Who were the Templars, what do we know about them, and how are they linked to the holy grail? As the new historical drama Knightfall airs on the History channel, Rachel Dinning caught up with medieval historian Dan Jones to discover some of the real history behind the TV series
A. To understand the Templars you’ve got to go back to the First Crusade. The Templars were originally formed in the city of Jerusalem to protect Christian pilgrims from the west as they travelled around the Holy Land. Their role later developed so that, instead of just protecting the pilgrims, they began fighting in elite units in crusader armies. They also had a sideline in a huge variety of commercial, business and financial enterprises, ranging from medieval banking through to commodity production (shipping, property leasing, etc). Most famously, they were brought down in a spectacular series of trials in the 14th century.
Q. You were a historical consultant for the new historical drama Knightfall. What can you tell us about the TV series?
A.Knightfall is a historical drama (where history and drama are equally weighted). It’s a story about what I consider to be the most interesting part of Templar history – the fall of the order, and how it was brought down by a propaganda-driven attack led by King Philip of France. Historical drama these days is usually obsessed with origin stories, but what Knightfall does is look at the story of the Templars at its end. It’s a fascinating period of time, and it’s one of the reasons why the Templars have struck a chord with people across history.
The story follow the lives and experiences of a group of Templars in Paris who are dreaming of getting back into their former roles. In episode one, we learn that the holy grail [a mythological artefact closely linked with the Templars throughout history] has gone missing; this launches the action of the next nine episodes. It’s a very human story, with many of the characters projecting their own hopes and fears onto finding the grail.
Q. What’s the real history behind the fall of the Templars?
A. To understand the fall of the Templars, you need to understand a little about the failure of the Crusader states [Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa]. In 1291, the Mamluks – a cast of Egyptian slave soldiers who had conquered Egypt and Syria – swept through these states into the eastern Mediterranean and the Crusaders lost their foothold in the Holy Land. A lot of blame was attached to the Templars because of this – their duty had been to protect the Crusader States and they had manifestly failed.
Fifteen years later, the order was destroyed by King Philip IV of France. He took aim at the Templars for a variety of reasons – partly because he was having a long-running battle with the pope (and the Templars, as loyal servants answerable to the pope, were an indirect way of attacking the papacy), and partly because he fancied a slice of the order’s wealth. On Friday 13 October 1307, agents of the king turned up at Templar houses with a list of mostly bogus and maliciously concocted accusations against the order. They were accused of worshipping false idols, spitting on the cross, sleeping with one another, denying Christ, spitting on the image of Jesus, kissing one another in lewd induction ceremonies – anything you could think of that would push the buttons of a conservative Christian mind-set in 1307.
The result was a long-running inquisition, which ran from 1307 in France and spread across every other kingdom in western Christendom. By 1312, the Templars were declared to be institutionally corrupt; they were abolished, rolled up and their property was given away. Two years later, in 1314, the last grandmaster was burned at the stake and that was the end of the order as it had been known in the Middle Ages.
Q. The plot of Knightfall follows a grail quest. How did the Templars become linked with the holy grail?
A. The first links that we know of go back to Arthurian legends and specifically the legend of Parsifal [Percival] by Chrétien de Troyes, which was rewritten in Germany between 1200 and 1210 by a man named Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram placed into his story something called the Gral (the grail), which the Templars have been repeatedly linked to ever since. Although we’re not quite sure what the grail is in Wolfram’s tale, we do know that it’s defended by knights that look very similar to Templars. In my reading of the story – and I think a lot of historians would read it in the same way – the grail is a metaphor for Jerusalem. And who were better to guard Jerusalem than the Templars?
The grail itself has its own history; there is a long history of people being fascinated with it – from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur through to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I think it’s understandable that the Templars and the grail became linked together – the Templars are one of the church’s most controversial orders and the grail is a symbol of the church’s history.
Q. Why is this mythological part of the Templars’ history included in the series?
A. If we were to just disregard all of the myths and legends, the question would be: why are we making a show about the Templars at all? Why not the Knights Hospitaller? Why not the Teutonic Knights? Why not any of the other military orders? There is a reason that the Templars keep coming back to us and part of that is because they have been consistently linked with these legends and myths, which are just as much a part of their history. For TV, it’s natural to link those two elements together.
Q. Are the characters in Knightfall based on real people from history, or are they fictional?
A. The characters are a combination of real historical people and characters from established Templar mythologies. There are a whole host of characters who are absolutely based on historical figures – King Philip IV and his wife Joan I of Navarre, Isabella of France, and Pope Boniface VIII. There are also a huge range of fictional characters that originate from the fact that the Templars can be traced right back to the origins of the Arthurian stories in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1200, fictionalised Templars were appearing in Arthurian legend all the time, so in Knightfall we meet Templars called Gawain, Landry, Parsifal and Tancrede. They are all searching for the holy grail.
Q. Are there any female characters in the series? How are they presented?
A. Absolutely – no one in their right mind would make a TV show with no strong female roles! The roles of women in the Middle Ages are quite sensitively explored in Knightfall and are some of the most interesting in the show.
In the first instance, we have the wife of Philip IV. She is referred to as Queen Joan in the show, but her real name was Juan. In the show, she’s imagined to be having an affair with Landry, the lead Templar, although this aspect is fictional. We also meet her daughter – Isabella (the future wife of Edward II) who would become known as the ‘she-wolf’ of France and one of the great medieval queens.
Q. How did you get involved with Knightfall, and what was your role as a historical consultant?
A. I first got involved with the show shortly after it was given the green light by History, and from the outset I was reading the scripts and providing informal feedback. As the show went into pre-production and then production, I came on board in a more official capacity to advise wherever I was needed. This involved anything from answering plot points from the writers’ room, to working with the actors on any queries they might have, to working with the prop, costume and set design departments.
Q. How historically accurate is Knightfall?
A. Everyone involved in the show wanted to know as much as possible about the history of the Templars. Sometimes decisions were taken because of a desire for historical fidelity; sometimes decisions leant the other way.
What you see with Knightfall is a blending of history with established legends. Some of the storylines are invented, but one of the questions I was able to answer in those instances was: “Is it plausible that this could have happened?”
Q. How do Templar history and myth come together in the show?
A. The first scene of the first episode is a great example. It’s 1291 and the Templars are evacuating the city of Acre – the setting for the fall of the Crusader states to the Mamluks. This aspect of the story is true and is based on original chronicle sources that document the Templars evacuating the city.
The aspect of the story that’s not based in historical evidence is that the Templars are attempting to move the holy grail. Despite this, I think it’s remarkable how much the writers have stayed faithful to the original chronicles of the time. It’s a really interesting mish-mash between reality and fiction. That’s true of most historical dramas.
Q. As a historian, what’s your verdict on blending fact and fiction for the purpose of historical drama?
A. I think anyone who turns on a historical drama expecting to see something with the narrative architecture and factual veracity of a scholarly article has totally failed to understand the form and the medium that they are watching. The whole idea of historical drama (the clue is in the name) is drama as well as history. The job of the director – and everyone involved in the production – is where to find the balance.
There will be people who are personally happy with a great ‘Hollywood story’ with historical props and costumes. Then there will be people who want a story that is incredibly slow-moving but is absolutely faithful to every historic detail. From a numbers perspective, the former is more effective for television.
I think a lot of people assume that filmmakers who ‘get things wrong’ in period pieces must be stupid. That is absurd. If you’ve ever encountered an enormous television production, you’ll realise that it’s brought together some of the most talented directors, costume designers, actors and screenplay writers. Not all of these people can be stupid and wrong; instead, there is a carefully understood and constantly evolving sense of how to make historical drama that serves both components. Sometimes it is done well, sometimes it is done not so well. But it is never done blindly.
Q. Why do you find the Templars so compelling?
A. For me, it’s because their history has so many different facets. It’s got faith, it’s got tragedy, it’s got fake news and it’s got incredible battles. The Templars are a window into the world of crusading, but they also have this fascinating mythology that I find as interesting as the factual history. Ultimately, they are a great case study for understanding why certain subjects become so compelling generation after generation.
Dan Jones is a historian, TV presenter and author. His latest book, The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, is out now. He was a historical consultant for the new historical drama Knightfall, which begins airing on History UK on 17 July.
Rachel Dinning is Website Assistant at History Extra.