The Masonic Pageant
The 29 Masonic Degrees of the Scottish Rite
The Stage Drama
The place is the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Patras (ancient Patrae), in Western Greece. The time is evening following the Battle of Nicopolis on September 25, 1396 between the Christian forces of the Duke of Burgundy and the Turkish Sultan Bajazet el Ilderim (called Bayazid in the story). The Sultan has defeated the Christian French knights and has eight of them brought before him. The prisoners include such famous historical French noblemen as Enguerrand VII (or Sire de Coucy), de Nevers, De Vienne, De la Marche and Boucicaut (here called Boucicault).
The Duke De Nevers (a young man of 24 at the time of the battle) tells the Sultan that they could never raise his ransom demands. He offers his own head as the first to roll. His bravery impresses the Sultan who says that he now knows why people call de Nevers “John the Fearless” (a title the young man would not gain until years after the battle). Bajazet treats the knights leniently. At his request, the European knights induct him and his two sons into the Order of St. Andrew. In gratitude, he forgives the knights’ ransoms and allows them to depart.
This degree emphasizes the Masonic teachings of equality and toleration. Masonic equality is not an artificial leveling of wealth or outward conditions. It is the true equality that should exist between men of virtue and high ideals, regardless of such conditions. Masonic toleration is respect for the opinions of others. No one man, no one church, no one religion has a monopoly on truth. We should be true and faithful to our own opinions, and we should extend to the opinions of others the same respect we demand for our own.
The story of this degree uses an historical battle of the Middle Ages and its aftermath as the backdrop for a play dealing with an imaginary order of knighthood called the Knights of Saint Andrew. The play features real historical characters, most of whom act completely out of character. For instance, the story represents raucous hard-drinking French knights of the 14th century as chaste, pious do-gooders. The cruel, bloodthirsty Turkish Sultan is portrayed as just another nice guy who wants to join a Blue Lodge. Let’s see what really happened.
By the end of the 13th century the once-mighty Seljuk Turks had finally succumbed to repeated raids by the Mongol cavalry units of Genghis Kahn. Around the year 1300 a new confederation of Muslim tribes seized the opportunity to break away from their weakened Seljuk rulers and strike out on their own path of conquest. They called themselves Ottoman Turks, after their chieftain, Osman, who had led them from their settlements on the shores of the Black Sea to conquer most of Anatolia (present-day Turkey). By 1325 they had towns and garrisons all along the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus, the strait separating Europe from Asia. Europeans heard distant rumors of the Muslim advance but paid little attention.
In 1353 the Ottoman leader Murad crossed the Bosporus into Europe and took Gallipoli. This made the Ottomans masters of the Dardanelles, the gateway from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Europeans, particularly in the maritime commercial seaports of Genoa and Venice, began to get nervous. By 1365 Murad had conquered Adrianople, 120 miles into European territory. By 1389 Bajazet, Murad’s successor, had his armies at the border of Hungary. He was declared Sultan at Kosovo and, to show everybody that he took his new title seriously, immediately had his brother strangled with a bowstring so there would be no rival claimant to the throne. He then proceeded to subjugate Bulgaria, Macedonia, Attica (central Greece, including Athens), Bosnia and Croatia. His unstoppable blitzkrieg advances and rapid conquests earned Bajazet the nickname of Ilderim (“The Thunderbolt”). Europeans in France and Germany finally woke up and realized they were facing an imminent threat: nothing less than a Muslim take-over of the Western World.
Fervor for a great crusade soon overwhelmed France. The Duke of Burgundy, in 1394, decided to take the initiative and formed plans to mount a crusade against the “miscreants,” a term of contempt the upper classes used against both Muslims and their own European peasants. The Duke, who did not plan to go on the crusade himself, sent his 24-year old son, Jean de Nevers, in his stead. The ungainly Jean with his oversized head would, later in life, become known as Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless), not for bravery in battle but for the brazenness with which he conducted his evil life. Two of Jean’s kinsmen would accompany him. They were Raoul, Comte d’Eu et Guines (the Constable of France) and Jean Le Meingre, the Marshal of France who called himself “Boucicaut.” Like de Nevers, both of these two young men lacked any leadership experience in warfare so Burgundy called upon the services of the highly respected Enguerrand VII, Sire de Coucy, to head the expedition. De Coucy, the most famous noblemen, diplomat and warrior in France, accepted. De Coucy selected Jacques, Comte De la Marche, as a counselor.
The expedition was one of extravagant, sumptuous display of class and privilege with little in the way of planning, strategy, reconnaissance or military intelligence. No one considered such details necessary when fighting the “miscreants.” The Europeans assumed that God would favor the Christian forces and annihilate the Muslims with natural disasters, so-called “acts of God.” Colorfully dressed minstrels and heralds preceded the army. Every knight had his own team of cooks with portable ovens to bake little pies when he was in the mood for them.
Burgundy supplied his son de Nevers with his own personal company of 200 servants, cooks and valets. He also gave him two dozen wagons full of shiny green satin for his tents and four enormous banners. The banners showed images of the Virgin Mary surrounded by fleurs-de-lis (the Virgin’s image was popularly supposed to strike fear into the hearts of Saracens). Twelve trumpeters dressed in heraldic silk costumes embroidered with gold and silver emblems were to precede de Nevers wherever he went. There were barrels of red wine and sack (a kind of sherry) and flocks of sheep, droves of long-legged European pigs and herds of cattle to provide fresh meat.
But there were no stone-hurling siege weapons, the artillery of the Middle Ages. The expedition did not take along one single catapult, ballista, trebuchet or mangonel (whose middle syllable has given us the word “gun”). Nor did they bother to bring along any skilled carpenters with the necessary tools to assemble such machines on the spot.
As the expedition advanced through the countryside, De Coucy, a veteran of many campaigns, argued for dispatching reconnaissance parties to scout ahead for any signs of enemy presence. The band of young, inexperienced noblemen voted his suggestion down. They were reveling in their first taste of independent command and considered the middle-aged De Coucy to be both an overcautious old fuddy-duddy and their social inferior.
The knights camped in splendid tents and pavilions decorated with hanging pictures. They appeared every morning dressed in different outfits of gorgeous silks in every imaginable color. Jugglers and jesters entertained them in the evening while they reveled in drunken orgies with the many prostitutes they had brought along. Later, when the crusaders entered what they considered “schismatic” (Eastern Orthodox) Christian lands, the common soldiers were allowed to entertain themselves by raping the local women and looting their villages.
The crusaders traveled from France to Strasbourg, through Bavaria, and along the Danube to Budapest. There 44 shiploads of Knights Hospitaler who had arrived from their island fortresses on Rhodes joined them. At the insistence of the veteran Hospitalers and after quarreling among themselves, the young noblemen finally allowed De Coucy’s good sense to prevail. They dispatched a reconnaissance party to the Hellespont to scout out Sultan Bajazet’s intentions. The party found no trace of a Muslim presence and reported back that the cowardly heathen was hiding, afraid to face the might of Christian Europe.
After easily taking several undermanned Turkish garrisons, the Christian forces finally arrived at the strategic fortified town of Nicopolis on the Adriatic Sea in western Greece. With no catapults or other siege weapons, the crusaders could only camp around the city walls and play a waiting game with the inhabitants. This promised to be a long wait because the town’s Turkish governor, Dogan Bey, knew that the Sultan was on his way to rescue the city and was prepared to hold out for months. Marshal Boucicaut ordered the construction of siege ladders, which he thought were more useful than catapults anyway. The more experienced De Coucy, eyeing Nicopolis’ high walls perched on towering limestone cliffs, was not so sure but, to keep the peace, did not object. At least building ladders would keep the men busy.
Then, unexpectedly, a reconnaissance party brought news that the Great Turk was on his way, rapidly closing the distance with large units of cavalry and infantry. De Coucy, unhappy with the arrogant over-confidence of his untested young comrades-in-arms, said, “Let us find out what sort of men our enemies are.” He personally led a party of 1000 men, 500 lancers and 500 mounted archers, to ambush an advance party of Turks as they issued from a narrow pass. His strategy worked and his men slaughtered the entire Turkish party with no trouble. His party returned to camp in triumph.
That night at dinner, as the crusaders were drunk with wine celebrating their victory, word came into camp that the rapidly moving Bajazet, master of the blitzkrieg attack, was only six hours away. He would greet them at dawn with all his forces. The panic-stricken knights stumbled around, all discipline and organization gone. Some called for their armor. Then, to get themselves warmed up for the coming battle, the drunken French knights massacred all of their 1000 prisoners, Turks and Eastern Orthodox Christians, that they had captured from the small garrisons they had taken along the way.
Before the sun rose next morning, the heavily armored French knights mounted their warhorses. These creatures were not the small, clip-clopping palfreys that Chaucer’s pilgrims rode as they told bawdy stories on their way to Canterbury. They were savage chargers called Destriers, bred by Benedictine monks to spring into a crazed frenzy at the sound of military kettle drums and trumpets. They would charge fearlessly into the enemy lines, running down with churning hooves anyone who got in their way. Farriers had equipped their hooves with steel blades; at a signal from its rider a horse would jump into the air, kick back viciously with its hind legs and shred any enemy soldier coming up from behind. Then the horse had to land squarely on all fours, facing forward. This maneuver has survived into modern times as the capriole, the most difficult exercise for a horseman to master in formal dressage.
The French also had large, fierce war-dogs called aulants that would run into enemy lines to attack and terrorize infantrymen. In case the dogs’ teeth weren’t enough of a threat, the animals could have pots of flaming pitch strapped to their sides. This was especially fearsome to Moslem soldiers who frequently wore flammable resin-impregnated canvas armor.
The knights lined up for the customary cavalry charge that began most European battles. Each carried an eighteen-foot long wooden lance, three times the height of a man, tipped with an armor-piercing steel point, certain death for any infantryman caught in the knight’s path. In addition, each knight carried a 32-pound sword, a steel battle-ax, a mace and a long, double-edged Pistoian dagger capable of penetrating chain mail. Some also carried a hammer with a long sharp spike that, when wielded by a strong man, could penetrate a steel helmet and the head within the helmet. Each knight was wearing either a coat of mail or a set of plate armor over a padded linen shirt. Thus armed and outfitted, he was theoretically invincible, roughly the equivalent of a tank in modern warfare.
The previous night the stupid, vainglorious Constable d’Eu had seized command of the army from De Coucy. De Coucy could not countermand him because the Constable was of royal blood and he, De Coucy, was not. D’Eu himself led the charge that morning, waving the royal banner, and the mounted knights followed at a break-neck gallop. Each knight screaming his family’s battle cry, each man’s knees clanking against the knee of the rider on either side of him, lances couched at the level of an enemy’s head, they made a thundering tsunami of steel, an unstoppable wave of death. A contingent of mounted crossbowmen formed a supporting unit bringing up the rear. The knights were charging at what they thought was Bajazet’s main force. In their youthful bravado they had left their reinforcing infantry units behind to catch up on foot as best they could. All this day’s glory would be theirs. The infantry, made up of lower-class pikemen and yeoman archers, could mop up after them.
What they met, however, was not the main Turkish army. The knights instead encountered a small group of ragged, poorly armed and untrained peasant conscripts that the Turks had forced to precede their main infantry squads as a buffer unit. The mounted knights easily scattered the frightened peasants. Thinking they had encountered and defeated Bajazet’s entire army, they happily began to slaughter the fleeing farmers without mercy.
Then the main Turkish infantry appeared. These soldiers were trained professionals who shot armor-piercing arrows from compound bows and skillfully wielded long pikes capable of unhorsing armored riders. They quickly set up a perimeter of sharpened outward-pointing stakes planted in the ground to foil any more cavalry charges. The stunned French knights and crossbowmen, with their just-arriving echelons of allies and infantry reinforcements, waded without hesitation into the field of stakes. Then the Turkish cavalry, that Bajazet had held back, appeared and mounted a counter-charge. Most of the knights’ European allies fled the scene.
The French knights and the Hospitalers did not flee. They stood their ground and fought in the face of worsening odds. Whatever one thinks about the knights of medieval Europe, no one can say they were cowards. They may not have lived exemplary lives but they knew how to die with honor. Instead of begging for quarter, they probably shouted the Medieval French version of: “Bring it on! We’ll take as many Moslems to hell with us as you can provide!”
At that point a European vassal of Bajazet arrived on the scene with 1,500 mounted cavalry and attacked the French and Hospitaler knights, many of whom had lost their horses to the stakes and enemy arrows and now were fighting on foot. The dismounted knights struggled to maneuver and fight in the churned-up mud, hampered by 40 pounds of cumbersome steel plate armor. By afternoon, the battle was over and the Turks were victorious. Three thousand corpses littered the battlefield with heads, arms and legs scattered around piecemeal. The dismemberment was due to the choice of weapons: The Turks used razor-sharp scimitars while the French favored two-handed swords and 15-pound battle-axes.
Following his victory, the Sultan did not behave nearly as graciously as the degree’s story depicts. For one thing, he had no interest in joining an imaginary mystical order of European knighthood. For another, he had lost twice as many men as had the better-armored French. As the final straw, he found out about the French massacre of the garrison prisoners the night before. He had the leading French nobles and Hospitaler Grandmaster rounded up for ransom and forced them to stand beside his pavilion and witness his vengeance.
And Bajazet’s vengeance was terrible. He had some two thousand captured French foot soldiers massacred for his amusement. He had some disemboweled while his soldiers cut the throats of others. Most he simply ordered beheaded. When Bajazet grew bored with the screams and the stench of blood, he ordered the slaughter stopped and had the survivors marched off to be sold into slavery. Instead of inviting De Coucy, De Nevers and the other nobles to an ecumenical tea party, the Sultan forced them to go on a 350-mile Bataan-style death march from Nicopolis to Gallipoli. There he imprisoned them until their relatives in France could pay their ransoms. Admiral Jean de Vienne, listed in the story as one of the prisoners, had actually been killed in the battle. His body was found with the royal banner still clutched in his hand.
The Battle of Nicopolis, lost because of French vanity and arrogance, changed the course of European history for the next 600 years. Fifty years later Constantinople fell to the Turks and today is the Muslim city of Istanbul. An enormous region of Orthodox Christianity was forcibly converted to Islam and remains so today. De Coucy, the eldest of the French prisoners, died in captivity at Gallipoli. Jean de Nevers lived to succeed his father as Duke of Burgundy. In 1407 he had his cousin, Louis d’Orleans, hacked to death by assassins in a Paris gutter. His brazen public defense of this act combined with his extravagant and licentious life-style earned him the nickname of “John the Fearless.” He quieted public dissention by giving the people a tax break. Arriving on the bridge at Montereau in 1419 for a parlay with his rival, the Dauphin of France, De Nevers was himself assassinated by followers of the Dauphin. In 1415 the English under Henry V captured Boucicaut at the disastrous Battle of Agincourt. He died six years later.
The 29th Degree of the Southern Jurisdiction:
In the Southern Jurisdiction this degree follows the original Pike ritual. In his reception into the Order of Scottish Knights of St. Andrew in the ruins of an old Scottish castle, guardians challenge a candidate for the degree and then accept him into the Order. They give him a brief history of the degree, repeating the legend of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and tell him stories about the valor of the Crusaders. The duty of a Knight is “to practice active charity and practical philanthropy, and to inculcate the principles of toleration and free government.” They admonish the candidate to believe in God and to lay aside all pride, to be humble, and to practice patience and self-denial as the virtues of a true Knight. They exhort him to loyalty and knightly duty and tell him to be guided by the symbolic lights of Charity, Clemency, Generosity, Virtue, Truth and Honor.
- Frank on Introduction
- Nanci J Davids on Introduction
- Obdulia O Erno on Introduction
- Keith B Lucore on 29th Degree
- Del Z Didion on Introduction
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