To take a long view of the preceptory tower and the history of Sainte-Foy-La-Grande, the visitor should pause for a few moments, on the main market square (place de la Mairie) looking eastwards to the rooftops of les arcades. There, rising above the lower rooftops of surrounding buildings, the visitor will be able to identify the tall, quadrangular and distinctive shape of a preceptory tower, with its characteristic hipped roof, rising silently as a symbol of a past age that somehow needs to be accommodated and understood as a remnant of medieval religious architecture.
However, access is only possible by persuading one of the keyholders, namely owners or occupiers of buildings that surround the tower, to allow entry to this hidden enclave so that it can be viewed in a different perspective. It remains a distinctive and yet discreet feature of the bastide skyline which might even predate the foundation of the bastide itself.
The mystery of the tower begins to take shape by turning to the history of the Knights Templar and their remarkable secret mission. They were founded as a Catholic military order in 1119 and Templar knights in their white mantles with a red cross were among the most skilled fighting units involved in the Crusades. They were essentially formed to protect Christian pilgrims on the long journey across Europe from many countries to their ultimate destination, the city of Jerusalem.
Many Templars were non-combatant members of the order and made up 90% of the membership with extensive economic and charitable interests, even developing financial techniques that are considered to represent an early form of banking. Consequently, the Templars exercised power and influence in their communities throughout France and elsewhere. The order was active until around 1312 when it was dissolved by formal edict from the Vatican under Pope Clement V in a papal bull, vox in excelso.
Many exciting and revealing historical tales have been written about the legendary activities of the Knights Templar. One of the most notable of these is the acclaimed novel by the Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco – ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ – published in 1988. Casaubon, the principal character at the centre of the book is studying the history of the Knights Templar and is invited to review a new manuscript about the Templars. This document claims to have discovered a secret ‘Plan’ of the Templars to take over the world. Before Casaubon and his colleagues can meet with the author, he suddenly disappears which adds to their suspicion that something is seriously amiss. They are gradually drawn further into their discovery of the ‘Plan’. It eventually develops into a theory about the Templars possessing knowledge of ancient energy flows that could be used to reshape the world to their will and then using these currents in combination with hitherto unknown aspects of the Foucault pendulum. The famous pendulum, of course, still remains suspended in time responding to the rotation of the earth beneath the dome of the Pantheon in Paris.
This remarkable story is an expression of the creative imagination of Umberto Eco, and yet the reader is left with the feeling that there could almost be a grain of truth embedded somewhere in this incredible work of fiction. All of which brings the visitor back to the mystery of possible secrets that could still be revealed by the preceptory tower that stands at the heart of this 13th century bastide.
It remains to be seen whether further exploration of the local history of the tower and its continuing presence in Sainte-Foy-La-Grande will contribute to a clearer understanding of events which subsequently must have taken place over the lifetime of the bastide itself. Meantime, the mystery of the preceptory tower stands as a memory of former days that do not readily yield to explanation! However, in recent times, it would appear that historians have found evidence to suggest the Templar origins of the tower are indeed the stuff of myth and legend. To be continued……………