Their symbol depicted two knights riding the same horse, an image that most likely represents the poverty in which the order emerged. Its downfall came from the greed and jealousy that was aroused by the order’s wealth as bankers. And in between, it was an organization of monastic warriors charged with the protection of pilgrims, but finding its true calling in the sometimes rash pursuit of Muslim opponents. The Knights of the Temple, better known as the Templars, became all of these things in the span of less than two hundred years.
It was the first of the military orders, and its founders had gathered in Jerusalem to pursue a spiritual vocation after the success of the First Crusade. The restoration of Christian control in Jerusalem had encouraged the expansion of pilgrimage activity, but the area was not fully pacified, and bands of pilgrims were sometimes attacked. A group of French knights led by Hugh de Payens decided that they could serve God better by employing their fighting skills in the defense of pilgrims than they could through an ascetic existence alone.
In 1120, this new order was recognized by local Church officials and by the King of Jerusalem. The King gave them a place in the royal palace, which had previously been the al’Aqsa Mosque and which was generally thought of as the Temple of Solomon. This became the headquarters of the order, and so they were known as the Knights of the Temple. Their status was ratified by the Pope at the Council of Troyes in 1129. In the beginning, the Templars were under the authority of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, but in 1139 their rule was revised and they were subject to the Pope alone.
Unlike the later military orders, the Templars were intended to serve only in a military capacity. Instead of pursuing additional charitable functions, as the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights did, the Templars were expected to train rigorously and continuously, and to be ready to be called into action at any time. The core of the Templars was its cadre of Knights, who came from noble families and took perpetual monastic vows (poverty, chastity, obedience). Commoners could join the order as sergeants, some of whom fought alongside the knights while others performed supportive roles. Sergeants could take temporary vows instead of perpetual ones. There were also a few priests who joined the order in the capacity of chaplains, and they did not serve on the battlefield.
Templar military tactics seem to have been completely cavalry-based; no provisions are known for infantry combat. The Knights, and perhaps some of their sergeants, charged in the heavy cavalry role, clustered rather more tightly together than was the norm among secular knights. This was largely due to the Templars’ training regimen. At the same time, the Templars had learned the limitations, as well as the strengths, of the heavy cavalry, and cultivated a light cavalry arm in the form of turcopoles, local men who had been born of mixed marriages and therefore grew up with a familiarity with local weapons and tactics.
The Templars were under greater pressure than most knights to fight with utter fearlessness and abandon, and when things went wrong, they died in horrifying numbers. For example, at the battle of La Forbie in 1244, 90% of the Templar contingent perished. At the same time, their courage and skill were highly regarded, even by those who questioned their judgment.
The order was created in the Holy Land and intended for its defense, but it was not long before Templars were called into action at the other fringes of Christian Europe, above all in Spain, where Spanish Christians fought against the Moors. The maintenance of bodies of soldiers and fortifications cost money, however, and estates grew up everywhere in Europe. New brothers traditionally brought a sizable gift as they entered the order, and outsiders also made endowments. While individual knights remained poor, the order grew wealthy; because the money belonged to the order as a whole, rather than to particular lords, it moreover became possible to perform banking functions that seem surprisingly modern. The protection of a large sum of money, whether inside a Templar castle or en route in a Templar caravan, was only the beginning of their services. Moneychanging was a welcome service in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as so many crusaders came to fight from all corners of Europe. The Templars found ways to lend money under creative terms that substantively granted a rich return of interest without running afoul of usury laws. It even became possible to send money over long distances by depositing the amount in one Templar location and then retrieving the same amount (less the Templars’ fee) from a location at the intended destination. In this way, the Templars became very rich, indeed.
As long as the Crusades in the Holy Land continued, there remained a need for a vibrant Templar organization. In 1291, the last Crusader stronghold of Acre was taken, and the survivors were forced to evacuate the Levant. The Templars transferred their headquarters to Cyprus and began to formulate plans for a return to the mainland, but the crusading movement had lost all momentum. Without the Crusades, the Templars became merely a large and wealthy organization that was accountable only to the Pope. Other European power bases began to cast anxious and envious eyes upon Templar holdings.
Most important among these opponents was the King of France, Phillip the Fair. He lent a prominent voice to the many calls for the merger of the Templar and Hospitaller orders, but the Templars refused. Pope Clement V ordered Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay to transfer the order’s headquarters to Paris; this move set in motion the cascade of events that would destroy the order within five years.
King Phillip ordered the arrest of all Templars in Paris, charging the order with heresy. The basis for this charge seems to be nothing more than rumormongering of the wildest sort, in which the order’s private rites of initiation were transformed into satanic rituals. The standard application of torture ensured that some confessions were extracted; enough confessions were obtained to condemn the Templars as an organization. With this result, the order’s assets were forfeit to the Crown. As Templar branches were being shut down, the Pope officially dissolved the order in 1312. As for de Molay and his men, the convicted leaders were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, but when they challenged their confessions, they were deemed relapsed heretics and as such were burnt at the stake in 1314.
The charges laid upon the Templar Knights seem to be unfounded. Wilder still are the claims made for the secret knowledge and activities of the Knights Templar in modern fiction and nonfiction alike. The great wealth of the order, coupled with the drama of its collapse and the lurid accusations made against it, makes this order a favorite choice for pre-modern conspiracy theories.
A deeper look at the order reveals the improbability of any claims of secret knowledge. The order had a monastic structure, but it was not involved in the maintenance of libraries and the copying of texts; it was an organization of warriors, and its only deviation from this mission lay in its activity as bankers. The Templars were not Keepers of Occult Knowledge; they were men who thought they could serve God by fighting, and who allowed the need to generate income to support the fight to become an end in itself. Eventually, when the fighting had ceased and the financial empire became all that was left, the order fell victim to those who wanted its wealth and had the power to seize it.
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