The Rise and Fall of the Templars
By the 11th century, the Holy Land, which surrounds Jerusalem, was under Islamic rule, having been conquered from the Christian Eastern Roman Empire in the 630s. Christians continued to make pilgrimages, either through devotion or in the hope of atonement, to the Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to have been built over the site of the tomb where Jesus lay following his crucifixion. But when the Seljuk Empire secured Jerusalem in 1071, there was a shift in tolerance which saw Christian communities and pilgrims threatened or killed. Byzantine Emperor Alexius I appealed to the west for assistance.
In 1095, Pope Urban II rallied Europeans together to join in an armed pilgrimage to recover Jerusalem. This resulted in a series of religious wars, fought between 1096 - 1099, known as the First Crusade, in which the Christians were victorious and claimed the Holy Land as their own. Following their success, most Christian forces returned home, leaving their new territories unprotected, so Christian pilgrims continued to be attacked. On Christmas Day, 1119, a handful of knights led by Hugh de Payns vowed to protect them.
The knights formed a small community, selling their homes and possessions to live a life of poverty, reflected in their seal which showed two men sitting on a single horse. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, later granted them lodgings in the Temple of Solomon and they added the protection of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to their duties. The knights were given the full name of The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon but were more commonly known as the Knights Templar.
The Templars’ numbers grew and, in 1127, Hugh de Payns led a tour of Europe to enlist more members. As the Order’s size increased, formal governance was needed. This resulted in the creation of The Rule, modelled on the Benedictine rule, which swore an oath to poverty, chastity and obedience, and renounced the world. They were not allowed to gamble, swear or get drunk and were required to live in a community. Unlike monks, however, their spare time was to be spent training and tending to their military equipment and horses.
The Order was headed by a Grand Master who was elected for life. Templar territories, which covered much of Catholic Europe, were divided into provinces governed by a commander, and each community, known as a preceptory, was headed by a preceptor. The preceptors exercised supreme control over their community and was answerable only to the Grand Master.
The highest class of the order were the knights. They wore white mantles, to show chastity, with a red pattée cross on their chest, a privilege granted to them by Pope Eugenius III in 1147. They were required to cut their hair short but were not allowed to shave their beards. They had to be of noble and legitimate lineage and were forced to surrender their property and take monastic vows. For sons of noblemen who were third or fourth in line, and therefore unlikely to inherit, the life of a Templar knight was often more appealing than other options.
The second classes were the sergeants or esquires who served as either light troops or assistants to the knights. They wore black or brown clothes and had to be of free birth. The third class was made up of chaplains, who were independent of diocese authority, and the fourth class were the manual labourers, farmers and craftsmen.
In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a papal bull that granted an order of special privileges to the Templars. They were allowed to build their own chapels, were not required to pay taxes and were answerable only to the Pope.
Over time, the Templars became a large, pan-European organisation, amassing huge amounts of wealth, land and power. They were also highly respected and royalty, noblemen and landowners came to believe it was their divine duty to donate funds and land to the Templars, which were used to create new farms, markets and towns. A third of profits were sent to the Holy Land to build castles and garrison important towns and ports.
The Templars also had a network of 7000 houses throughout Europe and used them to develop the earliest forms of banking. The Temple London, their main community in England, was regularly used by the wealthy to deposit their precious items, including, at one time, the king’s royal treasures. Bills of exchange were issued, similar to modern cheques, and pilgrims who didn’t want to take money on potentially dangerous journeys were issued a credit note which they could exchange for currency on arrival at their destination.
By 1207, they’d established their own fleet of ships, to take goods and pilgrims between the East and West, which became the largest fleet in the world. They pioneered new farming techniques, owned the island of Cyprus and became so wealthy that they lent money to the kings of Europe.
But their control of the Holy Land began to weaken. In 1244, the city of Jerusalem fell again and its Christian population was massacred. Gradually, more land was lost and, in 1291, following a six-week assault, Acre, their last stronghold in the Holy Land, was conquered.
To prevent the Templars from returning, anything left of value, including their irrigation systems, orchards, farms and buildings were destroyed. The fall of Acre came as a shock to the West but the Templars felt its loss the most. Their duty to defend and protect the Holy Land, their reason for existing, had disappeared and, having suffered such heavy losses, resentment about their wealth grew and the secrecy surrounding their order began to arouse suspicion.
Elsewhere, King Philip IV of France was in conflict with Pope Boniface VIII who, intent on excommunicating the king for imposing taxes on the clergy, was attacked by Philip’s forces. Protected by a handful of Templars and townsfolk who rallied to his cause, the Pope remained free but died a month later. His successor, Pope Benedict XI, died very quickly afterwards, possibly by poisoning. With pressure from Philip, the next pope elected, Pope Clement V, was French and never set foot in Rome.
During a meeting with Pope Clement, Jacques du Molay, the Templar Grand Master at the time, discussed historic charges made against the Templars, asking for an enquiry to clear the Order of rumours and accusations of heresy. Philip IV, wishing to lay claim to their wealth, took advantage of the enquiry and, in October 1307, on Friday 13th, ordered the mass arrest of the Templars. It exists as a possible theory behind the modern Friday 13th superstition.
Almost overnight, thousands of men were arrested, from agricultural workers to household servants and knights. Charges against the Templars included spitting on the cross, sodomy, kissing each other ‘on the base of the spine’ and telling novices that unnatural lust was lawful. It is thought that many confessed under torture.
Despite the pretence of heresy, Philip’s motives were primarily the need for their wealth. He had inherited a huge debt from his father, his war against the English was expensive and he’d already taken money from the Italian and Jewish bankers in France. He also owed the Templars the dowry he paid for his daughter’s wedding to King Edward II of England. Philip was also increasingly uneasy about the power the Templars held and that they were only answerable to the pope, not the king. Of course, believing he was wholly divine, Philip may have genuinely believed the accusations made against them as well, seeing it as his duty to eradicate anything unholy spreading through the Templar ranks.
Pope Clement, whose felt his authority had been undermined by Philip, sought to conduct his own investigation. Restricted by what he could do in France, he issued a papal bull asking all the kings of England, Iberia, Germany, Italy and Cyprus to arrest the Templars and seize their wealth, but to do so in the name of the church. European monarchs, however, were slow or reluctant to act. Edward II, who had just married King Philip’s daughter, didn’t want to upset his father-in-law but was not keen to arrest the Templars either.
It was agreed that there would be two enquiries; one as a papal commission looking at the Templars as an institution, the other conducted by provincial councils to look at individuals and their crimes. Pope Clement’s investigation found the Templars not guilty of heresy. Instead, he decided that their ceremonies had originally been established to prepare novices for what they might suffer under the hands of their Muslim captors but had become corrupted over time. The pope absolved them of their crimes.
Templars who had previously confessed began to change their pleas, saying they had done so under torture. Philip became worried by their growing confidence and sentenced them to death for revoking their confessions. On 12 May 1310, 54 Templars were burnt at the stake.
Over the next few years, the saga rumbled on and the Pope was urged to resolve matters before too much damage was done. He announced by papal bull that the Templars, though not condemned, were to be suppressed on the grounds that the Order was too defamed to continue. He granted the Templars’ property to the Knights Hospitaller, an Order similar to the Templars but who performed charitable work, like caring for the sick.
With their fate now in the hands of secular authority, most Templars were given penances or imprisoned. Jacques du Molay, now in his 70s, continued to defend himself and after 7 years in prison, in March 1314, at the Ile de Javiaux, an island on the River Seine, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burnt at the stake.
In England, Edward II still resisted a full inquisition and knights were free to move to monasteries or the Hospitallers. Some even settled down and married. This reintegration into English life may explain why echos of the Templar past can still be seen in England today. Temple London, for instance, south of Fleet Street, with its Inner and Middle Temples, remains a place for lawyers to provide accommodation and education for students of the law. Place names such as Temple Bruer and Cressing Temple are still in use and one of their many round churches, modelled on the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, can be visited in Cambridge.
The pope’s verdict to absolve them was never made public and the Chinon Parchment, on which it was recorded, remained lost in Vatican archives for centuries.
Myths and Conspiracies
Naturally, the sudden fall of the Templars, and subsequent disappearance of their archives, has led to attempts to answer the unknown. Myth, conspiracy and legend surround the Knights Templar and separating fact from fiction and pseudo-history is difficult.
Masonic lodges quote a link to Templar history, despite little evidence to support it. It appears to have started in 1737, when Andrew Michael Ramsey, a Scotsman living in France, gave the Freemasons a fictitious crusader background. French aristocracy, who didn’t want to belong to a Freemason’s lodge where they mixed with artisans and craftsman, were told by Ramsey that stonemasons had also been knight warriors in the Holy Land, slowly turning French Freemasonry into a chivalrous secret society.
English and Scottish lodges tried to reject these myths but the age of Romanticism was hard to resist. In 1834, the Order of Knights Templar in Scotland published a Historical Notice of the Order which stated that Templars supported King Robert I against the English. Robert had already been excommunicated by the Pope when the order to disband the Templars came through so he had no need to follow them, and Scotland became a safe place for Templars to hide. In 1314, Robert won the Battle of Bannockburn, supposedly aided by Templars. It’s said that, as a reward for assisting him, Robert allowed the knights to join the Freemasons.
It’s also theorised that Knights Templar were the first Europeans to discover the Americas, 94 years before Colombus. Prince Henry Sinclair, whose family had been Templars since 1118, is said to have found Nova Scotia in Canada by accident, having sailed from Scotland and failed to land at Iceland. Navigated by Venetians, with ‘300 Templars’ aboard, some believe the Templar’s treasure to be buried there.
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Beamon, S. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
Lee, J. S. (2022). The Knights Templar in English Towns, Cambridge University Press, viewed October 2022, <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/urban-history/article/knights-templar-in-english-towns/1EB941BD556C016793A6B83499ABC110>