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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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queens of the Conquest’ by Alison Weir

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In the first volume of an exciting new series, bestselling author Alison Weir brings the dramatic reigns of England’s medieval queens to life.

The lives of England’s medieval queens were packed with incident—love, intrigue, betrayal, adultery, and warfare—but their stories have been largely obscured by centuries of myth and omission. Now esteemed biographer Alison Weir provides a fresh perspective and restores these women to their rightful place in history.

Spanning the years from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the dawn of a new era in 1154, when Henry II succeeded to the throne and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first Plantagenet queen, was crowned, this epic book brings to vivid life five women, including: Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, the first Norman king; Matilda of Scotland, revered as “the common mother of all England”; and Empress Maud, England’s first female ruler, whose son King Henry II would go on to found the Plantagenet dynasty. More than those who came before or after them, these Norman consorts were recognized as equal sharers in sovereignty. Without the support of their wives, the Norman kings could not have ruled their disparate dominions as effectively.

Drawing from the most reliable contemporary sources, Weir skillfully strips away centuries of romantic lore to share a balanced and authentic take on the importance of these female monarchs. What emerges is a seamless royal saga, an all-encompassing portrait of English medieval queenship, and a sweeping panorama of British history.

cover and blurb via amazon

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For far too long, queens have been overshadowed by their kings. Often married, rather than born, into the role, they are considered ‘less than’. While there are many great works now out there about queens, here is a masterpiece of a book of true rulers, ready to lead but ‘betrayed’ by their gender. Queens of the Conquest is, excitingly, the first in a new series, which chronicles war, power, betrayal, tragedy and the odd bright moment.

The first queen in the book is Matilda of Flanders, supporting William the Conqueror as he led the Norman invasion of 1066, and she has a tale just as powerful as any warring king. Instead of simply noting a woman as filled with piety or scandal, Matilda gets a real account of her life. Matilda didn’t want to marry William the Bastard, but with no choice, stood by his side when he became the first king of England.

Their son, Henry I, married Edith of Scotland, and had to change her name to Matilda. Edith/Matilda (or Godiva as she was called by the locals who were putting her down). She was made regent regularly, ran the curia and helped the sick. Edith/Matilda had a grand family lineage in her own right, was well-educated for the time and had a large influnce on articecture.  Her son was killed in a bizarre and stupid accident, meaning she could leave the crown was handed to their daughter, Empress Maude, then renamed Empress Matilda.

Maude/Matilda had married the Holy Roman Emperor, and he died, leaving her to be queen of England in her own right, as her brother was already dead. War raged under Maude/Matilda, but she fought to the very end to hold the throne as hers, not her husband’s/son’s/anyone else related. Naturally, everyone was a real dick about a woman ruling. Maude/Matilda had to marry again, to Geoffrey of Anjou, which was hard because he disliked him; Matilda had to fight wars all over Europe to stay queen. She was a woman who had ruled as queen in Germany and Italy, born to rule, but fought her life away before her son took the English throne to become King Henry II.

Also profiled is Adeliza of Louvain, Henry I’s second wife, whom he had hoped to get a son on, instead of leaving the throne to the incredible Maude/Matilda. Adeliza married Henry soon after his son was killed in the White Ship disaster, a beautiful woman from now-Belgium, a descendant of Charlemagne. Henry I was a huge traveller and Adeliza was always at his side for fifteen years. She gave the king no children, sort-of securing the throne for her stepdaughter Maude/Matilda. Adeliza then went on to marry the royal butler and give him a child.

Also portrayed is Matilda of Boulogne, who married Count Stephen of Mortain. Matilda was niece of the King Baldwin of Jerusalem. When Matilda’s husband heard of Henry I’s death, they rushed to England to take the throne ahead of Empress Maude/Matilda. She was crowned heavily pregnant when the new King Stephen took Maude/Matilda’s place, and was engaged in the battles between these two claimants for eighteen years, sometimes the queen, sometimes deposed, as they battled for control. She helped to found the Knights Templar and negotiated with Maude/Matilda in times of war between them.

None of these women should be forgotten and this book is amazing. If you are into royal history, English history, any kind of history, you should own this book.