“Two types of humanity were the wonder of medieval Europe: the great saint and the great knight.” So declared Russell Kirk in his magnificent The Roots of American Order. In an illuminating chapter appropriately called “The Light of the Middle Ages,” Kirk argued that the saint and the knight gave rise to the scholar and the gentleman in later generations. This “neglected inheritance”—true in a broader sense—was not lost on the American Founders. They drew on its riches to give our constitutional order its distinctiveness.
The great saint and the great knight come together most prominently in the founding of an earlier order. Christopher Dawson, in his brilliant Medieval Essays, observed that medieval chivalry was “a sacred institution consecrated by religious rites and dedicated to the service of God and the defence of Holy Church. This religious conception of chivalry is already implicit in the crusading movement; it finds explicit expression in the new military orders, whose ideals were set forth by St. Bernard himself in his work In Praise of the New Knighthood.” The most perfect expression of this, as Dan Jones demonstrates, was the Knights Templar.
Jones, the author of such engaging narrative histories as The Plantagenets, The Wars of the Roses, and Magna Carta, turns his attention to a subject overgrown with ridiculous tales of Christ’s secret bloodline, hidden treasure, and the Holy Grail. It is a subject in continuous need of weeding. Dan Brown’s silly book The Da Vinci Code and the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Islandare but two obvious examples that obscure and choke off popular inquiry into the legitimate history of the Templars. Artistic license, however awful, has paradoxically kept the Templar story alive across various media, though the treatment is often inaccurate and unflattering. The real story of the Knights Templar is riveting and requires none of the fantastic accretions of Freemasonry or the occult and even less the revisionist obsessions of Hollywood (see Ridley Scott’s dreadful movie, Kingdom of Heaven).
There are superb scholarly histories. Malcom Barber’s The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple and Helen Nicholson’s The Knights Templar: A New History are both standard and accessible. But popular histories of the Templars—most recently by Michael Haag and Piers Paul Read—have been unbalanced and digressive and suffer from the strain of overwhelming detail at the expense of a good story well told. Not anymore. Jones brings nothing new to the Templar story, but for the general reader, or those new to Templar history, this is the book to read.
Jones divides the book into four parts: Pilgrims, Soldiers, Bankers, and Heretics. It is a structural conceit that he admits is artificial but serves the story. It is also justifiable and quite helpful, especially as an introductory framework. The Templar mandate and mission ultimately led the knights into many other areas as well. Securing safe passage for pilgrims and defending the sacred sites in the Holy Land required expertise in arms, logistics, and international diplomacy. Templar houses, fortifications, and properties ranged all over the Europe and the Middle East in the course of nearly two centuries of existence, which makes for drudgery if the reader is forced to read chronologically. This is precisely, and properly, where Dan Jones departs from previous attempts. A major gap in Templar historiography has long had less to do with scholarly research (even though the Order’s central archives were lost or destroyed) and more to do with the lack of a narrative history that is both thrilling and supported by scholarship.
The origin of the Templars can be traced to the arrival of Hugh of Payns, a Frankish knight from the region of Troyes, in the Holy Land. After the stunning successes of the First Crusade (1096–99), Europeans’ renewed interest in pilgrimage to Christianity’s sacred sites provided a boon to bandits, robbers, and Muslim raiders. Safe passage for pilgrims—who brought money and commerce to the nascent Christian states of Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, and Jerusalem—was desired but not guaranteed. Hugh and a small band of knights had collected around the Holy Sepulchre in an ad hoc attempt to safeguard visitors. Numbering somewhere between nine and thirty knights, the Council of Nablus in 1120 formally recognized this confraternity and provided for its ongoing maintenance. Out of this nucleus of devotion and obedience came the greatest and most powerful military order of warrior monks in the medieval world.
Hugh’s knights were given the fabled Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem as a base of operations by which they became known as the Knights of the Temple. In 1129, thanks to the efforts of Hugh, word had spread to Europe of a new type of knight, one not given to drunkenness and fighting, but to service to the poor, protection of the pilgrim, and defense of a Holy Land surrounded by the Sunni Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and the Shia Fatimid Caliph in Cairo. Formal recognition came that year at the Council of Troyes. A number of bishops and abbots, as well as a papal legate for Pope Honorius II, gathered to confer upon Hugh’s Knights of the Temple a structure and a Rule. The Order of the Temple would then be better able to recruit and raise funds for their mission in the East.
The foremost promoter of the Templars was none other than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, seeing in them a “new kind of knighthood” that “appeared on the earth.” One that “indefatigably wages a twofold combat, against flesh and blood and against spiritual hosts of evil in the heavens.” Bearing the mark of Bernard’s Cistercians, they were also to bear the sword in defense of Christians in the Levant brutalized by successive waves of Arab and Turkic Muslims. Bernard provided theological justification and spiritual encouragement urging the Templars to “March confidently … and with a stalwart heart repel the foes of the cross of Christ.”
Papal recognition and oversight, coupled with donations large and small across all of Europe, sparked rapid growth in the Order. The acquisition of properties and revenues and the construction of houses and fortifications gave the Templars a dominating physical presence that served only to encourage recruitment and patronage. The need was great, and for their entire existence outstripped the Order’s ability to meet it. But the Templars enjoyed success in protecting pilgrims, training warriors, and financing their mission (as well as the efforts of kings and nobles who came East to fight). Politically and militarily the Order suffered setbacks that led to a gradual weakening of its position in the East, and eventually its downfall in the West. The disastrous leadership of Gerard of Ridefort and the crushing losses at the Springs of Cresson, Hattin, and La Forbie are signal events in the demise of the order. And the strength of the Templar banking operation—long a marvel of efficiency and security—ultimately became its undoing in the West after the fall of Acre in 1291. The moral and financial bankruptcy of a profligate king, the ruthless Philip IV of France, led to the Order’s trial and dissolution for heresy and other baseless accusations.
Jones is as clear at describing the complex politics of the day as he is the military maneuvers and battles in the crusader states. And despite the enormous detail that two hundred years of history yields, neither the pace nor the quality of Jones’s narrative suffers. It is far richer and more thrilling than any of his predecessors. Even lengthy discussions of Templar arrests and trials, with concurrent investigations and hearings by Rome and secular kings in Europe, are enough to keep the reader turning pages. One can almost smell the distinct air of the stake burning as the story advances.
In the end, the Templars fell short in sainthood and knighthood. Victims of both success and failure, the order’s spiritual virtues were undone by temporal vices—their own and others. Despite the dark corners of conspiracy theory and occult interest in which the name of the Order of the Temple is too often whispered, the truth of the Templars still resonates. At a recent Catholic Men’s conference in Phoenix, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said that knighthood provided the “animating ideal at the core of the Templars: to build a new order of new Christian men, skilled at arms, living as brothers, committed to prayer, austerity, and chastity and devoting themselves radically to serving the Church and her people, especially the weak.” To be a Christian is to be a warrior because, he said, “living the Gospel involves a very real kind of spiritual warfare.” The Templars may never have guarded the cup of Christ, but they surely drank of its suffering.
Timothy D. Lusch is a writer. He most recently appeared in the Toronto Star, Michigan History Magazine, New Oxford Review, and Catholic World Report.