HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Templars’ by Dan Jones

Jerusalem 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade decides to set up a new order. These are the first Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors prepared to give their lives to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Over the next two hundred years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world. Their legend has inspired fervent speculation ever since. But who were they really and what actually happened?

In this groundbreaking narrative history, the bestselling author of The Plantagenets tells the true story of the Templars for the first time in a generation, drawing on extensive original sources to build a gripping account of these Christian holy warriors whose heroism and depravity have so often been shrouded in myth. The Templars were protected by the pope and sworn to strict vows of celibacy. They fought the forces of Islam in hand-to-hand combat on the sun-baked hills where Jesus lived and died, finding their nemesis in Saladin, who vowed to drive all Christians from the lands of Islam. They were experts at channeling money across borders. They established the medieval world’s first global bank and waged private wars against anyone who threatened their interests.

Then in 1307 the Templars fell foul of a vindictive King of France, whose lawyers built a meticulous case against them. On Friday October 13, hundreds of brothers were arrested, imprisoned and tortured, and the order was disbanded amid lurid accusations of sexual misconduct and heresy. They were tried by the Pope in secret proceedings and publicly humiliated. But were they heretics or victims of a ruthlessly repressive state? Dan Jones goes back to the sources to bring their dramatic tale, so relevant to our own times, in a book that is at once authoritative and compulsively readable.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The thing about the Knights Templar is that you mention them, you get a reply that suggests they are well-known. But if you were to ask the where-when-why etc, you get a blank expression or something a little garbled and fishy. The Knights Templar has built up an aura of men in full amour, wielding swords, holding limitless power and having some sort of personal line to God. Finally, here is a book you can trust.

The cultish-like Templars started in Jerusalem, living rather plain lives, much like Spaniards  before the Moors came to town and made everything better. The Templars took their name from a palace in the centre city named Temple of the Lord. The Templars believed in Christian values, which even today is a sketchy ambition and usually means harming those who don’t agree with you. This is relevant to this tale, as the Templars were a Catholic military unit founded around 1119. From their basic levels in Jerusalem, over the next thirty years, the Templars spread themselves out over Christendom, killing in order to make sure everyone stayed Christian – their appointed version of Christianity. They were, by this time, famous, rich and considered battle warriors against heretics and infidels.

In a time of typically violent crusades between Christians and Muslims, the Templars rose to be seen as heroes. The victory in Jerusalem came in June 1187, winning against a Muslim attack thanks to the fund received from King Henry II, who had paid their church as penance for a huge misdeed. Again in 1191, the Templars rose to defeat the Saracen and their leader Saladin, in name of King Richard I the Lionheart.

The battles fought by the Templars raged throughout 1200’s but by the early 14th century, the Templars had established an iron will, refusing any kind of diplomacy and lack of understanding of values in the areas where they wielded their butchery. The Templars also remained strict to one another, sometimes even serving punishment to each other like eating like a dog for a year.

Jones’ work is accurate and yet reads like a drama as the Templars are turned upon by the French in the 1300’s when the king got heavily indebted to the Templars. Propaganda really got its legs when churches started disparaging the Templars. Their Grand Masters, combat robes, secret ceremonies, the vast wealth all started to slip away, as did their victories in the crusades. They lost Jerusalem by the mid 1200’s, moved on from modern-day Israel and Syria soon after, moved from Cyprus by 1303. Their cells through Europe continued, but when the Pope and the French king wanted them eliminated, the Templars met the fate on Friday 13, 1307, when they were set upon and formally denounced. By 1312, all the cells had been quashed and writs from the Pope wiped the Templars from Christendom.

Jones’ book is a wonderful read and dispels the myths of the Templars as well as giving the reader a clear picture of those murky times during the crusades. As always, Dan Jones has delivered.
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