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The Fall of the Knights Templar

They came from very humble beginnings in Jerusalem in 1119 when Hughes de Payens created a new monastic order to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Called the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon after the place King Baldwin II of Jerusalem afforded them lodgings, they were much better known as the Knights Templar.

This mysterious fusion of devoutly religious men and brutal warriors became the most feared and powerful fighting force the world had ever seen, even more so after Pope Innocent II issued Omne Datum Optimum in 1139, a Papal Bull that afforded the Templars unprecedented rights including not having to pay taxes and tithes, the retention of their spoils of war and being answerable to no-one but the Pope himself.

This band of Christian combatants fought skilfully and bravely in the Crusades, built castles and monasteries, garrisoned strategically important towns and as formidable financiers, formed the foundation of early European banking, centuries before the Medicis of Florence.

They made a vast amount of money and Europe’s ruling elite conferred upon them lordships, property, seignories and huge tracts of land but as history has repeatedly demonstrated with rich and powerful individuals and groups, they also made mortal enemies.

With headcount, money, leverage and the ability to cross borders unhindered, power is never far behind but by the later decades of the 13th century, the prestige they once commanded was starting to wane. Heavy Crusader defeats at the hands of Saladin and his Ayyubids and Baybars and his Mamluks meant that the Templars not only lost territory and property but most importantly, they lost face.

Slowly but surely, the Latin Crusaders were being driven from the Holy Land. Most of their land was gone, most of their money and property was gone and crucially, most of their manpower was gone, taken in the most brutal way by Muslim forces.

The death knell sounded as the Mamluk forces took Acre in 1291, the last major Crusader stronghold of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. That was it. The much-depleted Templars and their Christian allies were forced from the Levantine mainland; they no longer had control of any part of the Holy Land.

It was time to go home.

European support for further Crusades dwindled into nothing and the Templars retreated both to Cyprus and assimilated back into western Europe from whence they came. The few remaining Crusaders, accompanied by similarly small bands of Templars tried to establish a bridgehead from Cyprus but it came to nothing aside from what amounted to unorganised street gangs looking for a fight. It was over.

Not only was support for further Latin Christian assaults into the Holy Land at an end, there was growing suspicion and at times, full-throated criticism amongst Europe’s religious and secular leaders that the Knights Templar – to whom many royal families remained heavily indebted but who were now without a purpose – were too powerful.

The poster boy for the anti-Templar movement was King Philip IV of France. Thanks to his war with the English, his exchequer was bankrupt and already owing the Templars huge sums of money, he was embarrassingly rebuffed by them in his request for further funds.

That was the red rag. Philip was skint, humiliated and at his wits end. Not only did he have designs on the Templar’s wealth, he was motivated by his own piety to destroy them.

Feeding off unsubstantiated rumours of heresy by an ex-Templar, the king – a religious zealot – issued a formal letter on 14th September 1307 in Latin to all French royal knights, essentially serving as an arrest warrant for the Knights Templar. In it, he wanted every Templar in France arrested and held in prison while they awaited ecclesiastical trials.

A further letter – in French – detailed how the arrests were to be carried out and on Friday 13th October 1307, every Templar in France was arrested including the Order’s 23rd and last Grand Master Jacques de Molay who was, conveniently, in Paris discussing a potential merger with the Knights Hospitaller.

Pulled from sleep and prayer and shackled at dawn, none of the arrested knew why they were being taken but by noon it was all over.

They were brutally tortured and forced to confess to outrageously fabricated charges including homosexuality, worshipping the devil, heresy, financial misappropriation, fraud, spitting on the crucifix, idolatry, immorality and secrecy, obscene kissing of the spine and mouth and the denial of Christ. These ‘confessions’ given under extreme duress and the threat of death allowed Philip to condemn the entire Order but similar investigations into Templar activity in England, Germany, Iceland and Italy found no truth to these contrived accusations whatsoever.

The Knights Templar were guilty of nothing more than making the King of France angry.

Interestingly, Pope Clement V didn’t believe the charges were true either and latterly at the Council of Vienna in 1311, they were indeed proven to be works of complete fabrication on the part of King Philip IV of France, known as ‘The Fair’, but it was too little, too late…

Dozens of Templar knights were burned alive in carts, more burned at the stake on a small island on the Seine in Paris, many died during torture to illicit confessions and the rest were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. On 18th March 1314 upon hearing that life in prison was his only option as a relapsed heretic, Jacques de Molay recanted his confession and again protested his innocence. He was burned at the stake that night. The final victim of what was effectively an unjust purge.

The Knights Templar were guilty of nothing more than making the King of France angry.

With the demise of the Grand Master, so the story of the Knights Templar comes to an end. They started out at the end of the 11th century as a small band of brothers and finished at the beginning of the 14th in a similar vein. In the intervening 200+ years they rose above the law and as Truman Capote said, ‘The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have its protection.’

While the knights themselves are no more, their legend lives on. They have been, according to myths and stories passed down through the centuries, guardians of the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, keepers of the Shroud of Turin, protectors of esoteric information passed through the Freemason’s line of succession, gnostics behind the French Revolution and preservers of the bloodline of Christ.

There is a bittersweet footnote to the story of the fall of the Knights Templar. In September 2001, an Italian palaeographer (one who studies ancient and historical handwriting and the dating and context of historical manuscripts) called Barbara Frale found a copy of a document dated 17th – 20th August 1308 called the Chinon Parchment in the Vatican Secret Archives.

Mislaid for over three centuries, it states that as early as 1308, Pope Clement V absolved Jacques de Molay and the other Templar leaders of any wrongdoing and in another parchment from 20th August 1308 addressed to King Philip, it was written that absolution was granted to those knights of the Order that had admitted to heresy and the writers had ‘restored them to the Sacraments and to the unity of the Church.