Soldiers of Christ: the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller in medieval Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781846825729

Reviewed by: Peter Harbison


Over the years, and through documentary sources, we have been hearing a lot about the medieval religious orders in this country but, in comparison, very little about the two military orders—the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller—who played an important if little-known role in the history of medieval Ireland. It is opportune, therefore, that we should now have a book covering their activities, the first modern review of the orders in Ireland in the form of a series of essays edited by Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh, both monks of Glenstal, where a conference was held on the subject in September 2014, of which this volume is the proceedings.

Both of the orders started out in the Near East, as part of the crusade to protect Jerusalem and the holy places. The Templars got their name from the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which the westerners called ‘Solomon’s Temple’, whereas the Hospitallers became associated with the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, founded by Italian merchants for the care of pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, though they too had a military role to play in safeguarding roads and protecting religious sites. Started in the eleventh century, both orders took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Helen J. Nicholson gives a fine introduction to the orders’ backgrounds, while pointing out that most authors tend to overlook Ireland. The Templars, in particular, came into Ireland under the protection of the English crown and strove on behalf of the king against the native Irish, whereas the Hospitallers got money more from the nobility—but not from the Irish. Because they often formed part of the royal administration, knights often gained high office in the government of Ireland while also attending to their own affairs.

In the words of Colmán Ó Clabaigh, at the start of the concluding essay: ‘Despite the immense wealth and influence of the military orders in late medieval Ireland, very little survives to illustrate the spirituality, religious observance and intellectual and cultural attainments of their members’, nor, as he remarks, do we really know ‘what motivated individuals to join the military orders and what provided them with spiritual sustenance and inspiration as they pursued their vocations as celibate knights and monk-warriors’.

It is what survives of the orders’ existence in Ireland that makes up most of the content of this volume. Nothing survives of the Hospitaller headquarters in Clontarf, and the stones of the Templar HQ at Kilmainham were used to build the Royal Hospital in 1680. What we know of Kilmainham’s relationships, particularly with its English correspondent at Clerkenwell outside London, is discussed in considerable detail by Gregory O’Malley, who elucidates the resentment the Irish felt towards their priors, who were usually English in origin, and considerable squabbling went on across the Irish Sea in the fifteenth century, until Poyning’s Law put an end to Irish independence in the community in 1494.

Pope Clement V closed down the Templars in 1308, and the ensuing survey of their possessions gives us some insight into their properties at the time. But the turn of the Hospitallers came in 1540, when the English king, Henry VIII, closed their houses too. Later that century Kilmainham was abandoned, though followed by an attempt at revival in the Tudor period, but, as Brendan Scott explains, the knights found it difficult to regain their possessions under the Virgin Queen.

Declan Downey points out how the Hospitallers tried to keep alive the embers of the English langue by having their titles (but not their possessions) restored by the Habsburg courts abroad, but these were mere titular dignities, usually held by knights of Continental origin, whose lives and occupations had little to do with Ireland.

Tadhg O’Keefe and Pat Grogan provide us with an overall view of the architectural remains of the orders’ various houses, using a drawing from the Down Survey to illustrate the shape of the Kilmainham priory, a square open space surrounded by walls with corner towers and a large hall in the middle. Eamonn Cotter provides more specific details of the physical remains at Mourneabbey in Cork and Hospital (Any), Co. Limerick, where the walls are comparatively better preserved, though the engraving of Hospital taken from the Montmorency Genealogical Memoir should perhaps be used with caution after Con Manning’s strictures on its effigy illustrations. One curious feature is the absence of any likely sign of a hospital or infirmary among the Hospitallers’ buildings!

Most of the orders’ houses were located in Leinster or Munster, though not necessarily on frontier locations, but Temple House, Co. Sligo, is an unusual exception. As its name implies, it was a Templar foundation, patronised by the de Burghs, but, as Ciarán O’Conor and Paul Naessens point out, when that order was dissolved by papal decree it was not, unlike the others, transferred to the Hospitallers but rather to the Crutched Friars.

As to what the knights looked like, we have little to go on in Ireland, but Paul Caffrey illustrates some of the sixteenth/seventeenth-century priors—who were, however, English—and provides details of their intricate armour. Colour plate 10 illustrates an attractive stained glass window in Hospital church depicting a Hospitaller knight as seen in 1872.

Margaret Murphy makes a strong case for seeing the knights as agriculturalists, growing corn and raising livestock, and being involved in their transport for profit. Edward Coleman and Paolo Virtuana, independently, examine the litigation conducted by the orders to retain their rights, privileges and lands against aggressors, while Colmán Ó Clabaigh rounds off this very successful venture with a discussion of a manuscript register from Kilbarry, Co. Waterford, now in Cambridge, which, together with another from Kilmainham, is one of the few longer documents we have to shed light on the history of these medieval visitors to Ireland.

Peter Harbison is Honorary Academic Editor with the Royal Irish Academy.


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