Sigh. This book looked so promising. Started out so well and interestingly. The author's core theory - that the Knights Templar, upon the dissolution of their order in 1307, fled underground in England and evolved into the Freemasons - is actually quite compelling, but it's obscured by sloppy argument, poor logic, and the author's insecurity complex, which is large enough to provide refuge for an entire religious order itself.
To be honest, the only reason I stuck it through to the end is because I didn't want to write a review on a book I didn't finish.
I can't comment on the book's factual accuracy - this book was my first detailed foray into these aspects of medieval history. Those bits of history that were familiar sounded accurate, at least.
The first half of the book is devoted to the history of the Knights Templar, especially their downfall; the second, on the Freemasons, the common story of their origin, and clues in their rituals and creeds that may point elsewhere.
The basic story goes like this. When pretty much the entire Knights Templar in France was arrested on the same night on charges of heresy, the order went out in England as well, but was stonewalled for months by the English king. By the time the English acquiesced, the Templars in England and Scotland had all but disappeared.
Robinson then goes on to make the case that it would be plausible for the Templars to have formed a secret society based on mutual protection, to shelter each other against the persecution from the Church of Rome. Abandoned by the Pope, the Templars (he argues) could very well have decided to abandon the Church as well in an age when there was only one; and from this ostensibly grew the Masonic requirement that a member only believe in God, no matter the specific creed. In addition to this, many of the Ancient Charges of Masonry sound quite out of place in a medieval stonemason's guild, but quite fitting to a fraternity of men in hiding from the Church: the charge to not reveal anything that would deprive a brother of life or property, the charge to go with a member into a new town to witness for him, and so on.
So. Very interesting theory, and I am only brushing the surface of the evidence he goes into. However it was at this point that Robinson's argument style started to irritate me a bit. Too many of his arguments were of this nature:
A is similar to B
Therefore A -> B!
It is plausible that A in such and such a situation could have become B
This PROVES that A -> B!
He also ignores a number of what to me were equally plausible alternative explanations for things. Were there no other religious or philosophical groups driven underground that could have become the Freemasons? Are there any other early fraternities whose origins we can trace, to tease out parallels? Many of these avenues he skips entirely, others he simply handwaves away, so fixated is he on the Templar-Masonic connection. Again, shoddy argument: the difference between 'A implies B', and 'A and ONLY A could result in B'.
Certainly in a case such as he is arguing there is no such thing as out-and--out proof; but there are ways to present such an argument without stooping to such obvious logical fallacies. One increasingly gets the impression of a little boy, so sure that nobody will believe him, jumping up and down screaming out what happened at the top of his lungs. (Or, for Animaniacs fans, the one who pointed out "It's a chicken, I tell you, a giant chicken!") Unfortunately no matter how true the argument may be, if the style and strength of the presentation are "louder" than the argument itself, it's awfully difficult to take it seriously, especially when piled on top of such obvious holes in the argument. (Is it really a chicken? Maybe it's a goose. Or a lobster.)
Finally, in the final chapter or two, he devolves into pure opinionated ranting, albeit decently disguised in reasoned editorial language. He goes so far to say that the Masons, with their core philosophy of religious tolerance, could solve all the problems in the Middle East just by coming out and stating their opinions to the world. While he certainly has a right to his opinion (I personally think he's nuts for this one), tacking it on the end of what is supposed to be an academic and historical treatise without large disclaimers reeks of bad journalism.
In conclusion, I learned a fair bit from the book, and would probably recommend it to those interested in the subject; but be prepared for flaky argument, and try to pull out those bits of actual evidence and form your opinion from those, rather than what he tells you you should believe.