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1300s – The Knights Templar and the O’Nolans

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This article focuses on the history of the Knights Templar and explores possible early links between it, the O’Nolans of Ireland and the De Nollent family of France with known origins in Normandy. In the process possible links to families bearing variants of the Nolan family name are also identified.

Early Years of the Templars

After the first Crusade, Jerusalem having been secured, in 1118/1119, Hughes de Payens and eight other knights, took vows of obedience to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, resolving to “live in holy poverty and chastity, and to devote themselves to the care and protection of Christian pilgrims”. Initially the number of Templar knights was small but, by 1129, largely due to the efforts of the Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux, this devoted group of knights had grown in number and obtained from the Pope its own rule as a religious order.

The order was soon showered with gifts of land, money and privileges to help them in their cause. Perhaps the most significant of privileges was the freedom from tithes, many taxes and tolls.

This enabled them to establish, in a relatively short time, unrivalled travel and shipping networks and thereby augment their wealth. Having to administer many land holdings and large sums of money the order also developed a competency in accounting and, together with the Jews, pioneered banking in Europe.

In 1145, Pope Eugene III called the Second Crusade in response to the fall of an occupied territory in Palestine. This was also the first crusade to be led by European kings and history tells us that Scottish crusaders were involved most notably winning a battle against the Moors in Lisbon. Given that, in Europe at the time, the Irish were still being referred to as “Scots” we may assume that Irish crusaders were also involved.

In 1147, the prominent Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux was called upon to promote the Second Crusade. By then, the Cistercians had already established an abbey in Ireland at Mellifont (1142; Meath) and, during the Second Crusade (1147-1149), with the full support of the local Irish kings, including Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and Turlough O’Brien, King of Thomond (Limerick area), four more abbeys would be founded at Bective (Meath), Baltinglass (Kildare), Monasterenanagh (Limerick) and Boyle (Roscommon).

Given Bernard de Clairvaux’s earlier promotion of the Templar order, it is highly likely that in 1147-1148 some, if not the majority, of the Irish recruits to these new Cistercian abbeys would have been diverted to the Knights Templar Order. This scenario thus raises the possibility that, in this time period, one or more Nolan tribesmen would have joined the Templar order if for no other reason than to develop their fighting skills.

Early Travel to Normandy

Around 1150, trade between the Irish port of Wexford and the Norman ports at the mouth of the Seine, the major gateway to the European market, would have been commonplace. Individual travel to and from the Continent would also have been relatively unrestricted. 

Furthermore, given that, in 1167, two years prior to the main Norman invasion of Ireland, Dermot MacMurrough, the defeated king of Leinster, went to Normandy and brought back a small force of Norman knights to help him win back his kingdom, we can safely assume that, at the time, some sort of working relationship existed between the noble houses of Leinster and Normandy.

 In such a context of free travel and exchange, the O’Nolan, Chief of  Forth O’Nolan (Carlow area) and holder of the hereditary office of Marshall to the kings of Leinster, would certainly have considered sending one or more of his sons to Normandy  to learn the skills of stewardship and service to royalty.

At the time, the best place in Normandy to learn such skills would have been at the household of Guillaume de Tancarville, Chamberlain of Normandy. Around 1154, even John FitzGilbert, Marshall of England, sent there his youngest son there for training.

The Tancarvilles were related by marriage to several other influential and esteemed families of Normandy including the Crespin (Crispin) and Harcourt families. In particular, in 1147, Robert de Harcourt, a relative, had built a chapel (St. Étienne-de-Renneville) in Eure and donated it and its surrounding lands to the Knights Templar. Lying in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain, this Templar site soon became one of the wealthiest in Europe and also served as a commandery.

A Nolan Knight in Normandy

In 1170, in Normandy, a knight by the name of Guillaume de Nollent wrote his last will and testament, leaving behind a wife, Isabel de Tancarville, and a son named Roger.

His wife, Isabel, was the daughter of Guillaume de Tancarville. From land records, it is also possible to establish that Guillaume de Nollent’s land lay close to the wealthy Templar site of St. Étienne-de-Renneville founded in 1147 by the Tancarville relative, Robert de Harcourt.

Modern genealogies further add that Guillaume had a grandson named Isambart, a somewhat unusual first name of Gaelic origin meaning “bard of Jesus”, suggesting a celtic origin for the family.

In present-day Co. Carlow we find the small community of Tankardstown located next to Tullow, the ancient seat of the O’Nolans of Forth O’Nolan. Could its early settlers have been members of the Norman Tancarville family? If so, this would be further evidence of a link between the Nollent family of Normandy and the O’Nolans of Forth O’Nolan.

 In France the commune of Theil-Nolent in the canton of Thiberville still thrives today as it did in the 12th century, and  over the course of the intervening centuries some descendants are known to have used the “Nolan” spelling for their family name.

A Templar Patron in Ireland

The son of the English Marshall sent to the Tancarville household for training was none other that the future “William the Marshall” and, given the timeframe when he was there (c1154-c1172), he would no doubt have known  and perhaps even sparred with the knight Guillaume de Nollent (b. circa 1130) married to his host’s daughter Isabel. He may even have attended the funeral for Guillaume whose life ended abruptly in 1170, seemingly as a result of involvement in the Norman invasion of Ireland.

William was knighted by his host, the senior Tancarville knight, in 1172 and remained in France for a few more years making a living by competing in various jousting tournaments.

His fame rising with each victory, William was soon summoned back to England to serve in the royal household where he became embroiled in the king’s battles against his own sons. In one such battle, he spared the life of the future king, Richard the Lionheart and, upon becoming king, Richard was quick to seek William’s favour, honouring a promise made by his father, Henry II, that William would be given the hand of Isabel de Clare in marriage.

Styled at court as the “Countess of Ireland”, Isabel was the only surviving child of Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (better known as “Strongbow”, leader of the Norman invasion of Ireland) and Aoife (daughter of the former king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough) and, as such held rights to vast lands in Ireland (Leinster) and Wales (Pembroke).

After his marriage to Aoife in 1189, William, as the new Earl of Pembroke and Leinster, soon set about making improvements to his wife’s holdings in Wales. 

In 1199, William inherited his father’s position of royal Marshall and quickly became known throughout Europe as “William the Marshall” or simply “the Marshall”.

In the early 1200s he began making improvements in Ireland building a Cistercian abbey at Graiguenamanagh (Carlow) on the river Barrow (1204-1207) and, a bit further upriver, a castle in the town of Carlow (1207-1213). It was also during this time that two Templar commanderies were built in Co. Carlow, one at Killerig (between the towns of Carlow and Rathvilly) and one at Dunleckney (near Bagenalstown).

After a short illness, in May 1219, William passed away but not before having donned Templar robes and professing his vows as a Templar knight, fulfilling a lifelong wish. 

By the time of his death, William had served four kings – Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John (of Magna Carta fame) and Henry III – and risen from obscurity to become for the last four years of his life the regent of England.  Known for his fairness and chivalry, he was thought by many to have been the “greatest knight that ever lived”.

In the succeeding years, each of William’s sons became Earl of Pembroke and Marshal of England, and each died without issue. William’s vast holdings were then divided among the husbands of his five daughters (family names: Bigod, Clare, Briouze, etc.).

Dissolution of the Templar Order

In 1291, the fall of Acre in Palestine put an end to Christian rule in the Holy Land and the need for the protection of pilgrims traveling there. Initially there were talks of merging the two military orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers, however such talks were soon overtaken by events in France.

By the early 1300s, many lords and sovereigns owed exorbitant amounts to the Templars and were eager to find a way out. Such an avenue presented itself in 1307.

King Philip IV of France, heavily indebted to the Templars, mounted a campaign to discredit the Templar Order. On Friday October 13th, 1307, on charges of immoral behaviour and heresy, thousands of French Templars were swiftly rounded up, imprisoned and often tortured. Multiple trials followed culminating in hundreds of Templars being burnt at the stake.

By 1312 all trials had ended and the Pope had agreed to dissolve the Order. The Pope, however, no longer believed that the accused had been heretics. Although they may have committed grave sins, they were not heretics and were absolved of this charge. The damage, however, had been done and the Order’s temporal holdings were reassigned to the Knights Hospitallers.

In England, motivated by similar interests to those in France, Edward II of England publicly ordained in 1307 that all Templars in his dominions be seized and that the Order be suppressed. In Ireland, however, perhaps because of recent military assistance provided by the Knights Templar or a not so flagrant conduct, action against them was delayed. Arrests only began in earnest in 1309 after a reminder had been received from the king.

In 1312 a trial for those arrested was held in Dublin. With great solemnity and before an assembly of high-placed church and state officials, feebly-supported accusations were brought forward and, as if pre-ordained, the final verdict was that the Order of the Knights Templar should be totally abolished in Ireland. With the death knoll having been struck, Irish Templars still at large in Ireland were left to fend for themselves, finding refuge wherever they could.

Fate of the Templar Knights

Those Templar knights with an established reputation and skills in financial affairs (banking, land transactions, etc.) or trade (shipping, import/export, etc.) probably continued doing business as usual but in some secular capacity.

Those favouring a religious life likely found refuge with the Franciscans or Dominicans, as happened in Italy or they may have chosen to go to Portugal where King Dinis had founded a new Order of religious knights, the Order of Christ, and given it the Templar’s former holdings. 

As regards those Templars with highly developed fighting skills, in 1312 two major avenues would have been open to them, either a change of allegiance to the Order of Knights Hospitallers to whom their holdings had been re-assigned or a flight to Scotland where they could help Robert the Bruce win freedom for his country. Aided by the O’Donnell rulers of Tyrconnell, many are known to have chosen the latter option, first rallying at the  Templar site near Ballymote, Co. Sligo (Templehouse lake), and then fleeing to Scotland via the ports of Sligo and Tyrconnell and, indeed, eventually playing a pivotal role in the Scots epic victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1315.

Repercussions in Ireland

Besides bringing about the ultimate demise of the order of Knights Templar, the end of the Crusades marked the end of an era of détente throughout Europe when wars between nations and dreams of conquest had been largely kept in check by a common purpose, that of the liberation of Palestine. A notable exception, crucial to our story, had been the conquest of Normandy by the French in 1204.

At the time, this conquest had no doubt created turmoil in the various Norman families of Ireland, having to choose between an allegiance to England and one to France. The same would have been true for monks and knights whose Order had close ties with France, most notably the Cistercians and the Templars. However, while the Crusades lasted their allegiance went largely untested.

After the Crusades, true allegiances would become more evident. For example, the De Lacy family, best known for having built many of the early Norman castles in Ireland sided with the Irish  against the English.

The same was also likely true for many of the  descendants of the Templar patron William the Marshall.  This is reflected in a famous altercation in 1297 between king Edward I and Roger Bigod, Lord of Carlow, who refused to serve against the king of France in Gascony. Although commanded and threatened with hanging, Roger’s final words were 
“[By God], O king, I will neither go nor  hang.”

By 1301, the Irish were anxious to gain their freedom and certain English settlers were no longer tolerant of the “incursions of the Irish” into their towns, of their ways and customs. 

In early 1307, Edward I of England died and was soon succeeded by his son Edward II.  The scene was now set. Complaints from Ireland now falling on fresh ears and dreams of conquest resurfacing, the new king was quick to follow the example of King Philip of France, ordering the arrest of all Templars in his dominions and the Order suppressed.

In 1301, with the assistance of monks from the Cistercian (Duiske)  abbey at Graiguenamagh, the Templar Order had built a new castle at Ballymoon, upriver from Graiguenamanagh. However, in 1308, soon after receiving the king’s order in Ireland, this Templar site was “suppressed”. Looking at the present-day delapidated ruins of Ballymoon castle, next to Ballywilliamroe, the “townland of Bloody William”, there can be no doubt that the Templar knights resisted the takeover of their castle.

As we have seen, after the dissolution of the Templar order in 1312, many knights fled to Scotland, eventually playing a pivotal in securing freedom for Scotland in 1315 under the command of Robert the Bruce.

Scottish Independence having been won, many knights are likely to have returned to Ireland in January 1317 as part of the army of Edward the Bruce, brother of Robert, who was intent on “free[ing] Ireland from the English yoke”. 

The O’Nolans, O’Mores, O’Tooles, MacMurroughs and other Irish chiefs soon joined in the fray and, on January 26, 1317, the combined army won a major battle against the English at the “mote of Ardscull”, near Athy (Kildare). That day the English forces incurred heavy losses and the army, commanded by Edward the Bruce, spread throughout the country winning battle after battle but, in the end, overtaken by famine and reduced in number, it had to retreat to Ulster. 

By May of the following year, the English had regrouped and, having collected a large force, defeated the combined Irish and Scottish forces in a decisive battle at Faughart, near Dundalk, on May 28, 1318. 

In the succeeding decades, at every opportune moment, the Leinster chiefs would make further attempts.  In one such attempt, in 1329, Richard O’Nolan, son of Philip (O’Nolan chief killed in 1327?), and a few trusted knights made a daring attempt to rescue the king of Leinster, Donald Art MacMurrough (Kavanagh), who was being kept by the English. The king having been moved, the attempt failed but Richard took along a few high-ranking hostages and retreated to the security of Forth O’Nolan.

In an attempt to disconcert the O’Nolans, the English now raided Nolan territory intent on burning and laying to waste whatever they could not carry off. However, encountering stiff resistance and incurring heavy losses, they retreated to Gowran (Kilkenny) to regroup and refit. In the meantime, Richard with his hostages, by a circuitous route, withdrew to the Cistercian Abbey at Graiguenamanagh where the O’Nolans had “loyal friends” who, in light of events leading up to this point, we suspect that that these were former Templar knights from Ballymoon castle (“suppressed” in 1308) taking refuge in the Cistercian Abbey. In November 1329, the English finally caught up with Richard who, at length, despite valiant efforts by his small band of knights, was compelled to surrender, offering up his son as a hostage. Subsequent to this incident, the Abbot was charged with harbouring felons and, as for Richard, without any apparent provocation, in January 1330, he was attacked by an unknown party and killed.

Other Possible Nolan Links

Nolans of Galway

In early Christian times, the Ua hUallachain (Holohans, Nolans, …) lived in northern Offaly and, by the 11th century, their territory extended into the kingdom of Thomond centred around the city of Limerick.

By the end of the 12th century, strong bonds of kinship had also been forged with the newly arrived Normans, the daughter of the King of Thomond, having married William Fitzadelm de Burgo, progenitor of the Burkes in Ireland.

Appointed Governor of Limerick in 1185 and succeeding Strongbow as Chief Governor of Ireland, William soon set about conquering all of Connaught, eventually overcoming the O’Connors.

His son Richard married an O’Connor and is said to have founded Galway city, building there a fine house for himself and a Franciscan friary. Around the same time, his older brother, Walter De Burgh, Earl of Ulster, supposedly built a friary (Franciscan /Augustian) at nearby Logboy (Claremorris, Co. Mayo) and this is where we pick up the first traces of Nolans in Connaught. Proof of this is found on a monument erected in the Galway city Franciscan friary in 1394 and dedicated to the memory of the “Nolans of Loughboy”.

Recognizing that the early Nolans of Connaught were associated with the De Burgh family both in Logboy and in Galway city we conclude that the two families must have been somehow closely associated.

Such a close association could have first developed very early on in the Limerick area where Nolans and the Gaelic-friendly De Burghs (Burkes) lived in close proximity. If we are indeed correct in this assumption then the only question remaining would be “When did they go to Connaght?”.

Two major possibilities present themselves: circa 1200, when the Nolans would have accompanied the De Burgh family in their conquest of Connaught, or; circa 1312, when they would have been part of the flight of Templars from the Limerick area, possibly entering Connaught via the ports of Galway or Sligo and then taking refuge at the Logboy friary (circa 1312).

Newlands of Scotland

Having seen how Irish Templar knights helped the Scots gain their freedom, it is quite likely that some present-day Scottish families are descendants of Templar knights who remained in Scotland. The Newlands may be one such family, their ancestor chosing Newland as the new family name in a new homeland.

Nolins of La Rochelle

Aided in their flight by the O’Donnell of Tyrconnell, better known as the “Fisher-King”, some Templar knights may have fled to the port of La Rochelle where fish was traded for wine. In La Rochelle, the Templar knights would likely have found work in the shipping industry or in port defense/safety and, over time, adopted the family name Nolin.


Our study of early Templar history has uncovered several interesting possible early Nolan family linkages, most notably the one between the O’Nolans of Forth O’Nolan and the Nollent family of Normandy. As regards the latter, the migration of O’Nolans to France would have  occurred sometime during or after the Second Crusade (1147-1149) and in a broader context of friendly relations and regular visits between the noble families of Leinster and those of Normandy.

In this context of détente, the Invasion of Ireland by the Normans in 1169, at least initially, could even be seen as the result of a vow of friendship and assistance made between fellow knights as they huddled around the fire under the bright night sky of Palestine.

The Nolan family crest with its red cross, four swords and the motto “Cor unum, via una”, one heart, one way, may even find its roots in this early period of our history.

By Roger Nowlan

Map relating to De Nollent family of France

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