Steve Tibble on The Templars

Andrew Rollo

Medieval historian Andrew Rollo interviews the author of a new book on the Templars.
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Steve Tibble, congratulations on The Templars. Who were the British Templars?

The Templars were a religious military order of devout Catholic warriors. They were established by the papacy the help defend the lands that were brought back into Christian hands after the success of the First Crusade. They were designed to be a semi-regular military force on the ground but also as a way of funnelling a consistent stream of resources from Europe into the Christian Middle East. They had operations in most of the main provinces of Europe, including Britain.

There were two very distinct groups of ‘British Templars’.

One group, the order’s British soldiers in the front-line military arm, had the ‘glamorous’ but dangerous job of fighting in its armies and manning its castle garrisons in the East – these Templar volunteers performed heroic acts of outstanding bravery in the defence of the Holy Land.

But they were supported in their increasingly forlorn endeavours by the less dramatic but vital work undertaken on their behalf by their fellow brothers back in Britain. This other group, the British Templars on the ‘home front’, had the task of running farms, organising financial support and, often more importantly, lobbying the governments of England and Scotland.

Was the failure by the Second Crusade to capture Damascus in 1148 the point where things began to turn decisively against the Crusader States, or can it be fixed to a later date?

The Battle of Inab during the Second Crusade

What always surprises me about the crusades, and the crusader states, is not that things turned against them but rather that they survived for as long as they did.

The loss of Edessa in 1144 and the failure to capture Damascus in 1148 were certainly setbacks – but any modern observer with a basic understanding of the resources available to the Franks (the western crusaders) and access to Google Earth can see within five minutes that there is not going to be a happy ending for the crusaders.

They occupied an isolated and narrow strip of land, at the furthest end of what barely passed for a supply line from Europe, surrounded by a mass of Muslim-dominated states. On a macro level (though they would not have recognised it at the time) the most they could realistically hope for was to delay the inevitable.

The Franks were extremely lucky that they had to elite soldiers such as the Templars on their side. The medieval ‘Great Game’ of the Levant was eventually, inevitably, lost by the crusaders: it was a game played with bravery, energy and intelligence, against increasingly long odds. But it had only one realistic end.

Did the Templars invent the practice of using bills of exchange to move large amounts of non-physical money over long distances, or did they get the idea from someone else?

I’m not sure if they would have claimed to have invented it from scratch – the ancient world had relatively sophisticated financial structures. But they were certainly in the vanguard of reinventing it for the Middle Ages.

The British Templars’ headquarters, the ‘New Temple’, for instance, became more fully involved in what was, literally, merchant banking. The order began to extend the use of the New Temple and its experience in international credit transfers to help promote long-distance trade. This allowed money to be lodged at a local Templar preceptory for commercial transactions and then drawn down elsewhere. Funds could be given to the order in England and then withdrawn, say, at the Templar headquarters in Paris.

Over the course of the thirteenth century, it is estimated that in excess of 1 million marks passed through the strongrooms of the New Temple. The Templars were extremely well integrated into the finances of the English state. At least two Templars were also royal Treasurers, in addition to their other financial duties at the order’s headquarters.

Which myth about the Templars do you think is the most ridiculous?

Wow, that’s a very high bar! They are all pretty crazy.

A particular favourite of mine, not because it is mad but because it is such a good story, is the legend that the Templars won the battle of Bannockburn for Robert the Bruce. It is a myth composed of many interlocking and highly imaginative subplots, many of which play to a nationalistic agenda.

The first component is the tale of Templars escaping in large numbers from France, England and other parts of western Europe. Conveniently, these brothers gathered in the west of Scotland, particularly around Kintyre and Argyle, and carried on their weapons training. Then, as a dramatic climax to the ‘revenge of the renegades’ saga, this Templar army appeared at the battle of Bannockburn on 23/24 June 1314 and beat the English.

This is a great story, but it is entirely untroubled by irritating facts or evidence.

Firstly, there is no record of Templar fleets escaping France or any of the other provinces, regardless of the treasure hoards or Holy Grails that they might have been taking with them. Similarly, there is no record of any Templar properties in the areas of western Scotland that are claimed as the destination for these renegades.

But the presence of an ‘invincible’ Templar army at Bannockburn is the biggest myth. There were only two Templar brothers in Scotland when the order was suppressed, both of whom were embarrassingly English. Even more disappointingly, given the high-profile nature of the putative Templar intervention, every contemporary chronicle, whether English or Scottish, somehow forgot to mention them.

Perhaps more to the point, if any Templars had been on the battlefield, they would almost certainly have been fighting as part of the English army rather than on the Scottish side. The order had close connections with Edward I and had actively helped him live up to his reputation as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – they were indeed disturbingly partisan, but only in an anti-Scottish way.

Ultimately, of course, the story is also insulting to Robert the Bruce. He fought a remarkable battle, and he didn’t need the help of fictitious allies to do the heavy-lifting for him.

What led you to be so interested in the history of the Crusades?

I’m a very unresourceful person, so I’m permanently in awe at what these people did, in the face of overwhelming odds and seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

They were necessarily dealing with very limited resources. Our natural tendency is to look back on earlier societies with a patronising sense of superiority. But this is a mistake. As was once said about human intelligence in the Stone Age, in a society with nothing, you need a much greater level of resourcefulness than one in which your biggest challenge is how to turn on your laptop.

I enjoy writing as a way of challenging our preconceived ideas, often unhelpfully shaped by our febrile but pervasive global media and the politics of the twenty-first century. Paramount among these ideas is the arrogant prejudice that the past was almost entirely populated by people who, because they did not have the resources which we take for granted, were somehow less intelligent than we are.

Have you considered writing a book on the Hospitaller Order in this period of the Crusades (1099-1320)?

Good thinking….The Hospitallers may be less sexy and lower profile, but they arguably achieved more in the long-term, as they survived and reinvented themselves so many times. They showed a flexibility and an adaptability which the Templars sadly lacked. But a friend of mine is writing that book at the moment, and I wouldn’t want to tread on his toes!

What are you planning to write about next?

I’ve just finished a book called ‘Crusader Criminals – Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land’, which looks at the crazy, completely rampant criminality in that time and place – it is, in effect, the story of the medieval ‘Wild East’. The characters, and the mad things they got up to, are so extraordinary that the book practically wrote itself. Yale are publishing it on July 9, 2024.

Steve Tibble is a historian and the author of Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain, published by Yale University Press. Andrew Rollo completed an MA History degree at Bangor University. His particular area of interest is medieval history.