- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
To ask Dan Jones — writer of the completely excellent “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” — about the biggest misconception about the Templar Knights is to elicit the lowest of chuckles.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Jones says.
He’s written five books about medieval history, including popular volumes on the War of the Roses (a conflict turned into fantasy, to dazzling monetary effect, in “Game of Thrones”) and the Magna Carta. But there might be very little in the Middle Ages quite as misunderstood as the Templar Knights.
The Templars started as protection for Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land in the early 12th century, grew into an immensely powerful, international military and financial organization in the 13th and were destroyed virtually overnight in the early 14th. But for mysterious and not-so-mysterious reasons, people seem to think the Templars are, well, still around.
“The Templars have been connected with some very peculiar ideas about global conspiracy and the so-called secrets of the church,” Jones says, citing notions popularized by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” about an everlasting Templars organization protecting the bloodline of Christ, knowing where the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are, that sort of thing. (Note: This is all total fiction.)
“The idea that they exist in the shadows today, that there is an Illuminati history which connects the Templars with modern secret power politics. …” Jones says, sounding like a man trying hard to stay polite about this sort of thing. “I understand why it’s very fertile ground for the seeds of conspiracy.”
Jones didn’t set out to correct the record with “The Templars,” but the book proves there is an action-packed, deeply enjoyable story — rooted in actual research — to be told about this extraordinary organization.
“The books I had written to this point were focused on British history, French history, the history of Western European politics,” Jones says. “I wanted to find a subject that would allow me to stretch myself a bit and write about the Middle Ages, a subject I love, with greater scope. The Templars were that subject, as it’s a story that connects England, France and Western Europe with the Middle East.”
It didn’t hurt that there are aspects of the Templars story that sound depressingly familiar. “It’s about a war between Sunni and Shia Islam in the Middle East in which Western military intervention arrived without really being invited,” Jones says.
“It’s a story about an organization that started as private security in and around Syria and Egypt,” he continues, and “rose to become elite special forces and tax-exempt brokers of international finance. Eventually they were brought down in a series of show trials underpinned by the kind of propaganda that today we would call ‘fake news.’”
Speaking of propaganda, Jones found himself genuinely shocked by the speed and manner with which the Templars were destroyed.
“The whole thing felt very modern,” Jones says. “We’re used to a very cynical use of propaganda, people attacking the values and reputation of their enemies.” But to delve into the court records from that period in the early 14th century is to see just how sophisticated an operation it was, Jones says.
As for why Philip IV of France decided to take out the Templars for good, Jones says there were a host of reasons. The group was oddly vulnerable at the end of the 13th century.
“The Templars’ reputation was weak,” Jones says. “The Crusader states, places the Templars had been charged with defending in the Middle East, were lost in 1291. The Templars were blamed for its loss.”
In addition, most of the Templars’ military wing was off fighting in Spain, Portugal and the Middle East.
Philip IV also had chronic economic problems. “He tried to deal with a financial crisis in previous years by expelling 100,000 Jews from France and confiscating their wealth,” Jones says.
The seized money wasn’t enough, so Philip turned his eye to the Templars, whose resources were known deeply to the French crown, Jones says. (France had been subcontracting treasury functions to the Templars for a century.)
So Philip decided the Templars had to go. With end-of-“The-Godfather”-like swiftness, on Oct. 13, 1307, hundreds of Templar brothers were arrested at once, a dazzling feat considering how limited communications were at the time. Within a handful of months, the organization, which was more than 150 years old, was smashed. Within a handful of years, the Templars were dead.
Jones still marvels at the speed with which this mighty organization was destroyed. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he says, “I think that explains a lot of why people find it hard to believe they really did disappear. But the more I thought about it, the more I found parallels in our lifetime. I remember the day in 2008 when Lehman Bros vanished and Bear Stearns disappeared. Weeks earlier, it seemed impossible to imagine such a massive organization could just vanish. But they did.”
Jones was initially a bit wary of the topic, given that the central archive for the Templars is as lost as, well, the Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. Would there be a paucity of material?
“I was surprised by the richness and wealth of sources for this subject,” Jones says. “There were European chronicles, incredible Christian writers from Crusader states and an array of Muslim sources, many of which exist in fantastic English or French translations. We have letters from (legendary Egyptian sultan and brilliant military leader) Saladin himself and his court that are written in this extraordinary lyrical, poetic prose that even when translated into English has this musicality to it.”
The change of scenery proved inspiring. “Much as I love writing about English history, it suddenly all seemed very small by comparison,” Jones says. “Medieval maps put Jerusalem at the center of the world, and that’s really the feeling I got.”