King John and the Templars

King John and the Templars

The extraordinary story of how the Templars stepped up to act as diplomats for England’s least diplomatic king.

King John was not a good man,
He had his little ways…
And sometimes no one spoke to him
for days and days and days. ~ A.A. Milne

A popular ruler with charm and charisma can be forgiven much. He commands reserves of loyalty. He is given the benefit of the doubt. One like John, however, was neither trusted nor trusting. Instead, his personality was dominated by irritability, anger and poor behaviour. All kings have problems thrust upon them, but John also had an outstanding track record of creating his own.

As an underemployed younger son, John was known as ‘Lackland’ in his early years. He continued to be lacklustre throughout his reign. He was not always lucky – but he brought much of his bad luck with him. As the author of Winnie the Pooh astutely noted, John fell out with far too many people, far too often.

John needed talented partners who would be able to help him by taking a longer-term and more unemotional view of the world – men such as the British Templars.

The Templars were amongst John’s most trusted advisers. In a rare and personal sign of his affection for the order, John gave the brothers an annual gift of ten male fallow deer each year, to be eaten at the chapter meeting in London during their Pentecostal dinner. King John needed the British Templars and, whether with venison or not, they welcomed the opportunity to take a place at his top table.

John’s political situation and personal shortcomings meant that he needed help from people who had professional skills, but were not partisan. The Templars were an obvious choice.

King John was not ideal material with which to work. But with Richard the Lionheart gone, the Templars needed to move on. King John was all that was on offer – he was the man they had to deal with. Taking the long-term view, as only an international corporation can, the Templars realised that their best option was to help him stabilise the realm. When the infighting had passed, so their strategic logic went, John or his successors would be better placed to help the crusading movement once more.

Diplomats for the Undiplomatic

Most obviously, a man who is not naturally gifted with social skills needs to outsource his problems to people who are. The diplomatic history of the Templars in John’s service is accordingly a mirror and a metaphor for the entire troubled period.

John’s reign began as it went on – in a cycle of conflict. He had access to significant military resources and was not completely inept as a strategist. But his lack of emotional intelligence meant that he often alienated those he most needed to influence. John’s inability to behave with empathy contributed significantly to his unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

John had a lot going for him. He ruled over prosperous lands and had a substantial army. He was an anointed monarch in a deeply pious age. With these advantages, he could achieve a lot. But whatever he achieved he often managed to throw away at the last moment. His lack of emotional connection with those around him undermined his ability to trust or be trusted.

Unlike his brother Richard, John was not a natural general. Instead, over a few short months in 1202–4, he lost Normandy and, arguably, much of the respect he had amongst his leading vassals.

In the spring of 1203, the war with France took a massive turn for the worse. King Philip of France and his army first attacked Anjou, the heart of John’s family empire, and then Normandy. Castle after castle fell into French hands. In the summer, Philip invaded again, capturing the castle of Radepont in a siege that lasted just over a fortnight.

John’s response to the French offensive was characteristic. In the autumn of 1203, with Normandy under siege and his empire facing collapse, he made an extraordinary decision – he left his men and went back to England. This was ostensibly to raise reinforcements. But the king, unpopular and suspicious, was too insecure and too preoccupied with the possibility of rebellion to come back. When strong military leadership was most needed, John was nowhere to be seen.

Envoys to France

Templar envoys and mediators were used to limit the damage. They struggled to put a diplomatic settlement in place. The master of the British Templars, Aimery of Saint-Maur, was employed by the king from February 1204 onwards in negotiations with the French. His mission was ostensibly to negotiate ransoms and prisoner-of-war exchanges, but Aimery’s real objective was to try to broker a truce, no matter how humiliating, before Normandy collapsed altogether.

John was getting desperate. Château Gaillard, the heart of John’s regional defences, was under siege. Despite a fierce defence, the castle fell on 6 March 1204. In the wake of this defeat, it quickly became apparent that loyalty to John was thin. He sent Hugh of Wells, his chief clerk, to lead a peace mission alongside Aimery. Not surprisingly, the French were having none of it. Continued peace overtures were made in April and May 1204, but King Philip wisely ignored them, maintaining his military momentum. Instead, he pushed on to complete the conquest of Normandy – resistance collapsed as soon as people felt that it was safe to change sides.

In August 1205 another Templar diplomat, this time a certain Brother Geoffrey, was sent by John on a mission to the French court. Again, this was presumably an attempt to broker a peace treaty. Two years later, in 1207, we find the Templars still keeping diplomatic channels open and working for John in organising the release of important prisoners, such as Gerard of Athée. Gerard was one of John’s most valued mercenary captains, and had been ransomed with the aid of Templar money – a loan for his release was arranged by them for this purpose in 1206. The Templar brothers in France even went so far as to escort Gerard and his family to the coast, so that their safety could be guaranteed on the way back to England.

John continued to use the Templars in his attempts to recover his lost empire in France. In 1211–12, the order’s financiers and diplomats at the New Temple in London were engaged to provide money subsidies for the forces of the German emperor, Otto IV, in order to buy his support against the French. At least one British Templar emissary accompanied the emperor’s envoys back to Germany to help organise the transactions. John also reached out to the papacy at this time of crisis to try to get support from the church. Once again, British Templar diplomats, including Alan Martel, were dispatched on his behalf, reaching the papal court in early 1213.

By April 1213, war with France took on an even more active footing – King Philip declared his intention to invade England. King John hurried down to the south coast to meet the threat. A conference was convened at the Templar house in Ewell, near Dover. There, with the brothers and other military advisers, he hurriedly organised defence plans with which to counter an amphibious invasion. In May, he had a British Templar envoy carry a letter from the English barons to King Philip, expressing their loyalty and support for John – hopefully ensuring that Philip had no illusions about the level of baronial support he might find for an invasion of England or, after the intervention by Brother Alan Martel earlier in the year, the stance of the papacy.

By 1214, King John was confident enough to go back onto the offensive, in a last concerted attempt to recover Normandy. Inevitably, his confidante, the ubiquitous Brother Alan Martel, accompanied the king on campaign in Poitou. Other Templar brothers took a very active role in funding the expedition, writing back to England to get more money sent out and guarding some of his vital war chests. Things went well at first. Anjou was recovered by the end of June.

As ever with King John, however, initial hope turned to disappointment. The French victory at the battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214 was a disastrous turning point – the German emperor was almost killed and his army routed. John’s expensively subsidised German allies were knocked out of the war.

But matters were about to get far worse. John was falling out with his nobles as well as the French. Diplomacy, even with experts such as the Templars on your side, could only achieve so much…