The Mystery of the Knights Templar

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A Templar Knight is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armour of faith, just as his body is protected by the armour of steel. He is thus doubly armed, and need fear neither demons nor men.

     — Bernard of Clairvaux, 1135.

The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, known to most as the Knights Templar, was an immensely wealthy and powerful Catholic military order. The knighthood became the strongest fighting force in all of Outremer (the Catholic-controlled eastern Mediterranean), the foremost financial institution in all of Christendom and the most influential organisation of their time. Their rise to the pinnacle of power from their humble origins in protecting European pilgrims was as abrupt as their fall and annihilation at the hands of King Philip IV of France, and many questions remain about the causes of both.

After the First Crusade of 1096-1099, European powers controlled Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Many Christians, therefore, made long, dangerous pilgrimages to the centre of their faith. In turn, bandits took advantage of this stream of, often rich, pilgrims. Hugues de Payens, a crusader knight, said he had a vision from God telling him to protect the Christians on the road to Jerusalem. In 1119, he and another knight, Godfrey de Saint-Omer, established a group of knights dedicated to their protection.

The newfound order was destitute: the Templar symbol of two men riding on a single horse was indicative of their early poverty. However, their noble work was soon noticed by the Catholic King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, who crucially gave them his support, and in 1120 gave them a headquarters in a wing of the palace that was rumoured to be the site of the old Temple of Solomon, hence their name, ‘The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’. This is immensely significant in the rise of the Templars as the regal support and headquarters attracted many new knights and transformed them to a reputable organisation.

The Templars were catapulted to greater fame and power when they received the support of the influential Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote persuasively on their behalf in his letter In Praise of the New Knighthood. In 1129, at the Council of Troyes, Saint Bernard successfully led a group of leading clergymen to convince the church to endorse the order. The approval of both royal and religious authorities led to an influx of support from throughout Christendom, receiving donations of land and money; becoming a Templar knight was also increasingly popular for second- or third-born sons of nobles who were not in line to receive an inheritance, swelling the numbers of their ranks.

The rapidly growing knighthood caught the eye of Pope Innocent II, who in 1135 made their first papal monetary donation, and in 1139 made them exempt from all local laws. This was key to future Templar power. The exemption allowed the Templars to not pay tax and pass freely across borders. They were now under the protection of the Pope and therefore invincible within Christendom.

A key source of Templar strength, and perhaps that for which they are best known, was their intensely organised and regimented lives and fighting style. Saint Bernard de Clairvaux and founder Hugues de Payens devised a strict code of conduct for the Templar order, known as the ‘Latin Rule’. Its 72 clauses laid down the details of the Knights’ way of life, including the possessions they could own and the garments they were to wear. Every rank (Grandmaster, Knight, Sergeant and Chaplain) had different coloured robes, such as Knights wearing white for purity, and all Templars had a red cross emblazoned on their robes to symbolise martyrdom, as they believed the most glorious way to die was fighting for God on the battlefield. Knights were to take their meals in silence, to eat meat no more than three times per week, and not to have physical contact of any kind with women, even members of their own family. New members had to take vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and piety: the knights were monks as much as they were soldiers.

A subset of these rules was the ‘military code of the Templars’, which made their knights so potent a fighting force. One strict rule that ensured military cohesion was the outlaw of surrender or retreat unless outnumbered more than three to one. Even then, the order to retreat had to be given by their commander; a knight could not make the decision himself. The knights would therefore be fully focused on fighting, even against the most tremendous odds, since there was no prospect of desertion or laying down arms. The ironclad warrior monks were an elite and feared fighting force and helped the Crusaders win many battles, most famously the Battle of Montgizard in 1177: 500 mounted Templars, and at most 4,000 assisting infantry, defeated Saladin’s forces of 26,000 men.

The military prowess of the Templars was only part of their power and influence; arguably more significant to their all-encompassing power was their immense wealth. Their exemption from the Catholic ban on charging interest enabled the Templars to make vast profits whilst other Christian banks made nothing. Their ability to charge interest was doubly effective: it was attractive to savers, adding to their wealth reserves, and made them profit as lenders. A knighthood of monks sworn to poverty became the richest organisation of the time.

The safety and security that the Templars offered made their financial services popular. Their most significant financial innovation was the use of cheques. The idea of a cheque was invented in Tang China (A.D. 618-917), when they introduced a two-part document allowing merchants to deposit profits in a regional office and reclaim their cash in the capital. The Templars popularised this as a mechanism to protect travellers to the Holy Lands. The pilgrims gave a sum of money to the Templars in exchange for a receipt; travelled without their fortune, avoiding banditry and theft on the road; and collected their money from a Templar bank when they arrived.

The Knights Templar were so wealthy, and such reliable creditors, that even kings borrowed from them. When King Henry III of England bought Oleron, the largest island on the Atlantic coast of France, it was the Templars from whom he borrowed the funds. Their banking service is often considered the first-ever multinational corporation and laid the foundation for modern banking and financial services.

In 1291, the Templar order was struck a devastating blow, as Christendom lost control of Jerusalem, Acre and the Holy Land to Saladin. Their founding purpose had been the protection of pilgrims travelling to the area: with the loss of the Holy Land, the Templars lost their raison d’être. They were no longer untouchable as the defenders of the land of God. While they were as financially powerful as ever, and still had the church’s endorsement, the enemies of the order saw the chinks in their armour.

Their enormous wealth had led to jealousy and powerful enemies. King Philip IV of France was in great debt to the Templars, having borrowed extensively to fund his military campaigns and the Crusades. The King spread twisted rumours about the “evil practices” that the Templars had committed such as idolatry and homosexuality, in the hope he could seize their assets and have his debt written off. At dawn on 13 October 1307, King Philip arrested Grandmaster Jacques de Moley, and dozens of other French Templars, on charges of blasphemy. Under extreme duress, the captive Templars confessed to the allegations and were burned at the stake. On 22 November, the Pope ordered European kingdoms to seize Templar assets, and in 1312 he disbanded the order and gave most of the remaining assets to the Knights Hospitaller.

The Templars disappeared just as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived, having shaped medieval Christendom in the intervening period. The abruptness and finality of their decline seems incredible to some, and theories abound about the truth behind it. However, the ultimate reason is clear: despite being sworn to poverty, they became richer than kings and the enemies of many. While they still protected the Holy Land, the church and the Pope would still protect them, but as soon as they lost their purpose with the fall of Outremer, their adversaries smelt blood in the water. In the end, centuries of Templar wealth, piety and chivalry were ended by one morally and financially bankrupt king and his twisted rumours.

Barber, M., 1993. The New Knighthood. Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D., 2017. The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors. Head of Zeus Ltd.