Richard I, Salah al-Din and the Knights Templar

Lionhearts: Richard I, Saladin, and the Era of the Third Crusade by Geoffrey Regan
288 pages, Walker and Co, $25.00
Review score: *** out of *****

Dungeon, Fire and Sword: the Knights Templar in the Crusades by John J. Robinson
M. Evans and Co., 1991, $29.95
Review score: *** out of *****

The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple by Malcolm Barber
Cambridge University Press, 1994, $14.95
Review score: *** out of *****

The middle ages (the period from about 1000 AD to the start of the Renaissance in the 1500s) is a period where a number of myths where born: knightly chivalry, romantic love, Robin Hood, Richard "The Lionhearted", the nobility of the Crusades (slaughtering Muslims in the name of Christian love) and the warrior monks (the Teutonic Knights, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallar).

During the time the Latin Christians occupied parts of the Middle East, the warrior monks, especially the Knights Templar played a critical role since they provided the only organized and well financed standing army. The Knights Templar took part in most of the major military campaigns during the crusades and became a local political power as well. The Templar order was founded soon after the first crusade took Jerusalem, in 1127. They were destroyed by King Philip IV of France in 1314. A whole mythology, reaching into the nineteenth century, has grown up around the warrior monks. The Teutonic Knights have been powerful figures in German mythology. They appear in Wagner's operas and were part of the strange occult beliefs of some of the Nazis.

The Knights Hospitallars, who later became the Knights of Rhodes and then Knights of Malta, appear in Dashiell Hammett's book The Maltese Falcon, which was made famous by the Humphrey Bogart movie.

An even larger mythology has grown up around the Knights Templar. The Templars have been adopted by the Scottish Rite Masons, who believe that there is a connection between Masonry and the Templars. This connection is explored in John Robinson's book Born in Blood, a history of the Masons. Although the Templars were not persecuted in mass in England, as they were in France in the early 1300s, they were driven underground. Robinson suggests that some of these covert Templars became Masons and influenced Masonry, but he admits that he can find no historical "smoking gun".

There is a story that the Knights Templar fought with Robert the Bruce, which is ironic because according to John Robinson in Dungeon, Fire and Sword, the Templars fought with Edward II to suppress William Wallace. Some claim that the Templars found the Holy Grail and are, to this day, "Guardians of the Grail". Others have claimed that the Templars are the guardians of the holy blood line of Jesus, who did not die on the cross, but lived and married Mary Magdalene. Claims have been made that the wealth the Templars amassed in the Middle East provided the foundation for the modern Swiss banks (see The Warriors and the Bankers: A History of the Knights Templar from 1307 to the Present by Stephen Dafoe and Alan Butler or Stephen Dafoe's Web site For a myriad of reasons, the Templars seem to have given root to an almost endless number of Templar myths.

The history of the Knights Templar is the history of the Crusades, from 1095 to the time when the Latin Christians, as a political force, were driven out of the Middle East in 1291. There were five Crusades plus another one or two more minor invasions where significant numbers of Europeans invaded the Middle East to fight the Muslims. The third Crusade from 1190 to 1192 involved the confrontation of two great military leaders: on the European side Richard I, King of England and ruler of a large part of France and Salah al-Din, known by the Europeans as Saladin.

Richard I, known as Richard "the Lionhearted" is remembered as a background character in the Robin Hood Myth. In the story of Robin Hood, Richard the Lionhearted is the good king who has gone off to the Crusades. Prince John, Richard's younger brother, and Prince John's minion the Sheriff of Nottingham attempt to usurp Richards throne. Until I read Lionhearts: Richard I, Saladin, and the Era of the Third Crusade by Geoffrey Regan I did not know much more about Richard than this. As is often the case, what I "knew" was not historically accurate.

Richard I inherited the English crown from his father, Henry II, who is famous for instigating the killing of Thomas Becket ("Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"). Richard also gained a large part of France from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was a strong willed woman who did not care much for Henry II and she seems to have spent as much time as possible in France. Richard grew up in the French courts and he spent most of his early adulthood fighting to protect his French lands from various neighboring Lords. Although Richard became King of England when Henry II died, he was no more English than William the Conquerer. In total Richard spent less than a year of his life in England. While John was an even worse King than Richard and was doing his best to take over Richard's Kingdom, this was largely a result of Richards obsession with war and disinterest in government. So it is ironic that he is remembered in mythology as the "Lionhearted" English King.

Saladin was a Kurd, which made him a member of a minority in the Middle East. Although Saladin was a determined fighter and good strategist, the skill that allowed him to build his empire was diplomacy. Richard, the master strategist, was almost devoid of diplomatic skill and excelled at making unnecessary enemies. Geoffry Regan's Lionhearts provides and interesting contrast to these two men. Of the two leaders, Saladin also comes across as the more generous and humane, although like Richard, Saladin was also capable of atrocity.

In many of the battles described in Lionhearts the Knights Templar were always at the forefront of the fighting. Since the book concentrates on Richard I and Saladin, the Templars are mentioned only in passing. This left me wondering who these people were and what their history was. A search on Amazon for books on the Knights Templar turned up a number of books on the Templar myths discussed above, but only a few books by historians (e.g., writers that do not view the Templar history from a Masonic or other occult perspective). The fact that the Templars have spawned a mythology that is still strong today makes the history of the Templars even more interesting.

John J. Robinson's book Dungeon, Fire and Sword is a very readable history of the Knights Templar and the Crusades. Robinson is an amateur historian, but his history seems to be accurate on most major points. There are some minor areas where Robinson simply adopts a history "that seems to make the most sense" to him. In some cases this is at odds with other historians. For example, in Lionhearts Regan discards the suggestion that Richard had homosexual leanings. Robinson treats Richard's alleged homosexuality as an established fact and suggests that he had a sexual relationship with Philip II of France: Whatever love or lust had brought them together in a homosexual affair years earlier was gone now. Dungeon, Fire and Sword seems to be a much more carefully researched and written history than Robinson's earlier history of the Masons, Born in Blood.

Historical events are rarely sure and Robinson may be right in some of his judgments. But where a professional historian (a University professor) will dedicate their careers to a particular area of history and read virtually every work in their area of specialty, Robinson has probably read less since he has had other demands on his time. When it comes to controversial issues it "seems to make the most sense" to trust the academics, since they should have studied the issues more thoroughly.

While there are many books on the Crusades, I was able to find much less scholarly material that concentrated on the Knights Templar. Robinson's books is one the few, and its minor flaws don't detract seriously from the book.

One of the scholarly works that I did find is Malcolm Barber's book The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Malcolm Barber is a "Reader in Medieval History", at the University of Reading, in Great Britain. Barber lacks Robinson's narrative style, but he is a careful historian and describes the sources from which he draws his conclusions on historical events.

The history of the Templars is impossible to separate from the history of the crusades. And in fact, in many cases the history of the crusades tends to dominate. Barber assumes that the reader is familiar with the events surrounding the crusades and concentrates on the Templars. This makes Barber's book a poor choice for anyone who wants an overview of the crusades and the Templar Order's history. However, the sharp focus on the Templars provides details that other more general books lack.

The name of the "Knights Templar" comes from the Temple Mount, which is currently the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. When the Knights Templar were founded they were given the al-Aqsa as their headquarters. The al-Aqsa Mosque is built on the ruins of Solomon's Temple. This provides one of the connections between the Knights Templar and the Masons, who believe that their society was founded by the architect of Solomon's Temple.

The Knights Templar were founded to protect Christian pilgrims in their journey through the "Holy Land". This meant protecting Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The Knights themselves were from the ruling class in Europe, usually younger sons or widowed older Knights with adult children. Each Templar Knight had support staff and infantry that fought alongside him. Knights and their support structure were expensive and to support the Templar Knights the Templars attracted bequests of income generating lands in Europe. They also got a share of the spoils from caravans and towns that were sacked in the military campaigns they took part in.

There were groups of bandits that preyed on both Christian and Muslim pilgrims so it was dangerous to carry gold. The increasing wealth of the Templars and their mission to protect pilgrims made them into some of history's first bankers. Money could be deposited with the Templars in Europe. A deposit certificate would then be issued which could be cashed with the Templars in the Middle East.

The cost of the crusades to Europe was staggering for medieval societies with little disposable wealth. The crusades came in waves, when the Church could stir up enough enthusiasm and special taxes where levied to support the European armies. In contrast the Templar Order maintained a standing army in the Middle East. They developed a large support structure for this army which included farms, manufacturing, artisan services (metal working, carpentry, etc..), banking and shipping. There were, in fact, many more Templars in Europe occupying support roles than there were warrior monks in the Middle East.

By the time of the forth Crusade, the Europeans in the Middle East had become more Middle Eastern than European. Many of them had been born in the Middle East and they had extensive trade with Europe and the neighboring Islamic countries. The Templars became some of the largest Christian landholders in the Middle East and developed extensive financial and banking relationships with the Muslims. This lead to latter accusations that they had "gone native" and become infected with infidel heresy.

The Templar Order was destroyed by Philip IV (called Philip "the fair" for his looks, not his sense of justice). Philip had all of the Templars in France arrested in 1307. After torturing his Templar captives, Philip extracted confessions of heresy, which he used to justify the further suppression of the Templar Order by Pope Clement V. In 1312 Clement issued a Papal Bull officially dissolving the Order. In 1314 the last Grand Master of the Order, Jaques de Molay was burned at the stake for recanting, very publicly, his earlier confession extracted via torture.

The fall of the Templar Order is surprising in part because they were an integral part of the European establishment. Several factors contributed to the demise of the Templar order. When the Templar order was formally established the Pope made the Templar Order answerable only to him. They could not be disciplined by local bishops and they paid no tithes to the church. The Templar Order was heavily armed and well financed group in the Latin Middle East where they exerted a great deal of influence. Their independence and local power lead to arrogance which was resented.

Although the Templars had their faults, the biggest contributor to their destruction was the loss of the Middle Eastern lands to the European powers. This removed the foundation for the existence of the Templar order. Their banking interests and their French character also contributed to their fall. The Templar order was pan-European, with branches in every major European country. However, the strongest Templar group was French. The Templars managed or helped to manage the French treasury and they made made large loans to Philip IV believing that this would strengthen their relationship with the King.

Autocrats are a fickle lot and the loan had the opposite effect. Philip plotted to destroy the Templar order and seize their holdings in France. Using a weak pope, Clement V, as a tool Philip pushed the accusation of heresy against the Templars. There is a horrible irony to this, since the Templars were the most dedicated of Christians. During the Crusades, captured Templars were frequently offered their lives if they would convert to Islam. Hundreds died rather than betray their beliefs.

The destruction of the Templar order also held the seeds for many of the Templar myths. Claims have been made, for example, that the Templars knew that Philip planned to seize their assets and destroy their order. There is no record of resistance to Philip's sheriffs. How could this be, when the Templars were such famous warriors? However, the Templars in Europe played a supply role. They were not the heavily armed and fortified warriors of the Middle East. On the other hand, it does seem strange that given their connections in the French Court that they had no warning. But they may not have believed warnings they received. Philip had taken the assets of the French Jews, but perhaps the Templars believed it could not happen to them.

Another myth is that Philip did not get "the Templar treasure". He did manage to seize considerable assets in France, although the Church was able to get some of it back for their own use. He also canceled his debts to the order. So the idea that Philip got nothing for his trouble is not true.

There were many Templars that were never captured or who were found innocent in countries which refused to follow Philip's persecution of the Templars on grounds of heresy. Many of the Templars who escaped the Inquisition were absorbed into the Hospitallars, Teutonic Knights or other orders in countries like Spain. The Templar wealth outside of France probably followed a similar route. Some may have been spent by individual Templars who left religious life. Most probably went to the orders that the Templars joined. There is, however, no way to disprove conspiracy theory or show that "hidden histories" are false. The Templar wealth, their financial expertise and the dispersal of most of the Templar order provide fertile ground for myth. There are a number of groups that claim that the Templar Order survived into modern times. For example, the Knights Templar of England and Wales claim that the Templar Order survived in an unbroken line from Jaques de Molay's death to the current time. This version of the Knights Templar is separate from the Scottish Rite Masons, which also claim a Templar link.

Ian Kaplan, March 2001

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