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Historian Dan Jones on Medieval money & Templar conspiracies

Author, journalist and TV presenter Dan Jones speaks to Glint Perspectives about money, the Medieval mind and modern Templar conspiracies

The Middle Ages are never that far away it seems – especially when it comes to the story of money. In fact, the parallels with how the economy is run today are striking says historian, author and TV personality Dan Jones.

He gives two examples which, with a few name changes, could have been taken from the 21st century. Firstly, The Hundred Years’ War: a “massively, massively, massively expensive” campaign against France and her allies which saw the English king Edward III crash the Florentine Bardi Bank by taking out an enormous loan and completely failing to pay it back – “it was an archetypal example of ‘if you borrow quite lot from a bank you’re in trouble, if you borrow billions from a bank they’re in trouble’.”

The other example Jones mentions is the financial dealings of the King of France and how his mismanagement of the French economy led to the downfall of the Templar Knights, who, having previously run much of Europe’s banking system, found themselves under increasing political pressure at the beginning of the 14th century.

“One of the important factors in bringing down the Templars is that Philip IV, the King of France, had been taking part in his own long series of wars. That then was allied to a silver famine in Europe; there were huge problems in mining enough silver to mint coins. That led to Philip trying various well-tested but seldom effective financial ‘tricks’, which come under the broad heading of ‘Debasing the Coinage’: calling it all in, melting it down, devaluing it.”

Philip IV: coin debaser

Philip IV: coin debaser

It didn’t work and eventually Philip tried to revalue the currency, prompting riots on the streets of Paris in 1306. “Philip actually has to take shelter in the Temple [Templar HQ] from the people of Paris who are so cross with what he’s done to the coinage. A year later Philip brings down the Templars, they weren’t the only group he went after: he went after French Jews and he went after the Church in France. He does this because of his chronic, chronic lack of money and his deep problems with the quality of the French currency. The consequences for the Templars was that they were eventually wound up, disbanded and destroyed, with their reputation in tatters for hundreds of years.”

Money talked

The Templar’s financial success and prudence made them an obvious target. It was thanks to their network that pilgrims were able to visit the Holy Land, leaving their wealth with a domestic lodge and receiving a letter of credit they could cash in for shelter and food along the way. However, the idea that the Templars invented banking is too far in one direction says Jones. What they did do, was set themselves up as the world’s first financial services company. Not only did they provide credit for those moving around Europe, they also stored gold, jewels and other valuables for monarchs and nobles, orchestrated payment of public officials and were contracted to tax-collect to fund the Crusades on behalf of the Papacy. “In that sense they’re more than just a sort of proto-bank, they’re an early version of what we would now see as enormous multinational financial services companies.”

At a time of sound money, debts were usually accounted for by the tally-stick system but this was far from internationalised. Prior to their downfall it’s hard to under-estimate how interwoven the Templar Knights had become in the financial fabrics of many Medieval leaders. They occupied a unique position, owing allegiance only to the Pope, who made sure they were exempt from taxes. In 1192 they were able to buy the island of Cyprus from the crusading English king Richard I and when the French Louis IX was kidnapped on the Seventh Crusade in 1250, it was the Templars who lent him 30,000 pounds of silver coins to pay his ransom.

A selection of tally sticks

A selection of tally sticks

That wealth was of course what Louis IX’s grandson, Philip IV, was after, having lost so much value in his own treasury from debasing the coinage. When he then tried to rebase the coinage it was a moral pursuit says Jones because he would have seen his grandfather’s coinage as a model: “He justifies trying to restore the quality of it as a return to the ‘good’ money of his grandfather. There was a sense that the money of Louis IX (the only sainted French king) wasn’t just good quality money, it had a sort of moral dimension which came from the fact it was issued by a good man.”

Vintage engraving of Seventh Crusade, Louis IX landing in Egypt. Louis and his followers landed in Egypt on 5 June 1249 and began his first crusade with the rapid capture of the port of Damietta.

An engraving of Seventh Crusade, Louis IX landing in Egypt. Louis and his followers landed in Egypt in 1249 and began the Seventh Crusade with the rapid capture of the port of Damietta but the campaign was ultimately disastrous

Does that mark a key difference between how the medieval mind and the modern mind see money? Interestingly, Jones says it might provide a link: “I think we do still apply a moral argument to economic and fiscal policy. In a way those arguments are often used to justify things like quantitative easing – in a way it’s not just fiddling is it? It has a sort of moral purpose.”

If money has its own historical tapestry, it is an illuminating one: “I think money has always been political. We always have this tendency to think that we’re very sophisticated now, that there’s a rising continuum of sophistication from a long time ago to today – and it’s not usually true. I think the politicisation of money is in some sense timeless because it is so bound up with rule and rule is inevitably political.”

The invention of Templar intrigue

The Templars shared a similar political curse in their dealings with rule. A Medievalist, Jones has a specialism in their history, his latest book The Templars was published last year to critical acclaim and he was recently employed as the historical consultant on the television series Knightfall, a fictionalised account of the last days of the Templar Knights which has just announced the casting of Jedi Knight Mark Hamill for its second series to be shown on History.

Tom Cullen as Landry and Mark Hamill as Talus in season 2 of History's Knightfall._ (Photo Credit: Larry Horricks)

Downton Abbey star Tom Cullen as Landry and Mark Hamill, who once played Luke Skywalker, as Talus in season 2 of History’s Knightfall. (Photo Credit: Larry Horricks)

Having originally studied legal history, Magna Carta and the Wars of the Roses, Jones says he was drawn to the Templars because of their geographical range – from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the Middle East. “You have this enormous canvas and as a writer I’m drawn to the epic and the big. I also like stories that have a place in the poplar consciousness already but maybe are somewhat misunderstood. It’s one of the few areas of Medieval history you could mention in the pub or on the street and elicit a response. Even if that is ‘oh yea, I’ve seen The Da Vinci Code’.”

A still from the television series Knightfall which sees the last of the Templar Knights search for the Holy Grail

A still from the television series Knightfall which sees the last of the Templar Knights search for the Holy Grail

In researching and promoting his book, Jones encountered many modern interpretations of the knightly order, not all sensical and not all savoury. He mentions the Masonic reliance on Templar lore, the use of Templar motifs by drug gangs in Mexico and a group of ex-US military ‘Templars’ he met which included “an absolute packet” of 3-star and 2-star generals, one of whom was “basically Trump’s guy on the Mexico border”. Jones says the group counts colonels, US Air Force and Naval officers, US Marines and NSA, FBI and CIA operatives among its members, as well as C-suites in big finance.

“They’ve got guys on committees at the UN advising them on humanitarian affairs and they claim to back-channel diplomatic relations with Russia – they’re modern Templars and they’re nice people. There’s a whole load of crackpots and cranks as you’d imagine but they’re still interested in St Bernard of Clairvaux and saving Christians in the Middle East…”

Dan Jones at Chinon Castle in France

Dan Jones at Chinon Castle in France

Whether well intentioned or not, the scope for conflicts of interest is undeniable. So is there a ‘deep state’ Templar conspiracy to change the world? “There’s a Templar network that’s connected to high finance, the top echelons of the military, the UN, international diplomacy, yes, that genuinely exists. I wrote about this for the Smithsonian earlier in the year and everyone just sort of went ‘yea. cool.’ I was surprised by how little everyone seemed to give a shit.”

Modern day Templars

Modern day Templars

That said, it wasn’t a claim Jones wanted to become synonymous with, wary of the shock-jocks that peddle conspiracy theories for a living. Ironically perhaps, Templar imagery is something also co-opted by the far right who claim a ‘deep state’ underpins American government. “Of [Templar] revivalism one striking but fairly small part is fascism,” – but the reliance by such groups on an arbitrary, retrospective view of history prevents any rational Templar association says Jones; proving only that such extremism has no interest in truths it cannot pervert.

Such corruptions are reprehensible but it should not taint those who seek to do good under modern Templar ‘banner’, says Jones. He points back to the association he met in the US: “In my experience anyway, they were not in the least bit fascistic. There’s an enormous gamut of Templar revivalism. So enormous that it would be futile for me to say that I set out to set them all right.”

Dan Jones advised the TV channel HISTORY on their hit drama, KNIGHTFALL, returning soon for a second series, bringing Star Wars favourite Mark Hamill into the cast.

Dan Jones also hosts a brand new UK series on the 100 Years war on HISTORY.
Britain’s War Of Thrones: The Hundred Years War premieres on TV channel HISTORY on Monday 8th October at 10pm.

HISTORY® is on Sky 130 / Virgin 270 / BT 327 / TalkTalk 327.
The series will be made available on all catch up and on demand services.
Online: www.HISTORY.co.uk Social: @HISTORYUK

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