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The Knights of God

21 Apr

The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?

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Rasputin, ‘The Mad Monk’

10 Mar

Grigory Yefimovich Novych, the man who would come to be better known to history as the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, is a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue, conspiracy theories and the darkest of legends. He came to prominence as the Siberian peasant and mystic whose uncanny ability to improve the condition of Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, made him an influential favourite at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. He was also reputed to be a murderer, sorcerer, libertine and chronic womanizer – his eventual moniker of Rasputin literally means ‘debauched one’ in Russian. Unsurprisingly, Rasputin made many enemies in the course of his relentless rise to power. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, culminating in the events that led to his ‘death’ in 1916. I have used quotation marks because in the opinion of many – conspiracy buffs and historians alike – the life of Rasputin may well not have ended there. Even during his lifetime, there was considerable uncertainty over Rasputin’s actions and influence, as accounts have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay and legend. Despite the fact that Rasputin’s body was discovered after he was killed by conspirators, rumours persist to this day that his death was faked and that somehow, bizarrely, the Mad Monk may have survived his apparent execution.

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The Lord Lucan Affair

10 Feb

The 7th Earl of Lucan, Richard John Bingham, better known as Lord Lucan, is one of the most infamous fugitives in British criminal history. Born in the 1930s, he was a charismatic man with expensive tastes: he raced power boats and, like James Bond, drove an Aston Martin. In 1963 he married Veronica Duncan, who bore him three children, and for a time his life seemed perfect. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Lucan’s marriage collapsed, he moved out of the family home and a bitter custody battle with his wife over the children ensued. This dispute seemed to change Lucan fundamentally – he spent most of the money he had on drink and gambling, became obsessed with regaining his children and began to spy on his family. Things came to a head in 1974 when the Lucans’ nanny was found brutally bludgeoned to death, apparently by Lord Lucan. Lady Lucan, who had also been present during the attack, indicated that her estranged husband was the murderer. Almost immediately, one of the largest manhunts ever organised in Britain began – one that to this day has still not resulted in an arrest. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was a few days after the body of the nanny was discovered, when he left a friend’s house in Uckfield, Sussex, never to be seen again. Since then, there have been almost as many alleged sightings of Lord Lucan as there have been of Elvis, Bigfoot or Jimmy Hoffa. Lucan’s true fate remains a fascinating mystery for the British public. Hundreds of reports of his presence in various countries around the world have been made following his initial disappearance, although none have been substantiated. Despite a police investigation and huge press interest, Lucan remains missing (presumed dead?).

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The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World

13 Jan

The Voynich Manuscript has been described as ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’. It was bought by Wilfred Voynich, an American dealer in rare books, in 1912. Before that it had been discovered in an old chest in the Jesuit school of Mondragone, in Frascati, Italy. The manuscript is a simple octavo volume, written in what at first glance looks like ordinary medieval writing. However, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact written in cipher. Not only that, the pages are covered with strange little drawings of female nudes, astronomical diagrams and all kinds of strange plants in many colours. The Voynich Manuscript is a baffling mystery largely because it looks so straightforward: with its drawings of plants it seems at first to be an ordinary medieval ‘herbal’ i.e. a book describing how to extract healing drugs from plants. The unusual thing is that, up until its purchase by Voynich, no one appears to have been able to decipher it. Voynich was fairly certain, however, that the manuscript would not remain a mystery once modern scholars had a chance to study it. Unfortunately this is one historical mystery which has proven difficult to solve in the century plus that has passed since 1912.

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Malleus Maleficarum

2 Dec

The idea of the Inquisitor, the Catholic witch hunter of the Middle Ages, is potent: the grim-faced man with brands and scourges, thumbscrews and chains, who burns, strangles and drowns innocent and guilty alike to find the truth. It is comforting to know that such practices have not existed now for a couple of hundred years but one cannot help but shudder to think that they ever happened. There were Inquisition courts in many countries but the most famous were the Medieval Inquisition, which started in France and Italy, and the later Spanish Inquisition. Initially these Inquisitions were set up to combat the spread of heresy and apostasy, but eventually they came to be associated with an altogether darker enemy. It all began in the 15th century, when a pair of zealots published a book, a guide to witch-hunting bearing the name Malleus Maleficarum. It proved influential enough to bring about the painful deaths of thousands until well into the 18th century. Within a few years the Pope had condemned it as heretical, however, this did not stop people from using it. ‘The Hammer of the Witches’, as it was literally translated from Latin, was a detailed legal and theological document that came to be regarded as the standard handbook on witchcraft, including its detection and extirpation. Its appearance did much to spur on and sustain some two centuries of witch-hunting hysteria in Europe.

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Where is the Mona Lisa?

11 Nov

The answer to the above question may seem self-evident: in the Louvre. But the matter is not quite as straightforward as it looks. The Mona Lisa is better known in continental Europe as La Gioconda, or ‘the smiling woman’ – the word means the same as the antiquated English term ‘jocund’. It was painted, as everyone knows, by the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa was a young married woman who was about 24 when Leonardo met her. She was the wife of a man 20 years her senior, and when Leonardo started to paint her around 1500 she had just lost her child (her husband had to hire jesters and musicians to make her smile during the early sittings). For some reason Leonardo became obsessed with her, and went on painting her for several years, always dissatisfied with his work. He gave the unfinished portrait to Mona Lisa’s husband when he left Florence in 1505. This, we assume, is the famous portrait in the Louvre. Yet this raises a puzzling question. If it was given, unfinished, to Mona Lisa’s husband in 1505, how did it end up in the possession of King Francis I at Fontainbleu, in a finished state, a mere forty or so years later? Also, why, in 1584, did the art historian Lomazzo publish a book on painting in which he refers to ‘the Gioconda AND the Mona Lisa’, as if they were two separate paintings?

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The Devil’s Triangle

7 Oct

The Bermuda Triangle represents one of the most interesting scientific enigmas of our time. It was in 1945 that the authorities were first alerted to the fact that there was something frightening and dangerous about the stretch of ocean between Florida and the Bahamas. Flight 19 – five Avenger torpedo bombers which took off from Fort Lauderdale for a routine two hour patrol over the Atlantic – vanished completely in the area that came to be known as the Devil’s Triangle. A giant Martin Mariner flying-boat, with a crew of thirteen, which was sent to rescue Flight 19, met with the same mysterious fate. At the time the authorities took the view that these disappearances were a rather complex accident, due to a number of chance factors: bad weather, electrical interference with the compasses, the inexperience of some of the pilots and their unfamiliarity with the area. Similar explanations were adopted to explain a number of similar tragedies during the next two decades: the disappearance of a Super-fortress in 1947, of a four-engined Tudor IV in January 1948, of a DC3 in December 1948, of a Globemaster in 1950, of a British York Transport plane in 1952, of a Navy Super Constellation in 1954, of an Air Force Tanker in 1962, of two Stratotankers in 1963, of a flying boxcar in 1965 and of civilian cargo planes in 1966, 1967 and 1973… The total number of human lives lost in all these disappearances was well in excess of two hundred. What lurks out there in the Bermuda Triangle, and just why is it so hungry for mortal souls?

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The Shakespeare Conspiracy

27 May

William Shakespeare, the man known to history as the Bard of Avon and celebrated as the greatest playwright that the world has ever known, is at once a familiar yet elusive figure. Whilst there are few people on Earth who have not heard of or come across one of his plays, or at least one of his famous sayings, there is an enigma at the heart of Shakespeare’s character. Very few hard facts are known about the man, which has led to endless speculation about who exactly he was and how he came to write verse which is just as popular now as it was when it was first written, almost five hundred years ago. Some have even questioned the very identity of Shakespeare as the writer of the plays which made him so famous, pointing to the incredible breadth, variety and quality of his work as proof that an uneducated commoner could not have been behind them. Over the many centuries since Shakespeare’s death numerous theories have been put forward concerning the provenance of his plays, the true identity of their writer(s) and the reasons for the elaborate cover-up, if such existed. Hollywood got in on the act as well with the recent film Anonymous, which cashes in on one aspect of the Shakespeare conspiracy. There is, however, far more to tell, including facts which are even stranger than anything which ever appeared in Shakespeare’s plays.

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