Knightfall – History Channel


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!




Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick


I really need to visit Caversham Park, Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle, after reading all Elizabeth Chadwick’s wonderful books about William Marshal.  The only one of his homes/bases I’ve been to is Kilkenny Castle, which is a bit mad considering that that’s the furthest away.  Anyway!  This book’s quite different from the others, being about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1180s, and almost entirely imagined.  Although it’s known that he did spend time there, there don’t seem to be any accounts of what he actually did during that time – leaving Elizabeth Chadwick free to weave him into the court intrigues of a troubled and fascinating time.  Although it’s written in the style of a novel, a lot of it is about high politics.  I love that 🙂 .  OK, not everyone does, but I do.  Reading is learning, and all that.

The book actually starts with William on his deathbed in 1217, thinking about the past, and then moves back to 1183.  It does flash forward and then backwards again several times, which is a bit annoying because it interrupts the flow of the book.  I wish she’d just written it as set in the 1180s, but maybe she thought that’d be strange when she’d already taken his story so long past there.  It’s not a huge problem and won’t stop anyone from enjoying the story, though.

William had been in the service of Henry the Young King, eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they, along with William’s brother Ancel and various other young men, had been on the tourney circuit.  I love the idea of the tourney circuit.   Maybe a bit like today’s tennis and golf tours 🙂 ?  Knights would travel round to wherever a tournament was being held, and, if they were any good, make a living from defeating rivals at jousts and taking home the prize money.  Word must have spread if a big name was taking part, and big crowds must have turned up!  Well, that’s how I imagine it, anyway!

However, Henry, despite being the crowned heir of the King of England, managed to run out of cash, and decided to rob the shrine at Rocadamour, in the Languedoc.  I always feel sorry for Rocamadour, because these days it very much has to play second fiddle to Lourdes as far as French shrines go, even though it’s the one with centuries of history.  It’s surprising that this incident isn’t better known, really.  OK, there wasn’t exactly a medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but the heir to the English throne stealing from a religious shrine must have been pretty shocking.

Shortly afterwards, Henry died of “the bloody flux”.  It was a common cause of death at the time, but obviously it looked like divine retribution for what he and his men had done.  So the story goes, he asked William to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay his cloak on Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  William, both to carry out his friend’s wishes and to atone for his own part in the attack on Rocamadour, left for Jerusalem in 1183, and didn’t return until either late 1185 or early 1186.

The Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, set up in 1099, after the First Crusade, was at that time ruled by Baldwin IV, Henry II’s half-cousin on the Angevin side.  Baldwin, who comes across in this book as being brave and able, suffered from leprosy, and was to die, aged only 24, in 1185.  His heir was his young nephew – who became Baldwin V, only to die in 1186.  When William, Ancel and the rest of their gang arrived, in 1883, the kingdom was in turmoil.  Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, stepfather of the heir, was at odds with Baldwin and with pretty much else.  And the Christians’ holdings in the Holy Land were under attack from Saladin.  We associate Saladin so much with Richard the Lionheart (one of the worst kings England ever had, but that’s another story) and the Third Crusade that maybe we sometimes forget just how much military success he achieved before then.  If you look at the history of the 1180s, Aleppo comes under siege, there’s fighting around Mosul, and everyone wants control of Jerusalem.  Plus ca change …

Poor Jerusalem, seemingly forever doomed to be fought over.  There are several comments from characters about how they feel as if things in the Holy Land should be done in a way that’s honest and honourable, and how they’re disappointed to find the same old intrigue and corruption and jostling for power that you get everywhere else, but that’s the way it goes.  A lot of groups of people have dreamt of setting up a New Jerusalem, or some other form of ideal state, whether that’s via religion or communism or anything else, and whether by a change of regime in their home country or by setting up somewhere new.  It always turns out the same way.  Miserable, that, isn’t it?!  But Se A Vida E, that’s the way life is, to quote … er, the Pet Shop Boys, who have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I’m sorry that Elizabeth Chadwick didn’t write more about William’s journey to Jerusalem, because she – and this is obviously all her story, because no-one actually knows which route William took, or what happened along the way – mentioned him visiting various holy sites along the way.  We got a bit of time in Rome, and then we got quite a while in Constantinople but, rather than a description of the city and its sights, we got William being kidnapped by someone who wrongly accused him of being a spy.  OK, it was all quite dramatic, but I’d like to’ve heard a bit more about Constantinople –although, only a year after the massacre of Latin Christians in the city, and only 21 years before the Fourth Crusade and the sack of the capital of Eastern Christendom by the crusaders of Western Christendom, it reflected East-West tensions rather well.

We did, however, get a detailed description of their arrival in Jerusalem and their visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and William’s emotions at the fulfilment of his pilgrimage vow.  The power of Jerusalem and all that.  There’s even supposed to be a medical condition associated with it – “Jerusalem Syndrome”, which causes people with no previous history of psychosis or delusions to experience them after visiting the city.  I can’t say that I’ve ever come across it, but, when I was there ten years ago, one woman in the group was so overcome by emotion that she burst into tears.  And, whatever your personal relationship with Christianity or Judaism or Islam, it holds such an important place in the culture of so much of humanity that it should be one of the most visited cities in the world.   Unfortunately, because of the political situation, that isn’t the case.  Maybe one day …

There wasn’t much more about the pilgrimage side of things, though, apart from an interesting account of spending Easter in Jerusalem. On to court politics.   It was quite a contrast to the author’s other William Marshal books, which are largely centred on castles or manor houses in the British Isles, so anyone just hoping for more of that is going to be disappointed … but please enjoy this for what it is, which is a fascinating story of the death throes of the Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Well, technically it lasted until 1291, but really it only lasted until Saladin’s great victory over Guy of Lusignan at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.  The replacement Christian kingdom was based at Acre.  Interesting place – obviously not in the same league as Jerusalem, but worth a visit. Just for the sake of completeness, incidentally, it should be pointed out that the Latin Christians did hold Jerusalem again for a while at various points between 1229 and 1244, under the leadership of Frederick II of Sicily.  (I’m going to Sicily next month, so have been reading up on Frederick!)  And, the throne of Sicily having later passed to the rulers of Aragon, King Felipe of Spain includes “King of Jerusalem” amongst his many titles.  I’m not sure what either the Israelis or the Palestinians make of that.  But, effectively, ongoing Latin Christian rule of Jerusalem ended in 1187.

The book actually misses the really big events, because William had gone home before they happened – he’d left before Hattin, and the famous events of the Third Crusade.  But there was quite a lot going on even so, in terms of court intrigue and in terms of actual fighting.   There was a lot of blood and guts in this, including one scene in which William actually chops someone’s head off.  And some rather detailed descriptions of battle wounds, and a very detailed description of the horrors found in a village destroyed by Saladin’s forces.  All sadly true to life, but not for the squeamish.

Guy of Lusignan, an old enemy of William’s, very much came across as the bad guy in this.  A bit of a 12th century Donald Trump, doing things he thought were a good idea but which actually made everything worse and horrified everyone else, like killing Bedouin tribesmen.  A major part of the storyline was William’s hatred of Guy, and his refusal to support him.

However, a lot of the focus was on a little known character – Paschia de Riveri, mistress of Heraclius, the Patriach of Jerusalem.  And this is going right into the realms of fiction, because the storyline comes to be dominated by a fictitious affair between her and William.  It’s known that William made a secret commitment to join the Templars on his deathbed.  He duly did so, and that’s where the title of the novel comes from.  But no-one knows why.  The story here was that it was closely linked to the need he felt for absolution of his sins after his relationship with Paschia.  I’m not sure how well that argument works, because it was hardly unusual for a couple to have a relationship outside marriage, but the story of the affair does work quite well.  But it’s all fiction – whereas the other William Marshal books by Elizabeth Chadwick have all been grounded in fact.

As ever with her books, there were some wonderfully descriptive passages, evoking a sense of time and place just so well.  OK, maybe some of it lapsed into purple prose, but I rather like purple prose.  And not just of the actual physical places, but of emotions – it’s not always easy to get your head into the medieval sense of religion, but you do get a real sense of it from this book.  And the minor characters, notably William’s brother Ancel and his mistress Asmaria, and William’s friend Aimery, and Paschia’s relations, all played their parts so very well.

It’s a very rich and entertaining and informative book, like all her books are.  I just don’t know if I like the idea that nearly all of it is fictitious, whereas the other books in the William Marshal series have followed, as closely as possible, the real events of the time.  Paschia comes across as a fascinating character with a fascinating history, but almost nothing is known about her: it’s all fictional.  And almost nothing is known about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem: that’s all fictional.  It doesn’t mean that this isn’t an excellent read, but it does sit oddly with the rest of the series.  But, hey, there’s no law that says that all books in a series have to be similar, and it really is very well-written and very informative.  Well worth a read.