THE LAST OF THE TEMPLARS by William Watson (Review)

Perhaps not so much in the early Middle Ages, but by the 11th century you were an outsider if the Church either deemed or declared you so. Examples of those “deemed” outsiders would be prostitutes, and the herbalists/wise women/midwives of the villages. It was, of course, easier to deem women outsiders than men because in a sense all women were deemed outsiders but the high-born lady, the respectable wife, the virgin daughter and the nun were insiders at least in the eyes of the average layman. To the layman, it was wolfsheads (outlaws living in the great forests), vagabonds and players and beggars who were the outsiders.

Those the Church declared to be outsiders included heretics and occultists, and indeed any who fell into disfavour with the Church, whatever their station in society. Examples of the highly placed are Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, and “Bad” King John of England, both of whom were excommunicated (the Bruce rightly so in my view, John Lackland with less justification); and the Order of Knights Templar, the richest and most powerful order of them all, who were suddenly declared heretics, excommunicated, arrested and tortured and burnt at the whim of a Pope and of a French king who coveted their wealth: they went from being the most envied of insiders to being the ultimate outsiders almost overnight.

There are several good novels dealing with the fall of the Templars. One of the best is William Watson’s The Last of the Templars.

The story opens in 1291, when Thibaud Gaudin arrives in Sidon after the fall of Acre. He is the Treasurer of the Order of the Temple and has with him the fabled Templar gold. Beltran witnesses his arrival in a leaking hulk during a storm at night, and is instrumental in Thibaud’s election as Grand Master (his predecessor died at Acre).

Then Beltran is deputed to take care of the gold.

It is Beltran’s story, Beltran, who when asked to be (as he rephrases it, disdainfully) “one of those Templars who handle affairs, who manage estates or money, who can traffic in your world”, responds “I am not one of those. I am a monk and a soldier.” And adds: “I am a native, a colonist, what they call a ‘poulain’, and being born in the Holy Land does not make one a citizen of the world.”

But he has been made responsible for the Templar gold. It is the story of Beltran’s guardianship of that gold – and of the Templar Rule – during the period of turmoil that followed their expulsion from the Holy Land, when the Order was libelled and dissolved by Philip the Fair of France and Pope Clement V, the Templars themselves were arrested, tortured and executed, and finally, Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, was burned at the stake outside Notre Dame de Paris in 1314.

But there are other stories too, some of them marvellous portraits of historical characters.

For instance, Henry, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, to whom Thibaud had taught politics when he was twelve years old and who now, at twenty-one, has to receive Thibaud as a supplicant, the Grand Master of an order which, vanquished from the Holy Land, seems to have lost its raîson d’être. And Pope Clement, who tries to warn Hugues Perraud, Visitor of the Order in France (which means top man, under the Grand Master) of the coming onslaught and to justify in advance his own future treachery. And Philip the Fair with his factotum Nogaret: the brilliant dialogue where Nogaret receives his orders regarding the Templars, of which this is one small part:

Nogaret had not felt so well since they had set out upon the affair at Anagni. ‘What you want, Sire, is to see the Order extirpated; not cast down nor weakened nor lessened, but utterly destroyed.’

The king came out of his dream. ‘You have taken my meaning, my good Guillaume. No doubt some device will occur to you?’

Then afterwards, when Philip, believing himself rich, discusses the situation with his Venetian advisers, and finds his hopes dashed:

‘Much of the bank’s business is with crowned heads, Sire, and independent cities, and states of this or that size, Sire, and has come here because of the bank’s impartial, international standing, and that has now been cancelled, Sire, so it is probable that the crowned heads and sovereign states and even the trading cities will mostly withdraw their deposits where they are in credit, Sire, and where they owe, Sire, will be hard to satisfy as to your Majesty’s credentials to receive monies owed to the Temple, Sire, so no, Sire, I would not advise your Majesty to go into banking.’

The whole character of Philip the Fair is so convincing, so memorable, that as far as I am concerned it is the definitive portrait; certainly I shall never be able to see Philip in any other light.

It is a difficult book to get into, perhaps, but I have read a lot of books about the Templars and this is certainly my favourite.