During the early to mid-twelfth century the Muslim world began to unite under leaders such as Saladin and at the same time cracks appeared amongst the Christian rulers representing a number of factions in the Holy Land including the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights.
Jerusalem was taken by the Muslims after the devastating Battle of Hattin in 1187, reclaimed by the Christians in 1229 and recaptured by the Muslims in 1244. When the seaport city of Acre fell into Muslim hands in 1291 and with it the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land, it signalled the death knell – literally and metaphorically – for the Knights Templar.
Over the next decade or so, the fervent support the order had enjoyed began to dwindle. With no Holy Land to defend, had the story of the Knights Templar run its course? Were they a spent force? In addition, Europe’s religious and secular rulers became increasingly critical of and vocally opposed to their wealth and power.
By 1303, the Knights Templar’s role in the Holy Land had become redundant and the order relocated to Paris. An odd decision perhaps, on the basis that the French king Philip IV had asked the Templars for additional loans to pay debtors, a request which was denied… and remembered. He resolved to bring down the Knights Templar. He proved to be motivated, determined and ruthless.
On Friday 13th October 1307, King Philip IV ordered every French Knight Templar to be arrested, including the order’s last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. They were brutally tortured and forced to confess to outrageously trumped-up charges including homosexuality, devil worship, heresy, financial corruption, fraud, spitting on the cross, idolatry, obscene kissing and the denial of Christ.
Punishments for the guilty ranged from excommunication and perpetual imprisonment to burning at the stake. The Templars were no more.
Their legacy, however, endures in a number of ways. They are present in our architecture in the form of stunning buildings such as Temple Church in London, Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland and much of Acre in Israel. They are present in our modern geo-political reality, as a crucial force that helped to shape the cultural friction that is often still seen today. And most pervasively, they are present in our myths, stories and legends.
Dozens of modern-day pseudo-religious organisations claim heritage from the Templars as a way to enhance the mystique of their own image. They are portrayed (almost exclusively inaccurately) as protectors of the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the Shroud of Turin and even the bloodline of Christ, some, all or none of it at Rosslyn Chapel or on Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia.
They are the supposed forerunners of the Freemasons and the Illuminati. They are supposed to have discovered America in the late 14th century, 100 years before Columbus. There are absurdly tenuous connections to 9/11 and the legend of King Arthur and thanks to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown put the Knights Templar back into modern culture, exactly as they were 850 years ago.
‘A Templar Knight is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armour of faith, just as his body is protected by the armour of steel. He is thus doubly armed and need fear neither demons or men.
Bernard of Clairvaux, De Laude Novae Militae (In Praise of the New Knighthood)