Templars, by Steve Tibble

Trevor James

A coherent analysis of an historical phenomenon which rose to enormous influence.
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The historic role and place of the Templars in European history is interwoven with legend and indeed, as Steve Tibble has demonstrated in this very closely argued work, it has attracted any number of misrepresentations and false trails. This book offers us discussion of four different elements of the Templar story: how they emerged; what they offered the wider church and political community; how they suddenly ceased to exist in France and England; and a very careful consideration of all the mischievous allegations that were levelled against them and an equally careful rebuttal of such charges.

The Templars emerge as a military order to support the objectives of the Church, under papal and royal leadership, as part of the Christian attempt to win and secure the Holy Land in what are broadly labelled the ‘Crusades’. Their numbers did include men who served with distinction as soldiers in the Holy Land but there were also very substantially more men whose role kept them in the West. These latter helped generate and dispatch the funds that were needed to support the Templar troops in the Crusader states. Because there was widespread support for the religious objectives of the Crusades from 1095 onwards, enormous gifts of land and funding were placed within the control of the Templars. They became extremely adept at managing the vast sums of money involved and in managing the resources, such as agricultural output, which contributed to these funds. Their financial and management skills were recognised by English monarchs from Henry II to Edward I who used their expertise in government service. This role evolved into a wider role in terms of diplomacy and they became hugely influential.

In 1307 in France their special role suddenly came to a close when the French Templars were arrested and prosecuted. Within a year the status of the British Templars was also transformed, although their treatment did not have the severity of the treatment meted out in France. The preposterous official and incidental evidence in France and England  that was proclaimed widely – every possible excess that can be imagined, including charges of devil-worship – has been examined and very carefully rebutted by Steve Tibble, sometimes just by sheer logic – why would men recruited to support a widely acclaimed religious objective in such numbers have turned out to be devil-worshippers –  but also sometimes by examining the detail of specific examples such as the incident where local people were said to have been inconvenienced byTemplar rowdyism and licentiousness at a location where no one lived within any possibility of audibility. What has been presented so clearly is a case study in what happens when a grouping such as the Templars becomes too powerful and how spurious evidence is assembled to diminish or remove their power. There are parallels with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, where it is difficult to accept the scale of dissolute living that was depicted, but there are vast differences as well because the accumulated wealth of the Templars seemed to have evaporated in Edward II’s reign as compared with the sheer wealth that was available after the Dissolution.

At Royston in Hertfordshire there is a cave under the centre of the town, where two ancient routes cross, which has traditionally been linked in popular local belief with the Templars. This cave, possibly natural in origin but significantly extended, contains a series of wall paintings which have been identified as having Templar associations, with the notion that this had been an underground chapel. Royston is not even mentioned by Steve Tibble but, having followed his analysis carefully, there is no possible reason why the Templars should have had an underground, and secretive, chapel there or anywhere else. The association that has been made stands in the same vein as the illogical attempt to use Rosslyn Chapel, not built until 1446, as a link between the Templars who had ceased to function after 1308 with the more recent emergence of freemasonry. This particular example epitomises Steve Tibble’s guidance that all evidence needs to be authenticated and carefully evaluated. His research of the sources is exemplary.

This book provides a coherent analysis of an historical phenomenon which rose to enormous influence and then, extraordinarily and suddenly, departed from our national narrative. We need books like this to help us understand the intricacies of that medieval world.

Templars: The Knights who made Britain by Steve Tibble is out now and published by Yale University Press. Trevor James is the former editor of The Historian.