Servants of the Grail 

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The Grail: from myth to reality

Philip Coppens


The basic Grail account opens with a young man, Perceval, encountering knights and realising he wants to be one. Despite his mother’s objections, the boy trains for the knighthood and begins a series of travels. On one such trip, he comes across the Fisher King, who invites him to stay at his castle. While there, he witnesses a strange procession in which young men and women carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each course of the meal.
The first person to write about the Grail was Chrétien de Troyes, who did not identify the nature of the Grail itself. Subsequent authors, like Robert de Boron, identified it as a Christian relic, and normally as the cup used during the Last Supper. However, the German author Wolfram von Eschenbach then wrote his Grail book, Parzival, in which he stated that previous authors had committed serious errors in their accounts, while at the same time identifying the Grail as a stone that had fallen from heaven, and which displayed supernatural qualities, bestowing apparent longevity on those who were near it, as well as attracting water.
Parcival has a unique position in the Grail literature, but is still seen as a work of fiction. Wolfram stated that the characters of those who possessed the Grail were genuine people, whose names and histories his sources had investigated in Latin documents. Furthermore, Wolfram did not write fiction, and stating that Parzival is nothing but a work of fiction therefore needs an explanation why Wolfram departed from his non-fictional writings to meddle in the fictional literature.

There are over 600 names in Parzival and its sequel Titurel combined, resulting in one of the longest identification parades ever. As most believe we are faced with a literary invention by Wolfram, any identification with historical characters seems futile.
Interestingly, most of those who have attempted this match, have tried to find correspondences with the kings and nobles of Aragon. This is interesting, for Guyot de Provins, one of the primary candidates for the role of Kyot of Provence, had strong ties with Aragon. Guyot wrote about the kings of Aragon, who were his magnanimous protectors: his patron was Alfonso the Chaste, Alfonso II, the son of Alfonso I (1104-1134), who freed Saragossa from Moorish domination in 1118.
Using this as his starting point, Swiss scholar, André de Mandach, began his research, resulting in the first publication of his work in 1992, arguing for the existence of an “UrParzival”. De Mandach felt that Wolfram’s account might not only be based on real events, he also wondered whether the legend was perhaps written in a code. The key to unlock this code, de Mandach felt, lay in the history of the Northern Spanish kingdoms, in the period of 1104 to 1137. Is it not a nice coincidence that Flegetanis, the enigmatic “first source” from which Wolfram stated he retained his information, is a family name in the Empordà, the northern Catalonian region of Spain?

The Grail Code

De Mandach realised that the key to breaking the code was the “honorary surnames”, nicknames, which was a popular tradition in Spain and specifically in Islam since the 7th century AD. Indeed, the practice became so popular that it was exported to other parts of Western Europe, with kings being labelled “the Good”, “the Seemly”, “the Just”, etc.
He argued that Anfortas, identified as a king, was thus King “something” Anfortas – “something” requiring to be substituted with a name like Alfonso, Raymond, or another popular name of the time. This approach is much more direct than most researchers’ attempts, when trying to explain that Anfortas might come from the ancient French “enferté(z)”, itself derived from the Latin “infirmitate(m)”. Such reasoning is indirect at best.

Alfonso I of Aragon

This approach enabled de Mandach to identify this person as King Alfonso I of Aragon, who was nicknamed “Anfortius”. Indeed, it is that simple: Anfortas was Anfortius. He is identified as such numerous times, including in his will, and in Flamenca, where he is known as “Anfors”. Coins minted under his reign identify him as “ANFUS REX”, some of these coins having Toletta (Toledo) on the reverse side. Just on this basis alone, it is clear that de Mandach had just cracked the code. The question is why it lasted until 1992 until someone did so. And why few have noted his contribution. Perhaps the reason can be found in the fact that de Mandach wrote for a scientific audience, who had impossible pains to accept the historical nature of the Grail account.

Though sceptics might argue that Anfortius is not totally identical with Anfortas, it should be remembered that Anfortius was his Latin nickname, with Anfortas having an Occitan appearance – as Kyot the Provencal, as an Occitan speaker himself, would do. But the key to a successful decodation is not finding the key, but whether or not all subsequent decodations are then made easy, straightforward, before all pieces fall into place. That is indeed the case…
For if Anfortas/Alfonso I is the key, then it is his cousin, Rotrou II de Perche, who confirmed that the code was broken. Rotrou II de Perche was the lord of “Val Perche”: Perche-val… hence Perceval. And like Rotrou was Alfonso’s cousin, so was Perceval Anfortas’ uncle. With Anfortas and Perceval being the nicknames of two historical figures, whose family relationship was identical to the relationship described in Wolfram’s document between the Fisher King and Perceval, de Grail code had been broken.

Anfortas, known to us as Alfonso I, the Battler, was born in 1074, the king of Aragon and Navarre, from 1104 until his death on 6 or 7 September 1134. He was a formidable fighter, known for a series of victories known as the “Reconquista”, the recovery of Spain from the Moors for the Christians. Before his death, Alfonso I made a will, leaving his kingdom to the Knights Templar, the Hospitallers and the Knights of the Sepulchre. It were of course the Knights Templar who had been identified as the protectors of the Grail by Wolfram – as was Anfortas. Therefore, in Alfonso I, we have a king – the Fisher King who owns the Grail in Wolfram’s story – passing one third of his estates to the Knights Templar – the protectors of the Grail.
That was not all. When deadly injured in battle, he ordered that he was transported to San Juan de la Peña, a voyage of two days and 115 km. He died there. San Juan de la Peña has, of all sites, one of the strongest connections with the Grail tradition. We also note that there is a tradition that those who are in the presence of the Grail, will not die during the following seven days. Was this the real purpose behind his return to San Juan de la Peña? It is impossible to prove, but an interesting suggeston.


“For thirty miles around has been hewn neither timber nor stone to build any dwelling but one, rich in earthly splendours. If anyone sets out to find it alas he will not do so; although there are many who try. It must happen unwittingly if one should see the castle. I presume, Sir, that you know of it; Munsalvæsche it is called. This castle controls a realm named Terre de Salvæsche. It was bequeathed by old Titurel to his son, King Frimutel.”
There is every possibility that San Juan de la Peña was indeed the renowned Munsalvæsche, the residence of the Grail king and the location where the Grail was held. It is indeed, as the Catholic Church seems to accept, the site where the “Holy Chalice” was once held, before it ended up in Valencia. But whereas San Juan de la Peña is often referred to as a Monastery, it was much more special than that: it was also the residence of the Aragon kings.
In 1071, Pope Alejandro II provided special protection to the monastery, which remained under papal authority and thus outside the bailiwick of the Bishop of Jaca – a privileged position for any religious site to find itself in. It meant that San Juan de la Peña could not be interfered with by the normal church hierarchies – only by the Pope himself. This special status was reaffirmed in 1095.
Throughout this period, the Aragon kings, such as Sancho el Mayor, Ramiro I, Sancho Ramirez and Pedro I, continued to favour the monastery. The last three spent Lent there every year and chose it as the burial place for themselves and their families. San Juan de la Peña thus became a royal mausoleum. And if Anfortas was the Fisher King, then San Juan de la Peña, his capital, was Munsalvæsche.
The Fisher King, Alfonso I of Aragon, made large donations to San Juan de la Peña. He thanked his victory near Tauste to the relics of San Juan de la Peña. He, like his predecessors and successors, stayed in San Juan de la Peña, specifically during the week before Easter – the week when the Grail procession occurred. It is known that Alfonso I also stayed in San Juan de la Peña at other times, such as in May 1108, showing that it could definitely be seen as his residence, and the Grail Castle.

Anfortas was labelled “Le Roi Pescheor”, the Fisher King, a nickname that was the result of him spending his time in what according to Chrétien was a “plan d’eau”, a river, or what was known as a “see”, a lake, according to Wolfram. The river Aragon flows in the valley beneath San Juan de la Peña. But just 200 metres from the new monastery of San Juan de la Peña used to be a lake that was renowned for its many fish. This reputation lasted well into the 20th century, though the lake was dried out from the 1970s onwards (it sits close to the modern car park). As Wolfram locates the lake close to Munsalvæsche, San Juan de la Peña once again conforms perfectly to Wolfram’s narrative. Wolfram also locates Munsalvæsche in a forest and San Juan de la Peña sits in a forest.
However, Wolfram situates Munsalvæsche in “Katelangen”, Catalonia, whereas San Juan de la Peña sits in Aragon. This apparent contradiction can be smoothed out, as when Wolfram was writing his account, San Juan de la Peña was indeed part of Catalonia, after Ramiro II of Aragon had abandoned the Aragon and San Juan de la Peña to Ramon Berenguer IV, the count of Catalonia.
Furthermore, even Chrétien’s voyage of how Perceval reaches the Grail castle coincides with how one reaches San Juan de la Peña: there is a river to cross, then a journey through a forest, before you reach a tower – a “square” tower, as Chrétien states. The square tower of the Old Monastery is indeed what gives San Juan de la Peña its billboard characteristic. De Mandach has also identified other details of Chrétien’s account with those of San Juan de la Peña, as it existed in his days. It has led de Mandach to the conclusion that Munsalvæsche, the residence of the Grail king, was most definitely San Juan de la Peña, the residence of the kings of Aragon, and of Anfortas – Alfonso I.

The Grail dynasty

These initial findings led de Mandach to identify the other characters of the Grail story. The Grail dynasty is a series of three male successors: Titurel – Frimutel – Anfortas. This overlaps with Ramiro I (1035-1069), Sancho Ramirez I (1063-1094) and finally Alfonso I, all kings of Aragon.
Wolfram starts the Grail tradition with Titurel. He is the key person who brings the Grail from the East. It is Titurel, i.e. Ramiro I, who transformed San Juan de la Peña and made it his main residence. Coincidence? It is clear that Ramiro must have had a good reason for transforming the site of San Juan de la Peña; and is it not interesting to note that “a good reason” is lacking from the official accounts as to why Ramiro decided to invest so heavily in this site? But with the successful identification of Ramiro I as Titurel, the Grail accounts could actually shed light on a historical enigma. Was San Juan de la Peña transformed as it was to become the residence of the Grail?

Ramiro I

Alfonso I’s brother was Ramiro II, who in the Grail account is listed as Trevrezent, the hermit who explains the story of the Grail to Perceval. At first sight, there seems to be a major problem with this identification: Ramiro II married Agnes of Poitiers. It is Agnes of Poitiers who was also the niece of Philip of Alsace and Flanders – the noble to whom Chrétien de Troyes dedicated his story to – and who was also the man who gave Chrétien the document which he then turned into the first Grail account. The link between Aragon and Chrétien’s Grail has thus been made…
Ramiro II’s nickname was, in fact, “the Monk”, as he was one. Ramiro was bishop of Barbastro-Roda and was given papal dispensation to abdicate his monastic vows in order to secure the succession to the throne when his brother had died heirless. Indeed, once again history and the Grail account overlap and each provides further information about an auspicious situation: Anfortas, who is known to have suffered from a debilitating illness that prevented him from creating offspring, had invested in Perceval, making him his successor as Grail King, as he knew that he would die heirless. However, though Perceval would be the leader of the protectors of the Grail, and carry out its mission, on a totally mundane level, everyone knew that Rotrou II de Perche would never inherit the physical kingdom of Aragon, and hence, Alfonso I had created a will in which it would be divided between the three monastic orders, which Wolfram had identified as the protectors of the Grail.
However, as Anfortius’ will was contested, his brother Ramiro II was told to annul his marriage to God, and instead marry a woman, so that a legal heir for the kingdom of Aragon could be created. This, he did.
Crowned king, Ramiro II almost immediately had to fight off Alfonso VII of Castille, who was one of those trying to lay claim to the Aragonese crown. His kingship lasted exactly three years: he married Agnes of Poitiers in 1134, had a child with her, Peroniella or Petronila in Latin, and then gave her hand away to Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, known as Kyot of Katelangen in the Grail account. His nickname was indeed “the little Guillaume” or “Guiot” or Kyot in Occitan: Kyot of Katelangen, little William of Catalonia. Ramiro II then abdicated in her favour and returned to his monastic life.

We note that the Fisher King had a serious wound on his leg, which ails him greatly. Peter L. Hays in The Limping Hero states how the wound, in Parzival, is a lance point through the testicles, a divine punishment for the king’s neglect of his sacred trust, The Holy Grail.
A lot has been written about this symbolism, identifying the Fisher King with fertility gods and arguing how his wounds were symbols of how his land had turned into a “Waste Land”. But amidst dozens of layers of symbolic interpretation, it seems no-one thought about wondering whether it might actually have been a genuine, historical account. Indeed, Alfonso I as a king did not reproduce – he was heirless. This caused the country great concern, as there was no successor to the throne – and in the end, we note that it was his brother who had to break his vow of chastity to guarantee an heir to the throne. It were definitely testing times for Aragon, the “Grail country”.
Alfonso I was a fighter, and a wound in battle that would inflict infertility would certainly have been a possibility – though whether it would have been made public knowledge, is another matter. One of a king’s primary roles is the creation of offspring. Rumours or knowledge that the king is unable to reproduce, could be perilous: the people would loose trust and other claimants to the throne may not have been able to contain their excitement, rallying troops to invade Aragon. This is exactly what happened when the king died and one claimant to the throne felt that he had more rights to the throne than the king’s brother.
Though we do not know the precise cause of Alfonso I’s impossibility to procreate, we do know that he was married to Queen Urraca in 1107; it is often said that the marriage was void of love; Alfonso I is described as a soldier, unable to give love, even depicted as beating his wife. But unless Urraca herself was adamant she did not want to have a son with this man, it is clear that the marriage was created for one specific purpose: the creation of an heir. The possibility that no heir was ever conceived – and that Alfonso was apparently not all that interested in women – might have to do with the fact that the king was indeed infertile – maimed to the extent that any sexual activity might have been painful at best, and impossible at worst. And thus we find that the Grail account and history once again walk hand in hand, one able to shed insights into the other.

The Spanish Grail

Wolfram thought that the story of the Grail had its origins in Spain, which is where he cites his sources, whether he invented them or not. Canadian Professor of history Joseph Goering has identified a number of churches in Aragon that have frescoes of the Virgin Mary holding a fiery Grail. He points out that the oddity about this depiction is twofold. First, the area in which the Virgin was depicted with a fiery Grail is very small. Second, she was depicted with the Grail fifty years before Chrétien’s tale – when the Grail was officially not yet invented as a “literary device”.
The earliest example of a fresco depicting the Virgin with a Grail dates from December 1123 and is an apse painting in the church of St. Clement in Taüll. Here, the Grail is a dish-like object, filled with a red-orange material from which rays rise, as if the plate is hot. Goering noted that the position of the Virgin holding this Grail in her left hand, the rest of her arm obscured by her blue cloak, while making a hand gesture with the right hand, is equally unique in iconography.
He concluded that “the image of the Virgin holding a sacred vessel is to be found only here, in these mountain villages, and nowhere else in Christian art before this time”, adding that “the Virgin at the head of the apostolic college is an uncommon artistic theme, and Mary holding a vessel of any sort seems to be attested nowhere else in Christian art before this time.”

These paintings were made at a time when Chrétien had not yet written about the Grail, and it would be almost a century before de Boron would link the Grail with Christian imagery. So where did this painter get his inspiration from? The answer seems as straightforward as it is simple: this type of image was local to the region, so it must have depicted a theme that was only popular in that region. And the only frame – which even Goering has to admit – was de Mandach’s conclusion, for, indeed, de Mandach’s timeframe for the Grail being in Aragon is precisely in agreement with the facts revealed by these wall frescoes.
The question, of course, is why the Virgin Mary became upgraded amongst the group of apostles and why she became the Grail bearer. For this, Goering has no clear answer. Is it possible that these wall paintings were the first attempt, performed within the heartland of the Grail (i.e. Aragon), to see whether a new image could be introduced in religious iconography, namely that of the Virgin holding the Grail? Why the Virgin Mary? Because she was said to be a virgin… and of course, in the Grail tradition, the Grail Bearer had to be a virgin. Hence, the Virgin Mary masqueraded as the Grail Bearer.

So, in at least eight Pyrenean churches, all located within a small area, stretching from the old boundary between Aragon and Catalonia in the west to the principality of Andorra in the east, all dating from the same period (ca. 1100-1170), a unique type of religious icon was introduced. In the end, it was never exported, and was abandoned before Chrétien commenced his Grail book – and the story of the Grail would take off for good.
In his analysis of these paintings, Goering goes further, noting that these churches were decorated at a time when the bishop was one Raymund, of French origins, but in 1101 invited to the court of King Pedro I of Aragon and elected as bishop of Roda – apparently to everyone’s surprise. Pedro’s son Alfonso I remained intimately involved with Bishop Raymund, from 1114 until his death from wounds received while accompanying Alfonso on a daring incursion into Andalusia in 1126. Goering’s historical analysis revealed that Raymund and Rotrou II de Perche – Perceval – not only fought together, but also appeared together frequently in royal charters, “so frequently that one might suppose a real friendship had developed between the two” and adding that “Rotrou may have even been with Raymond on his deathbed”.

The identification of a specific family – the Aragon kings – and specific locations in Northern Spain – San Juan de la Peña – show that the territory of the Grail was the kingdom of Aragon, south of the Pyrenees.

Excerpted from the introduction of “Servants of the Grail”