Robert Irwin

Knight Fever

The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

By

Head of Zeus 494pp £25 order from our bookshop

Thank God this book is sane. As Dan Jones observes in his introduction, ‘Templars have featured in numerous works of fiction, television shows and films where they have been presented variously as heroes, martyrs, thugs, bullies, victims, criminals, perverts, heretics, depraved subversives, guardians of the Holy Grail, protectors of Christ’s secret bloodline and time-travelling agents of global conspiracy.’ Jones gives this sort of stuff short shrift. In his concluding chapter he has this to say about the proliferating fake histories of the Templars:

One of the supposed Templar-survivalist bolt-holes, Oak Island in Nova Scotia, has been put forward as a possible location for the order’s lost treasure. It has also been linked with evidence proving the true authorship of Shakespeare manuscripts, the location of Marie Antoinette’s jewellery and the hidden archives of a secret society of Rosicrucians led by Sir Francis Bacon. Needless to say, no Templar treasure has yet been discovered.

Jones’s latest book is a great deal better than merely sane. He tells the engrossing story of an ascetic order of warrior knights chiefly dedicated, at least at first, to the defence of pilgrims on the roads to Jerusalem, moving from their foundation in around 1120 to the abrupt and bloody dissolution of the order in the opening decades of the 14th century.

By the 13th century ‘the Templars had transformed from indigent shepherds of the pilgrim roads, dependent on the charity of fellow pilgrims for their food and clothes, into a borderless, self-sustaining paramilitary group funded by large-scale estate management’. Extensive properties in Europe helped fund Templar garrisons in the crusader states. They had become as notorious for their pride and wealth as they were famous for their courage. The order challenged the authority of monarchs in the kingdoms of Jerusalem, Aragon, Cyprus and elsewhere. Jones provides a reliable account of their political, military and economic operations in the 12th and 13th centuries before bringing the story to an end with a harrowing account of the sudden arrest of the French Templars by officers of Philip IV in 1307, the torture and burning at the stake of hundreds of the knights on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and sexual perversion, the transfer of much of their wealth to the French crown, the arrests of Templars in other countries and, in 1312, the dissolution of the order by the weak Pope Clement V. Jones does not bother with the supposed secretive afterlife of the Templars and the story is certainly interesting enough without adding in Mary Magdalene’s possible arrival in the south of France or clues to lost treasure in a painting by Poussin.

Jones’s book is based on wide-ranging and thorough research and relies overwhelmingly on primary sources. The narrative begins with this vivid description: ‘It was a foul autumn morning in Jaffa when the pilgrims came out of the church. They were immediately swept up in the stampede of a crowd heading towards the sea, drawn by a dreadful cacophony: the scream of timber being wrenched apart and, scarcely audible below the roar of the wind and explosions of waves, the shrieks of terrified men and women fighting for their lives.’ Jones goes on to portray the storm off the Palestinian coast and the timbers and shredded corpses being driven by the waves onto sharp rocks. Although this looks like the sort of you-were-there imaginative scene-painting, padded out with circumstantial detail, favoured by hack historians, it is in fact based on the account of an English pilgrim named Saewulf who was en route to Jerusalem in 1102 and escaped drowning by disembarking the doomed vessel at Jaffa a day earlier.

Anyone who sets out to write a history of the Templars, and of the crusader states more generally, is blessed by having access to a remarkable range of written material. The sources for the history of the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries are more numerous and much more informative than those for the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century (the subject of an earlier book by Jones). It’s worth mentioning just a few of the sources used in The Templars in order to suggest their variety.

The Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux was a benign and eloquent patron of the Templars, whom he seems to have envisaged as an armed version of the Cistercians. He produced a treatise in support of the new order, De laude novae militiae (‘In Praise of the New Knighthood’), in which he defended the rightness of fighting and killing for Christ and praised the monkish austerity of those who did so. Bernard was also an industrious and eloquent correspondent and he used his rhetoric in the service of crusading and the Templars.

Imad al-Din al-Isfahani was Saladin’s adviser, secretary and high-flown panegyrist. Jones draws on his writings extensively in his account of the Battle of Hattin in 1187, when the army of the kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated. Saladin treated King Guy, the sovereign of Jerusalem, hospitably, but, as Imad al-Din reported, the Templars and knights of the parallel order of Hospitallers were judged by Saladin to belong to ‘unclean orders, whose practices are useless, who never give up their hostility and who have no use as slaves’. So Saladin recruited volunteers from his civilian following and supplied them with swords to execute the captives. Imad al-Din reported that several clerics made botched jobs of their executions and had to be helped.

The beautifully bound and illuminated cadastral survey commissioned at the end of the 12th century by Geoffrey Fitz Stephen, master of the Templars in England, provides a full listing of the order’s rural estates and urban holdings throughout the country. Jones also turns to the Templar of Tyre, who was not a Templar at all but a secretary of grand master William of Beaujeu and the author of Les Gestes des Chiprois (‘The Deeds of the Cypriots’), a chronicle in which he commemorated the heroic death of William at the siege of Acre in 1291. The fall of Acre to the Mamluks marked the end of the crusader presence in the Levant. The Templar of Tyre went on to provide a somewhat disparaging account of the tergiversations of the last grand master, James of Molay, when faced with trumped-up charges brought against him and his order by Philip IV’s ministers. Jones’s inspection of the trial records leaves him in no doubt that harsh conditions of confinement, torture, and lengthy and formulaic interrogations produced the results desired by the French king. James went to the stake in 1314 and many other knights suffered the same fate.

Although no serious historian believes that the Templars were guilty of the charges that were brought against them, perhaps the order was guilty of other things. In the final decades of its existence it made strategic mistakes, it meddled in politics, it resisted union with the Hospitallers and it seemed generally incapable of reform. The story of the Templars reads like a morality tale.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter