Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Knights Templar in Britain by Evelyn Lord

The Content ReaderEver since reading The Da Vinci Code, I have been interested in the Templars and what they were. I am obviously not alone in this interest, since the book generated a frequent stream of ’literary tourism’ to places in the book, and places connected to the Templars. The best thing to do, to find out what they really were is to read a non-fiction book about them. So, being me, I ordered two books; this one and ’The Rise and the Fall of the Knights Templar’ by Gordon Napier, still to be read.


The beginning

The book opens with a chapter called ’The Knights Templar: Knightly Monks or Monkish Knights? A very good question indeed. I think many of us forget the fact that the Templars were monks. We are used to think of monks, staying in their monastery, taking care of their gardens, doing their prayers and all in all live a very quiet, contemplating kind of life. However, the Templars we see as Knights and soldiers firstly (don’t we all have a notion of knights as a nobel class of soldiers under the banner of faith, loyalty, courage and honour. Fighting tournaments and saving maids in distress?).
”Was the original intent of the Templars to protect pilgrims or was their prime aim to lead a monastic life? William of Tyre writes that they dedicated themselves to God, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and then the Patriarch and other bishops enjoined them for the remission of their sins ’that as far as their strength permitted, they should keep the roads and highways safe from the menace of robbers and highwaymen, with especial regard for the protection of pilgrims’”.
Although the Patriarch of Jerusalem was one of the most important founders of the Order, the overall commander of the knights was the Pope. The order was spread out in different countries, and their allegiance was with the Pope, not the king or queen of the country where they were living. It was an early international organisation, independent from many structures in the countries where they lived. The privileges included freedom from paying tithes to the Church, as well as not having to pay taxes to the king. The money they earned all went into fighting the infidels during the various crusades. Maybe it was these inequalities that made them unpopular locally.


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The Templar's Church in London

Templars in the countryside

The first part of the book is looking at different areas in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland where the Templars had farms and churches. I skipped slightly through these pages. There are a lot of statistics on farms, people living there and the type of farming that was used to support them. Interesting is to see how the Templars needed the lands to be able to support themselves and to send the excess to Jerusalem for the greater good of fighting infidels. The lands were given to them by kings and local landlords, and considering the non-taxable benefit they had, these farms turned out to, if not giving them a fortune, still giving them more than the general farms.


Templars in history

The last chapters of the books looks into the 'Templars and the Plantagenets', 'the Templars as Bankers', 'the trial and fall of the Templars' and 'the Templars in fact and fiction: debates, myths and legends'. This part is by far the most interesting, and Evelyn Loyd goes through all the myths that surrounds the Templars and in putting forward the facts, as they have been interpreted by different historians, giving us the possibility to draw our own conclusions. And detect the fictional faults in many books which, nevertheless, seem to have gone into the minds of people as true.

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The Templar's Church in London
The Templars as Bankers

The Templars as Bankers is very interesting. A lot of the myths about the richness of the Templars, stories about hidden treasures and so on, probably come from the fact that they took care of money from kings and rich people, in a way a modern bank would do today. You put the money safely with the Templars and they would arrange your payments, your debts, and even pay your debts in other countries. Due to their international organisation, you could put the money with the Templars in London, get a credit note and pick up the cash in Paris, Rome or Jerusalem. Much like the modern banking systems. But it was not to last. ”Misunderstanding about the funds passing through the Templars’ preceptories was to contribute to their downfall, and give rise to the tradition of their immense wealth and missing treasure.”


The Downfall

The history of the knights runs from early 12th to early 14th century. It was founded by a French noble man just after the first crusade. It was also the French who finally was the cause of the fall of the Templars. The French king, Philip IV, needed money and looked at the Templars to fill his treasury. Since the Templars were obedient to the Pope only, he needed his help to bring them down. The pope had no such intention, but being as corrupt as they came in those days, he was blackmailed by Philip into helping him bring the Templar organisation down. To the outside world there seemed to be a lot of secretive rituals going on which people did not understand. Templars were arrested, brought to prison, tortured to confess that they were not running the order according to christian norms.

Myths

Some of the myths surrounding the Templars have to do with the Grail, Tarot cards, the Cabala and Treasure. There is one place, more than others, that is connected with all these myths; the Roslin Chapel. Made famous in the book by Dan Brown, it has seen a lot of literary tourism in latter years. Rightly so, because it seems to be a beautiful place, and I would like to visit it myself one day.

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The Templar's Church in London
Ironically, the Roslin Chapel was not built until over a hundred years after the Order’s suppression. It was founded by Sir William St Clair in 1446, as ”a collegiate chapel where colleges of priests could sing perpetual masses for the souls of his family.” The inside is a master piece of decoration.
The riot of images in the chapel have produced many theories as to what these mean and whether the chapel hides a secret. It has been suggested that this is the grail chapel and the Holy Grail, guarded by knights in full armour, lies beneath the floor of the underground sacristy.” Obviously a place where legends are made.

So why is this Chapel associated with the Templars when the Order was suppressed 100 years before it was built?
The key to this is the gravestone of William St Clair, who died fighting the Moors in Spain whilst taking Robert the Bruce’s heart to be buried in the Holy Land. This has a floriated cross on it that is thought to be the emblem of the Templars. Thus an ancestor of the St Clairs is thought to have been a Templar. Further back in time there is a tradition that Hugh de Payens, the founder of the Order, was married to a Katherine St Clair. Other Templar images can be seen in the chapel, and the traditional role of the St Clair/Sinclairs as hereditary Grand Masters of the Scottish Freemasons completes the circle.”
Evelyn Lord tells the story of the Templars in a knowledgable and fascinating way. Looking at the myths, giving us the facts as they are according to written documents. This being the Middle Ages, and as it seems, most of the Templars could not read and write, in many areas there is only oral stories to rely upon. However, this book only covers the Templars in England, but it is an interesting look at a group of people who lived a totally different life than most others. It seems Evelyn Lord has covered their history in all aspects of life. A fantastic account, based on extensive research, it is an admirable book.
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The Templar's Church in London

Many older Templars came back to their home country to live their old age on the farm. A sort of retiring home for the Templars. I guess that many of them did not go to the Holy Land, but spent their time on the farms. For the Templars living in London, connected to the Templar Church there, life was quite different. They were often connected to the king and worked with him as advisers and, of course, bankers.

I visited the Templar Church in London not long ago. A beautiful and almost mythical place. A must place to see if you are in London.

2 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post, it's obvious there is so much more to the Templars than I ever knew before. Thanks for reviewing the book so well.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! Yes, there is much more to the Templars than most people know. I find them fascinating as a phenomena. Especially, since it is rather different from other religious orders.

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