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What comes to your head when someone mentions the Templars? A secret order pulling the strings of governments from the shadows? A resilient order of the powerful that has existed for centuries? Crusaders? Bankers? Warriors? Perhaps all of this or perhaps nothing. So, who were the Templars, and more important, why do they fascinate us, starring in movies and TV shows, books, videogames, and protagonising conspiracy theories? Discover below, the rise and fall of the true Templars, a powerful order of medieval knights who on their heyday, befriended kings and popes, amassed untold riches, gained influence, and eventually made powerful enemies who sought their destruction.  

1# CRUSADERS

Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians, was captured in 1099 by the Crusaders, after Pope Urban II had urged the Latin Christians to recuperate the Holy Land from infidel hands, that was the Muslims. To history it came to be known as the First Crusade, and as a result, four Crusader States were formed: The County of Edessa, Principality of Antioch, County of Tripoli and Kingdom of Jerusalem. All loosely subjected to the authorithy of the King of Jerusalem, and known to their manifold Muslim enemies as Franks, since most came from France.   

The Christians finally had in their hands the most holy of the cities, where Christ was crucified, and where thousands of pilgrims could visit now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where according to tradition, Jesus was crucified and also buried. But the Levantine roads were far from safe, and transport by sea, although less risky, wasn’t free of accidents either. The Crusader States were an oasis in a desert. Few, isolated, and powerless to stop bandits and Muslims to prey on the pilgrims. It was an answer to the necessity to protect those, that the Templars came to be. In 1119, a French knight, Hugues de Payens, sought the support of Jerusalem’s authorities, and patronage of powerful sponsors in the Roman Catholic Church, specially Bernard of Clairvaux, to create a new order of knights aiming to protect the pilgrims. In 1129, the Pope sanctioned this young order.    

2# THE HOLY WARRIORS OF GOD

Hugues de Payens and Bernard of Clairvaux had dreamt to combine the martial prowess of a warrior, and the humility and simplicity of monks, in the Knights of their fledging order. A new form of knighthood, free from vanity, greed, or personal gain, exemplified by the Templar motto:

“Not unto us, Oh Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give glory”.

This order of holy warriors took their name from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where they had their HQ. The Order of Solomon’s Temple, or the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, given they intended to live and preach in poverty.

Thanks to patronage, the Templars soon left behind their first ten years of existence, dependent on the charity of the Crusader States. Church and nobles, peasants and townsfolk in all Europe eagerly threw their support behind the new order, who begun hoarding lands, money, and gifts, from the ardent believers. This way, the latter put in their two cents for the protection of the Holy Land, and thus the salvation of their soul, without having to undergo the long and arduous pilgrimage themselves. The Order obtained land and property in France, England, the Crown of Aragon and the Holy Roman Empire, amongst many others, but more important, through Bernard of Clairvaux, they wrung enviable concessions from the Pope, such as exemptions from local or Church taxes, effectively making them only answerable to the Pope and nobody else.

Commanding the Knights was the Grand Master, to whom each Templar owed absolute obedience, even if his orders were to march to death itself. They were taught that God would reward them in heaven for their life of sacrifice and service, and were expected to behave with honour, and respect. A strict code of morality and abstinence from worldy pleasures like women or gambling, was largely observed, seeking to create monks with the skills of a warrior.

Despite being formed as an order of Knights, most of the Templars hadn’t the rank of knight, these being rather a minority that formed the backbone of the order. Only they were allowed to wear the iconic white mantle with a red cross. Non-nobles could serve as sergeants, who dressed black and performed many vital tasks such as administration, and combat too. Finally, some chaplains closed the ranks, and catered the spiritual needs of the members. Women were strictlt forbidden to join, but in many of their states and properties in Europe, they performed many duties, even that of supervisor.

Under the leadership of Grand Master Hugues de Payens, and with all the wealth pumping into their coffers in Jerusalem, the Templars were ready to fulfil their mission: to protect the faithful in the Holy Land against the gathering hordes of enemies.         

3# TEMPLARS AND CRUSADES

Unlike their brothers in the West, the Templars in Outremer (Crusader States) had their hands full with military duties, where they swiftly proved the expectations of Bernard of Clairvaux, by becoming shock troops that charged into battle with discipline, courage, and ferocity. So much in fact, that they would often be trapped and annihilated by superior forces because their code of honour wouldn’t allow them to retreat or flee. Instead of recieveing fields and peasants to till the land like in Europe, here the Templars were given strategic castles, to garrison them with their own men and resources, and together with the Knights Hospitaller (another religious order founded in Jersualem) they would strengthen the several crusader armies that attempted to conquer, or defend the Holy Land, as it grew and shrink, until the fall of Acre in 1291, the last bastion of the Franks in Levant, marking the end of both Crusader and Templar presence in the Holy Land.

4# INTO EXILE

The fall of Acre, where the Templars had been based since the second and final fall of Jerusalem in 1244, didn’t spell an immediate end of the order. Their main goal, the protection of the faithful in the Holy Land could be no more, but their vast properties in the west remained, where thanks to their know-how in banking and finance, kings, nobles and commoners alike trusted them with the management of their money and properties. The seat of the Order was moved to Cyprus, where their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, dreamt of reclaiming the Holy Land. The Templars were excellent bankers and administrators, but they had lost the reason of their existence, and more important than that, they were rich. Incredibly rich, and still enjoying from prerogatives and the friendship of several monarchs. But power attracts enemies like carrion attracts scavengers.

The Templars were known by its uprightness but it’s no surprise that men who called themselves Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ, were accused of hipocresy and ambition by those who considered the Templars had strayed from the path of poverty, monasticism, and humility. And rightly so perhaps. On top of that, the fiasco of loosing the last Christian territories of Outremer, meant that the Crusaders needed a scapegoat to vent their frustration. Since the Templars had featured prominently amongst all the Crusades, having held several key garrisons in the Holy Land, and since they remained unaccountable to anyone but the Pope, it was a matter of time they’d fall in the sights of powerful enemies. Storm clouds were gathering.

5# KING PHILIP, SCOURGE OF TEMPLARS

France had always been the heartland of the Templar’s financial and landowning empire. Many of their Grand Masters came from the County of Burgundy, and they kept good relationships with the monarchy, for whom they acted as financial advisors and even kept the royal treasury safe in their Paris castle. What a surprise it must had been then, when on Friday 13th October 1307 (this is one of the reputed origins of Friday 13th superstition) Templars all across France were arrested, including Grand Master Jacques de Molay, who only the previous day had been a pallbearer for the late sister-in-law of King Philip IV. Under torture, hundreds of them confessed the multi-coloured charges of improper kissing in their initiation rituals, spitting on the cross, or worshipping idols, amongst others.

Under pressure from Philip, the Pope Clement V issued a papal bull ordering the arrest of the Templars in other kingdoms. It’s worth pointing that Philip had one of Clement’s predecessors kidnapped, and since then the papal court lay in Poitiers, where Philip could browbeat them to submission. What a bully. And a very broke one. His bottomless debts were his prime reason for witch-hunting the Templars, to whom he owed large sums of money. After having expelled and confiscated Jewish properties, Philip had realised he still was short of funds. Therefore, the vast Templars riches were intended to make up for the inadequacy of what he had stolen from the Jews. Like I said, a bully.

Enjoying from the favour of several kings across Europe, the Templars outside France counted on more objective investigations on their alleged misdemeanours, and were find at no fault. No grave one at least, like those the French inquisitors accused them of. Nor the Papal investigators found them guilty, even absolving Jacques de Molay and other high-ranking Templars. Hundreds of rank-and-file Templars were brought to Paris in 1310, to answer to the Papal commission, where they denounced the abuses of the investigators, their cruel tortures that had already killed many of their brothers, and of the falsity of the charges and the absurdity of the process. The Templar grew strong and there seemed to be hope, but the final judgement was to be passed by the Pope in the Council of Vienne, later in the year.

6# DEATH AND DIVINE REVENGE

Philip was much displeased with the lack of enthusiasm of his bitch, the Pope, and decided it was time for a show of force. Claiming the right to root out heresy in his kingdom, he had 54 Templars accused of relapsing to heresy, which meant he could burn them at the stake. Which he did, breaking the Templar’s growing resistance and coercing the Church to obedience at the same time. Philip the Bully kept his army conveniently close to the Council of Vienne, when it met between October 1311 and March 1312, bombarding the Pope with missives urging him to condemn the Templars. Facing imprisontment at the hands of Philip like one of his predecessors, Clement relented and on his bull Vox in excelso, he put an end to the Order of the Templars, forbidding anybody to take their name henceforth, or wear their garments. Most of their possessions, including those in France (to the chargrin of Philip) were given to the Knights Hospitaller. The most powerful order of Christendom, which had existed for 192 years, had ceased to exist with the stroke of a pen.

The only thing left to do, was to decide on the punishment of Jacques de Molay and the Templar leadership in France. They had been previously absolved and as a reward for their services, the Papal commission gave them a lifetime prison sentence. To Jacques and the preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charney, both imprisoned and tortured since late 1307, this was the last straw. In front of a Parisian audience, they shouted their innocence for everyone to hear, berating the judges and denying all their previous confessions, as they were extracted under duress. This came as a shock, because denial was regarded as relapse into heresy. Still, the commission hesitated to pass immediate judgement. Not Philip, who wanting the whole Templar affair boxed and forgotten, condemned them to death before the commission could have a say. Both Templars were burnt somewhere between 11th and 18th March 1314, when Jacques de Molay, stoic and fearless, spoke the following: “God knows who is in the wrong and have sinned. Soon misfortune will come to those who have condemned us. God will avenge our death”. Ashes, and this ominous prophecy were the only thing left of the last Grand Master of the Templars, and within a year, Philip IV of France and Clement V, the two men who had done the most to erase the Templars from the face of the Earth, were dead.

7# SURVIVORS AND LEGACY

Outisde France, few Templars, if only those of higher rank, were punished at all. Many were transferred to other orders or entered monastic orders to spent the rest of their lives. Some orders, like the Portuguese Order of Christ, inherited Templar assets and membership, thus being regarded as spiritual successors of the order. The Templars became nothing more than a distant memory, with only their castles to remember the people that long ago, they had been counted amongst the most powerful and wealthy of the Crusaders.

With their financial knowledge and the use of credit letters (precursor of modern banking) the Templars extended their roots across several states and jurisdictions, often being regarded as the first multinational corporation, like the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Their spectacular power, but also their sudden and ingonimous end, made them the stuff of legend, with many religious groups claiming their name, and even for its association (unproven) with the Freemasons. In modern times they had featured in novels, movies, videogame, and had been linked with the most far-fetched conspirational theories, including having found the Grial.     

Philip might had prosecuted the Templars with trumped-up charges on account of their wealth, but the truth is that he regarded himself as a pious king who ended up believing his own fantastical fabrications about the Templar’s depravity. It is ironical then, that the man who physically destroyed them, ended up by making them immortal, forever enshrining them in the public imagination, where 700 years after their downfall, the Templar Knights still live.    

Thanks for reading! What do you know about the Templars, or what movie, book, or videogame (ficticious or not) you liked about them? If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment and subscribe for more, every first Saturday of the month.

And if you want to learn more of the Templars in detail don’t forget to check this fantastic account from Dan Jones.