Carl Cookson and Hamilton White have their work cut out for them in Lost Relics of the Knights Templar. Not only do they have to uncover the true provenance of their hoard of mysterious medieval artefacts, but they also have to delve into all the myths and half-truths that continue to swirl around the Templars.
One of the most contentious questions relates to the possible connection between the Templars and the Freemasons. This is the stuff of blockbuster novels and Hollywood thrillers, but how and why did historians start to ponder this alleged link?
Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation which developed out of guilds of actual, working stonemasons (known as ‘operative masons’) in the Middle Ages. These were the highly skilled men who would travel long distances to build cathedrals and other landmarks, with early ‘lodges’ being set up on building sites to accommodate them. Over the centuries, the era of operative masons began to wane, and slowly the guilds began to take in distinguished people who were not stonecutters and builders. These members became known as ‘speculative masons’. Exactly when and how the organisation went from being made up of literal, operative masons to allegorical, speculative masons is still a matter of debate. But the era of speculative Freemasonry as we know it today – a semi-secretive organisation of well-connected men – began in 1717 when a cluster of London lodges gathered in a tavern to create the first Grand Lodge.
So where do the Templars come in?
A gulf of time certainly separates the end of the age of the Templars and the advent of speculative Freemasonry. The fall of the chivalric order began with the mass arrests of French Templars on 13 October 1307 – an infamous date thought by some to have inspired the ‘Friday the 13th’ superstition. The knights were accused of idolatory, blasphemous rituals and sexual deviance, and the Grand Master of the Templars was among those who were burnt alive. The order was eventually extinguished in 1312 – many, many generations before the Freemasons emerged as a secret society of thinkers and influencers.
However, it’s been speculated that some of the knights escaped the savaging of their order to lay down roots elsewhere. Historians have mused over a tantalising confession given by one Templar, Jean de Chalon, who alleged that some members of the order in Paris were given word of the crackdown and managed to slip away on ships, to parts unknown.
Jean de Chalon’s story has been dismissed by some scholars as highly unreliable, as it was presumably given while the luckless knight was being tortured. But what if it was true? Stories have persisted about these fleeing Templars finding sanctuary in Scotland, with some 18th Century Scots alleging that members of the order had brought secret treasure from the Holy Land with them. One such account came from a Scottish exile in Germany named George Frederick Johnson. As the historian Peter Partner, author of The Murdered Magicians: Templars and their Myth, tell us, Johnson played a key role in changing the way we imagine Templars, from ‘unlearned and fanatical soldier-monks to that of enlightened and wise knightly seers, who had used their sojourn in the East to recover its profoundest secrets.’
This romanticisation of the Templars as seekers of holy truths and holy relics – including the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant – has become a mainstay of pop culture. But the Scottish connection also, in some people’s minds, ties the Templars in with the Freemasons. After all, Scotland was where the earliest speculative lodges were formed, centuries before London hosted the first Grand Lodge meeting in 1717. Many have attempted to piece together a link between the Templars who allegedly settled in Scotland (and fought alongside Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, according to lore), and the earliest Freemasons.
A particularly significant site for those who believe in the link is Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, known to millions as a key location in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The chapel is famed for its many intricate carvings, some apparently being Templar and Masonic symbols. Could the chapel have been the repository of the fabled Templar treasures smuggled out of France on the eve of the mass arrests? And do the carvings imply a kind of cross-pollination between the exiled knights and the Scottish masons?
The timeframe doesn’t seem to back up this version of events, as construction began on Rosslyn Chapel in the 15th Century, long after the fall of the Templars. However, some have speculated that, prior to the alleged treasures being kept at Rosslyn, the exiled Templars originally sought refuge at another site, Kilwinning Abbey in Ayrshire. Unlike Rosslyn, this structure did exist at the time of the Templars’ fall. Fascinatingly, Kilwinning is also home to Lodge Mother Kilwinning, reckoned to be the oldest Masonic lodge in the world. Kilwinning has therefore been identified as the place where Templars and operative masons potentially came into contact.
Did Templars in Scotland influence operative masons, who in turn passed on the Templars’ esoteric wisdom, secrets and traditions onto the earliest speculative Freemasons? It’s one of the great puzzles of the past which will always intrigue us. But the true extent of the connection, if any such connection even exists, may never be proven.