The planning was meticulous. Signed and sealed, laden with accusation and instruction, the letters were sent by the king to local authorities throughout his realm.

They were to act exactly one month later, simultaneously and at the crack of dawn - on a Friday the 13th, as it happened. The targets were unaware of what lay in store, their leader even spending time with the king and seeming to enjoy his favour.

The hour came, and armed men launched their surprise, summarily carrying off hundreds to the king’s dungeons, and many ultimately to their deaths.

It was a performance reminiscent of a Stalinist purge or Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives.

The year was 1307, and the month was October. The king was Philip IV of France. And his victims were all members of the order of “the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem”, better known as the Knights Templar - or simply the Templars.

Over a period of two centuries, this charitable and military order of Crusaders had grown in power and wealth. At a stroke, and with the acquiescence of a weakened pope, Philip destroyed the order, imprisoning its leaders and burning many at the stake. “God will avenge our death,” said James of Molay as he faced the flames on an island in the Seine.

And, in a way, God has. The Templars live on in popular culture - from the video game Assassin’s Creed to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Philip IV does not.

Dan Jones obviously gives no credence to the conspiratorial fantasies that have been spun around the Templars over the years.

No, they do not guard the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, and never did. No, a surviving remnant does not protect the identities of the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdelene. In The Templars, Jones aims to present a gripping historical narrative, and in this he succeeds.

The raw material is rich.

Founded by a French knight in 1119, after the successful First Crusade, the Templars began with a mission to protect throngs of pilgrims now travelling to the Holy Land.

The members of the order wore white robes with a distinctive red cross, embraced personal poverty and lived according to a regime codified by the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux.

A papal charter was followed by a papal decree granting the Templars an exemption from taxes and local laws, effectively creating a transnational entity whose members could go anywhere.

The financial acumen of the Templars was considerable. In the post-"Da Vinci Code” era, visitors to London often make their way to the Temple Church, between Fleet Street and the Thames, built in the mid-12th century.

The interior of Temple Church, the Templars' 12th century London headquarters. Picture: Wikimedia


“By the 1240s,” Jones writes, “the order was providing diverse financial services to some of the richest and most powerful figures across Christendom.” The Templars “guaranteed debts, ransomed hostages and prisoners of war on credit, and could arrange very large loans".

The order’s military record was mixed. In 1187, an army of Templars and others, under King Guy of Jerusalem, was surrounded and slaughtered by the sultan Saladin in his successful campaign to restore Palestine to the Muslim fold. Some 200 Templars were captured, and Saladin beheaded them all.

That was an unhappy episode, but the Templars had another century of influential life in front of them, until that Friday the 13th in 1307.

Philip IV was pious, paranoid, unscrupulous and mercurial - and deeply in debt to the Templars. It was all too easy to manufacture charges of heresy, blasphemy and sexual depravity: urinating on the cross, having sex on the altar - the usual allegations. The power and secretiveness of the Templars only fuelled the charges.

The decisive blow was struck in France, but within a few years the Templars were extinct throughout Christendom, except in the popular imagination.

Nothing is left of the Templars except words on parchment and ruins in stone.

An older crusading order with certain similarities, the Knights Hospitaller, does still exist, after a fashion - its genetic progeny are the Knights of Malta. They have a palatial headquarters on the Aventine in Rome. They have a papal charter and enjoy quasi-sovereign status. They can issue their own passports. They maintain diplomatic relations with a hundred countries. And, like the Templars, they do not rule the world. - The Washington Post

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