That’s why it’s so depressing to the see History continuously attempt to mainstream extremely bad ideas about history, exemplified by the claim we say this week on Oak Island (S06E06) that the Templars became pirates and that the Jolly Roger was their flag, representing John the Baptist’s severed head.
If this claim sounds familiar, it is. The same claim previously appeared on History’s Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar with Scott Wolter in 2015 and in the third season of History’s H2 show America Unearthed, also with Scott Wolter, also in 2015. It aired earlier this year on the History Channel’s Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. It’s a claim that History can’t get enough of.
Even though it’s a fraud.
In this week’s episode, the show marked the passing of Zena Halpern, whose recent book about Knights Templar at Oak Island was, basically, a historiographic disaster from beginning to end, but which narrator Peter Clotworthy praises for “exhaustive research.” With her death, the program has to find new ways to exploit imaginary conspiracies about Templar voyages to the New World in the Middle Ages, so it brings in Gretchen Cornwall, described with implied sexism as an “authoress,” who cowrote The Secret Dossier of a Knight Templar of the Sangreal (2016). Her writing partner John Temple claims to be a descendant of a Knight Templar, is a member of the “modern order” of Templars (whatever that means—I presume it’s either the Masons or one of the Templar fan clubs in Britain), and alleges that he possesses a secret document proving the survival of the Templars after the end of the order in the 1300s.
Cornwall tells the Oak Island team that the Templars were too “young” and “healthy” to give up the ghost after the King of France and the Catholic Church suppressed their order. Therefore, they moved to Scotland and “took to the seas,” becoming pirates because they felt they had been wronged. She asserted that the Templars used the skull and crossbones as the symbol of John the Baptist and flew the symbol on their pirate flag. She asserts that Oak Island was a Templar hangout in America and that the Templars buried the secret treasures of the Holy Land on the island. The claim, ultimately, rests on the torture-induced testimony of Jean de Châlons that the Templars loaded treasure into eighteen “galleys” and disappeared with in. There is no evidence that the boats ever existed, let alone that they were oceangoing vessels capable of trans-Atlantic transport.
The first time I heard this conspiracy was in David Childress’s book Pirates and the Lost Templar Fleet (2003). While Childress is rarely an original writer, he did not indicate his sources very clearly. He references Michael Bradley, whose Grail Knights of North America (1998) seems to be the origin point for the claim. I discussed Childress’s version of the claim a few years ago, and I will adapt my discussion here to explain why Oak Island and Cornwall are almost certainly wrong.
Childress follows Michael Bradley—an alternative author who believes many strange things, including that modern Jews are sexually frustrated Neanderthal hybrids—in asserting that the Templar fleet (these imaginary eighteen boats) carried the descendants of Jesus and/or the Ark of the Covenant to Scotland to avoid the Pope, where they adopted the Jolly Roger as their symbol and fell into the service of the Sinclair family! The logic here is that gravestones in northern Scotland were marked with a skull and crossbones; therefore, they must be Templar symbols and the origin of the pirate flag. Sadly, this explanation has infiltrated Wikipedia, but the earliest skull-and-crossbones flag cannot be dated before 1687, while pirate flags used a wide range of symbols, not just the skull and crossbones. Although the Templar-Jolly Roger claim is a widespread trope of conspiracy literature (literally hundreds of books discuss it), allegedly as a symbol of resurrection, in truth there is not a shred of evidence that any Templar ever used it. It’s apparently a modern myth, created as a Freemason legend during the period when the Masons tried to ties themselves back to the Templars. The fake story holds that three Templars exhumed fallen leader Jacques de Molay’s grave but found only his skull and femurs. However, this is an ex post facto story concocted to explain why the Masonic Knights Templar of the United States (not directly descended from the originals) used a skull and crossbones on their insignia, which originated in the adopting of a typical colonial gravestone decoration as a “memory” of the original Templars’ martyrdom. Notably, this symbol was not historically used outside the United States in Masonic devices, and at any rate it came centuries too late to have had anything to do with the original Knights Templar.
Childress follows Bradley in assigning the Jolly Roger to what he calls “Jolly” King Roger of Palermo, a Templar who first flew the flag while raiding and pillaging and fighting the evil forces for Catholicism. So far as I can tell, Bradley simply made this up. The Norman ruler Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154), whom Bradley unlike Childress correctly calls by name, was not called “the jolly,” nor did he fly a Jolly Roger. He did fight against the Vatican, but not because he hated the Church but because (a) the patriarch of Jerusalem voided his mother’s marriage (her husband, King Baldwin I, was committing bigamy) and (b) the pope wanted to break Norman power and declared a crusade against Roger. It failed, and the next pope not only reconciled with Roger; he made him king. The popes and Roger fought off and on for a long time thereafter, but while Roger commanded the best fleet in all the Mediterranean, it was a navy, not a pirate fleet. He fought “Vatican vessels,” yes, but in a war, not for piracy.
Far from being a Templar himself, Roger was against the Templars because they were allied to his enemy, Pope Innocent II, while Roger supported Antipope Anacletus II. Until 1150, the Templars received no royal support and had very limited activities in Roger’s lands. It was only in 1187—after Roger’s death—that the Norman nobility of Sicily started to back the Templars. In 1194, the new sovereign, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, crowned king of Sicily, finally began to offer royal and imperial recognition to the Order on the island. It was only after 1208 that the Templars began operating in Sicily and Southern Italy in earnest.
Therefore, history tells us that Roger could not have been a Templar pirate. Why would anyone think he was? It appears it’s because Roger employed al-Idrisi, the Islamic geographer whose globe recorded a fabulous island in the Azores with “three cities of equal size, much peopled, the inhabitants of which were now all slain by civil wars.” This reference, intended to refer to the Azores, got roped into the Spanish myth of the Seven Cities where in 734 seven Christian bishops were alleged to have sailed with men and women to escape the Islamic invasion of Spain. Because Holy Bloodline authors think this records a Cistercian or Proto-Templar voyage to America, al-Idrisi and through him Roger II thus become part of the Templar conspiracy, despite the obvious evidence that Roger opposed the Templars. Childress is thus completely wrong to call Roger’s lands a “Templar kingdom” (p. 59), and he’s even more wrong to somehow think that “Jolly Roger” of Sicily was taking the Templar ships for a spin after the order dissolved, nearly two centuries after his death (p. 62), a claim not even his source, Michael Bradley, had made. Childress even misunderstands the alternative history he copies.
OK, so that’s what I wrote a few years ago.
Oak Island throws in a few shots of the skulls and crossbones on Scottish gravestones and basically lets the claim sit unchallenged, despite the many and varied problems with it. As with everything to do with Oak Island (the place) and Oak Island (the show), the claim is a bunch of speculation built on top of speculation, to the point that the fantasy becomes its own self-reinforcing black hole, distorting everything that crosses its event horizon before crushing truth into an infinitely dense ball of lies.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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