The true story

When picking up a biography of a revered national personage which isn't meant to be a eulogy or a whitewash, the reader must be prepared to accept him or her to have been a human being, warts and all. Great they may well have been, yet in many ways less than exemplary.

Lionheart By Sharon Penman 594pp 2013 Pan paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 395 baht

Richard I (the Lionheart) is still lauded in England eight centuries on, up there with Boudica and Admiral Nelson. In novels and films, he is known for putting his disliked brother King John in his place.

Yank Sharon Penman, fascinated by medieval history, has done extensive research on the period and writes reputable historical novels set then. Her author's notes and acknowledgements persuade us that she requires no official history credentials.

For millennia, dynastic succession caused as much bloodshed as the wars of religion. (Cleopatra murdered her brothers to become queen.) It was particularly nasty among the four sons of Henry II, who would share none of his power, and the ever intruding Eleanor of Aquitaine.

All engaged in plots, conspiracies, alliances, revolts. In the event, Richard got the nod in 1189. Barely a century after William won the kingdom for the Normans, Richard fought up and down the continent to keep its hands off it. Also to ensconce his sister Joanne as Queen of Sicily.

The author disputes the contention of Gallic chroniclers that he was gay. The number of Richard's bastards could have populated a town. He and the future French king, Philippe Capet, developed a mutual hatred.

It was in the Third Crusade that Richard's reputation as the warrior king proved accurate. Though inferior to the Saracens (Turks), his stratagems were brilliant and he led the Crusaders (Franks) from the front to a series of victories. He and the Syrian commander Saladin developed a grudging admiration for each other.

The author notes that Richard didn't have a strong constitution. Now and again he was laid low by one illness or another. Saladin sent him fruit, which is more than his own allies did.

Constantly bickering, the Knights Templars laid into the Knights Hospitaller more ferociously than they did the enemy. Considered failures because the Third Crusade failed to re-capture Jerusalem, the sickly English king left. Volume 2, A King's Ransom, will pick up on and complete the biography.

The Red Templar By Paul Christopher 386pp 2012 Penguin paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 395 baht

Time's up

Of all the medieval knights, it was the Templars that most captured the popular imagination. This is likely because it was believed then, as it is now, that during the crusades to regain the Holy Land from the Saracens they discovered and made off with the treasure of King Solomon from its hiding place beneath the Second Temple.

What is known is that they became immensely wealthy, found another place _ more than one? _ and became moneylenders, at profitable interest, usually to the nobility. Rather than repay, the King of France in the early 14th century arrested all the Templars he could lay his hands on, accusing them of sorcery.

They denied it under torture, as well as the location of the treasure _ the point of the exercise. Numerous novelists have been guessing where it could be.

Among those authors intrigued by the Templars is Paul Christopher, and Red Templar his sixth book about them. Early on our attention is directed to four Damascus blades stolen by four Templars from the Holy Land.

For all the space Christopher gives the search for them, we don't care all that much. Interest picks up when the characters go after the Templar treasure in contemporary Russia. US Lt Col John Holliday, Rangers (retired), is the protagonist. A widower, childless, having lost an eye in the Middle East war, he teachers military history at West Point.

Eddie, black, who deserted Castro's forces in Angola, is his sidekick. They saved each other's life more than once. Genrikhovich claims to be the curator of the Heritage Museum in St Petersburg, but is in fact the villain. Add a number of priests, CIA and FSB agents, an assassin, and civilians of all shapes and sizes.

Christopher goes back and forth in Russian history, connecting real people to his fictional cast. Rasputin enters the story, as does Putin, princes and presidents. Stalin's dacha is burned down.

With a nod to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, a gospel by Jesus turns up. As does the Ark of the Covenant.

Who got his hands on the Templar treasure? Would you believe Ivan the Terrible? In five-century-old booby-trapped tunnels beneath Red Square and the Kremlin. From the chapters of descriptions, Captain Kidd's treasure consists of mere baubles.

Don't be surprised when Muscovites reading Red Templar reach for their shovels.

Like the Roman Legions, this reviewer leaves the Knights Templars to history. They had their time, hopefully never to re-emerge.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer