A Downton Abbey reunion, the quest for the Holy Grail, and some genuinely thought-provoking points about life in medieval Paris. Quite an interesting combination, and it was much better than I was expecting. The pun in the title is awful, but it refers to the fall of the Knights Templar – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give them their title, although poor they most certainly were not!
There are very few organisations about which there are as many myths, legends and conspiracy theories as there are about the Knights Templar. Did they have the Holy Grail, and bury it under Rosslyn Chapel? Or maybe in Valencia Cathedral? Or the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon? Did they have the Turin Shroud? Or another shroud, the Sovran Cloth, which supposedly ended up in Glastonbury? Were they somehow involved with the Ark of the Covenant, and is it buried in Ethiopia (and does that all sound a bit Indiana Jones?)? Is the fact that Philip IV of France arrested their leaders in France on Friday, 13th October 1307 the reason that Friday 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day? Was it a Curse of the Templars which caused the male line of the Capetian dynasty to die out – leading, incidentally, to the Hundred Years’ War? Hey, did some of them even escape from France and sail to North America? They feature in books as diverse as Ivanhoe and The Da Vinci Code. People think there are a lot of conspiracy theories around now? They’ve got nothing on the stories that have been told about the Templars over the years!
So what are the actual known facts? The Templars, founded in 1119, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and so named because their original HQ was on Temple Mount, were originally supposed to protect pilgrims. Helped by the backing of St Bernard of Clairvaux, they became the “in” charity of the 12th century, and developed into both a powerful fighting order and an incredibly wealthy and successful business organisation – the world’s first multinational corporation, really. The Temple Bar area of London, and the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Chancery, for example, get their name from the Knights Templar, who used to own the land there. So do Temple Newsam, the stately home in Leeds, Temple Sowerby near Penrith, and numerous other places. They even owned the entire island of Cyprus, at one point: they moved their HQ there after the last Christian possessions in the Holy Land fell. But then Cyprus was taken by the Egyptian Mamluks, in 1302-3. So where did the Templars go from there?
Well, in 1307, as already mentioned, Philip IV of France arrested the leaders of the French Templars. And a load of others too. They were forced to confess to all sorts of heresy and corruption, and their leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charnay were burned at the stake – on a scaffold in the middle of the Seine, in front of Notre Dame, just for extra drama. The order was formally disbanded by Pope Clement V, under pressure from Philip IV, in 1312, and its assets transferred to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers. To this day, nobody really knows what went on. Did the Templars just disappear into history, just like that?
The series opened with the Siege of Acre in 1291. Fascinating place, Acre (Akko) – lots of remains of Crusader buildings to be seen there. The Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187, but took Acre a few years later, and it became their capital city. Once it fell to the Mamluks in 1291 –Robyn Young’s book Crusade covers this brilliantly – the Crusaders were pretty much finished in the Holy Land, although they did hold some minor possessions there until 1303.
It didn’t actually look very promising at first. The scenes of the fighting and the Templars fleeing, filmed in Croatia, were just a bit too gloriously technicoloured, somehow – it made me think of a computer game rather than a TV series. And no-one seemed interested in their property, in Jerusalem or even in their comrades, only in protecting the Holy Grail – which, according to this, the Templars did indeed hold. It’s fiction, OK! Even the Mamluks seemed more interested in the Holy Grail than anything else! It looked as if it was going to be a cross between a 1980s action movie (not that I didn’t love the Indiana Jones films and the Romancing the Stone films, but I was looking for medieval history with this!) and some kind of semi-fantasy thing. Anyway, the Grail was on a ship which was hit by flaming arrows and promptly sank. We saw the Grail (and wouldn’t you have thought they’d at least have put it in a box!) sinking deep into Davy Jones’ Locker. Oh dear.
Fast forward to … well, it wasn’t 100% clear when. Certainly before 1307, as the Templars were still going. It seemed to be the time of the Great Expulsion of the Jews, which was 1306 (whereas England only had the one Edict of Expulsion, in 1290, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in France, but the one during Philip IV’s reign was definitely in 1306), but the reigning Pope was Boniface VIII, who died in 1303. Hmm.
Boniface, the Jews of France and the Templars all fell foul of Philip’s quest for money and power. There are all sorts of theories about the Templars being dissolved because they’d uncovered some mysterious secret, or were engaged in nefarious practices, but, with apologies for being boring, it was probably simply because Philip didn’t like the idea of any organisation other than the Crown holding so much wealth and power, and also because he owed the Templars a fortune. He’d come into conflict with the Church for the same reason. That would ultimately lead to the Schism, and had already led, in 1303, to poor old Boniface being tortured by Philip’s agents and dying shortly afterwards. And Philip owed a fortune to France’s Jewish community, as well as to the Templars: we saw him praising the Jews of France, especially for their work as doctors, but he wanted to get out of paying his debts. He chucked out the Lombard bankers as well. Yes, he owed them a fortune too!
The Templars were still going, but they didn’t seem to be doing very much other than chasing women and acting as loan sharks. Our hero, Brother Landry, played by Tom Cullen from Downton Abbey (the one with whom Lady Mary spent the night in a hotel, before deciding not to marry him), was not happy about this. It was a bit of a Downton Abbey reunion, really! Julian Ovenden (who played another of Lady Mary’s spurned suitors) is in it as well, playing Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip’s nasty Chancellor; and Pope Boniface VIII (who will turn up in the next episode) is played by Jim “Carson” Carter. Anyway, Brother Landry pointed out that the Templars should really have been doing something useful – such as protecting the Jews, who were being given a lot of grief (the Templars are indeed known to have protected French Jews, although more because they had a lot of Jewish tenants than anything else), helping the poor in general, or, you know, trying to retake Jerusalem. Landry is going to make himself “useful” by having an affair with the Queen, incidentally, but we haven’t got to that bit yet. This is not true, by the way – not least because Landry didn’t actually exist!
Anyway, the Templars did heroically intervene to save the Jews of Paris, who, having been thrown out of their homes, were then ambushed whilst on the road. However, they couldn’t save their own leader, Godfrey. Having seen a piece of fruit lurking on a building, which was apparently a sign connected with the Holy Grail (don’t ask me), he’d gone chasing off, only to be ambushed and killed, by a group of nasties who also murdered some poor young village girl whose fiancé had tried to help Godfrey. Landry became the new Master and Commander of the Paris Temple, and found out that, previously unbeknownst to him but known to Godfrey, the Holy Grail was actually in France. So now, of course, our Templar pals are going to try to find it.
It’s an interesting mix of fact and fiction – and not just fiction as in having fictional characters, but as in myth/legend, with the quest for the Holy Grail tied in with the very real events of the Great Expulsion of the Jews and the suppression of the Templars. The title does sound more like a computer game or a kids’ fantasy series than historical fiction, and the opening scenes weren’t that promising, but, once it got going, I genuinely enjoyed it. It was much better than I’d expected!