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The Secret History of the Knights Templar

A curious fusion of pious monk and ruthless warrior, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon were a Christian military order founded in Jerusalem in 1119. Their original raison d'être was to offer protection to Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, but these medieval vicars-turned-elite-fighting-forces grew to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful organisations the world has ever known. But who were the Knights Templar?

The Knights Templar - The Origins: 1095 – 1139

At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II called for a crusade of western Christians to take up arms and help the Byzantines recapture the Holy Land. It had fallen to Islamic expansion over the previous three centuries but by 1099, Jerusalem was back in Christian hands.

Rejoicing in the news, there started a pilgrimage of Christians from all over western Europe to the Holy Land but many were attacked, robbed and killed as they crossed through Muslim-controlled regions.

Hearing word of their plight, French nobleman Hughes de Payens met with King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1119 offering to protect the travellers through the creation of a new monastic order. Originally consisting of nine of de Payens’ relatives and friends, the king gave them lodgings in the Temple of Solomon – from where they got their name – and protect the travellers they did.

At first, no-one knew what to make of this new set-up. This was a paradox without precedent. Never before had deeply religious men who had taken solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience tooled up and taken the fight to the enemy. They were criticised by many of Europe’s religious leaders but from 1128, what was really nothing more than a glorified street gang got organised.

Never before had deeply religious men...taken the fight to the enemy.

They received endorsement, first from the highly influential French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and then by the Pope himself. A fascinating code of conduct known as the Templar Rule was written and in 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull – Omne Datum Optimum – which gave the order unprecedented and extraordinary protections including not having to pay tithes or taxes and the retention of all spoils from Muslim conquests:

‘As for the things that you will receive from the spoils, you can confidently put them to your own use, and we prohibit that you be coerced against your will to give anyone a portion of these’

Over the next century or so, the Knights Templar grew in numbers, military strength, wealth, power, privilege and fame. They established bases throughout Europe and their duties grew from the protection of pious men coming to the Holy Land to defending the Crusader states of Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa. They fought skilfully and bravely in the Crusades, they built castles and monasteries, they garrisoned strategically important towns and they devised an ingenious form of banking we take for granted today.

Since so many pilgrims were being attacked for what they were carrying, the Templars created a system whereby the travellers could place their assets under management while they were away, presumably for protection and presumably for a fee. The Templars also created a system of credit where the travellers could deposit their wealth – cash, jewels and other treasures – with a local preceptory and they’d receive a letter of credit stating the value of what they left and when they got to the Holy Land, they could ‘withdraw’ funds to an equal value.

The Knights Templar - The Earthly Glory: 1139 – 1244

The Templars established a staggering portfolio of wealth, land, status and responsibility through donations from individuals and states. The ruling elite of Spain, France and England gave the order lordships, estates, castles and tracts of land throughout western Europe. They became bankers and accountants to nations and kings and they had the military power to transport bullion and treasures to and from the Holy Land.

The Knights Templar were bankers to Europe’s royalty and rich beyond belief; they were a virtually unstoppable fighting force the likes of which the world had never before seen; they understood the intricacies and complexities of medieval geopolitics; they were devoutly religious; they owned vast amounts of land and property all over the western world. They were seemingly unstoppable. So what could possibly go wrong?

The Downfall of the Knights Templar: 1244 – 1307

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 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)