That old Tom Hanks movie? Hocus pocus, says author Dan Jones … the true story of the most notorious secret society in history – the guardians of the Holy Grail – is more spine tingling than any fiction
In The Da Vinci Code, the smash-hit novel by Dan Brown, the whip-smart hero Professor Robert Langdon takes time out to mansplain the dark history of the world to a foxy young cryptologist called Sophie. For centuries, he explains, a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion has been manipulating events, bending the arc of human progress to their whim.
Their biggest secret is the true nature of the Holy Grail – the history of which is intimately connected with the rise and fall of the priory’s medieval military wing. These, Langdon says, were the Knights Templar, created to search for the grail in Jerusalem during the Crusades and later destroyed by the Pope when they became too rich, successful and clued-up.
Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in The Da Vinci Code. The film romps through myth, history, legend and speculation, mashing it all together and presenting it as the truth
The Da Vinci Code film (made in 2006 starring Tom Hanks) romps through myth, history, legend and speculation, mashing it all together and presenting it as the truth. It is an expertly concocted soup of hocus pocus, seasoned with fairy dust. But it is tremendous fun.
And of course, it involves the Templars. Of all the organisations formed and founded during the Middle Ages, none has inspired anything like the same level of intrigue, fascination and obsession. The Templars were a bundle of tantalising contradictions: elite warriors who lived like monks, brothers sworn to poverty who amassed vast, untaxed wealth and dabbled in banking, and men of God who were ultimately brought down by accusations of blasphemy. And for more than 800 years they have appeared, larger than life, in popular culture.
The Templars were first portrayed as guardians of the Holy Grail in stories of King Arthur written in Germany around the year 1200 AD. In more recent times they have cropped up in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven and in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In the coming months the History Channel will release the first season of the Jeremy Renner-produced Templar drama series, Knightfall, showing the Templars hunting down the secrets of the medieval Church.
Several years ago I began to research my new book about the Templars with excitement and a faint sense of dread. I knew they inspired great interest, but I was worried I would be led into a rabbit warren of conjecture, fantasy and what-if supposition. Myth, fiction and, yes, The Da Vinci Code, have bled so deeply into our perceptions of the real Templars that I feared I would have to jump on the bandwagon. That would make for bad history – but if I ignored it, did I risk writing a boring book?
The Templars author Dan Jones
Almost immediately I saw that I had nothing to worry about. Sweeping away Templar mythology was the best thing possible, for beneath the nonsense lies the most extraordinary true story of an organisation that left a deep mark not only on the Crusades but on society at large to this day.
The Templars were established in 1119-20 as a group of religiously minded volunteer bodyguards tasked with defending Christian pilgrims on the roads around Jerusalem, which had been seized from its Muslim rulers two decades earlier by the armies of the First Crusade. Their name was taken from their Jerusalem headquarters: the al-Aqsa Mosque, which they identified with the biblical King Solomon’s Temple.
The Templars recruited trained killers – knights – and set them about the Lord’s work. Highly skilled warriors took holy vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, promising to fight like lions but live like monks. And they quickly expanded their brief. From a pilgrim roadside-rescue unit, they became elite soldiers, commanding huge castles and serving as shock troops in battles throughout Syria, Turkey, Palestine and Egypt, facing the armies of Islam led by great sultans such as Saladin.
Pious supporters donated land and money, and the Templars soon amassed a huge property empire stretching from Ireland to Cyprus, staffed by thousands of non-fighting men (and occasionally women) who abandoned their secular lives to support the mission. They enjoyed lucrative tax breaks and their international status made them unaccountable to most government authorities: they answered only to the Pope.
They developed a form of international banking, providing sophisticated financial services to high net worth clients. By their peak in the late 12th century, their operations ranged from farming, tax collection and book-keeping to kidnapping, assassination, amphibious assault and regime change.
In modern terms the Templars were like a hybrid of Blackwater, the SAS, Deloitte and the Church of Scientology. That fame explains why they appeared in the legends of King Arthur: today’s equivalent is MI6 featuring at the heart of the James Bond films.
Everyone had an opinion about the Templars, from the Muslim chronicler who begrudgingly admitted that they were ‘the fiercest fighters’ of all the Crusaders, to Christian writers who were divided on whether the Templars were a ‘new knighthood’, fighting in the name of Christ, or a ‘new monstrosity’, making a mockery of everything Jesus had taught.
Then, between 1307 and 1312, the Templars were destroyed. King Philip IV of France, accused them of corruption, blasphemy, idol-worship and sexual crimes including sodomy, and persuaded Pope Clement V and fellow kings across Europe to join in a mass persecution. Philip’s real motivation was to bolster his own reputation as the true defender of the Church and, while he was at it, to help himself to the Templars’ wealth. He succeeded. In 1312 a Church council declared the order dissolved, and in 1314 its last master, James of Molay, was burned alive in Paris.
The scandal both puzzled and shocked Christendom, and has intrigued historians ever since. It was a hot mess of propaganda, cruelty, greed, salacious accusation and medieval fake news. And it has ensured the Templars’ lasting fame.
The Templars inspired devotion from their supporters. Those who joined the order often did so in the expectation of the grisliest deaths. Those who gave away their possessions to support the Templars’ mission truly believed they were performing a vital Christian duty for which they would be rewarded in the afterlife.
The range of Templar activities and experiences was breathtaking: in England and France many lived the quiet lives of farmers, while in Spain and Syria their colleagues were fighting shoulder to shoulder with men like Richard the Lionheart. They fought in the mountains, took part in desert battles and defended the streets of besieged cities. They built magnificent churches and castles, many of which still stand today.
The Templars were first portrayed as guardians of the Holy Grail in stories of King Arthur written in Germany around the year 1200 AD
They were not entirely admirable. Their official rule was full of strict punishments for the pettiest breaches in discipline: brothers who failed in their duties could be made to eat their meals on the floor with the dogs for a year; those who broke their vows of chastity and slept with other brothers would be thrown in the dungeons, clapped in irons until they died.
Yet we do not have to like the Templars to find their history compelling, and full of contemporary parallels: it is the tale of Western involvement in a bitter factional war in Syria and the Middle East; of the uneasy relationship between faith, war and materialism; of the power of ‘globalised’ wealth; of the dangers of propaganda.
So never mind The Da Vinci Code. You do not need to pile on mythology and voodoo history to make the Templars exciting. Theirs is a story for the ages, all by itself.
‘The Templars: The Rise And Fall Of God’s Holy Warriors’ by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus, £25) is published on September 7