The Templar Knights | Their secret history

Volume 1 : The end of an epoch

Chapter 1: The Templar Fortress of Marash

The Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, November 1307

The Templar Knights, their secret history by Clive LindleySir Paul of Chatillon, Templar knight, looked down at the hilt of his Damascus blade to see why it was slipping in his grasp. The deerskin strips he and his squire had so carefully wound around and glued onto the hilt, then bound with copper wire, should have soaked up his sweat. Only now he realised that it was soaked, not in sweat but in blood – his blood. A string-thin rivulet was seeping down from inside his chain-mail sleeve.The Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, November 1307

The night was still dark, but a lightening of the clouds in the east proclaimed that morning was imminent. That meant that the surprise the turban-helmeted attackers had hoped for, was gone with the darkness. This didn’t necessarily mean that they would give up. For the moment at least it had gone quiet. Looking down he saw at the base of the wall, amongst the small rocks, weeds and sheep droppings, the wrack of ruined scaling ladders and weapons, with many broken Turkish bodies sprawling around and over them. Most now were still, but some legs and arms were twitching jerkily whilst presenting no threat. The larger boulders further away, he knew, concealed the still dangerous survivors.

Along the parapet of the castle wall, he saw his fellow Templars, of whom he was the section chief, all apparently upright, although not offering themselves as targets to the Turkish archers. Like him, they had been fully ready, after being alerted to the presence of invaders by the guard dogs, set on long leashes to roam in the darkness beyond the castle walls for that very purpose. The Armenian allies, long used to fighting the Turks in these mountains had taught them that trick, saying that the dogs needed hardly any training and, if slain, were easily replaceable.

Rolling up the steel links of his sleeve he saw the small rent, but the spear that he only now realised had so nearly destroyed his sword arm, had fallen away as its wielder had sunk back below the parapet. Paul, having hacked down into his neck, had then wrestled away the top of the scaling ladder with its cargo of Turks still on the lower rungs. Nevertheless his muscular arm had sustained a slash, which needed a dressing.

With his squire Baudouin nearby, Paul was examining the wound that the spear tip had made and Baudouin was folding a scarf to bind it. Suddenly, out of the darkness the arrow came and took the boy full in the face. Paul caught him as he staggered over and eased him down to the surface of the fighting platform. “Oh no, Jesus God, not Baudouin,” the knight mouthed, lifting the head and in his dismay examining the wound, the shaft still projecting from it. But the place where it had entered the boy’s head spoke of the finality of the event. The arrow must have instantly penetrated the brain.

He regretfully lowered the slight body of his squire down again onto the fighting platform. Then cautiously, this time with his shield before his face, he looked over the parapet at what the assailants below were now doing. His whole long section of the wall was now devoid of attackers, but there was no silence. He heard waves of the surging clamour coming from the barbican to his left. Then he was brought back to his own reality as one arrow and then another, hit the stone parapet to his side and glanced off high above him.

This time some movement behind a rock told him exactly where the enemy archers lurked, seeking any targets that opportunity might give them. He waved over the sergeant of the Genoese crossbowmen that were the back up on this section of the wall. He pointedly nodded towards his young squire’s corpse. “The bastard that did that,” he spat out, “is still shooting at us! There is a silver cup for you if you can get him.”

The mercenary sergeant edged over and saw a flash of material as the Turkish archer started to lift his head and fired off a shaft in their general direction, and then ducked down again. “Leave him to me, sir” he said, hefting his crossbow, a steel quarrel inserted, his eye firmly fixed on where the Turk had disappeared.

Paul, ducking below the parapet, signalled with his hand to his nearest Templar neighbour and friend, Sir Mark of Exeter, and they edged towards each other. “Sorry about young Baudouin, brother” his colleague opened, subdued. “I saw it happen and that you now have the Genovesians dealing with it.”

Paul nodded in answer, but his eyes conveyed his sorrow, hardened as he was and in the heat of battle. Still only twenty, he had gained most of his experience in a war zone. He was extremely fit and being tall to start with, physically well up to the challenges of campaigning. To be a Templar – the best of the best – had been his ambition since he was a boy in his father’s castle in Burgundy. But now this soldier’s life had suddenly become very complicated indeed. First principles even, needed re-examination.

Yesterday, the castle commander had convened a meeting of the sixty or so of his fellow Templars serving in this mountainous fortress, possibly the remotest part of the Templar presence anywhere, here where the edge of western Asia met the shores of the Mediterranean. Such meetings were fairly rare. The commander had announced this was to be a chapter meeting, so Paul and his colleagues had wondered what it could be about. Now that he knew, he wished that he didn’t. The commander, a thirty-year-old veteran of these Cilician wars, had told the assembled Templars the shocking news. He told them that a carrier pigeon from headquarters in Cyprus had earlier arrived and the news it brought was barely credible, yet if true it was devastating.

“The Grand Master and all the Templars in France, some 2000 of our brethren have been arrested by the French king.” he told the assembled warriors. “They have been accused of all things, of heresy,” he continued incredulously. Paul had met the stern old warrior the Grand Master Jacques de Molay, in Cyprus. He had indeed inducted young Paul, freshly arrived from Paris, into the Order at Kyrenia.

Reflecting on the shocking news, he thought he knew no one less likely than that grizzled veteran to fit the image of a heretic. None of it made any sense. The Templar garrison commander at this Cilician fortress had only been able to tell the congregated brethren those bare facts, from the brief coded message carried on the leg of the carrier pigeon, which he freely admitted, failed to make any sense to him either. There would surely be more information coming, he had said, but all agreed that such news whilst incomprehensible was, clearly, disastrously bad

Then the commander had brought them back to their own hard reality when he told them that, according to the latest intelligence, a large mixed party of Turks and Kurds had been spotted in these Amanus Mountains, and only half a day’s journey away. He said that the whole garrison would need to be on the walls that night, with every expectation that they were the objects of this Turkish march into Cilician territory. At least it took them away from baffled speculation about the fate of their Order, and back to the immediate matter of their own survival.

During the long hours since then, on this battlements watch, he had wondered in this last remaining Christian fragment of Outremer, if the Templars, the only Christian soldiers anywhere who were still fighting the victorious Saracens, were somehow doomed, for reasons beyond their control. Now he reflected, had the fine young man Baudouin, whose still-warm body lay beside him, died for nothing? Paul and his comrades were certainly in danger of being over-run if this Turkish force was big enough. Was it not enough, he agonised, to be on the front line against these fierce Asiatic enemies without whatever forces back in France had moved against the Temple?

“Baudouin was a fine fellow,” Paul told his colleague Mark, “but what a waste of a young life. He had been with me out here for a year. Candidly now – a good lad, he would have got his mantle after a couple of years and a few more dust-ups like this one. He’s a loss to me it’s certain, also to the Order.  I’ll be writing to his family – I think they are in Flanders.” His voice trailed sadly, realising that even their Order itself was now in jeopardy. “But this all seems so inadequate somehow.” His voiced trailed away and he realized he was speaking to himself. There was no more time. Mourning would have to wait.

His tone became business-like once more. “They won’t try scaling here again today, but they obviously want to keep us alert and in place. Why, I ask? I’m going over to look at the gate where clearly the action is.” he told Mark. They could both hear the distant roar. “Be ready for a move to reinforce, in case that’s called for. Lend me your lad – Lionel, isn’t it, and I’ll send him back with a message, if necessary.” His colleague waved his squire over and instructed him, whilst Paul doubling over to keep his head lowered as he passed, patted the shoulder of the Genoese sergeant, carefully watching the cluster of rocks where the Turks were concealed.

Paul holding his sword and shield ran bowed over along the fighting platform that curved with the wall away towards the gate, with the squire, Lionel, following in a similar half-crouching posture.

He passed several other Templars in their positions on the walls and slowed each time, long enough to call out his purpose. As he got nearer and rounded a curve in the wall he heard the roar intensify and saw the action in front of the barbican. A large number of Turkish attackers in their mail cuirasses and steel-spiked helmets clustered around an iron-tipped ram which they had got close enough to already be splintering the great reinforced timber gate. The Templar commander stood on the parapet above, urging on defenders who were bringing new loads of missiles to the platform above the gate to others, who were hurling them down on the upturned shields held over the heads below. He saw Paul approaching. “It’s gone quiet on our section, sir,” Paul reported, “just a few archers keeping us pinned down now, but we saw off their ladders before it got light and their assault troops have gone I expect to come over here, but they are not there any longer – so I needed to know if you would want us to reinforce you here, or not?”

“Good man, Brother Paul. I was just thinking I would need to send for you,” his commander responded. “In case we can’t hold them at the gate – and that’s now only a matter of time – it will be hand to hand. There are some carts down there,” he pointed to where men were unloading and bringing rocks to use as missiles. “Get the brethren off your wall and down there. Leave some of your Genoans to keep watch and stop the Turks over there thinking you’ve fallen asleep. But get those carts overturned to make a new barrier inside the gate, then form up your men to hold it.”

Paul turned to Lionel. “You heard that. Now repeat those orders… yes, yes, all right, good lad. Now, get back to Sir Mark – and Lionel, for God’s sake, just keep your head down!” The Templar followed the youth with his eyes seeing that he was indeed keeping below the parapet. He looked up to the highest point of the castle and was reassured to see that Beauseant, the Templar flag of black and white halves was flying strongly against the lightening sky. The brazier containing the warning beacon was lit and flaming high, a signal to the neighbouring garrison at the castle some twelve miles away across their valley that they were under attack.

Paul scrambled down to the cobbled courtyard where worried looking men-at-arms were watching the great gate bowing and splintering from the impact of the great ram. Paul saw a sergeant he knew. “We’re going to make another barrier – get those carts closed up and turned over in a line – here.” He stood on the spot where he wanted the barrier whilst the sergeant and his squad took the draft horses out of harness, drove them away into the castle lanes, and tipped over the carts end to end in a crescent-shaped line, using some of their remaining rocks to help fill the gaps.

As they were doing this, the reinforcement of armoured Templar knights and sergeants from his section were arriving, clattering along the wall above, then down the steps to where Paul waited and formed them into line on top of the barrier. He waved at the detachment of Genoese crossbowmen to stay up there, as they followed the knights, and ran up the stone steps to them on the rampart, shouting and gesticulating. He instructed them to stay up on the ramparts to fire down into the enemy, whenever they emerged below. Every bolt they fired should be deadly; but those weapons were slow to rewind and the archers could be overrun unless they could be kept apart from the hand-to hand struggle that would happen as soon as the invaders had broken through the gate.

He now had about twenty men at arms transferred from his section of wall – plus some thirty who had already been there waiting for any breakthrough, and had them all engaged in erecting the makeshift barrier and then climbing up to stand on it. He could see some fifteen of his crossbowmen up on the parapet, winding-up their weapons and placing their steel bolts conveniently to hand. He detached four of his men-at-arms with spears, with instructions to stand and defend them at all costs, halfway up the narrow stone steps leading up to the fighting platform where his Genoese were winding their bows.

Before many more minutes had passed, a great roar announced that the great gate before them was sagging off one of its hinges, as the timbers splintered from the last great impact. Beyond, the defenders could hear trumpets and now see in the gap of broken timber, the maddened bearded faces of battle-crazed warriors, who having had to endure casualties from above now were able to engage and hit back. Roaring as they ran, the first attackers emerged across the cobblestones from the gatehouse to be surprised and then slowed, with the need to evaluate this new obstacle of Paul’s carts, together with a line of well-armoured dismounted knights with shields and swords, standing on top along the length.

As the number of invaders quickly swelled, their momentum carried them forward. Above them, the line of armoured Templars standing on top of the overturned carts looked ready for whatever would come their way. Paul now stood, sword in hand and shield on arm in the middle of the line; beside him a young knight holding ‘Beauseant’, the Templars ‘piebald’ standard, their black and white battle flag, which on Paul’s orders he now dipped and raised. The crossbowmen above and behind the dense crowd of invaders, having had their signal, could not miss.

A volley of fifteen steel bolts tore into the crowd below as the first of the invaders began to scramble up the barrier as best they could. There the swords took their deadly toll. Within moments, the space in front of the barrier was full of dead and dying men, the air full of screams, shouts and the clash of arms. On the parapet above the remains of the gate, rock missiles were being hurled down by the defenders as well as murderous steel bolts from the skilled Genoese, as fast as they could rewind their bows. The courtyard had become a killing ground, blood flowed and screams and curses mingled, in a frightful cacophony.

Then the first tall horseman was through the gate, an emir to judge by the gold chasing on his steel armour, wearing a spiked steel helmet surrounded by the swathed cloth of a green and yellow turban. Behind him came his mounted standard bearer carrying a metal crescent moon on a spear shaft, with a crosspiece from which dangled two horsetails. More horsemen crowded behind their leader expecting that once the gate was down, their height and weight would carry them through the resisting foot soldiers in the melee, within the broken gate. That done, their momentum should have taken them well inside the castle, cutting down any resistance as they came to it. On top of the gatehouse, garrison soldiers who had been shooting arrows and hurling missiles down onto the Turks storming their gates, were now concentrating on the mob already inside below them, crowding the castle courtyard, their momentum checked only by Paul’s barricade.

The Templar garrison commander was amongst the crowded defenders above the gate, and seeing the opportunity, grabbed two of his crossbowmen and ordered them to fire only at the enemy emir. His great horse was prancing and his lance had just now found a target embedded in a Templar, bestriding the cart to his front. The roar from the invaders had increased as they saw the gap that this made in the line, and their chance. Two crossbow quarrels almost simultaneously tore through the emir’s chain mail, taking him out of the saddle, down amongst the hooves below.

Now the roar came back from the defenders and then grew as the attackers faltered.

At the very height of this drama, a Turkish trumpet outside the walls incredibly sounded a signal, which Paul recognised as their order to retreat. The fierce warrior with whom he had been trading vicious sword blows suddenly disengaged; jumping down from the small progress he had made climbing up the overturned cart, and joined the milling crowd. Paul was not alone in being astonished that they would give up now, having broken into the castle, but those Turks already inside the bailey had already turned and were now struggling with each other to get away. Two horsemen had dismounted and lifted the Emir back onto his own horse, their mounted colleagues clustered around him as their horses forced a way through the now panicking foot soldiers, but all the while a rain of crossbow bolts scythed into their ranks, the Genoese now concentrating on the enemy cavalry.

More went down to be lost under the feet of their horses and the frantic footmen, jostling each other trying to escape beyond the shattered gate. Now the host poured back through the ruined entrance, whilst outside amongst the rocks, Turkish archers gave them covering fire, shooting at any heads that showed themselves over the gatehouse tower. The stricken emir was held in the saddle by two loyal attendants, the three horses moving tightly, their heads grouped together as though conferring, their bodies as though tied together, came out and away and moved out of sight, along with the retreating force, into the rocky hillside outside the castle.

Now above the noise, a familiar trumpet, sounded from down the hill below the castle. The very fact that it could be heard above the immediate commotions, suggested it came from somewhere nearby. Paul leaning on his sword, breathing hard from his exertions recognised the signal and now had the explanation for the enemy withdrawal. He gave thanks for the long column of Templar cavalry riding hard uphill now coming into sight, with daylight firmly established, having had been alerted by the alarm beacon fire on the top of their highest tower.  The Templars were saved to fight another day.

 

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