Maurice Druon’s spectacular historical novel The Iron King ends with a dramatic scene in which Jacques de Molay, the Master of the Knights Templar, is burned to death at the stake, and dying, curses Philip IV, King of France, as well as Pope Clement V. It was my interest in this particular event and my curiosity about the truth of Druon’s story that led me to read The Templars.
This book is a high-level history of the Knights Templar, an order of knights dedicated to poverty and to the protection of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As well as being about the battles it fought for Christendom (an appalling time), it is more interestingly about how the organization grew to become one of the most powerful multinational forces in Europe during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.
Although The Templars is meant to be a history for the general public, it does provide footnotes and citations for those who want to explore further, which I think is good. I have lately read a few history books and biographies that didn’t even bother listing sources, so there’s no way of ascertaining how accurate they are, which I find a disturbing trend. The book is written to hold its audience’s attention, which it does a fair job of. But, of course, it’s mostly about the Crusades, so you have to have a lot of fighting.
As for the Templars’ end, Jones depicts them as a mostly honorable and dedicated group of men who toward the end were fighting a losing battle. Europe wasn’t interested in crusades anymore, and the last few were disasters resulting in huge losses of men, largely through the misjudgments of Western leaders who did not understand their enemies rather than because of the Templars themselves. After these disasters, the Templars found themselves without enough knights to keep control of the territory they had once won.
It was on a trip to Europe to try to win support for another crusade that Jacques de Molay and all the knights in France were arrested on the same day. There had been much talk of combining the Knights Templar, the Knight’s Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights into one unit, which de Molay hoped to counter. What he did not anticipate was that King Philip of France wanted the Templars’ money and valuables. Starting with the testimony of one aggrieved man who had been ejected from the Templars for some crime, the king’s men had the knights tortured until they admitted crimes like denouncing Christ and committing sodomy. Although prosecution of the Templars was a church matter, not a civil one, Clement V was too much under Philip’s thumb to do much more than make mild efforts on their behalf. The result was that Templars who renounced their “confessions” were burned by the Inquisition. This shocking ending, Jones proposes, is why the Templars are still such a fascination in popular culture, although popular culture tends to treat them as satanists, when they were innocent of the charges against them.
So, yes, Druon got it right.
Jones did one thing that drove me crazy, which he claims is accepted practice in covering this time period, and that was to anglicize everyone’s names. I have never run across this before, but I think it’s ridiculous and ethnocentric. For example, Jacques de Molay is called James of Molay throughout the book. Why would anyone do this, accepted practice or not? Does Jones think the French name is too tough for us? If it’s accepted practice, it’s stupid.