Hidden guardians of the Holy Grail. Vile, debauched perverts. Inheritors of the wisdom and mystic power of Solomon the Great. Secret architects of the New World Order. Fathers of banking and Freemasonry. The greatest warriors of the entire medieval era. Martyrs betrayed by a King’s greed. Demonologists and sorcerers….

The Knights Templar are the most famous historical military organisation of the last thousand years, and the subject of a thousand legends, rumours and romantic speculations. Dan Brown’s smash novel “The Da Vinci Code” brought the Templars back into the public eye. Following the historical research of authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the Da Vinci Code suggested that the Templars were the inheritors of sacred wisdom, gained during their time in the Middle East. This was then supposedly passed on to the even-more-secretive Priory of Sion after the order’s suppression, along with huge amounts of gold and other treasure. Then again, tales of the sudden rise and even sharper fall of the West’s pre-eminent warrior-monks have been inspiring poets, dreamers and conspiracy theorists for eight hundred years.

The truth, however, is that the mighty Templars started out as a tiny band of weary veteran crusaders looking for somewhere to lodge.


Templar Obscura

In 1099 AD, the armies of the first Crusade captured the city of Jerusalem, slaughtered the inhabitants and announced the formation of a new state, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The purpose of the Crusade, officially, had been to rescue the holy sites around Jerusalem from desecration by the area’s Moslem and Jewish population. The Crusade also sought to make the long journey from Europe safe for pilgrims, protecting them from heathen attack. In this, at least, it failed, stirring up all manner of anti-Christian sentiment.

Twenty years later, following an unusually spectacular massacre of Easter pilgrims – too weak from Lent fasting to even run – a group of nine long-term crusaders offered their services to the King of Jerusalem. Their leader, Hughes de Payens, sought a base. He promised to defend the pilgrim route, and the group swore oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience to prove their piety. The King accepted their offer, and gave them barracks in the city. Hughes de Payens may have been a distant relative – little is known about him for sure. He was certainly a minor French noble serving the Duke of Champagne, a knight from the first Crusade who, it is thought, had stayed on campaigning in the area ever since.

The new group took their name from the location of their quarters, the former site of King Solomon’s Temple. The Poor Fellow-Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon – the Knights Templar – started their new careers very quietly indeed. After their initial formation, the Templars vanished into total obscurity for almost ten years. Would-be new recruits were turned away. Whatever De Payens intended, no records remain to suggest they even so much as helped a pilgrim cross the street, let alone that nine men successfully defended a route hundreds of miles in length through hostile territory.


Templar Knight, Super Star

The Templars would have vanished, entirely forgotten, into the Jerusalem sands without the intervention of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux. A visionary genius with a manic zeal for organisation and negotiation, Bernard de Clairvaux was known as the Pope-Maker, and even in some circles as the Second Pope. He was at the heart of the young Cistercian monastic order, and almost solely responsible for its exponential growth. He was also well-connected politically, with blood ties to many rulers, including those of Champagne and Palestine. His religious and political pull combined with his charisma, energy and organisational genius to make him an almost unstoppable force in the Catholic church. For decades, he literally decided who sat on the Papal throne.

Bernard also had strong links to the Templar band, however. His uncle, Andre de Montbard, was one of Hughes de Payens’ Templar Knights. In a characteristic flash of inspirational genius, Bernard clearly saw the near-unlimited potential of the rag-tag Templar band. Here was a group of pious knights who had sworn themselves to poverty and taken on the most thankless and dangerous job in all of Christendom, protecting the Pilgrim trail. No job could fit them better for Papal accolades. The knights were unimpeachable, precisely because of their obscurity. With a little effort behind the scenes, Bernard knew that his influence could turn the Templars from a small pack of tired warriors into a mighty force, loyal only to the Pope. The Pope, in turn, would be loyal to him.

When another relative from the Champagne nobility – Hugh, Comte de Champagne – donated his estates to the Cistertians in 1126AD, Bernard saw to it that De Payens welcomed him into the group. With King Baldwin II of Jerusalem having already named de Payens as the Master of the Mount, the group officially controlled the entire Temple Mount, a huge area. This not only gave them plenty of room for expanding into a mighty headquarters, it also meant one of the most holy sites known to Christendom, Judaism and Islam was under Templar guard. With Hugh de Champagne’s heavyweight presence in their number, everything was ready to take the Templars to an entirely new level.

When a Papal council convened in Troyes, capital of Champagne, in 1128, Bernard de Clairvaux smoothly hijacked the meeting. The Templars were already in place back in France, officially on a conveniently-timed fund-raising trip. Bernard called them to Troyes, introduced them to the council, and painted them as the most valiant defenders of the faith ever known. The Pope was already in debt to the Cistercian genius, and with the council taking place in Champagne, Bernard’s home, he could hardly challenge his pronouncements without risking grave offence to the Duke of Champagne. By the end of the council of Troyes, the Templars had become the first ever official Militant Church Order, with a code of conduct based on Bernard’s own Cistercian vows.

Bernard wrote the new Templar Order a glittering letter of praise and recommendation, and tales of the heroic knights and their incredible prowess quickly spread. The European nobles, eager to curry favour with the Pope-Maker, fell over themselves to donate sons, lands and gold to his new order. De Payens returned to Palestine with a host of knights, a whole horde of support staff, and a generous amount of cash. Within a year, the order had substantial estates and properties across Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and was already working on constructing fleets and standing armies.

It wasn’t long before Bernard’s tame Popes had exempted the Templar Knights from all worldly authority save that of the Pope himself. They were answerable to no law, free to cross borders without hindrance, paid no taxes and were even entitled to build and run their own churches, tithing for their own profit. Their numbers mushroomed: by 1146 AD, seven hundred knights were garrisoned in Jerusalem alone, with 2,400 servants, and across the known world, the order owned almost three and a half thousand castles.

The heart of the order were the Knight Brothers, the expert heavily-armoured cavalry we think of as Templars today. Making up as little as 10% of the overall membership of the order, the Knights were the officer elite. Under them, the Sergeant Brothers and Turcopoles were auxiliary troops, mounted and lightly armoured, but with just one horse each (Knights owned three) and no squire to assist. Any man could become a Sergeant Brother in theory, whilst Turcopoles tended to be local militia on assignment. Chaplain Brothers took care of the order’s spiritual needs. The lowest-ranking members were the Farmer Brothers, who provided all the order’s physical support functions – not just farming, but also stabling, building, cleaning, cookery and so on.

The Knights were undoubtedly terrifying warriors. Drawing on their beginning as a group of seasoned veterans, the Templars ensured that each new Knight Brother was a dangerous soldier. Forbidden to waste time hunting or jousting, and not allowed to even leave the order house without permission, there was little for the Knights to do but practice their skills. Training took place en mass, Knights mixed in with Sergeants and Turcopoles, an innovation unheard of at the time that greatly contributed to the overall martial prowess of the order. Their code and beliefs added to their ferocity – surrendering or retreating whilst the standard still flew was a major crime against the order, whilst death in battle guaranteed full absolution and entry into heaven. For the Knights, it was better to die than to retreat. With their unshakeable morale, rock-hard faith and unparalleled fighting skills, the Templars were regarded with the same sort of awe that modern armies have for the British SAS and other near-legendary super-elite units.


Village Idiots

Skill in armed combat does not necessarily translate into victory in battle however, and despite the legends which remain, evidence suggests that the Templars had some serious shortcomings when it came to strategy. Partly, this can be put down to their indoctrination. When your soldiers will die in battle rather than retreat should a position turn bad, a lot of strategic flexibility is sacrificed. The Knights devoutly believed that God was with them, and that righteousness would prevail – in other words, they were fanatics. There are various accounts of Templars dismissing battlefield intelligence, warnings, strategic advice and even other force commanders’ battle orders on the grounds that God would see them through. Their primary strategy was to charge in, confident in their superior arms, training and piety – a strategy which was often used against them to great effect. The brilliant Arab leader Saladin, in particular, was known for ordering his lines to retreat if the Knights charged, drawing them in, and then close and surround the cavalry once they were isolated. It was a tactic which repeatedly proved deadly. Other times however, the Templars proved perfectly adequate architects of their own disasters.

At the siege of Ascalon in 1153, King Baldwin III of Jerusalem led a combined force consisting of his own armies bolstered with Knights Templar and knights from the two other militant crusader orders that had come into existence, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights. The siege had been dragging on for some three months when the defenders unwisely set fire to a siege tower during a high wind. The flames turned back on a fortified tower in the wall, and a chunk of the tower collapsed. According to William of Tyre, a chronicler of the times, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Bernard de Tremelay, decided this was an opportunity too good to miss.

De Tremelay, who had been Grand Master just four years, gathered a pack of some forty of his strongest Knights and announced his intention to breach the wall. Baldwin’s men tried to convince de Tremelay that the idea was dangerous, but he refused to listen. The leaders of the Hospitallers and the Teutonics made similar protests against the plan, but they too were unable to get de Tremelay to change his mind. Finally, de Tremelay actually stood guard over the gap whilst his men went in, so as to prevent anyone else from attempting to join the group, and then follwed them into Ascalon city. No more was heard from the men until their severed heads were laughingly displayed on the battlements the following morning.

Another notably stupid escapade resulted in a Templar slaughter near Antioch in 1237AD. The Preceptor of the Antioch chapter house, Guillaume de Montferrat, led a large force against the castle of Darbsak, which was controlled by the Sultan of Aleppo. The Knights prepared a camp on a nearby plain, drew into battle formation, and approached the castle. As they got close, Christian prisoners chained near the castle screamed warnings to the Knights, trying to inform them that the Sultan was waiting for them with an entire province-worth of soldiers, and that a mighty ambush had been prepared. Guillaume’s response was immediate – he hurled insults back at the prisoners, calling them traitors and apostates for trying to sap his men’s morale.

Not all of the Templars were quite so sanguine. The raiding band wasn’t huge, and there were a lot of enemies in the area. A contingent of Knights approached Guillaume, pointing out that the prisoners had no reason to lie, and saying that it might be prudent to at least scout out the area to investigate the enemy’s strength. Guillaume declared them cowards and false knights, and announced that he was not prepared to allow such craven men to share in a great victory. Adding, as an afterthought, that he didn’t want to be fighting alongside such gross cowards anyway, he banished the entire contingent back to the chapter house.

With everyone who had questioned him sent off the field, Guillaume marched confidently up to the castle, and was then astonished when a huge tide of enemy warriors descended on his men. Incredibly, Guillaume broke the core Templar rule and fled the scene. His force was duly slaughtered against the castle walls – more than one hundred Knights, something like another hundred sergeants, three hundred crossbowmen and an infantry force of hundreds more men. It is a testament to the Templars’ training that they took almost five times as many Turks with them. Guillaume himself was caught in flight and cut to pieces, but not before he’d killed sixteen men outright, and lethally wounded at least twenty more.

There were some Templar successes of course, particularly early on. Baldwin II of Palestine attacked Damascus in 1129, shortly after the Templars first became a force. The Knights managed to broker a deal with the infamous Ishmaelian sect of Islam, the Hashishim, but even the help of the notorious Assassins wasn’t enough to swing the battle Baldwin’s way. Even so, the Templars were largely to thank for preventing the defeat from becoming a fatal rout. Similarly, King Louis VII of France openly acknowledged that it was only the wisdom and sense of the Templars that saved the disastrous Second Crusade (1147-8AD) from being a total massacre before the Europeans even reached Palestine.

In general though, the Templars – along with the other orders militant – proved remarkably ineffective in helping to protect and maintain the crusader states. The kingdoms themselves hit their peak quickly; by 1145AD things were already starting to go wrong. From 1170AD onwards, the Muslims were carrying the fight back to the Christian invaders, fired by the brilliance of their general and leader, Saladin. Jerusalem fell in 1187AD, and although the Crusaders battled on doggedly for another century and the militant orders continued operations, the last piece of invaded territory, the city of Acre, fell in 1291AD.


Templar, Inc

Fortunately for the Templars, their power wasn’t based on good battle strategy. After their initial expansion, they very quickly amassed substantial wealth. As the Templars were forbidden from owning wealth, the order became very cash rich. Taking advantage of the order’s policy of absolute secrecy regarding its affairs, they started offering discreet financial services to pilgrims, such as bonded credit notes. A pilgrim taking the journey to the East could deposit their money at a Templar chapter-house in Europe and get an encoded note. That note could then be presented to any other Templar house and redeemed for cash again – minus a hefty fee. They also offered loans, and received a special Papal exemption from the sin of usury (charging interest).

As their cash reserves grew, they offered loans, mortgaged goods and properties, issued cheques on deposit accounts, and even minted currencies. They always took a cut, and that cut could be as much as 60% on some transactions. It wasn’t long before the Knights had so much wealth that they were able to lend Kings the money to conduct military campaigns. It is no exaggeration to say that they invented banking, and established it firmly throughout European civilisation. It was this wealth – and their special dispensation to leverage it into temporal power – that gave them their strength, and made them the companions of Kings. Richard the Lionheart, known as the Absent King because he spent just six months of his 16-year reign in the British isles, was a big fan of the Order, and often campaigned with them… even as his despised half-brother, John, was staying in their London chapter house.

Quite simply, the Templars made themselves into an indispensable part of the European financial landscape, right up to the very highest levels. At their height, during the 13th century, there were over 160,000 Templars, of whom twenty thousand or more were full knights, which made them stronger than many countries at the time. The order owned not only castles and armies, but also entire chunks of country, complete with towns and cities, right across Europe. They had a large fleet of ships, tens of thousands of strongholds and castles, entire battalions of architects and builders, churches and cathedrals and even, for a while, the entire city of Cyprus. They were rich enough to bankrupt Kings if they wanted to – Edward II of England even had to pawn his crown jewels to them for a time. The Templar bankers literally had European society by the financial balls.

Financial power and military prowess are a heady mix, and the Knights quickly got a reputation quite different to the pious ideals that Hughes de Payens had started out with. In Europe, the Templars got the reputation of being swaggering bullies; in the Holy Land, they were known for politicking and playing dirty tricks. The undoubted friction between the Templars and the Hospitallers stemmed from more than professional rivalry – around the middle of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers foiled a Templar plan to betray an inconvenient Christian ruler to local Moslem forces. Meanwhile, back in France, the phrase “As drunk as a Templar” had become the universal metaphor for extreme inebriation, and right across Germany, brothels had become known as Templarhofs – Templar Houses.



Decline and fall

After the collapse of the Crusader states in 1291AD, the militant orders were left in a strange situation. Their entire justification for existing – protecting pilgrims and the holy lands – had been removed, but their financial power was as great as ever. They had lost a lot of men and a number of territories, but on the other hand their outgoing costs had been slashed. For the European bases, it was business as usual. The goodwill engendered by St. Bernard de Clairvaux was now 150 years in the past now though, and the political landscape was very different.

King Philip II of France, known as Philip the Fair (for his hair colour rather than his ethics) was extremely ambitious, and resented the Templars’ power. When they refused him a loan towards the end of the 13th century, he became their devoted enemy, determine to have their wealth for himself. He had one Pope murdered for certain, and possibly also murdered the man’s successor, but eventually he got a puppet of his on the Papal throne in 1305, Pope Clement V. The Papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon in France, and the Inquisition with it.

Philip had Clement sign a document accusing the Templar Knights of all manner of institutionalised evil – blasphemy, trampling the cross, sodomy, worshipping a head named Baphomet, kissing each others’ bodies during initiation, witchcraft, and over a hundred other crimes. The Catholic Church nowadays admits that they were almost certainly all groundless. However, under its authority, Philip assembled a vast force of soldiers was secretly assembled across France, and on Friday, October 13, 1307, the entire Templar order in France were arrested in simultaneous dawn raids.

In theory.

In practice, Philip the Fair was not particularly popular, and many regional magistrates still respected the Templars. The order was forewarned, and only a fraction of its members were actually arrested. Whilst this included the Order’s leadership, many of the remaining arrestees were elderly or infirm, and it has been suggested that the Templars who stayed behind had volunteered to act as sacrificial lambs for the rest of the Order’s membership. Meanwhile, the Templar fleet – which had been in port on October 12 – had vanished into history, along with the Order’s treasure and most of its personnel.

Philip had the Inquisition torture confessions out of the arrested Templars, and finally, in 1312, forced Pope Clement to officially disband the Templars. Philip and Clement put pressure on the other European kingdoms to arrest and execute the ‘evil’ Templars, but most territories dragged their heels. Scotland, already excommunicated, welcomed all comers with open arms. Below the Scots, in England, Edward II did nothing expect write to his sheriffs across the country telling them to stop the Templars roaming around – for three years – before holding a desultory investigation and letting almost all the Knights off. In Germany, the Knights turned up to court in full armour, to receive full pardons. In Portugal, the King simply renamed the Templars as the Knights of Christ and left it at that; in Spain, the Order’s members and lands were moved over to the Hospitallers instead.

The Order’s last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, had confessed under torture to the various charges, but he recanted in 1314, saying his only regret was lying about his men. Furious, Philip had him burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314 as he and Pope Clement looked on. Legend states that de Molay invited his murderers to join him in the grave within the year; certainly, Clement V was dead within a month, and Philip II died just six months after that.

For all Philip’s ranting and Clement’s obedient pressuring, all they really achieved was to disperse the Knights into the mists of history. The French crown grabbed ownership of the lands the Templars left behind, but never saw a penny of the Order’s fabled treasure. As to where the fleet ended up, where the Knights went, what happened to all that gold and what other treasures were carried off with it… Well, those are the kinds of questions which will inspire poets, dreamers and conspiracy theorists for eight hundred years – and counting.