By Steve Tibble
Templar master, trusted admiral and skilled diplomat, Robert of Sablé had a chequered past – but he does not deserve the parody reputation that has emerged as a product of modern video gaming.
Many of us know of the exploits of Robert de Sablé, particularly through his role in the marvellous video game series, Assassin’s Creed. He has a striking part to play, as an arch manipulator, physically intimidating and powerful.
His is a malevolent presence, as he works his way into Richard the Lionheart’s favour, only to betray him. He enters Solomon’s Tomb in Jerusalem with his men, looking for the ‘Pieces of Eden’. These powerful neurotransmitters have been an obsession of the Templar order for many years, as they can force humans to act as slaves.
The Templars have been the victims of appalling attacks on their reputation over the centuries that followed their dissolution.
Few of them have suffered more than Robert de Sablé, however, a senior British Templar and close friend of Richard the Lionheart. He died on active service in the Latin East in 1193 but has since been reborn as a pantomime villain. Robert, medieval soldier, admiral and skilful diplomat, is now better known as a Dr. Evil lookalike, a parody of a Holy Warrior devoted to chasing down mythical artifacts.
But what is the truth? What was the real career of this devoted and highly successful Templar master?
There were never many British Templars. As they were always so small in numbers, quality had to substitute for quantity – high-level influence and good relationships were central to the role of the order. In the case of kings who had particular significance within the crusading movement, such as Richard I, the Templar order went to great lengths to ensure that their leadership and connections were closely aligned.
When Richard the Lionheart came to the throne, Templar leadership within the British province was given due consideration. The existing master, Geoffrey Fitz Stephen, seems to have made an effective transition between the administrations of Henry and Richard – he remained head of the order in Britain for several years. William of Newsham, one of the British order’s inner circle, eventually took over from Geoffrey Fitz Stephen as master in 1195 and remained in office until 1200.
William’s elevation to this critical position was carefully planned. There were many close links between the secular nobility and the new Templar master. He came from Yorkshire, for instance, near Temple Newsham, which had been founded by the famous Lacy family during Henry II’s reign. Close connections and good relationships were the key to making things happen in a medieval society – and the order was adept at working the system.
Far more importantly, however, even the grand master of the Templars, the leader of the entire order, was changed to accommodate the needs of the relationship with King Richard.
Richard was vital to the crusading cause on many different levels. He was an enthusiastic participant and a gifted soldier, but, even more practically, he had a powerful fleet with which to transport a crusading army. Both main military orders, the Templars and the Hospitallers, changed their senior leadership to allow them better access to Richard. Garnier of Nablus, a former English prior, was made grand master of the Hospitallers in 1190. And the Templars, not to be outdone, appointed Robert IV, lord of Sablé, as their grand master in June 1191.
This was no random choice. In Robert they had selected one of King Richard’s admirals and close friends, a man with good connections at the English court and with proven naval skills.
Sea power was particularly important on this expedition. The Third Crusade was dominated by the English and this was largely made possible by the fact that Richard had a substantial fleet. This allowed him to project naval power into the eastern Mediterranean aided, at least in part, by the efforts of the British Templars. Having access to these ships allowed Richard’s army to retain strategic flexibility, to arrive in the East relatively quickly and, barring disasters at sea, in good shape.
The British Templars played a very significant role in the administration of the navy. They were employed extensively in the transport of men and horses by sea. Not surprisingly, they used the order’s logistical experience and shipping assets, which had been developed to help supply the Latin East, to good effect.
The order knew that these naval skills were sorely needed. Negotiating the land route to the Holy Land was extremely dangerous. The only viable alternative (and this was the option chosen by both the French and English kings) was to build a fleet and sail down to the eastern Mediterranean. This would also ideally involve setting up supply bases on the Christian-held islands along the way. Sicily and Cyprus both became important in this regard.
Everyone made their own preparations as best they could. Ships, some of which were supplied by the Templars and the Hospitallers, were painstakingly gathered from across northern Europe. By the time the English fleet eventually left Sicily in the spring of 1191 it consisted of no less than 219 vessels of different types and sizes.
Men were the obvious cargo, but so too were large quantities of supplies. Horses were essential and took up far more room than humans. The transportation of animals inevitably caused problems – taking large quantities of precious but fragile horseflesh on rudimentary ships from northern Europe down the Atlantic coast of France and Spain, across the Mediterranean and into the Middle East was never easy.
King Richard was complicit in bringing the order even closer into his government. He had grown up with Templars at court and always had a close relationship with the brothers. It was this relationship of trust that eventually made possible the appointment of one of his naval commanders as master of the entire organisation. The papacy was similarly pleased to see the ties of trust between the English crown and this papal order confirmed, and for the Templars themselves it ensured that their influence was strong at the highest levels.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his role as admiral, military adviser and political fixer, Robert of Sablé had a less than conventional monastic background. The Templars were warrior monks but Robert, like so many of his comrades, was more comfortable with the former role, as a warrior, than the latter. Importantly, Robert was already a direct vassal of King Richard, holding lands in the valley of the River Sarthe, which constituted one of the main lordships in northern Anjou. Theirs was a close relationship based on loyalty and trust.
Richard had relied on Robert over many years and placed him in a series of important positions. In the first half of 1190, Robert was made a commander (or ‘justiciar’) of the royal fleet. Later that year, in the winter of 1190–1, while the royal fleet was in Sicily, Robert was given responsibility for Richard’s delicate negotiations with their host, King Tancred of Sicily – a man also called by some, much less flatteringly, ‘The Monkey King’, because of his small stature and unprepossessing looks.
Robert and his colleague in these discussions were clearly very highly respected within the army. They were described by one participant as ‘men of renown, men of high lineage and great nobility, men of great importance, the men who would deal with this business’. Robert himself was referred to as ‘a noble man of high birth and great affability’.
Throughout the campaign, Robert and the other British Templars also acted as mediators between the kings of England and France. Richard and Philip were both highly competitive and antagonistic. They had initially agreed to share the booty taken on crusade and both tried to push the point to its furthest extreme.
The Templars played a major role in the commission set up to resolve these issues. They worked hard to keep the fragile unity of the armies of the Third Crusade intact for as long as possible. Tense and irritable negotiations eventually culminated in the Treaty of Messina, agreed in October 1190. This finally settled the fate of the possessions of crusaders who died on their way to the Holy Land.
Robert was already of mature years when he became grand master of the Templars. He may have seen membership of the order as the most fitting way to end his career and an appropriate way for a military man to gain remission of his sins. He was a widower with few ties and joined the order as soon as he arrived in Acre. He showed every sign of dedicating himself fully to the crusading movement. With no wife and of advancing age, Robert probably wanted a fresh start to the final chapter of his life.
Like many of his class, he had had a chequered past. The crusade, and a life of military religious devotion, was a way of atoning for things he now regretted. He had been part of the unsuccessful revolt by Henry the Young King against his father, Henry II, in 1173. Perhaps even more tellingly, in his younger years Robert had not always shown the church the level of respect that was expected of a medieval lord – in several cases he seems to have encroached on their rights and revenues.
Robert accordingly made elaborate preparations for his new life. He founded a monastery. He confirmed religious donations and made new ones. Most importantly, he made a very public point of trying to make personal amends for his previous wrongdoings. Just before setting off, Robert invited the Abbot of Evron to join him in the castle keep of Codoingel. Together they reviewed the estate they could see stretching before them. Then, highly symbolically, Robert had wine brought up to them. Kneeling, he refused to get up until the Abbot had served him, thus publicly forgiving him for his past behaviour.
Robert could leave for the East with his affairs in order and was prepared to finish his life in the defence of the Holy Land. He did indeed die soon afterwards, on 28 September 1193, having served his lord and Christendom well.
He was hopefully at peace with his God and blissfully unaware of the travesties that his reputation would be subjected to in future ages.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale) is due out in September 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
Barber, M., The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge, 1994
Tibble, S., Templars – The Knights Who Made Britain, London, 2023