During the Middle
Ages, the Templars were famous across Europe, but their fall in 1307 shocked
the world. Historian Dan Jones examines how the real history of the Templars is
even more astonishing than the fiction that still swirls around them.
The Knights Templar was a large organization of devout
Christians during the medieval era who carried out an important mission: to
protect European travelers visiting sites in the Holy Land while also carrying
out military operations. A wealthy, powerful and mysterious order that has
fascinated historians and the public for centuries, tales of the Knights
Templar, their financial acumen, their military prowess and their work on
behalf of Christianity during the Crusades still circulate throughout modern
WHO WERE THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR?
in 1099 captured from
Muslim control during the , groups of pilgrims from across Western Europe
started visiting the Holy Land. Many of them, however, were robbed and killed
as they crossed through Muslim-controlled territories during their journey.
Around 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens
created a military order along with eight relatives and acquaintances, calling
it the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon – later known
simply as the Knights Templar.
With the support of Baldwin II, the ruler of Jerusalem,
they set up headquarters on that city’s sacred Temple Mount – from which they
took their name – and pledged to protect Christian visitors to Jerusalem.
THE POPE’S ENDORSEMENT
Initially, the Knights Templar faced criticism from some
religious leaders. But in 1129, the group received the formal endorsement of
the Catholic Church and support from Bernard of Clairvaux, a prominent French
Bernard authored In Praise of the New Knighthood, a text that supported
the Knights Templar and bolstered their growth.
In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull that
allowed the Knights Templar special rights. Among them, the Templars were
exempt from paying taxes, permitted to build their own oratories, and held to
no one’s authority, except the Pope’s.
THE KNIGHTS TEMPLARS AT WORK
The Knights Templar set up a prosperous network of banks
and gained enormous financial influence. Their banking system allowed religious
pilgrims to deposit assets in their home countries and withdraw funds in the
The order became known for its austere code of conduct
and signature style of dress, which featured a white habit emblazoned with a
simple red cross.
Members swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience.
They weren’t allowed to drink, gamble or swear. Prayer was essential to their
daily life, and the Templars expressed particular adoration for the Virgin
As the Knights Templar grew in size and status, it
established new chapters throughout Western Europe.
At the height of their influence, the Templars boasted a
sizable fleet of ships, owned the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and served as
a primary bank and lending institution to European monarchs and nobles.
EXPANDED DUTIES OF THE KNIGHTS
Though its original purpose was to protect pilgrims from
danger, the Knights Templar progressively expanded its duties. They became
defenders of the Crusader states in the Holy Land and were known as brave,
highly skilled warriors.
The group developed a reputation as fierce fighters
during the Crusades, driven by religious fervor and forbidden from retreating
unless significantly outnumbered.
The Templars built numerous castles and fought – and
often won – battles against armies.
Their fearless style of fighting became a model for other military orders.
THE FALL OF THE KNIGHTS
In the late 12th century, Muslim armies retook Jerusalem
and turned the tide of the Crusades, forcing the Knights Templar to relocate
several times. The marked
the destruction of the last remaining Crusader refuge in the Holy Land.
European support of the military campaigns in the Holy
Land began to erode over the decades that followed. Additionally, many secular
and religious leaders became increasingly critical of the Templars’ wealth and
By 1303, the Knights Templar lost its foothold in the
Muslim world and established a base of operations in Paris. There, King Philip
IV of France resolved to bring down the order, perhaps because the Templars had
denied the indebted ruler additional loans.
ARRESTS AND EXECUTIONS
On Friday, October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars
were arrested, including the order’s grand master Jacques de Molay.
Many of the knights were brutally tortured until they
confessed to false charges, which included heresy, homosexuality, financial corruption,
devil worshipping, fraud, spitting on the cross and more.
A few years later, dozens of Templars were burned at the
stake in Paris for their confessions. De Molay was executed in 1314.
Under pressure from King Philip, Pope Clement V
reluctantly dissolved the Knights Templar in 1312. The group’s property and
monetary assets were given to a rival order, the Knights Hospitallers. However,
it’s thought that King Philip and of
England seized most of the Knights Templar’s wealth.
THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR TODAY
The Catholic Church has acknowledged that the persecution
of the Knights Templar was unjustified. The church claims that Pope Clement was
pressured by secular rulers to destroy the order.
While most historians agree that the Knights Templar
fully disbanded 700 years ago, there are some people who believe the order went
underground and remains in existence in some form to this day.
In the 18th century, some groups, most notably the , revived
several of the medieval knights’ symbols, rituals and traditions.
Currently, there are several international organizations
styled after the Knights Templar that the public can join. These groups have
representatives around the world and aim to uphold the values and traditions of
the original medieval order.
Throughout the years, various tales have surfaced about
the knights’ mysterious work. More recently, stories about the legendary
Templars have found their way into popular books and movies.
Some historians have claimed that the Knights Templar may
have secretly guarded the (a linen
cloth believed to be placed on ’s body before
burial) for hundreds of years after the Crusades ended.
Another widespread belief is that the knights discovered
and kept religious artifacts and relics, such as the , the Ark of the Covenant and parts of the cross from
Various other ideas and myths exist about the Knights
Templar’s secret operations. The popular novel and film The Da Vinci
Code presents a theory that the Templars were involved in a
conspiracy to preserve the bloodline of Jesus Christ.
Although much of these speculations are considered
fictional, there’s no question that the Knights Templar have provoked intrigue
and fascination and will likely continue to do so for years to come.