John Joiliffe reviews a meticulous history of the Templars THIS BOOK, by one of England's foremost Catholic authors, is in fact more than a history of the most powerful military order of the time of the Crusades. In order to put its story into intelligible focus, Piers Paul Read starts off with an 83-page summary of the first millennium of Christianity, most of which will be unfamiliar to all but specialists in Church history.
What is crucial is the fact that the Temple at Jerusalem, rebuilt in about 20 BC by Herod the Great, occupied a position of significance first to the Jews, then to the Christians and later to the followers of Mohammed. The sack of decadent Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 was followed by barbarous persecution of the Christians, at its worst under the Emperor Diocletian. Then came the conversion of Constantine and his donation of Rome and other parts of Italy to the successors of St Peter, followed by waves of invasions by Vandals, Huns and Visigoths from the north and east.
Next came the threat to the Church from Islam, all the more serious since Mohammed offered his followers not only an afterlife of perpetual bliss but also material prosperity in this world too, thus over-egging the pudding to an extent which would seem hard to swallow, especially since his method of conversion was often by the sword, in contrast with the love and nonviolence preached, and practiced, by Jesus.
The Persians captured Jerusalem in 638. Although the Moslems invited the Christians to abandon their belief in the Divinity of Christ and in the Trinity, they did not oppress those who declined to do so, provided they did not try to convert the Moslems. By the end of the 9th century they had overcome Spain, Sicily and much of Italy. In Jerusalem itself, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained in Christian
hands, but a major mosque was built over the rock on which, by tradition, Abraham had prepared Isaac for sacrifice.
It was the decision of Pope Urban 11, a former Prior of the great reformed Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, to launch the First Crusade in 1095 that paved the way for the foundation of the Templars. Urban hoped to reduce the general armed strife prevalent in Europe by turning hostilities against the enemies of Christianity (if only it had been as simple as that). Cluny presented the penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the climax of the spiritual life, and one such set out 7.000-strong from the Rhine under four bishops. It was certainly believed that service under the Knights would expiate sins. For example, the murderers of Thorn a Becket were each condemned to 14 years service with the Knights and Henry II left large legacies to
them on to all kinds of selfseeking distraction, which somewhat inevitably eventually happened.
The Templars also became great builders both of fortresses and churches up and down the coastal strip of Outremer, which extended from Gaza to a group of forts north of Antioch near the present Turkish border. Increasingly, arrogance set in, which together with treachery and wild errors of judgement led to the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187. lie and Richard Lionheart (whose reputation continues to seesaw violently. and is at present on a high) reached an impasse, neither being strong enough to hold for long the territories over which they
fought so fiercely.
By this time, there was huge resentment against the Templars, arising from their great possessions and their enjoyment of various tax exemptions and other privileges, all shrouded in much secrecy. More of the administration than with fighting action (a criticism which Churchill incidentally loudly echoed against the RAF in the Second World War). But the large loans that they were able to make, usually to crowned heads, often staved off the collapse of royal finances and the chaos which that would have led to, especially in France and Aragon. Popes Innocent II and III also found their support invaluable.
In 1244, a large force of secular knights, Templars and Hospitallers was routed at La Foible by the infidel; only 23 Templar Knights survived, 26 Hospitallers and three Teutonic Knights. Worse was to follow. After the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, serious wars broke out among what was still supposed to be a Christian alliance, and the capture of Acre in 1288 led to the end of the crusading presence in Outremer.
By 1307 there was a French Pope, Clement V (who never set foot in Italy) and a hos( of French cardinals all heavily under the thumb of Philip 111 of France. He now received reports of grave scandals among the Templars;: sorcery, sodomy, blasphemy; heresy being the chief accusations. Some 15,000 Templars of all ranks were arrested in a single day, Philip claiming to have consulted the Pope first, which the Pope angrily denied. but though he later caved in he did by skillful procrastination eventually save some of the authority and autonomy of the Church. Fearing the tortures which the French Inquisition readily inflicted, .Many.'15f,....)the Templars admitted to crimes which they could not have committed. anticipating the victims of Stalin and Beri). by sonic six centuries. Indeed, the French set up a long lead over other countries in their futile campaigns of rapaciousness and murder: Philip and Clement 200 years before Henry VIII and Cromwell: Robispiene and the Jacobins 130 years before Lenin and Stalin. The kings of Aragon and Naples followed this shameful example, though in Germany and England attacks on the Templars were less' successful. But eventually, at the infamous Council of Vienne in 1312. the order was abolished, the brave Bishop of Valencia being almost alontl in condemning the decisiona "against reason and justice". '
INEVITABLY, MUCH OF the Templars' story is one of carnage and destruction, though the occasional noble and generous action is described. Unfortunately, it is seldom enlivened by humour and irony, though there is scope for both. The reader will long for an occasional whiff of Gibbon: his style, that is, not his prejudices.
Nevertheless, it is a worthy account, based on meticulous scholarship, of a world in which many preached Christian virtues, but precious few practiced them. The book is well produced, and the illustrations are well chosen, though they should have been listed. Only the index is thoroughly inadequate.