The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, much commonly known as The Knights Templars, are shrouded as much in myth and legend as historical fact. This has led to a certain romanticism surrounding them and their legacy that is perhaps best captured by their place as a secret society protecting church secrets and the Holy Grail in the hugely popular Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or multiple appearances in hugely successful films like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, National Treasure and The Kingdom of Heaven.
In this book, Dan Jones cuts through this and tells the real story of this distinctive Military Order, from their humble beginnings as guardians of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land following the First Crusade through to becoming a multi-national organisation of immense wealth and political influence and their subsequent, dramatic fall. This is a tale that filled bloody battles, intrigue and interwoven with some of the greatest figures in the medieval history, including Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, Baybers and the Mamluks, the Mongols and, of course, many others, with various Popes and French kings being particularly interwoven.
The book is told in a chronological order, which makes it easy to follow for non-historians like me to follow. The four major sections of this book neatly summarise the 200 year story of the Templars: Pilgrims, Soldiers, Bankers and Heretics. Pilgrims charts their rise from nine companions under Hugh of Payns in 1119 and how they established themselves as a power across the various Christian states of the Holy Land following the First Crusade. Soldiers continues the story through what could be considered the peak of the Crusading fervour that filled much of Europe through out the early Medieval period and how they took a leading role in the fight against the forces of Islam. Bankers chronicles how, as the power of the crusading kingdoms waned, they adapted and found new roles to fill, alongside their militaristic duties that led to vast quantities of wealth be amassed, while Heretics covers their shocking and sudden demise at the hands of Philip IV of France – who, this humble reader, is not a fan of!
In general, I found Jones to take a balanced and objective view to the Templars in this book, taking many of his sources from both Christian and Islamic chroniclers. It is probably slightly erring on the side of being positive in its assessment of the Templars, though this is understandable considering it is a book written about them: as an author he obviously has an interest here. Of course, this positive light does require you to suspend modern morals and look at them through a Medieval mindset where the Crusades weren’t the bloody, fanatical movement that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands but a vital fight in the eternal battle between Good and Evil – and that actually counts for both the Christian and Islamic sides!
Dan Jones style as a writer is entertaining, informative and easily accessible. I kind of knew this, having previously read The Hollow Crown (his book on the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors) and was glad to see it continue as I’ll certainly be looking out for other books by him because of the almost narrative approach he takes to telling history.
As an aside, I would definitely say it is useful to have a bit of knowledge about the geography of Europe and the Middle East in the 12th and 13th centuries as places and names do come thick and fast throughout. Maps are provided, and I would take sometime to study them, otherwise you may find yourself wondering where all these places are!
In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Knights Templars and the history of the Crusades in general. Its fast pace and accessible writing style make it an immensely enjoyable way to read some non-fiction for those who might find it a bit dry at times.