Michael Jecks is a British novelist well known for his series of murder mysteries set in early 14th century England. One of the series’ two lead characters, Baldwin de Furnshill, is a former Knight Templar who returned home following the Order’s disbandment. Michael Jecks’ most recent novel, Templar’s Acre, is a prequel to his main series, covering young Baldwin’s adventures in the Holy Land around the time of the siege of Acre. The writer is very active on FaceBook and Twitter. In this interview for the Knights Templar Vault, Michael Jecks speaks about medieval history, the Knights Templar, conspiracy theories and modern fiction.
Q. Choosing a former Knight Templar as a protagonist should sound like a solid idea to any dispassionate connoisseur of popular fiction, given the time period featured in your mystery series: such a character is sure to have gravitas, experience and inner brokenness. Iron Man would have been a Templar if he lived in the early 1300s! Literary theory aside, what were the factors that helped you pick the hero for your début novel and then stick with him for so long?
A. The idea was never to work with one lead character originally. I had read extensively about the period, and I was convinced by Professor Norman Cohn’s proposition that the Templars were an example of persecution, victims of a horrendous abuse of power. I did not find the proposition that the Templars could be guilty even remotely convincing (the fact that the accusations laid against them had been used by the same monarch only a year before in order to steal the assets of the Jews was pretty convincing to me!). I was delighted to use a Templar in order to put the record straight about them, but also I was thinking about a series of books, and the idea of a conflicted, religious, anti-papal knight who returned to his ancestral lands was thoroughly appealing. He would make a superb investigator, I thought. Analytical, politically aware, and with some forensic skills based on his experience in war.
However, I was also painfully aware of his weaknesses. He would be utterly hopeless when confronted with the characters and customs of the period and the area. I decided I had to have a second character, of equal weight and standing, to act as Doctor Watson to his Holmes, and thus used Simon Puttock, a local Bailiff. Simon gave me the cultural adviser to the brilliant investigator, but often Puttock’s insights were useful, and I set out originally with the idea that the two would share the investigations equally.
The interesting thing to me was that, as I delved further into the period and how the Templars were treated, I found my protagonists’ attitudes changed. I guess this reflects my own development, as I came to periods in my life where money was harder, my characters also suffered; when I had children and my attitudes altered, so too did those of Baldwin and Simon. This gradual change is most noticeable now, looking back over the series, although it wasn’t a deliberate change. Still, I think it makes the characters more believable. They can be seen to grow as the series moves on through history – and that’s important, because the period they lived through was so traumatic, with famine, war and then the plague.
Although the series is on hold right now, it is not finished. For me, it was necessary to take a break, and the move to Acre and the siege was a brief interlude for me. I’m now working on different books, but I will return to Baldwin and Simon. There is so much still for me to cover.
Q. As an author, you are known to be very approachable. Based on your dealings with the audience, how many of your readers love and know history, as opposed to simply enjoying a good story line?
A. Oh, I think it’s fair to say most came to me because they had an interest in history to begin with. Originally, I think many picked my books because they had read Cadfael and wanted something similar – although I think most of my readers are looking for something a little different now. I set out to write books that were historically accurate, but they were designed always to be entertaining, not historical lectures.
Most of my readers like a good mixture of history and storyline – as do I myself. There is no point in having an historically precise book if no one wants to read it. On the other hand, I cannot write a book containing facts I know to be wrong. I have to be accurate, and much of my work comes from the tying together of history into a coherent, logical plot. And adding the characters who drive it and make me feel involved.
Q. How would you introduce your books (“Templar’s Acre” in particular) to an audience with a purely academic interest in the Knights Templar and the Middle Ages? What goals do you attempt to achieve when bridging history and fiction?
A. “Templar’s Acre” is the prequel to my main series, all based on the period after the dissolution of their Order. The series tracks one knight’s life from 1316, when he returned to his homelands in Devon, to try to find some kind of peace after the hideous persecution of his comrades. However, his unique skills, his wisdom and analytical mind helps him to investigate crimes, and soon he is elevated to become a Keeper of the King’s Peace, one of the knights who had the duty of searching for felons “from Hundred to Hundred, Shire to Shire”, as their warrants stated. The Coroner was a mere recorder of crimes: the Keepers were the men who sought the criminals.
I have been writing this series for nearly twenty years now, and in all that time, I’ve wanted to go back to the beginning, to write about my Templar’s life before his return to England. I wanted to go to Acre and write about the siege, to go to France and write about the Templars’ arrests and trial, to go to the period after the trial, and look at what happened to those brave men after their persecution. “Templar’s Acre” is the distillation of my work for twenty years. It’s not really about the series, though – it is a book about the coming of age of a youth in the middle of war, how he makes friends, how he makes enemies, as well as how he falls in love. But more than that, it is a story about people, and how siege will bring out the best – and the worst – in them as they seek a way to survive.
I know that when I used to read Agatha Christie or George MacDonald Fraser, it was mainly for pure entertainment. I could put a brake on my disbelief (which was pretty essential with the old “cosy” crime novels), but many people used to read them with the attitude of someone analysing a puzzle. I think that crime fiction and historical fiction work on so many levels that attempting to work out who reads what and why is next to impossible. However, I think it’s fair to say that most readers do come to me and stay with my books because they know that the history will be accurate. I spend an inordinate amount of time checking my history.
But, and it is a BIG “but”, I never lose sight of the fact that my books are there to entertain. I was helped to love reading books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, among others. Books can satisfy on so many levels.
Q. Did working on “Templar’s Acre” feel different from writing the previous books in the series? For instance, how were you affected by the immeasurable impact that the loss of Acre and the abandonment of Outremer had on European civilization?
A. It had an unbelievable impact on the whole of Europe. After all, how could anyone doubt that God had deserted His people when He gave the Holy Land to heretics and pagans? Christians were convinced after the loss of Acre, that the end of the world was coming. Dread predictions of famine, war and plague abounded, especially when rumours were spread that the Pope had murdered his predecessor.
Writing about this period was wonderfully liberating, though. I’ve spent so long working on the post-Acre period, that to go back to this appalling battle and look at things through the eyes of the participants has been a joy. I’ve mulled over the scenes in this book for decades now, and to be able to write about them has left me feeling refreshed. Apart from anything else, the last few books in the series were based on the awful Despenser, surely the most atrocious, despicable, thieving adviser to a King England has ever suffered under, and to get away from him and his long shadow was a relief!
Q. There are different schools of thought regarding the “guilt” of the Templars and possible irregularities in the Order’s practices during its final decades. Even the proceedings detailed in the Chinon Parchment (during which the leaders of the Knights Templar were supposedly free to testify without fear of torture) contain troublesome information. These facts can be either given credence or dismissed on the grounds that after the autumn of 1307 the only chance for preserving the Order, as well as the lives of individual knights, was in pleading partially guilty, even if the charges had been entirely fabricated. Although you do not publish academic works on the subject (that I know of), as someone who has researched this period extensively, can you offer your perspective on this subject?
A. As I said earlier, I came to the Templars from my researches. First, I read “Dungeon, Fire and Sword” by John J Robinson (a book I’d still recommend to new students of the Templars), and then my reading developed. I absorbed Professor Norman Cohn’s superb book: “Warrant for Genocide” and “Europe’s Inner Demons”. Professor Cohn was driven by his horror at the Nazis and the Holocaust, and spent much of his academic life looking for evidence that the Nazis weren’t unique, and that past examples existed of persecutions. The first example he came upon was the Templars. His conclusion was, “It is time to reaffirm the conclusion which Heinrich Finke pronounced in 1907: the charges against the Templars were absolutely without foundation.”
Templar recruits would have been trained as fighters from the age of six or so. Joining the Order as professional fighters, they would have known that they would be expected to commit to poverty, chastity and obedience. They would have gone to their initiation expecting to make those vows, and become warrior-monks, prepared to lay down their lives for God and His saints. They were deeply pious. Many were from the noblest houses of Europe.
The first allegations seriously proposed that these recruits “submitted to rituals which, being obscene and blasphemous, were a denial of everything that had attracted them to the order.” I agree with Cohn that it’s inconceivable.
Then we have the inquisitorial system in place. Although it is true that many Templars confessed to crimes, we have to bear in mind that in the early days of their incarceration and torture, they were not allowed to know what they were accused of, who had accused them, when the allegations were supposed to have occurred, and they were not given access to lawyers. All they knew was, that they were being held and tortured until they confessed. And if one man confessed to something, the others were questioned on that specific accusation. We all know how savagely the men were treated. No one could fail to be touched by the story of the old man who had the charred bones of his feet in a leather bag to prove how he had been tortured.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Templars were a particularly arrogant group. Warrior classes tend to be. But for a fighting force of men who knew they were fighting on behalf of God, who answered to no one but the Pope himself, and who were free of secular controls, the arrogance would have been intolerable to most other people. The fact that they held enormous riches would have sealed their fate. The King wanted their money, just as he had wanted the money of the Jews only the previous year. But arrogance does not equal guilt.
I have no doubt in my own mind that the Templars were victims of one of the most atrocious miscarriages of justice ever seen.
Q. There are people out there who believe the strangest things. I have heard about someone claiming that the Knights Templar were supposed to protect the Rosetta Stone — not surprising really, considering that (according to the same source) this artifact originally belonged to Jesus Christ. Are there are myths and misconceptions about the Knights Templar that you find particularly funny, outrageous or even infuriating?
A. Ye Gods! The number of crackpot ideas that keep floating around is enough to make me yank my hair out in handfuls!
My favourite conspiracy theory (because they all tend to be) was “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, which the authors created out of one monk’s typo during copying, and a series of “if you can accept”. I read the book, but at that point, I went through the items listed, and the answer was, pretty much: “no; that’s rubbish; that’s wrong; that is impossible.” I managed to stop myself throwing the book across the room. It was fun to read, but it was twaddle – and it was fiction. Just like the “Da Vinci Code”, which was nonsense too, but written well enough to attract a massive readership, of course. Both drive me to distraction.
What really does make me go potty, though, isn’t the books or the theories. What gets to me is the number of people who swallow the plots and think they’re genuine. I have had a number of conversations with people who clearly believe that the book was genuine, and that the conspiracies were authentic. I’ve even had a few people ask me if I want details of the Templars as they now are. And of course they are behind everything now in their quest for world domination.
The trouble with all these ideas is, you have to agree that as conspirators they are a disaster. If they intended world domination, I think they’d have sought it sooner than seven to eight hundred years after their destruction. These theories hold as much credence as those which say the Jews are part of a massive conspiracy. Or the Masons.
Of course the main one is that which asserts that the Templars squirreled away all their gold. No, they didn’t. The French accounted for all the Temple’s property and cash. The second is that they escaped and joined in Robert the Bruce’s campaign at Bannockburn. While some may have been there, I have no doubt whatever that the story was invented by an Edwardian spin-doctor, seeking to align the Bruce with heretics and criminals. What would have been more natural than to suggest that he was consorting with felons so foul that their Order was disbanded by the Pope?
Q. Quite separately from outrageous theories, there are many fascinating local legends about the Knights Templar. Castles and commanderies hold a firm grasp on nearby people’s imagination, especially in France where the Order’s downfall was especially dramatic. Does similar local lore exist in your corner of the British Isles?
A. There are certainly many stories of the various preceptories and farmsteads where the Templars used to live, but I’m rather unfortunate, in that the Temple didn’t have much in the way of lands in the West Country where I live. In fact the only place I know of is a lovely little church on the eastern border of Bodmin Moor. I went there to conduct some research when I was writing “Tolls of Death”, and the place was very peaceful and quiet, with an almost empty visitors’ book – but I understand now that the book is almost completely full with people saying they’ve gone there because of my book! So long as they all left some money to help support the building, I’m happy. Little churches and chapels need all the help they can get.
Q. I remember being slightly surprised when Raymond Khoury’s “The Last Templar” came out in 2006, capitalizing on the same title as your debut novel (pretty well-known by then). What was your reaction to this, if any?
A. The odd thing is, there is no copyright on a title. Not only did Raymond Khoury have his book, there was a noted non-fiction book from France about Jacques de Molay, and I believe there are at least two other books with the same title.
I can’t get upset about titles. Apart from anything else, I find them so inordinately difficult to think of. It would be impossible were I not to be able to use any title already snapped up by another writer. I once had to write four pages of A4 with a different title on each line, trying to think of something suitable for the book I was working on at the time. That, of course, is very different from a thief who steals my books, puts them on the internet, and makes money from them by stealing from me.
Q. Do you think there is much room in the world of Templar-themed fiction today or has this topic been exhausted for the time being?
A. I think (I hope) that conspiracy plots about the Templars are done for a while, but I always find that, just when it seems safe enough to go out and look at titles, another blasted Evil Templar book will appear.
I think that the mainstream conspiracy novel, like Da Vinci or Khoury’s stories, are probably done for now. There have been so many, and so many of them have been overblown, over-hyped and over-sold, that the public are a little bored. But readers are fickle when you look at multi-million best-sellers. JK Rowling did well with her wizardly school, then came “The Da Vinci Code”, and now we have had the sudden shock of sex and bondage with the “Fifty Shades” trio. Of the lot, I fancy that JK Rowling will stand the test of time for inventiveness, imagination, writing style and a cracking crime series – because each is a crime novel. The others will fade gradually.
And when people have forgotten all about “Da Vinci Code”, another book about the Templars will suddenly appear and grab an entirely new audience.
I will try to make sure it’s one of mine!