The Knights Templar were a secret society whose true purpose remains hotly debated among scholars and historians even up to this day. Their story has been the subject of many legends and mysteries, capturing the fascination and curiosity of people throughout the ages.
Were the Templars sent to the Holy Land in Jerusalem to protect Christians on pilgrimages, or were they tasked to accomplish secret missions by higher authorities to search for lost artifacts and buried treasure in sacred temples and other holy sites?
The Templars left behind many clues of their existence which have since been passed down from one generation to another, with the memory of their legacy enduring until our modern era. Today in Europe, there are hundreds of sites and establishments scattered across the continent that used to belong to the Knights Templar – proof of the extent of their power and influence several centuries ago. At their peak, there were approximately 15,000 Templar houses with a vast network stretching from England to Europe, with its center of power located France – a country that was once the heart of the medieval world.
Looking back at their place in history, the legacy of the Knights Templar can be traced to their humble beginnings, their exceptional growth and rise to power, and the tragic decline of their significance.
Origins of the Knights Templar
After Christian fighters recovered Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099, groups of pilgrims from across Western Europe began to visit the Holy Land. Although the city of Jerusalem was relatively safe and secure under the Catholic Church’s control, the rest of the Outremer or the Crusader states were not. Bandits and marauding highwaymen preyed upon pilgrims, who were routinely robbed and slaughtered – sometimes by the hundreds – as they tried to reach the interior of the Holy Land.
And so, in 1119, Hugues de Payens and eight other knights offered their services to the patriarch of Jerusalem to protect these Christians on pilgrimages who are headed for the Holy Land. De Payens approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Warmund, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and proposed the creation of a monastic order for the protection of these pilgrims. The King and the Patriarch Warmund agreed to this request, and the king granted the Templars a headquarters in a wing of the royal palace on the Temple Mount located in the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is believed to be above the ruins of the Temple of Solomon.
The Crusaders referred to the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Solomon’s Temple, and from this location, the new monastic order took the name of “Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon,” or “Templar” knights, or “Knights of the Temple.”
Official Establishment of the Knights Templar
For the first decade since their establishment, the Knights Templar were few in number, and the order had few financial resources and could only rely on donations to survive. However, their impoverished status did not last long thanks to their powerful advocate Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – a leading Church figure who is primarily responsible for the founding of the Cistercian Order of monks. In 1129, Bernard led a group of influential churchmen to officially approve and endorse the order on behalf of the church. With the Templars’ formal recognition and official establishment, the order became a favored charity throughout Christendom, receiving plenty of land and money, and with many noble-born sons from powerful families joining the organization to help with the fight in and concerning the Holy Land.
It also helped the Templars’ cause when in 1139, Pope Innocent II’s papal bull ‘‘Omne Datum Optimum” exempted the order from obeying the local laws. This allowed the Templars to freely pass through all boarders; to avoid paying any taxes; and to be exempt from all authority except that of the pope. Now with a clear mission, abundant resources, and limited restrictions, the order grew rapidly and became very wealthy. And for two hundred years, the Knights Templar was the most powerful order in the medieval world.
The Knights Templar were organized as a monastic order, and its organizational structure had a strong chain of authority. The Templars were led by a Grand Master, who is appointed for life and who oversaw both the order’s military efforts in the East and their financial holdings in the West. His deputy was referred to as the Seneschal, which is followed in authority by the Marshal. The Marshal was responsible for individual commanders, horses, arms, equipment and ordering supplies.
The Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, on the other hand, was the treasurer and he shared a certain authority with the Grand Master which served the purpose of balancing his power. Other cities also had their own Commanders, fulfilling specific regional responsibilities.
There was a threefold division of the ranks of the Templars: the noble knights, the non-noble sergeants, and the chaplains. The noble knights were equipped as the heavy cavalry and were the most visible branch of the Templars. The sergeants, on the other hand, brought many vital skills and trades to the order, serving as blacksmiths and builders, while also administering many of the order’s European properties. In the Crusader states, they fought alongside the noble knights as light cavalry. The chaplains constituted a third Templar class, and they were ordained priests who handled the spiritual needs of the order. All three classes wore the order’s signature red cross, with the knights wearing white mantles and the sergeants wearing black or brown clothing.
The Knights Templar as the First Western Multinational Corporation
Although the primary mission of the Knights Templar was military in nature, many of them acted in support positions which involve the management of the order’s financial infrastructure. While the members of the Templar Order were sworn to individual poverty, they were also given control over massive wealth that go beyond direct donations. Those who were interested in participating in the Crusades were given the option of placing all of their assets under Templar management while they were away. In this manner, the Knights Templar accumulated wealth throughout Christendom and the Outremer.
Then in 1150, the order devised a system which allowed pilgrims to travel without cash and valuables, generating letters of credit to those who are journeying to the Holy Land. Pilgrims deposited their possessions with a local Templar preceptory before departing for the Holy Land, and they received, in turn, a document indicating the value of their deposit. This letter of credit can then be used upon arrival in the Holy Land to retrieve their funds in an amount of treasure with the same value as their deposit. The Templar's innovative system was a model for today’s banking system with money transfers, pension plans, traveler’s checks, and more.
Because of many donations and their various business dealings, the order acquired large tracts of land in Europe and the Middle East; they bought and managed farms and vineyards; they built several stone cathedrals and castles; and at one point, they even owned the entire island of Cyprus. The immense wealth of the Knights Templar made them the prominent bankers of their age and arguably qualified them as the world’s first multinational corporation.
In the mid-12th century, the tide began to turn in the Crusades, with the Muslims becoming more united under effective leadership while dissent arose among the Christian factions. The occasional disputes among the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights, and decades of internal feuds weakened the political and military positions of the Christians. With the failure of the Crusades and the subsequent closures of the passage to the Holy Land, the Templar order soon lost its founding purpose, becoming a standing army roaming Europe with no battle to fight and no one to answer to. This brought the Templars a lot of attention, and because of their wealth and political power, they became the target of other powerful forces that saw them as a threat to the power structure in the continent.
In 1302, King Philip IV of France came into conflict with the pope. To strike a crippling blow against the papacy and to gain wealth to fund war efforts, the king waged a vicious and skillful campaign aimed at suppressing the Templars for good. And so, on Friday, October 13, 1307 – which is notoriously referred to as “Friday the 13th” – all the Knights Templar in France were arrested by agents of King Philip. He also ordered that any member of the order still residing in the country to be thrown into prison where they were subjected to intense physical torture until they confessed to accusations of heresy, homosexuality and dishonest business activities. It is very likely that these confessions were completely untrue, but following these admissions and the scandal that smeared the Church’s reputation, Pope Clement V issued a Papal command to all Christians in 1312 ordering the disbandment of the Knights Templar.
With the last of the leaders of the order removed from power, the remaining Templars around Europe were either arrested and tried under the Papal investigation, absorbed into other military orders like the Knights Hospitaller or pensioned off and allowed to live the remainder of their days in peace. By papal decree, the properties managed by the Templars were transferred to the Knights Hospitaller since the military order absorbed many of the Templars’ members.
Given their fascinating military mission and their extensive financial resources and social significance during its period of existence, the Knights Templar have become associated with legends concerning secrets and mysteries that have allegedly been handed down to a select few from ancient times. For example, while most historians agree that the Knights Templar fully disbanded 700 years ago, there are those who argue that the order had been operating underground and remains in existence even to this day. This belief is further perpetuated by fictional embellishments that have been added in various materials in popular culture such as “The Da Vinci Code,” “Indiana Jones,” and “Assassin’s Creed.”
While the hypotheses about the Knights Templar presented in these fictional stories are undeniably intriguing, mainstream history still maintains that the order of the Knights Templar didn’t suddenly vanish or hide away their treasures to covertly continue their operations until today. What happened, in reality, was a gradual transition over several years of the Templar's decline and their member’s subsequent integration with the Knights Hospitaller or peaceful retirement away from the military operations of the Catholic Church.