Zvonimir Grbasic, The Templars at War (Pen & Sword, 2022)
It’s difficult to imagine the Crusades without the Holy Orders, and in particular the Knights Templar. Their red cross on a white background on cloth over their armour may be the lasting image of Crusader armies. But who were they? What did they do and how did they do it? Zvonimir Grbasic answers those questions and more in this enlightening and beautifully illustrated coffee-table style book.
Grbasic begins by bringing together the early military histories of Christianity and Islam as they wind their ways to the Holy Land before the Crusades. The first of those came in 1096, leading to the siege of Jerusalem three years later and the development of the Crusader states. From that emerged the Knights Templar, in 1119, a warrior group dedicated to protecting Christian pilgrims. In 1139, Pope Innocent III released the Order from all obligations except to him, making the Order autonomous. In 1147, they began wearing the familiar red cross that Muslim commanders would come to fear.
How the Order was organised follows Grbasic’s origin story, including the evolution of heraldry, ranks, arms, and armour. No survey of this force would be complete with a consideration of the Order’s horses. Grbasic highlights the excellence of the Templar’s breeding abilities that gave them the best mounts amongst contemporary European powers. With the best equipment and horses, the Templars could be an extraordinary shock weapon in battle, and that is where Grbasic takes us next as he follows the Templars on campaign and in combat. Not that there were many tactics involved for a force that employed the mounted charge as its primary device. Grbasic also surveys logistics, chain of command, and the general campaign life of an ordinary soldier. The austere discipline of the Templars is made very clear.
There were other Orders in the Holy Land, of course, and Grbasic detours to survey them before moving on to the enemies they all encountered, many of whom were also accomplished horsemen. What the Templars did comes next in a narrative section full of battles, including those against their nemesis, Saladin, and a curious account of the Templars fighting against the Mongols in eastern Europe in the 13th Century. But it is the Crusades that merit most of Grbasic’s attention, concluding with the fall of Acre in 1291. In his epilogue, Grbasic summarises the Templars and their contribution to medieval military history. But in their success lay the seeds of their demise: they grew too wealthy and fell afoul of France’s King Philip who owed them a fortune. He destroyed them in France with Papal collusion, though those in England and some other areas fared better amidst the fallout, but the Templar Order had been fatally undermined and all but disappears from military history.
Grbasic has produced an excellent survey of the Templar Order. I say ‘produced’ because not only has Grbasic written a clear and authoritative text that entertains as much as it informs, but he also supplied the outstanding artwork – paintings and drawings – that elevates this book well beyond the run-of-the-mill images you often find in books of this nature. I expect that anyone with a passing interest in medieval warfare and the Crusades will find this book a delight and want to dive into the period to find out more. I know I do.