Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thrilling History! An Interview with Author, John Paul Davis

As a huge history fan, it’s great to welcome author, John Paul Davis. Firstly, you have had two works of non-fiction published, the first of which was the highly acclaimed history, Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar. Could you tell us something about it?

The Robin Hood book was my first completed manuscript and my first work accepted for publication. And it all happened by accident.
The Robin Hood connection actually came about when I was researching another book, a novel, now known as The Templar Agenda. I’ve always loved history and my dream was to write a novel that was based on a credible premise and this involved a lot of research. Before I started researching the Templars, I had never ascertained the possibility that Robin Hood could have been a historical Templar. I knew the films well and I was familiar with most of the ballads. As it turned out the ballads were the smoking gun. The Robin Hood of medieval literature is so far removed from the disinherited, freedom-fighting nobleman of the movies that I think few people really know what to expect from a historical Robin Hood. The ballads confirm the original Robin was little more than a commoner, with a tendency toward helping his fellow man and extremely devoted to his religion, far more so than a typical outlaw. The military structure of the merry men is also surprising for that of alleged cutthroats. Further still, the king of the ballads is an Edward.

The first characteristics we see of Robin and his merry men are piety, bravery, excellent knowledge of military protocol and a developed understanding of banking. Add together the features of the outlaws’ personalities, the small archaeological evidence that exists or existed, coupled with the historical and geographical situation we are presented with a very convincing scenario, but one that has very little in common with 21st century perception. For that reason presenting a theory on Robin Hood was only half the battle. It was also important to explain how people’s perception of Robin Hood has changed so dramatically over time.

You mentioned your very successful thriller, The Templar Agenda. Although it is a work of fiction, how much of it is based on fact?

Highly successful? Well, hopefully some day.
A lot of the book is inspired by history or conspiracy theory. In my opinion the best authors are the ones who make their books the most realistic; even the best sci-fi or fantasy authors can achieve this. Growing up, I was particularly captivated by the way authors like Grisham, Higgins and Ludlum used their incredible knowledge of their chosen fields to deliver outstanding thrillers and I wanted to do something similar using my strengths.

In short, The Templar Agenda is the product of some genuine history and a lot of what historians call ‘historical method’. Effectively, this means making the facts suit your conclusion, and perhaps leave out those that don’t. Sadly, many non-fiction authors are guilty of this. My aim was to tell a story that, although false, was believable. If the Templar Agenda is to be believed, the Knights Templar not only survived their persecution, but went on to become something greater still. All of the characters in the novel are made up, but most of their positions and titles et cetera are based on those of real people: all of the cardinals, for instance, and the set up of the Vatican bank is based on my research. The locations are mostly real and the background is authentic. Parts of the Templar background are inconclusive. Historically, connections between the Templars and things such as the Newport Tower, Rosslyn and the Zichmni voyage continue to divide historians. Who knows, perhaps some parts of the novel are even more accurate than I imagine.

A lengthy note on the facts behind my fiction can be found at the end of the book and on my website, The Unknown Templar.

How did you first become interested in the Knights Templar?
I’ve been interested in the Templars for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved history. My parents often took me visiting castles when I was young, and I’ve loved the Middle Ages ever since. To me, the Templars epitomize much of that period. It was an age of chivalry where castles and religion dominated the landscape.

That said, there is more to the Templars than just the authentic history. In the late 1990s I started reading books like The Hiram Key and the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail whose speculative theories opened up a new wave of Templar conspiracy theory. Some of them are great reads, but most of them have zero credibility as history books and the fact that they are presented as genuine history in my opinion damages the subject. The big disappointment is that there actually is evidence to suggest the history of the Templars is not merely confined to their antics in the crusades. I really admire the work of authors like Steven Sora, Scott Wolter and Ashley Cowie in this regard. But thanks to the conspiracy theorists, some of the more credible theories are overlooked.

Your biography of Guy Fawkes, Pity for the Guy, has also been published. Guy Fawkes is the man who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 and to this day, people in England still burn effigies of him on 5th November, Guy Fawkes Night. However, despite this notoriety, you are the first person to have published a full-length biography of him. Why is that?

That’s a good question, and what’s more that was the first question I needed to answer when I decided to investigate the possibility of a book on Guy Fawkes.
I think the short answer is there is still much we don’t know about Guy Fawkes, particularly before his involvement in The Gunpowder Plot. Prior to Pity for the Guy, there had only been two attempts at a proper biography of Guy Fawkes and only a handful more on The Gunpowder Plot. The first, An Experiment in Biography by Henry Garnett, consisted of genuine history mixed with a fictionalized account of his life, based on historical sources, centering mainly on the plot. The second, published only a year later, The Devil of the Vault by Eric Simons, was effectively another history of the plot, only this one started with 2 chapters on Guy Fawkes’s early life. Both were successful in bringing important facts of Guy Fawkes’s life to the public consciousness, but even since that time, 1962 and 1963, more has come to light. Thanks to the work of one historian from York we have a very good idea of where Guy Fawkes lived his early life, as late as 1900 there were four possibilities. Another of the most important breakthroughs was a study in 1971 by Albert Loomie on Guy Fawkes’s role in the Spanish Treason of 1598-1604: a conspiracy involving a number of exiled Catholics of England who attempted to convince the Spanish to send a second armada and place on the throne the Catholic infante of Spain in place of the Protestant King of Scotland, James Stuart. Arguably this was even more controversial than The Gunpowder Plot.

I think most people have a reasonable idea of what The Gunpowder Plot was about, and thanks to authors like Henry Spink, Philip Sidney and more recently Antonia Fraser and Alan Haynes there is a reasonable amount of reading available for people interested in the main story. What I thought was a shame was how little had been done to actually try and establish a genuine picture of the man who took the blame. The most important task was to accurately portray his 35-year life, rather than focus on the character of public perception, skulking in a darkened cellar, his face lit only by the glow of a solitary lantern. My aim was to bring something that incorporated all that is known of his life and attempt to draw on other sources to help fill in the gaps. The various confessions he gave in The Tower of London are still the best insight into his life and many of his answers can be validated by alternative sources. I still think there is a lot we don’t know about Guy Fawkes and I don’t doubt much more will come to light in the future, particularly regarding his military career in the Low Countries (modern day Holland, Belgium and parts of France and Luxembourg) and his involvement in the Spanish Treason.

But it’s not just the gaps in his history that are important. I think prior to the Catholic emancipation in 1859 it was difficult for historians to place too much attention on Fawkes. England was a staunch Protestant country and the gunpowder conspirators were demonized heavily for their role in trying to kill the king. I think there is still a historical bias surrounding the plot. Even now, there is a tendency for Protestant historians to condemn him as a minor player and a tendency for Catholic historians to dismiss the plot as a work of fiction. That there was a plot is certain, but in my opinion the biggest issue is often overlooked. The important thing about Guy Fawkes is that his life, particularly prior to the plot, was intertwined with the circumstances of Europe at the time. Europe was at war on the back of the Protestant Reformation and every nation was experiencing power struggle. Had this not happened, there would have been no Gunpowder Plot.

What are you working on at the moment?
What aren’t I working on! First and foremost I am writing a 3 non-fiction book for my publisher, Peter Owen Publishers, a biography of King Henry III of England. Henry III reigned from 1216-1272 and remains to this day the longest reigning king of England, third longest monarch behind Elizabeth II and Victoria.

I am also working on 3 different novels, and hope to have at least 1 out before 2012 is over.

If you could go back to any period in time, when would you choose and why?
Great question. I think the Norman-Plantagenet era of England was amazing, so really anytime in the period 1066-1377. As mentioned, I love castles so for me it would be interesting to live at the time of chivalry when the great castles and cathedrals of Europe were at their prime.

If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be and why?
As a Catholic I’d have to say Jesus Christ. Obvious reasons.

Do you have any final parting comments?

How about some words of inspiration? In my opinion this is the most inspiring quote of all. W.H. Murray on providence!

‘But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money--booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

Thank you so much for sharing that inspirational quote. Thank you also for taking the time to give us such a fascinating insight into your work. Please let me know when more of your great books are published!


  1. Great interview! Thanks John and Katheryn. This is a facinating topic, and The Templar Agenda was a thoroughly enjoyable read!

  2. i have that quote posted somewhere important. truly, i do. thanks for the interview!

    1. I agree Jennifer - it's a great quote!

  3. This was a great interview. I love reading about the Knights Templar and am curious as to what Robin Hood was actually like in real life.

  4. Thanks, Emma. I'll be continuously updating my website when time allows, adding all sorts of historical facts about all the topics of my books. A shortened intro to the books can also be found in the blog articles.

  5. Great Interview, I am looking forward to learn more about your work.