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Swords, Gold & the Holy Grail: Retelling the story of the Templar Knights

‘Knightfall’ stars Tom Cullen, Simon Merrells and Pádraic Delaney speak to Glint editor Alex Matchett about recreating the story of the Templar Knights, founding banks, searching for the Holy Grail and learning the comradery of combat the hard way

Escaping Acre with the Holy Grail, Tancrede  had almost made the safety of the last ship, saving Christendom’s most sacred relic from the invading Mamluk hordes at his back – then, stepping onto the gangplank, he slipped.

“I sank down, it was so hot that my first impression was ‘this is beautiful’, then I thought ‘yea… but I’m in armour…under the water… that’s not good.’ I popped up and there was Pádraic going “Dude! Dude!”

Fortunately Simon Merrells’ Tancrede lived to fight another day, as did Pádraic Delaney’s Gawain and Tom Cullen’s Landry. Speaking in a suitably sun drenched London office they recount their adventures, recreating the story of the Knights Templar as they fled the Holy Land to convalesce in medieval Paris, only then to be betrayed by the monarch they had trusted as their patron. The story, told through the experiences of Templar Knights Tancrede and Gawain, and Templar Leader Landry, is the subject of a new television series, Knightfall, being aired on History and, as its actors’ experiences attest, it took no little effort making.

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Weighed down in full armour in the Adriatic harbour of Split (doubling as Crusader Acre), Merrells was rescued by a team of standby emergency divers. “The director said, ‘Are you alright Simon?’ I said, ‘Yea… I’m fine’. His next question was ‘Can you do it ten more times?’” “I’ve never been so exhausted after that first day,” nods Cullen. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do six months of this!’”

Tom Cullen as Landry in Knightfall

Tom Cullen as Landry in Knightfall

The trio are experienced actors: Delaney is known for his role in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and recently finished a stage run of The Cripple of Inishmaan alongside Daniel Radcliffe, Merrells is known for his portrayal of Crassus in TV series Spartacus: War of the Damned, while Cullen is known for his role as Anthony Gillingham in Downton Abbey as well as numerous directing ventures including the recently wrapped Pink Wall. However, the long days and nights spent filming Knightfall, were still a challenge like no other: From the baking heat of Croatia they went to the snow blanketed forests of the Czech Republic. All recall the difficulty of mounting, let alone riding, a horse while in full armour, “fortunately the horses have far more film experience than we do,” jokes Delaney. “I actually asked my horse for acting advice,” adds Merrells. “I learnt a lot.”

Cold, heat, mud baths, sets burning down, “26 hour days” and the kind of daily physicality you would expect in the life of a real knight, helped forge Cullen, Delaney and Merrells as their respective characters. Tellingly, they all refer to the bond they have built with each other and admiration they have for the humility of knightly virtues. Knightfall is a fictionalised interpretation of the events which led to the Templars’ demise but the characters are based in fact. Merrells mentions Tancrede’s actions defending Saracen prisoners under his ward, “they were respected by their enemy and they respected their enemy. Their initial purpose was to protect pilgrims – they certainly weren’t part of the main first, bloody, violent, Crusading army that just went and destroyed everything. They were warrior monks and all the evidence is that they lived those vows.”

Cullen, whose character Landry is thrust into wearing the precarious crown of leadership early on, speaks of the importance of recognising their world view and how that world view has shaped our own: “The whole medieval era really was where our modern day society was formed. There’s lots of things I don’t sympathise with, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for who they were.” Merrells echoes that sentiment, in an era where warfare was normal they were elite: “In a violent time, with men who were used to violence, they stood out amongst them.” “They were like the Navy SEALS of their time,” adds Delaney.

A 19th century stain glass window showing the First Crusade

A 19th century stain glass window showing the First Crusade

The trappings of power

The task of Knightfall though, isn’t simply to show the Middle Ages as the playground of sword-swinging knights errant. Cullen talks about the intrigue of the French court and how the Knights Templar found themselves an apolitical body struggling to avoid the avarice of power. “They had essentially become this multinational. They were richer than any country, more powerful than any queen or king – they actually made kings. It’s a fascinating time.”

Such wealth and power by proxy was achieved by the Templars’ ingenuity with money. “One thing I didn’t know was that they set up the first banking system,” says Cullen. By providing a note of proof of deposit to those travelling to the Holy Land on pilgrimage the Templars were able to facilitate Europe’s first banking system. Gold and silver could be left with a Temple lodge in Paris and a note, allegedly written in a still uncracked code, could be used to show the bearer had the corresponding cash deposited with the order, affording them protection, food and shelter at Templar stations along the way and meaning they would avoid losing their life savings to bandits.

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Historian, television presenter and author of The Templars, Dan Jones, worked as a historical consultant on the show. He commends the pioneering forms of financial operation the Templars undertook: “Credit transfer over long distance, tax collection, auditing and accountancy – not sexy but highly necessary during their times and their reputation for probity and competence was deserved.”

“It makes absolute sense- it was nothing more than a promissory note,” says Merrells of a system with extraordinary consequences: “Nine knights in poverty begging a place to sleep in Jerusalem, were given part of the temple hence they were known forever as Templars. Within fifty years they had become the wealthiest independent group in Europe.”

Medieval Mega Men

Inventing the modern banking system no doubt helped them there, but so did their medieval marketing. Merrells describes glamour that was unlike other military orders, that won them fame and favour with Europe’s sovereigns, each wanting to endorse the noble Templars. “They quickly got groupies, they had fans from the aristocracy, royalty, people of influence.”

Simon Merrells as Tancrede and Tom Cullen as Landry, leading the Templars into battle

Simon Merrells as Tancrede and Tom Cullen as Landry, leading the Templars into battle

“The brand must have been quite attractive,” says Delaney. “Marching around in these superhero outfits, as a little kid that must have been really cool to see those guys walking around Paris.” “It’s very well branded,” nods Cullen. “They had this insane courage. That order and structure is something I’m jealous of, that sense of meaning.”

Having lived as close to Templar order as it is possible to do so in the 21st century none of them are afraid of drawing existential contrasts. Merrells describes the tapestry of faith that underpinned the world view, not just of the knights but of everybody in medieval Europe. While the Holy Grail now represents a useful plot pivot, back then it was not a relic but a very real power container. “To them god is more real than anything, they attach real meaning to these objects,” says Cullen. “The idea of a Holy Grail isn’t fantasy.”

That may be true of the idea but the historian Jones is keen to blunt any misreadings: “If we are being accurate, there was no such thing and no Templar that ever lived cared a jot about it. The importance is not historical but mythical.” From the early thirteenth century a whole host of ‘Grail’ legends started to grow up, springing out of Arthurian tales, that initially used the Grail as a metaphor for Jerusalem, says Jones. “It eventually came to be thought of as a literal object like a cup or plate. The link with the Templars can be traced to about the year 1210 when a German writer of Grail myth placed Templar-like knights as its fictional guardians.”

A late medieval painting c.1475, depicting King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail

A late medieval painting c.1475, depicting King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail

So although the original Templars wouldn’t have recognised a life-giving chalice, they would have known the faith attached to it, as would their flock. “When people went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem it wasn’t travelling to see the highlights, it was to save your soul,” says Merrells. “They literally believed they were at the closest point on Earth to god. People gave up everything: knights gave up all of their wealth to go, so you have to remember that when you talk about what made these men tick.” Comradery is also crucial. All three speak about asking themselves what it would be like to be in such a brotherhood and have friends die along the way, about trying to understand what is was like to have been fighting since the age of 11…

“But the show is a lot of fun!” adds Cullen after a pause. Mentioning the classic swashbuckling elements and pointing to the Arthurian legend woven into the script – tales originally based on the Templars and since the inspiration for fictional knights from Ivanhoe to the Jedis. Such allusions, Cullen hopes, will encourage people to find out more for themselves about this period in time and help to prevent the drawing of false parallels between the Templars and modern political movements which propagate themselves through baseless, fictionalised, narratives.

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That said, there are constructive contemporary parallels: “I think human beings are actually really boring, in the sense that we don’t change. We believe we’re complex people and go on our own journeys but the truth of it is we do the same things over and over and over again. We make the same mistakes over and over and over again. A historical piece, inside the context of drama, might as well actually be contemporary,” says Cullen.

“The main themes in Knightfall are timeless in that way,” says Delaney. “Power, destiny, romantic love, people have always loved those themes. They’re the same ones that permeate Knightfall and it works.”

Pádraic Delaney as Gawain

Pádraic Delaney as Gawain

A search for clarity creates an inspiring segue. “I was wondering when we were filming, ‘if you were to go back 700 years and seen a peasant would they have had the same hopes and fears as we would have had? The same ambitions? Did they think about space travel and what was going on up there?’”

“But isn’t that what god is? Isn’t that what religion is?” asks Cullen. “We’re all just searching for meaning right and trying to understand what the fuck life is? We love and we hate and we mourn and we grieve and we’re reborn…”

“Are we being controlled from outside or are we masters of our own destiny?” Merrells continues. “How much do we determine and how much is coming from somewhere else? They were people – with the same appetites, the global faith thing was stronger but they were human beings, exactly the same as us.”

A thick, pregnant silence pervades before one last question: If someone offered them the chance to join a modern quest for the Holy Grail would they go? They laugh. “I’d be well up for it!” declares Cullen, before Merrells asks “Why wouldn’t you want to know?” Delaney muses and then speaks: “I do like the idea of a quest…”

Knightfall premieres on History from 17th July at 9pm.
History UK is on Sky 130, Virgin 270, BT 327, TalkTalk 327
www.history.co.uk

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