Book Review: The Templars, The Rise and the Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

British historian and journalist, Dan Jones, dives deep and wide in examining one of the most famous Catholic knight orders – the Knights Templar – in The Templars, The Rise and the Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors. Published in 2017, this book complements Jones’ earlier works, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England and The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. The Templar epoch reflected a rags to riches, and back to rags, and eventually to the systematic eradication of a significant contributor to virtually all of the campaigns to secure Christianity’s most holy sites in the Levant. In praiseworthy literary prose, supported by valuable research, Jones takes the reader on a journey to identify fact and fiction regarding one of the most influential groups possessing diplomatic prowess, public relations skills, military capabilities, and banking industries to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.

The organization of The Templars, The Rise and the Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors is chronological, reflecting the rise and fall of the Templars. Jones subdivides the book into four parts reflecting the phases of Templar evolution: Pilgrims; Soldiers; Bankers; and Heretics. Regardless of the function Templars provided, the author summarizes their essence in the first sentence, of the first paragraph, “The Templars were holy soldiers.”[1] An exciting, mind capturing read, the book consists of 353 pages of easily digestible reading. One should not skip an excellent Author’s Note and Introduction that provides a roadmap to what you are about to read. Maps, illustrations, and appendices are thoughtfully included and serve well as quick references.

Equal analysis is given by the author to the Muslim perspective throughout the book. Before the formation of the Templars, the reader is able to visualize a disorganized Muslim coalition in the Holy Lands. Civil war between various Arab rulers, an ongoing quest to control Jerusalem and other Muslim holy sites resulted in tension with not only each other, but with European Christians. Readers are introduced to masterful leaders and stalwarts of the Muslim faith such as Saladin, Al-Kamil, Al-Salih, Baybars, and Nur al-Din, all of whom either countered or defeated Christian crusades in the Holy Land. Juxtaposing the Christian and Muslim strategic situation between 1102 and 1119, Jones’ paints an unfortunate conclusion – conflict between the two faiths was inevitable.

To understand the formation of the Templars, Jones cites the chronicles written by a Saewulf, a Holy Land pilgrim in the year of 1102. The diary illuminates the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the typical Catholic pilgrim. Their treks to the Levant region to see and experience the places where the foundations of their faith began was exhilarating and most important reaffirming to their faith. Jones systematically reveals the connection between the pilgrim devotion to his or her faith and the strategic interests of the Catholic Church and sponsoring European monarchs. The author’s first three chapters depict how the zealous nature of the pilgrimage resulted in an inevitable clash with Muslim similar interests in securing the Holy Land for their faith.

One of the most interesting series of chapters (Part 2, Chapters 5-11) examine the soldiering aspect of the Templars. To paint a vivid account of what made a Templar knight, Jones leveraged a multitude of archival documents to reveal something beyond an armored knight, wearing the famous white smock with the brazen red cross on the front. The Templar knight was highly trained in both friendly and adversary tactics. Despite some Hollywood films that depict Templars as fanatical, unorganized, and individualistic, actual knights were proficient in their warrior skills. Perhaps surprising to some readers, the Templars operated under a “mission command”[2] philosophy, whereas battlefield command and control could be decentralized, and executed at the lowest echelons. Also interesting is Jones’ recognition that Templars installed mid-level leaders, akin to today’s Non-Commissioned Officer (i.e. sergeants), which would enhance mission command type movements and maneuvers during battles.

Use and misuse of the Templars by the Christian kings and generals ebb and flow throughout the book. In these instances, Jones introduces a myriad of key leaders that placed the Templars in situations they excelled (e.g. Pope Innocent giving Templars papal autonomy to perform their original missions) or improperly employed the Templars to their demise (e.g.  Templar Master Gerard of Ridefort who viewed Templars as governing rulers more than knights).

With the help of the author’s storytelling and inclusion of historical facts, the reader will see how mere knights became organizationally wealthy in less than fifty years of existence. Jones shows how both monarchs and traders were constantly filling Templar coffers, despite repetitive crusade failures. Christian relics, as well as vast treasures of gold and silver were deposited with the Templars for safekeeping. The trust in the Templar banking system created a new function – savings and loans. The result, according to Jones’ research, was increased suspicion of Templar financial actions, thereby prompting the growth of rival knight orders, such as the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Order.

The final chapters show the rapid decline of the Templars into obscurity. Repetitive crusade failures, emerging fractures in the Catholic Church, growth of internal European rivalries, and a shift to exploring new lands in the west began to drain resources from reconquering the Holy Land. Internal Muslim rivalries dissipated at a moment when their collective attention and resources were optimized in reclaiming the Holy Land.

The Templars were virtually decimated by 1277, and received the blame by the Church, European rulers, and rivals for the loss of Holy Land. Jones concludes his book with a gut wrenching depiction of the process by which King Philip IV destroyed the Templar Order in France, based on both factual and false allegations about the organization (ranging from financial corruption to sexual immorality). Ultimately, the Templar organization could not be defended, the momentum generated by Templar antagonists, according to Jones, was unbearable, even for Pope Clement V who disbanded the Order in 1312 and ordered the confiscation of all Templar property and lands.

Dan Jones again proves himself a master historian. While most historical books place readers in a regulated time period, The Templars, The Rise and the Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors spans a timeframe which modern day events in the Holy Land can be connected back to, and religious conflict in the region can be better understood. What would be mundane facts, Jones’ prose is similar to putting a little sugar on leftover steamed red beets! It is a pleasure to read!

[1] Jones, Dan, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, (Viking – An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017), p. 1

[2] Army Doctrine Publication 6-0: Mission Command, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 1.