Skip to content

D.2 The Knights Templar and their History

The participants in the First Crusade reached the walls of Jerusalem on June 7, 1099 and began the siege of the Holy City. The Egyptian Governor had previously destroyed, or poisoned, all the wells outside Jerusalem. He had expelled all the Christians who lived in the City so that the Crusaders had also to take care of their needs. One of the expelled Christians, a monk called Gerard, Master of the Amalfi hostel used by the pilgrims in the city, was able to give useful information about the defences of Jerusalem.

The Crusaders, and especially those wearing armour, suffered a lot from the heat. There was no timber around Jerusalem to build the siege engines and they had to come from the coast, or from the forest of Samaria. Water too required a twelve-mile round trip. On July 14 the crusaders were able to enter into the city with the help of three siege towers that had been built notwithstanding the difficulties. Finally Jerusalem was taken after nine days of furious battle, and the crusaders killed most, if not all, the inhabitants -Moslems and Jews alike- and looted the city.

Gerard, the monk who gave information to the crusaders, and his little order, received valuable gifts as well as some grants of land. They were also able to expand their activity. In 1118, the new prior decided to do more that providing lodging and care to the pilgrims. They created a military arm in their order and recruited some knights who would fight for the Holy Land. They changed their name to the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem and applied to the Pope for a constitution, or Rule, of their own. When it was granted, the rich and powerful Hospitallers, the future Knights of Malta, were born.

In the same year, another order was also founded in Jerusalem. In 1118 Hugh de Payens and eight other knights asked King Baldwin II the authorisation to organise themselves in a new religious order after they had made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Unlike the Hospitallers who operated hostels and hospitals in the Holy Land the new order would devote itself to the military protection of the pilgrims visiting the holy places. They had their quarters in a wing of the Royal Palace in the Temple area. This was the former mosque al-Aqsa thought to have been built on the site of the Solomon Temple. They were first known as “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon”, but they were later referred to as the Order of the Temple, the Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem or, on a more popular basis, the Knights Templar.

The new Order apparently did not do anything for nine years. Then, in 1127, King Baldwin II wrote a letter to Bernard (the future St. Bernard), Abbot of Clervaux, requiring his intervention with the Pope Honarius II. The aim was to obtain papal charters and rules for the Order of the Knights Templar. The eight founders of the order were all vassals of the count of Champagne. The first land given to the Templars was in Troyes, the capital of the Champagne. With the agreement of the Pope, Bernard wrote the rules of the Knights Templar Order. This order was a monastic and religious order of monks, and not an order of chivalry. At that time, the monks were considered to be much better that the secular priests. The Knights Templar adhered to their strict monastic vows but, at the same time, they were warriors in constant danger of being wounded or killed. If only for this reason, previous sinners (murderers, thieves, fornicators and even heretics) were readily accepted, provided that they renounce their former sinful ways and swore to respect the order’s sacred vows. During the Albigensian Crusade, quite a few Cathars avoided death by joining the Templars.

At Bernard’s request, many people of noble birth joined the Templars. In addition many nobles, and even the kings of France and England, granted them land, properties, and wealth. Hugh de Payens, one of the founders, became the first Grand Master of the new Order responsible only to the Pope. Chastity was strictly imposed and any Templar had to give all his properties and wealth to the order. Obedience to their superiors was required. On the battlefield, the Templars were not permitted to retreat unless the odds against them were very poor, and if a competent superior gave the order. In any case no ransom would be paid for a Templar taken prisoner and, as a result, those taken prisoners were generally executed.

The order was divided into three classes:

– The first class was formed by the full brothers, the knights who had to be free and of noble birth. They wore a white mantle with a red eight-pointed cross. The knights were required to let their beard grow.
– The second class, whose members were known as Sergeants, came from the free bourgeoisie. Sergeants acted as men-at-arms, sentries, grooms, stewards, etc. They wore the Templar cross on a black or dark-brown mantle.
– The third class were the clerics, or priests who acted as chaplains to the order. They were the only ones with a certain degree of literacy, and for this reason they acted also as scribes and record keepers. They wore the red Templar cross on a green mantle. They were clean-shaved.

Templar initiations and chapter meetings were secret, and any mention of what was done or said led to punishment. Even their Rule was kept secret and each Templars knew only part of it according to his rank.

At the peak of their power the Templars owned nine thousand manors all over Europe plus mills and markets. Most of the order’s wealth came from gifts, wills, and looting. They bought or built their own ships to transport men and supplies to the East, as well as some fighting ships to protect the former ones. They also used their ships on a commercial basis to transport pilgrims and goods to the Holy Land. Having so much money at their disposal, they entered in the banking and, more generally, in the financial business. They accepted private deposits of money or valuables, stored them safely for a fee, of course. They also collected taxes, negotiated ransoms for important prisoners, managed properties for many owners, offered mortgages and loans, and issued paper for money. Customers deposited money with the Templars that could be cashed anywhere upon presentation of the original receipt. This activity required the use of safe means of identification and, apparently, the Templars improved the technique (signs, questions and answers, objects, codes, etc.) and made it safe. All of this was a good base from which to create a secret society.

The Knights Templar called each other “Brother”. Most of them were illiterate even if they were the officer class whose main occupation was “war and battles”. Sergeants, and local troops in much greater number, helped them. The Templar clerics were the literate members whose duties included management and accounting. In their later stage the order hired also some administrators, supervisors, and scribes who were in charge of the banking and financial activities under the clerics supervision. Local people known as “Turcopoles” were also recruited to act as soldiers.

The Grand Master was the autocratic ruler of the Order although he had to consult his principal officers on many questions. They were not so much administrators than front-line military leaders, many of whom died in battle. The headquarters of the Order and the residence of the Grand Master were at the Temple in Jerusalem. With time the Templars became involved in politics, especially in Jerusalem. They were the direct rivals of the Order of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem and, at time, they fought each other.

Tedaldo Visconti, Archbishop of Liège, became Pope in 1271 under the name of Gregory X. He tried to organise another crusade in 1274 to liberate Jerusalem which was again under Moslem rule, but the various kings and the nobles were not interested and the project did not materialise.

After the loss of Jerusalem Acre had become the major base of the Templars who joined forces with the powerful Venetians. The Hospitallers, on the other hand, after the loss of their main citadel known as “Krak des Chevaliers”, lost most of their influence in the Holy Land. They were reduced to about three hundred knights in the Holy Land (as compared to seven thousand at the peak of their influence) and their political weight decreased accordingly.

In 1285 Kala’un, the Egyptian Sultan, first took over the Hospitallers coastal castle of Marqab, 25 miles north of Tripoli. In 1286 King Henry of Cyprus was declared to be the legitimate King of Jerusalem although the city was in Moslem hands. The Mongols, who occupied the Persian Throne, tried to arrange an alliance with the Christians against the Egyptians, but nobody on the Christian side was really interested although the Mongols offered to give back the Holy Land to Christianity. As a result, the Sultan Kala’un was able to take Tripoli in 1289, and many Templars and Hospitallers were lost in the battle. Kala’un’s son, al-Ashraf, took Acre in 1291 after a long siege. The Templars were the last to resist but they were finally defeated too and all of them died in the final days of the battle. Tyre and Sidon were abandoned to the Moslems without fight, the Templars retreated to the castle of the Sea, which they thought was easier to defend, but they had to abandon it too. The next cities to fall were Beirut, Haifa and Athlit and the monasteries of Mount Carmel were burned down, and all the monks killed. The Templars evacuated Tortosa and were left without any base in the Holy Land since their foundation 170 years before. Their only possession was the castle on the small island of Ruad, two miles offshore from Tortosa, but it was of no importance and they abandoned it a few years later.

After their defeat at Acre the Templars installed their headquarters on Cyprus with the reluctant agreement of King Henry. The Hospitallers moved also their base on that island. A few years later, in 1292, Jacques de Molay, forty-eight years old and a Templar for twenty-seven years, was elected Grand Master of the Templars not knowing, of course, that he would be the last. He had made his entire career in the Order having had many responsible postings. Although they had no more posts in the Holy Land the Templars still controlled thousand of properties, mills, trading operations, and markets in Western Europe. In addition they had many fighting and commercial ships as well as their international banking operation, and they controlled a well-trained and equipped army. He tried to convince the Pope to organise another crusade to free the Holy Land but without success.

Jacques de Molay, as Grand Master of the Templars, was summoned by the Pope Clement V to assist to a council in Poitiers to discuss the possibility of a new crusade to free Jerusalem of the Moslems, and also of a possible merger between the Hospitallers and the Templars. The Templars were not very happy with this proposal since it was already foreseen that the Hospitallers would fill the Grand Mastership. Philip IV, on the other hand, welcomed the proposal hoping that the king of France would become hereditary Grand Masters of the united order. Jacques de Molay went first to Paris where he thought he would be welcomed by King Philip IV who owned the Templars many favours for supporting him in his dispute with the Pope, in sheltering him during riots in the previous years, and in lending him large amount of money. The Temple in Paris also acted as the King’s Treasury and, moreover, Jacques de Molay was godfather to his son Robert.

Philip IV, with the help of Guillaume de Nogaret, thought of a plan to bring down the Templars order in order to confiscate their properties and wealth in France, and to cancel the debts he contracted with them. Jacques de Molay was not aware of what was planned against him; he was well received by the king as well as in the papal palace where he presented his plan for the new Crusade, and his objections to the merger of his order with the Hospitallers. He also seized this opportunity to try to stop the rumours about serious improprieties committed within the Order of the Temple. He went as far as to accept a formal enquiry since he was certain that nothing wrong was done.

However Guillaume de Nogaret infiltrated the Templar Order with spies who collected some information according to which some unholy practises were taking place within the order. These confessions were used to prepare the questions put by the Torturers to the Templars after their arrest. It was said that new members of the Templars, during their initiation ceremony, had to spit or trample on the cross. Templars revealing the secrets of the order were murdered; they were also said to negate the sacraments, to absolve each other of sins, to keep secret contact with the Moslems, to encourage homosexuality and to worship idols, usually in the shape of a cat or a head. Their greed was assumed to be responsible for the lost of the Holy Land by Christianity.

Philip IV decided that all the Templars in France should be arrested on the same day. Guillaume de Nogaret, in charge of this operation, had the benefit of a previous experience in that matter. On 22 July 1306 every Jews in France were arrested and imprisoned. They were then sent to exile, but without their properties and wealth, which were seized by the king, and all debts owned them by the state were cancelled. Until the last day the secret was well kept, even if there are some indications that the Templars’ principal officers knew that something was being prepared against them. Jacques de Molay was even asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of Princess Catherine, the deceased wife of King Philip’s brother, Charles de Valoy, on 12 October 1307. On the same day all the Seneschals in France opened their sealed orders that ordered them to arrest all the Templars in their jurisdiction the next day, Friday 13 October 1307. Fifteen thousand Templars were arrested.

Guillaume de Nogaret revealed the charges against the Templars the next day. They went from heresy and rejection of Christ (spiting and trampling on the cross) to sodomy, obscene kissing required during the initiation ceremonies, etc. When he heard the news Pope Clement V was furious at first, not in sympathy with the Templars, but at the usurpation of papal authority by the King of France to whom he sent a formal protest. Philip IV said that he acted in defence of Christianity by supplying the assistance needed by the Holy Inquisition. Philip, of course, seized the Templar wealth for himself. He also charged the Pope with leniency towards heresy. Finally they reached a compromise, the Pope praising the King of France and recognising that the charges against the Templars seemed to be true. He asked all the monarchs of Christendom to arrest all the Templars under their jurisdiction, and to torture them as required.

In the meantime the imprisoned Templars in France were tortured and most did confess some sort of heresy as requested by the Inquisition or, better, the “Congregation of the Holy Office”. The Inquisition was created at the time of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars and was run by the Dominicans. Its primary responsibility was the “discovery, punishment, and prevention of heresy”. Heresy was defined as denial or doubt by a baptised person of any “revealed truth” of the Roman Catholic faith. A confessed heretics who repented was given a lighter sentence but retraction was not taken into consideration, and the so-called “relapsed heretics” were burned alive by the secular authorities.

In Spain and Portugal the Templars were still fighting the Moslems and they were not arrested but, on the opposite, declared not guilty of heresy. In Portugal they were regrouped in a new order called the Knights of Christ, reporting to the king. They were left free, or declared not guilty, in Germany, Cyprus and, for some time too, in Britain. In France, King Philip was very angry because most of the Templars’ wealth seemed to have disappeared together with their fleet from their naval base of La Rochelle. Nothing is known of the fate of their eighteen ships.

Each Templars reacted differently to the torture. Some went insane, some died rather than confess anything, some were ready to confess anything, and most admitted their responsibilities in relation to some of the charges hoping that, as promised by the Inquisitors, the torture would stop. Two Templars confessed that they worshipped a bearded idol known as “Baphomet”. Jacques de Molay was about seventy years old and he could not face the torture; he confessed to most of the charges against the order and against himself, with the exception of homosexuality. These confessions were passed to the Pope who, on 12 August 1308, promulgated a formal list of charges against the Templars. He also organised a council of the church to convene in Vienne in 1310 to discuss the plans for a new crusade and the fate of the Templars.

This council finally met on 16 October 1311 after all the records of the trials and of the Inquisition had been received in Rome. By that time the arrested Templars still alive had been in prison for four years. Clement V invited all the members of the Templar order to participate, and defend themselves, if they wanted. Nine Templars appeared and they were arrested by order of the Pope. On 20 March 1312 Philip IV went to Vienne and asked the council to suppress the order of the Templars and to transfer their wealth to a new military order. The Pope did not agree to Philip’s request mainly because he wanted to merge the Templars and the Hospitallers. Moreover he did not want to say that the Templar Order, directly responsible to him, was heretical. On 3 April 1312 he promulgated the bull “Vox in Excelso” that disbanded the Templars without saying that they were heretics, or guilty of the other charges brought against them. Clement V promulgated another bull on 2 May 1312 (“Ad providum”) that ordered all the Templar properties to be transferred to the Hospitallers, with the exception of those in Spain and Portugal. In addition the various Monarchs could charge the costs linked to the Templars arrest and imprisonment, as well as the cost of managing their estates, to the Templar. Finally the Hospitallers succeeded to take charge of the bulk of the Templar holdings. Free Templars were authorised to join the Hospitallers, and a few did. However the aim of the church to create a strong combined order able to participate usefully in a new crusade was never reached, as no new crusade ever took place. The combined strong order was also an illusion because, if the Hospitallers gained new wealth, they did not get many new members from the Templars. Another papal bull, “Considerantes Dudum”, stated that the high ranking Templars would be judged by the Holy See while the others’ fate would be determined by provincial councils of church leaders. These provincial councils generally decided that those Templars who had not confessed, and those who retracted their confessions made under torture, were condemned to life imprisonment. Those who confirmed their confessions were generally set free with a small pension. Nothing was said about these Templars who escaped, although they were still subject to be arrested if found. It was thought that fifteen hundred Templars and sympathisers were hiding around Lyons alone. None was ever found. The high officers were brought before a court of three cardinals in 1313. As they had confessed, mainly under torture, they were condemned to life imprisonment.

It was believed that requiring Jacques de Molay to confirm his confession in public would put a lid on the problem. This event took place in Paris on 14 March 1314 in front of the cathedral of Notre dame. Jacques de Molay, the preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charney and two other officers were brought together on a platform. Instead of confirming his confession, Jacques de Molay found the courage to retract it completely to declare that the Templar order was innocent of all the charges brought against it. He added that he previously made a confession, repeating what the Inquisitors wanted him to say to save himself from the torture. Geoffroi de Charney also proclaimed the innocence of the order. Both knew that their retraction meant that they would be burned alive. This took place on a small island of the river Seine belonging to the Augustinian monks. After the execution they complained to King Philip, not about the burning at the stake of the Grand Master of a religious order, but for trespassing. It is said that Jacques de Molay’s last words were that both the Pope and King Philip IV would die within twelve months of his own death. In fact they did.

After arresting the Templars in France, Philip IV, with the Pope approval, asked the English king, Edward II, to do the same in England. Edward was surprised by the charges brought against the Templars and he could not believe them as he had grown up with respected Templars around him. He went as far as asking other Christian Monarchs to support him in defending the Templars against what he called “the false charges” against them. On 4 December 1307 Edward II wrote to the Pope saying that he was refusing to arrest the Templars but when he received his copy of the papal bull “Pastoralis Preeminentae from 22 November 1307” condemning the Templars, he had to change his mind. However the arrests did not start before 7 January 1308 in London, and even later in the provinces. This delay allowed the Templars to escape and hide themselves. As a result few arrests were made, and most of their records and treasures disappeared. The prisoners were, in general, well treated and most of them escaped later on. In addition the Inquisition did not exist in Britain. The Dominicans had been allowed to come, but without their fearful instruments of torture. In these conditions, and for two years, no Templar confessed any wrongdoing. . No escaped Templar was ever denounced by the people who, however, were threatened of punishment or excommunication for helping them. The Pope asked in vain that torture be used to extract confession of heresy. As the king always refused to use torture, the Pope sent his own team of torturers to England on 24 December 1310.

Edward had to accept the torturers but he limited their “ministrations” to soft torture excluding mutilations, permanent wounds, strong effusions of blood, etc. Probably as a result of these limitations, no confession was extracted from any English Templar. The introduction of the torture led the Templars who had escaped to look for even safer hiding places. In Scotland, at the same time, the Pope orders were completely ignored mainly because the Scottish King, Robert Bruce, had more urgent matters to deal with, like a possible war with England. He was even hiring some of the fighting knights for his army and the papal bull did not lead to any specific actions. Scotland was, in fact, a kind of safe haven for the fugitive Templars from England and the Continent. The Inquisitors did not receive any confession, and no direct witness ever came forward to testify against them. All they could rely on was some vague admissions that they only confessed to their own priests to preserve their secrets, that they would absolve each other of their sins, and that they wore a cord next to their skin without, however, knowing why. On the other hand there were no confessions of heresy, blasphemy, obscene kisses, or homosexuality. In any case the fugitive English Templars, joined probably by some brothers from the continent, survived in hiding due also to the confusion that reigned during the reign of Edward II. They also found a safe refuge in Scotland whose king welcomed them in his army as long as they kept quiet about their previous activity

The English Templars had almost three months to plan their escape and their life afterwards both as individuals and with their brothers. They had friends, connections, means of transportation, and money. Their worse enemies, beside the police, were the members of the other orders who had to follow the Pope’s orders, or face punishment. The order to arrest the Templars affected all of them: the Knights, the Sergeants, the clerics and their servants (stewards and tenants of their manors, their Craftsmen, the administrative staff, etc.). The Templar officers had direct access to the treasury but all the others had to be helped too. To move around, the Knights had their horses but, again, the others had not necessarily the same facilities and, on their own, could only flee on foot or by boat. The Knights had also their own problems. For instance, their hair was cut short, whereas the custom at that time for man was to keep them long. On the contrary they had long beards when most men usually cut them in these days. Even cutting their beards did not solve the problem as part of the face would be white and part sunburned. They had also to change their wardrobe. Most of them spoke French, with little or no knowledge of the English language. Some of them found employment selling their fighting skill to the nobles through feudal contracts.

The safest alternative for a knight on the run was to get out of enemy territory and beyond the reach of the law. As fugitive of the Church this was not easy, as most of Western Europe was Christian and under papal authority. In any case he had to change name, home and job and this was not easy in the small communities of the time. Without help from friends ready to support him the chances of a fugitive escaping the law were small. He could not travel on the main roads and a guide would increase his chances to escape. Eating and sleeping presented special difficulties and safe lodgings were an imperative. The families of the employees of the Templar properties were of great help to the fugitives. Each individual fugitive needed a device or signal to identify himself to the people ready to help him. Luckily the Templars had the necessary knowledge to create, and use, standardised secret signs and signals. Later on the Freemasons improved the techniques of identification making them more or less full proof and secret. The final aim was, obviously, to find a safe place were to live on a permanent, or semi-permanent, basis.

There had been enough time between the arrest of the first Templars in 1307 and the dissolution of the order in 1312 to create an underground system of help and protection, and to develop it into an efficient clandestine organisation. Not all Templars went into hiding. Some joined the Hospitallers, and some of their priests joined other religious orders, but most of these were also ready to help their former brothers. It is fair to believe that those Templars who succeeded to escape for good never forgave those who put them throughout this nightmare. A desire of revenge that never died made them keep their underground secret organisation alive for many generations.

The fate of the Templar ships and their crew is unknown. However ships provided a place to live to their crew, as well as the means to make a living, if only as pirates. Due to the way the Templars had been treated by the secular powers and by the Roman Catholic Church, one cannot expect that those who escaped kept any faith in these secular and religious authorities. Those who stood between them and God, their Grand Master, who had been burned at the stake, and the Pope, who rejected them, had disappeared, and now they were alone in front of God in whom they still believed. There could be the secret seeds that led to the Reformation, and even to Protestantism, long before John Wycliffe and others had divulged these concepts.

It must be clear that there are no historical evidences to demonstrate the existence of a secret society created by fugitive Templars. It is however one logical explanation of the origin of Freemasonry, and a better one that the assumed origin in the medieval guilds of stonemasons. These guilds were very religious and directly linked to the established Roman Catholic Church. Freemasonry is not linked to any religion and goes as far as accepting members of all churches (including the Christian ones) as long as they believe in a Supreme Being, rejecting only the Atheists. It seems more probable that Freemasonry was born as a brotherhood condemned by the Church and driven into clandestinity by the threat of papal imprisonment and torture. Moreover the Templars and the Freemasons are the only known organisations in history that identify themselves in the Temple of Solomon.