvantaged countries nowadays, including South Africa, lack this substantial middle class and their majority is exploited by the well-to-do. The world is overpopulated once more – with seven billon humans requiring food and shelter the globe is in dire straits again. Despite vastly improved production yields and industrialisation making a huge difference to employment opportunities, but simultaneously causing jobs to be taken over by machines, the uneducated still rely on subsistence farming as Europe had done in the past – or on hand-outs from the government. Sufficient suitable land is, however, no longer available and, should commercially farmed land once more be divided for subsistence farming, crop yields would drop so drastically that famine could be inevitable. With living from the soil not being sustainable anymore and schooling in some developing countries being inadequate, earning a living through commerce and industry is just as much not an option. The poor are trapped in hardship once again. Only education can change this state, which, as has been proven, will also result in desperately needed reduction of population growth.
Today substantial wealth is once more held by a few, disproportionate in whatever way one looks at it. Something, or rather a great deal must change to prevent people from experiencing similar events as they had during the 14th century.