The story opens in 1291, when Thibaud Gaudin arrives in Sidon after the fall of Acre. He is the Treasurer of the Order of the Temple and has with him a cargo of the fabled Templar gold. Beltran witnesses his arrival in the old, leaking hulk during a storm in the middle of the night; he is instrumental in Thibaud's election as Grand Master (his predecessor died at Acre); and he is deputed to take care of the gold.
When asked to be (as he puts it, disdainfully) "one of those Templars who handle affairs, who manage estates or money, who can traffic in your world", Beltran responds "I am not one of those. I am a monk and a soldier." And he adds: "I am a native, a colonist, what they call a 'poulain', and being born in the Holy Land does not make one a citizen of the world."
But he has been made responsible for the Templar gold, and this book is the story of his guardianship of that gold - and of the Templar Rule - during the period of turmoil that followed their expulsion from the Holy Land, when the Order was libelled and dissolved by Philip the Fair of France and Pope Clement V, the Templars themselves arrested, tortured and executed, and finally, Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, burned at the stake outside Notre Dame in Paris in 1314.
There are other stories too, some of them marvellous portraits of historical characters. For instance, Henry, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, to whom Thibaud had taught politics when he was twelve years old and who now, at twenty-one, has to receive Thibaud as a supplicant, Grand Master of an order which, vanquished from the Holy Land, seems to have lost its raîson d'être. And Pope Clement, who tries to warn Hugues Perraud, Visitor of the Order in France (which means top man, under the Grand Master) of the coming onslaught and to justify in advance his own future treachery. And Philip the Fair with his factotum Nogaret. This is part of the dialogue where Nogaret receives his orders regarding the Templars:
Nogaret had not felt so well since they had set out upon the affair at Anagni. 'What you want, Sire, is to see the Order extirpated; not cast down nor weakened nor lessened, but utterly destroyed.'
The king came out of his dream. 'You have taken my meaning, my good Guillaume. No doubt some device will occur to you?'
Then afterwards, when Philip, believing himself rich, discusses the situation with his Venetian advisers, and finds his hopes dashed:
'Much of the bank's business is with crowned heads, Sire, and independent cities, and states of this or that size, Sire, and has come here because of the bank's impartial, international standing, and that has now been cancelled, Sire, so it is probable that the crowned heads and sovereign states and even the trading cities will mostly withdraw their deposits where they are in credit, Sire, and where they owe, Sire, will be hard to satisfy as to your Majesty's credentials to receive monies owed to the Temple, Sire, so no, Sire, I would not advise your Majesty to go into banking.'
The whole character of Philip is so convincing, so memorable, that so far as I am concerned it is the definitive portrait; certainly I shall never be able to see Philip in any other light.
It is a difficult novel to get into, perhaps, but I have read many books about the Templars and this is one of the very best: five stars, then, and definitely straight onto my Favourites shelf.