In W.B. Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, a testing allusion emerges amid a scene of nightmare:
Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind’s eye
‘Vengeance upon the murderers,’ the cry goes up
‘Vengeance for Jacques Molay.’
More about de Molay, last master of the Knights Templar, can be found in Dan Jones’s new blockbuster on the crusading order, along with quite a few monstrous familiar images. Jones states from the outset his noble intention: to write ‘a book that will entertain as well as inform’. In this he has hitherto had great success; his two spectacular chronicles, The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown, traced that dynasty from the White Ship to Bosworth Field, and threw in some Tudors for good measure.
He now tackles ‘the most famous military order in the world’, whose two-century history occupies a stage that stretches ‘from Dublin to Famagusta’. A history of the Templars is necessarily also one of the crusades — which Jones cannily makes topical. He points out that his story involves ‘a seemingly endless war… where factions of Sunni and Shia Muslims clashed with militant Christian invaders’; and he emphasises ‘the relationship between international finance and geopolitics’ and ‘the power of propaganda and mythmaking’. Once flagged, however, such correspondences are left mercifully implicit.
The Templars were formed in 1119 with the unimpeachable aim of protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, which had been reclaimed for Christianity two decades earlier by the first crusade. But their modest beginnings were very soon left behind; the legend that for the order’s first nine years it constituted only nine knights is, Jones writes, ‘romantic and numerologically pleasing, but false’. The requirements of the newly won Frankish possessions in the East, and the certainty of St Bernard of Clair-
vaux — his era’s greatest preacher, though not very attractive to posterity — that soldiers of God might ‘kill the enemies of the cross without sinning’, ensured the order’s rapid growth in numbers, power and (thanks to numerous privileges granted by the Pope) riches without equal in Europe.