Review 1574: The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

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.

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Day 470: Reread—The Iron King

Cover for The Iron KingI already reviewed The Iron King during my first year of blogging, but that review was based on my memory of the novel, having read it several years before. I recently re-read it and would just like to mention it again, as it is so good and easier to find now that the first three volumes of the series have been republished.

The Accursed Kings series concerns the history of the last Capet kings of France. The first in the series, The Iron King, begins with some fateful acts that eventually affect the future of the kingdom.

The novel begins in England with Queen Isabella plotting with her cousin, Robert of Artois, against her three sisters-in-law. Queen Isabella, the daughter of Philip IV of France (known as the Philip the Fair or the Iron King), is unhappily married to Edward II of England, who disdains her and lends the power of his throne to the Despensers, the family of his male favorite. Isabella is disposed to make trouble. Her cousin has brought her his conviction that at least two of her three sisters-in-law are being unfaithful to their husbands, her brothers, the princes of France. Isabella and Robert hatch a plot to expose them.

Robert of Artois has his own reasons for the plot, for his father’s property was awarded to his aunt Mahaut instead of to him so that it would pass into the hands of King Philip the Fair’s two younger sons when they married Jeanne and Blanche, Mahaut’s daughters. Robert is only too happy to ruin Marguerite, Queen of Navarre and wife of Philip’s oldest son, along with the two other girls, as she is Mahaut’s cousin.

Awaiting their own fates are the last four members who are not in hiding of the once wealthy and powerful Knights Templar. Years before they had refused to admit Philip the Fair as a member, as it was against the rules of their order to admit royalty. Since then, Philip has plotted their ruin, assisted by Pope Clement, who covets the riches of the order. Now they have been condemned of heresy, largely on trumped up charges.

Early in the book, Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is burned at the stake. During his burning, he curses the King, Pope Clement, and Guillaume de Nogaret, Secretary-General of the Kingdom, to their thirteenth generation. The Pope is dead within 40 days, de Nogaret soon after. Thus the name of Druon’s fantastic series, The Accursed Kings, for you can be sure that Philip the Fair will be dead by the end of the novel.

This series is being marketed as the original Game of Thrones. Perhaps there are some similarities. The court is a nest of vipers—those in power are constantly engaged in political machinations and those not in power in other kinds of plots. The world Druon presents is fascinating, depicted with cynicism and wry observations. The novel is extremely well written, about an extraordinary time in French history.

Day 88: The Iron King

Cover for The Iron KingBest Book of the Week!

The Iron King is the first of seven books in the “Accursed Kings” series by the French novelist Maurice Druon. Unlike many historical novels, this series does not follow a fictional hero or heroine but is an interpretation of actual events in French history with all historical figures. This series was popular in its time (it was written in the 1950’s), but may be difficult to find now. If you are lucky, your local library may have it.

It is 1307 in France. The kingdom is broke, and King Philippe IV, known as the Iron King, is looking for sources of money. The Knights Templar, one of the wealthiest organizations in the world, seems like a good place to get it, but they refuse France a loan. Some charges of heresy, obscene rituals, and other abominations have been laid against them by a defrocked knight. Everyone knows they are false, but with the collusion of Pope Clement, who fears the knights’ power, Philippe orders the members to be arrested all on the same night, and seizes their assets.

In the meantime, Robert of Artois has been cheated out of his inheritance by his aunt, Mahaut.  He decides to get his revenge by bringing down her daughters, who are married to the King’s sons.

Druon’s writing is elegant and ironic, his novels thoroughly researched. He doesn’t over-explain; instead, the novel is compelled forward solely by the events in the plot. Few of the characters are sympathetic; nevertheless, it is a fascinating series. I have often read opinions that Druon is one of the best historical novelists ever.