By Steve Tibble
We tend to think of the Templars as warriors, but with the caveat that they could not fight against fellow Christians. There were exceptions, however. Even the Templars could act as hands-off mercenaries in the murky world of medieval politics.
The Templars’ business was war in the East. Anything that distracted Western leaders and their countries from the defence of the Holy Land was profoundly unhelpful. Accordingly, they did whatever they could to maintain peace in England.
On 6 January 1215, as relations between King John and much of his nobility went into terminal decline, the order hosted a conference at the New Temple. The objective was to agree to reforms which might avert open warfare. Both sides saw the Templars’ headquarters as safe and neutral ground.
The meeting delayed outright war for a while, but, although the Templars were trusted as middlemen, John and the barons were (quite rightly as it transpired) suspicious of each other’s intentions, and war crept ever closer.
While going through the motions of negotiating with his discontented barons, John was in fact playing for time. He made concessions to the church and, most importantly, wrote to Pope Innocent III to say that he would take the cross and join a crusade to the Holy Land.
King John’s status as a crusader was a fraud. It was cynically calculated to gather political support for his cause. But, tactically at least, the ploy worked. The pope could be a powerful ally and, as was intended, announcing a crusade elicited a Pavlovian response in the Vatican. In July 1215, after John had asked for ‘crusader’ status once more, Pope Innocent started to excommunicate John’s domestic opponents. Exactly as the king had planned, the pope took an unashamedly partisan viewpoint. He accused John’s enemies of being ‘worse than Saracens, for they are trying to depose a king who would help the Holy Land’.
Innocent went far beyond mere disapproval, however. He strayed into areas of direct military intervention. According to the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, Hugh of Boves, one of John’s mercenary captains, was given papal letters with which he was able to recruit troops from Flanders and Brabant for the royalist cause. Papal indulgences were offered to those who fought for John. And, just a few months later, in January 1216, the pope went even further and encouraged the archbishop of Bourges to raise troops to fight on John’s behalf.
This attitude goes a long way towards explaining the behaviour of the Templars. As ever, they were agents of the papacy. The central authorities, however imperfect they might be, were the chief vehicle for launching substantive crusades to help the Latin East – so, despite their misgivings, the order’s default response was to help the king.
All too predictably, however, John’s military plans were inwardly focused. He soon began to recruit mercenaries, but these were to fight against his English barons, rather than against the Turks in Egypt and Syria. He turned once more to the Templars (and specifically his almoner, Brother Roger) to help raise an army with which to fight this new civil war. Roger was ordered to prepare ships for the fleet to bring the king’s mercenaries over from the Continent.
John’s barons were increasingly pushed into open conflict. Facing excommunication by the pope and dealing with a deeply untrustworthy monarch, they now had almost no choice. By May 1215, war was inevitable. The Templars were definitively forced into their customary mode of supporting the central government, an administration which, however distasteful, had promised to give active support to the crusading movement if it survived.
Walking a line that maintained the respect of all parties was difficult. The Templars were, of course, not allowed to take part in fighting between Christians. But they did everything else they could to support the royal war effort. On a day-to-day basis, they were certainly at the command of King John. He was at the helm of the legitimate government and was now, in theory at least, a committed crusader.
The order inevitably had very few men on the ground in England but they did what they could to help John’s preparations. Their military tasks were wide-ranging and important.
John’s use of the Templars to transport money to pay for troops and munitions became commonplace during the baronial revolt. And the order carried out castle inspections for the king, making sure that his fortifications were fully provisioned and ready for war. On 14 May, for instance, Alan Martel was instructed to send longbows, lances and square-headed bolts (presumably for ballistae) to John’s castle at Marlborough. A couple of weeks later, they were also using their men to transport money on the king’s behalf to his fortress at Devizes.
The order helped John organise shipping for his mercenaries, transporting them from the Continent in October and November 1215. And they held large parts of the royal war chest in trust. The Templars were tough and untouchable, just the men to do such difficult but vital work.
Behind the scenes, the British Templars’ military expertise was certainly exploited to the full, even if the brothers could not actually be deployed as frontline troops. Most of this expertise and advice was imparted in person, of course, or in documents that are now lost.
One surviving example of their military counsel, however, is particularly telling. Devizes Castle was always vital for the royalist cause, but it assumed even greater importance after French troops started landing in England in the spring of 1216 to help the rebels. The Templars, famous for their expertise in building some of the Holy Land’s most impressive castles, were naturally sought after for their advice.
After French troops took Winchester on 14 June 1216, John dispatched his trusted Templar agent Alan Martel to Devizes. The Templars were already very familiar with the castle and its defences as they had been intimately involved in paying and resupplying the garrison. Alan was now tasked with making sure that last-minute improvements to the fortifications were made and that troop dispositions were equally effective. Interestingly, most of his efforts were focused on improving the defences of the weakest points of any castle – the gates.
Martel issued specific instructions that the ‘Great Gate’ of Devizes Castle should be defended by Oliver and Geoffrey of Buteville and their Poitevin contingent. The defence of the gate called ‘Casteletti’, on the other hand, was to be the responsibility of Thomas of Sanford (the castle’s constable) and Richard of Rivers. We know little of the underlying logic that lay behind such orders – perhaps there was some tension between the mercenary leaders and the castle’s garrison that needed defusing. But it is clear that the Templars had good tactical knowledge of the situation and were using their experience to help the king’s cause.
A couple of months earlier, in March 1216, we find another example of how deeply integrated the British Templars were into John’s war effort. The king sent three letters to his financial centre in Corfe Castle, with instructions for vital money transfers. Tellingly, all three involved the Templars.
One letter gave instructions that certain (unspecified) sums of money should be given to Alan Martel and that Martel should also be given an account of how much was left afterwards. A second letter set out a more detailed version of the transaction and specified that, while some money should be given to Alan Martel, a further sum should also be given to a different Templar, Brother Geoffrey. A third letter, emphasising the importance of the Templars still further, was an instruction to John’s men in the castle – it ordered them to obey Alan Martel and stressed that further instructions would be given in person by Templar Brother Aimery (presumably the master, Aimery of Saint-Maur).
Even in the dying months of John’s reign, the Templars were still intervening in military affairs on John’s behalf. The important castle of Bristol, controlling the vital western port, needed a stronger garrison to ensure its continued security in the face of a possible French siege. A mercenary force commanded by Savaric of Mauléon was dispatched to bolster its defences. In July 1216, the Templars, led by Brother Roger the almoner, were sent in to ensure that the command structure of the castle’s garrison was clarified and that both parties worked well together. Again, they were perhaps aware of some underlying animosity or rivalry between Savaric and Philip d’Albini, John’s constable at Bristol.
However distasteful they found the job, the Templars were there to the last.
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.
Church, S., King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant, London, 2015
Nicholson, H., ‘The Military Orders and the Kings of England in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in From Clermont to Jerusalem: The Crusades and Crusader Societies, 1095–1500, ed. A. V. Murray, Turnhout, 1998, pp. 203-18
Tibble, S., Templars – The Knights Who Made Britain, London, 2023
Warren, W. L., King John, London, 1997