The Order of the Knights Templar traced their lineage back to the First Crusade. The history and fascination about who they were and their military prowess, wealth, and ultimate demise have been a never-ending source legend in both books and film.
After the initial Crusade to take the city of Jerusalem back from the Muslims in 1099, this caused many religious pilgrims from Europe to visit the Holy Land and the religious sites set down in the Bible. But to get thru to Jerusalem, these Europeans had to cross thru Muslim-held lands and many of them were robbed and murdered.
A French knight, Hugues de Payens created an order that consisted of himself and eight other knights which became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. This eventually became shortened to the Knights Templar. These knights were related to Payens either by blood or marriage and their mission was to protect the pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.
They approached King Baldwin II in Jerusalem and he allowed them to set up their headquarters in Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock became a Christian Church and the al Aqsa Mosque located atop of what was believed to be Solomon’s Temple, is where the Templars were located.
Order Gains Power, Prestige: Early in their existence, the Templars were criticized, especially about the practice of their carrying of swords which was taboo at the time for religious men. But thanks to the influential Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote an essay on the Order, the men of the Templar became the first warrior monks of the western world. He wrote: “[A Templar Knight] is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith, just as his body is protected by the armor of steel. He is thus doubly-armed, and need fear neither demons nor men.”
The order received a formal endorsement by the Catholic Church in 1129 and in 1139, their status was bolstered even further when 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 answered to no one save the Pope himself.
Members swore an oath of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Templars didn’t drink, gamble or swear. They were devout Christians who spent much of their time in prayer. They adopted a simple white tunic that was adorned by a red cross which became their signature hallmark.
Their influence quickly grew as they set up banks, built fleets of ships, and controlled the island of Cypress. Their banking system was ingenious as pilgrims could deposit funds in their home countries and withdraw funds in the Holy Land.
They built castles across the Holy Land and quickly gained the reputation of fierce fighters, defeating many Muslim armies during the next several decades.
Gradually the Templars and the Christians lost their footholds in the Holy Land. Saladin the Muslim leader from Tikrit inside modern-day Iraq, had battled with the Templars and lost in 1177. He fought them again in 1187, and this time defeated them at the disaster at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. The Templars under the command of Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort had marched out away from water to meet the army of Saladin. Overcome by heat after just a day, they were slaughtered. This was loosely portrayed in the 2005 film, “Kingdom of Heaven.” Jerusalem fell a few months later.
Decline and Fall: After the fall of Acre in 1291, the Templars lost their last stronghold in the Holy Land. This would ultimately lead to their demise. In 1303, the Templars had set up their headquarters in Paris. They were an order who had lost its purpose but still controlled enormous wealth. This unstable environment set up a power-play by King Philip IV.
Philip’s kingdom was deeply in debt to the Templars and he feared their power. After the Templar banks denied Philip another loan he moved against them. On the morning of Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip had scores of the Templars arrested in France including the order’s Grand Master Jacques de Molay. Many were sent to the Tower of Chinon where they were brutally tortured until they confessed to false charges, which included heresy, homosexuality, financial corruption, devil-worshipping, fraud, spitting on the cross, and more.
Despite the absence of any evidence other than what was coerced by torture by Philip, the Pope, Clement V issued an edict dissolving the order under enormous pressure by Philip. Jacques de Molay was executed in 1314.
Philip never believed any of the charges were true, he moved against them mainly out of jealousy and greed. He was deeply indebted to the Templars and although their money was supposed to have been given to a rival order, the Knights Hospitallers, it is believed that Philip and King Edward II of England made off with most of the money.
Legend Persist: One of the enduring legends of the Templars is that a secret order of them exists today. It has become quite popular in books and films such as “National Treasure” or “The Da Vinci Code.” Some organizations have sprung up around the world to continue their heritage.
The Freemasons, which were founded in the 18th century revived many of the Templars’ traditions, symbols, and rituals. And many of the Freemasons were the ones who originally concocted that story, no doubt to boost their own lineage.
One of the enduring myths of the Templars arrest in France is that since it occurred on Friday, the 13th that is why some people fear the date. And of course, protecting the Holy Grail and securing the bloodline of Jesus Christ (Da Vinci Code) while making for exciting storylines, don’t really have any basis in reality.
Regardless, the order was an intriguing, eclectic group of “warrior monks” who wielded tremendous power for a short time.