Templars and the Royal Navy

Templars and the Royal Navy

The Templars played an important, but almost unknown, role in the formation of the English navy under King John and Henry III.

Medieval navies were transient creatures, and strangely fragile. Richard the Lionheart’s fleet, which had been developed at least partly with assistance from the Templars, had been a significant success. But the fleet was a single-use weapon, a specific vehicle for a specific expedition (the Third Crusade). Wooden ships rotted and had a very limited life. It was no more a ‘standing navy’ than most medieval states had a ‘standing army’.

John, with his huge and ultimately disastrous commitments on the European Continent, was soon in need of his own fleet, however – and the Templars were instrumental in creating a new navy for him.

A threatened French invasion of England in 1213 was thwarted by aggressive naval action, as an English fleet, partly funded by the order, took the fight to the enemy before they were fully prepared.

On 30–31 May, Philip’s navy was at anchor at Damme, the port of Bruges, while the king and his army besieged Ghent. The English ships arrived unexpectedly. They created havoc amongst the mostly unmanned and moored French shipping. They ‘cut the cables of three hundred of their ships loaded with corn, wine, flour, meat, arms, and other stores, and sent them to sea to make for England; besides these they set fire to and burned a hundred or more which were aground, after taking all the stores from them’.

Hundreds of French ships were captured, and the remainder were destroyed. The brothers of the New Temple in London had been instrumental in financing the English fleet which destroyed Philip’s navy and, arguably, won England’s first major naval victory against France.

But that was the high point. In the last two years of John’s reign, there were continuing efforts to ward off a French naval invasion in support of the baronial revolt, but with much less success.

The Templars were called upon to help the navy in different ways. Most obviously, they could provide ships – they were, after all, experienced shipowners in their own right. In June 1213, for instance, shortly after the Battle of Damme, we know that Templar ships under the command of Brother Gilbert, who was based in Dieppe, were instructed to join the royal fleet. In return for their service, the order was given valuable trading rights, particularly with regard to bringing wine and other goods into England.

Less obviously, but probably more usefully for King John, they could also offer their administrative and logistical skills to help build up a navy in short order.

As was often the case in the medieval world, there was surprisingly little distinction between military and civilian vessels or between naval operations and commerce – the skillsets and infrastructure needed were almost identical. The same vessels could be used, with minimal adaptation, to fight battles or to transport pilgrims, money and trading goods. The Templars owned ships that were indeed military vessels, but they were also flexible.

As one would expect from an international organisation that needed to maintain a strong logistical capability between Western Europe and the Levant, the British Templars had close shipping links with the Continent. The order had naval facilities at Marseille, but their fleet was based at La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast. This was their main maritime link between Britain and France. Because of the survival of some contemporary licensing records, we even know the names of two of these Templar ships: one, a galley, was unimaginatively named La Templere; the other, normally used as a merchant ship, was called La Buzard.

As well as being shipowners, the Templars were also able to provide the means for others to acquire ships, particularly when they felt it would further the interests of the order to do so. In 1214, for instance, they lent King John £133 so that he could buy one of their Spanish vessels. Like any good second-hand car dealer, they not only provided credit and financing facilities, but also promised to give him his money back if the reconditioned ship proved not to be to his liking.

The order’s involvement with the English navy increased still further in the summer of 1215. William of Wrotham, one of John’s admirals and the royal official in charge of naval administration, deserted the royal cause. John immediately drafted in a Templar, Brother Roger the Almoner, to take over his duties.

Roger was already trusted and close to the king. He quickly took command of the royal harbours and fleet. Combining other Templar skills with his maritime responsibilities, William also became involved in handling naval finances, paying the wages of sailors and mercenaries. He organised freight transfers and was responsible for the collection of duties (the frettum). Later, he even made the arrangements for ships to carry the king’s messengers and envoys on their business.

Roger was soon organising the transportation of horses and troops from France to England to help sustain John’s war effort. He sourced twelve ships in July 1215 and paid the sailors’ wages on the king’s behalf. By September 1215, Roger was involved in arranging passage to England for mercenaries, both infantry and cavalry, led by the mercenary commander Geoffrey of Martiny. In March 1216, just before French troops landed in England, Roger was once again instructed to find money for a ship to bring another mercenary contingent over, this time commanded by Robert of Betun.

The Templars’ skills in helping to build and manage military shipping for others meant that they remained in demand in this capacity even after John’s death. By the 1220s a Templar brother became one of the leading administrators of the new royal fleet. This man, a certain Brother Thomas, was referred to as ‘the keeper (custos) of the Great Ship’ – he was retained to project manage a vital naval construction and refurbishment project for the crown at Portsmouth.

The commander of the nearby castle at Porchester was instructed to provide Thomas with the on-board artillery (ballistae) and other weapons that he and his team needed to complete the fitting out of this major warship, and we know that the Templars also received money to pay the wages of the carpenters and other ship-workers.

Brother Thomas’s success was rewarded with more work. Soon afterwards, a ship named La Cardinale arrived from Portugal. The vessel, together with its cargo, was also bought by the crown and it too was put under Brother Thomas’s command.

Brother Thomas became deeply involved in Henry III’s campaigns to retain control of Gascony. These actions went way beyond the Templars’ more normal ‘consultative’ role when it came to military action between warring Christian states. He was given the task of organising the muster of the royal ships at Portsmouth, including assembling 200 vessels there for the king in 1226. Another flotilla was gathered under his supervision the following year.

When Thomas sailed to Gascony, later in 1226, he was in joint command of substantial elements of the royal fleet. The king wanted no ambiguity. He explicitly ordered that the English and Welsh ships, together with their seamen and bailiffs, should obey the orders of ‘our beloved’ Brother Thomas. Those orders were far-reaching. Brother Thomas and his fleet were engaged in active combat duties, capturing ships thought to be trading with the enemy, and transporting soldiers and military equipment into Gascony. Thomas and his Templar comrades were naval experts and accordingly in high demand.

Thomas seems to have had a darker side, too. There are indications that the hard-working Templar may have liked to play hard too – some said that he enjoyed other aspects of his job rather too much.

We know that he had a substantial interest in the cross-Channel wine trade. In the summer of 1225 he was commissioned to buy 200 tuns of wine from Bordeaux on behalf of the king. As part of this trade, one of Thomas’s less onerous duties in port was to supervise the inspection and sealing of wine casks as they were brought on and off the ships. And it was in this capacity that he was accused of taking some of the king’s wine for his own use. Thomas was arrested.

Guilty or not (and such crimes were by no means uncommon in what passed for the bureaucracies of the medieval world), Thomas was soon freed. The arrest was probably just a warning – he was far too useful to be left languishing in a royal dungeon for long. And the goodwill of the Templar order was an asset to be nurtured.

Strangely, there are other signs that the warrior monk had unusual character flaws that may have contributed to his edgy reputation. While on his naval campaign in Gascony in June 1226, Thomas’s brother Richard (who was not a Templar) served under his command. Soon afterwards, in circumstances that are now unclear, Thomas had his brother arrested and imprisoned for mutiny. Richard was eventually freed but, significantly, not at Brother Thomas’s request. The king released him, but only after lobbying from the citizens of Bayonne.

We do not know what became of the flawed but talented Brother Thomas. Mysterious and elusive, he disappears from history. But the influence of the Templars on the early years of the English navy continued to resonate.