The Templars: History & Legend

June 01, 2007

The Templars: History & Legend

History depicts the Templars as a jointly chivalric and religious order that emerged in the early twelfth century, following the First Crusade. It was suppressed two centuries later for primarily political reasons.

Legend has taken up the extraordinary colourfulness and diversity of their known history, speculated on gaps in historical records, and stock-piled rumours, to establish a virtual database for do-it-yourself conspiracy theories. The appropriation of the Templars for assorted ideological and personal agendas was famously satirized by Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum in 1988.

Today the Templars are in the limelight for several reasons. The 700th anniversary of the arrest of the last Grand Master on 13 October 1307 has brought calls for the public vindication of the Order. The Vatican is about to publish documents showing that the pope of the day initially absolved the Order of the final charges brought against it before, incomprehensibly, proceeding with sentencing. The crusades largely are caught up in current political discourses. And, perhaps most significantly in popular culture, author Dan Brown drew on the legend of their link to Freemasonry in The Da Vinci Code and his proposed sequel, to be focussed on Freemasonry, will presumably pursue the legend further.

The Order of the Temple was founded in Jerusalem ca 1120 by a French nobleman called Hugues de Payen, from Champagne. The Templars were so called because the Christian King of Jerusalem at the time, Baldwin II, provided them with living quarters at the al-Aqsa mosque (the Dome of the Rock). This stood on the site of the First Temple of Solomon, destroyed in 586 BC, and the Second Temple that replaced it, destroyed in 70 AD. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built nearby, at the supposed site of Christ’s Resurrection, when the Roman Empire was christianized under Constantine in 312 AD, but the Temple Mount itself was not in use until the mosque was built there after Jerusalem was captured by Muslim forces in 638 AD.

The Eastern Empire of Byzantium lost ground to Islam from the seventh century on. In 1095 Emperor Alexius sought help from Pope Urban II against new aggression from the emergent Seljuk Turks. The Western forces of the First Crusade (newly united instead of fighting each other) arrived in Constantinople in 1096 and in 1099 captured Jerusalem. The conqueror, Godfrey of Bouillon, refused the title of king in favour of Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, but when Godfrey died in 1100 his successor was designated King Baldwin I and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, stretching from modern Beirut to the Red Sea. The region as a whole was known as Outremer (the land beyond the sea).

 One reason Christendom wanted control of Jerusalem was to allow pilgrims free access to the most important of the holy sites. Although pilgrimage had been allowed to continue spasmodically over the years, the way was always fraught with danger. The Hospitallers had been allowed to offer shelter to assist pilgrims, but even after the Christian conquest of Jerusalem, the dangers on the roads persisted, especially when the occupying forces returned home. Hugues and his companions took the standard monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, intending to live as regular canons in the living quarters allotted to them. Almost immediately they assumed more active lives, complementing the work of the Hospitallers by guarding pilgrim access roads to Jerusalem.

The Templars attracted attention and support from the beginning. Fulk V, Count of Anjou, promised them an annual income, while Hugh, Count of Champagne, actually joined them ca 1125. In 1127, Baldwin sent Huguesand others to France to recruit powerful men for action in Outremer, and to offer Baldwin’s eldest daughter in marriage to Fulk of Anjou, who would then be in line for the throne of Jerusalem after Baldwin’s death. The mission was a resounding success. 

Baldwin had sought support for it from Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard had preached the First Crusade and he was undoubtedly the most powerful churchman in France. The interconnectedness of the main players is noticeable. Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux was built on land given by Hugh of Champagne. The Order of the Temple was formally launched in the West in 1129, at the Council of Troyes in Champagne, with a Latin Rule drawn up under Bernard’s guidance. At Hugues’ request, Bernard also produced in 1131 a defence of this new kind of mixed Order, in a subsequently influential treatise In Praise of the New Knighthood

The Grail, moreover, first appears, as the cup of the Last Supper, in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes ca 1180–1190. The story, he says, is based on material provided by Philippe, Count of Flanders, who died on crusade in the Holy Land in 1191. As a supposed holy relic available in the West, the cup would have represented a hopeful recapitulation of the losses in the Holy Land at the time. There is a seventh-century record of a silver chalice in Jerusalem regarded by the devout as the cup of the Last Supper, and no doubt a yearning for such a relic persisted. Chrétien’s poem was paraphrased in German ca 1210–1220 by Wolfram von Eschenbach, for whom the Grail was a precious stone guarded by templeisen, commonly but mistakenly understood as Templars. 

In the course of their 1127–1129 mission, the Templars achieved celebrity status and received numerous donations of land and property within a short time. In 1131 King Alfonso I of Aragon in Spain actually bequeathed his entire kingdom to the Templars, along with the Hospitallers and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, apparently to encourage their support for the reconquest of those parts of the Iberian peninsula that had been in Muslim hands since the eighth century. By the middle of the twelfth century the Templars had substantial possessions not only in France but also in England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and by 1300 they had hundreds of preceptories (religious and military command centres) and castles scattered throughout the West, as well as numerous bases in and beyond Outremer in the East.

On his death in 1136, Hugues was succeeded as Grand Master by Robert de Craon, who secured important papal privileges for the Order. In a papal bull of 1139, the Templars were made answerable to no one but the pope himself. In bulls of 1144 and 1145, provisions were made for them to be sustained by the Church. Templars were, for example, excused from tithing and might themselves receive tithes; the Order might have its own priests and exclusive oratories; and its supporters might be rewarded with indulgences (reductions of time to be spent in Purgatory). From seeking the support of the official Church for its activities, the Order came to be an important element in the power structure of the Church itself.

In general, the Templars were regarded as exceptionally able and brave warriors and strategists, and they undoubtedly contributed substantially to the military achievements of various crusades, as well as the ongoing governance of Outremer. But popular praise was countered by periodic clerical criticism of their alleged arrogance and avarice. Such ambivalence arose to some extent from Templar activity in another domain, that of finance. 

With their extraordinary ability to amass funds, the Templars set up the world’s first modern bank, with popes and crowned heads, including those of France and England, amongst their clients. Their preceptories and castles were strong places where monies and important documents could be held in relative security, and from these bases they could meet the needs of rulers and others. They offered loans to fund crusades and ransoms, for example, and, with the wide range of their bases, they introduced letters of credit, whereby travellers could deposit funds in one location and withdraw them at another on production of the letter. 

The Templar base in Jerusalem lasted till 1187, when the Egyptian leader Saladin took the city. For the next century the main Templar base in Outremer was Acre. Jerusalem itself returned to Christian control in 1229, though the Temple Mount with the mosque remained in Muslim hands, but the city was lost again in 1244, never to be regained. The mid-thirteenth century saw the emergence of a new Muslim force in the East, the Mamluks. In 1291 they seized Acre, wiping out the Templars’ base, but the Templar commander, Theodore Gaudin, escaped with their treasure and was duly elected Grand Master in Sidon. Before long, however, the remaining Templars were driven out of all their bases along the northern coast of Outremer, except for the offshore island of Ruad. 

When Theodore died, he was succeeded as Grand Master by Jacques de Molay. The Templars, then based in Cyprus, supported papal calls for a new crusade to regain the Holy Land and began to prepare for it. With poor odds for success, the hope was that the Mongols would attack from another direction, defeat the Mamluks, and be content to hand Jerusalem at least back to the Christians. But when new crusaders arrived in Ruad assuming they would join the Templars there, they found that the Templar force had given up waiting for reinforcements and gone back to Cyprus. Now alerted to the potential danger of Ruad, the Mamluks wiped out that last Templar base in Outremer in 1302.

The demise of the Order of the Temple was set in train when Pope Clement V asked Jacques de Molay and the Hospitaller Grand Master, Fulk de Villaret, to meet him in France to discuss a recurrent suggestion that the two Orders should be merged. Jacques arrived first and in late 1307 asked the pope to investigate charges of impropriety that had been levelled at the Templars by former members, in order to refute them. Clement agreed and wrote to the French king, Philip IV, stating his own disbelief concerning the accusations and requesting that the king take no action himself. A month later, however, on Friday October 13, 1307, Philip had all the Templars in France arrested on charges of heresy, homosexual activities, blasphemy and denying Christ. Confessions were uniformly exacted through torture.

Like his predecessors, Philip had operated financially through the Paris Temple treasury, but he had also set up his own treasury in 1295. The French economy was in a reasonable state, but Philip wanted to increase short-term finance. In 1291 (and later, in 1311), he seized the property and persons of the Lombard bankers; in 1296–1297, he exacted money from the clergy and provoked a confrontation with Pope Boniface VIII; in 1306, he treated the Jews as he had the Lombards. His regime had frequently debased the currency, but in 1306 he ordered the reestablishment of the 1266 rate, something he could not have contemplated unless he expected a huge infusion of funds from somewhere. The Templars were extremely wealthy in both movable funds and lands in France, and Philip’s immediate motive for the arrests seems clear, whatever ideas he may have had about the morality of the Templars or his own quasi-messianic calling. 

Outrage at the arrests was expressed by various European leaders. Pope Clement initially objected strongly to having his directions flouted, especially since the Order was answerable only to the papacy and Philip’s henchman in the arrests was excommunicated at the time. A few weeks later, however, Clement capitulated under French pressure and ordered the arrest of Templars throughout Europe. In most cases the response was poor, but the move allowed Clement to insist that the charges be heard by a papal committee, before which Jacques and the others recanted their forced confessions. Proceedings were suspended in 1308.

There had, in fact, been an ongoing struggle for supremacy between Church and State throughout the medieval period and by the fourteenth century the papacy was losing weight in real politik. The climactic Great Schism of 1378–1417 actually saw one pope ensconced in Rome and another in Avignon in France. Recurrent calls to the unifying ideal of crusade were played out against the increasing fragmentation of Christendom. 

Philip continued behind the scenes to force the issue, while the Templars protested their innocence. When the hearings resumed in 1310, the Templars put forward a strong case for exonerating the Order. Philip resorted to bullying, consigning to the flames as relapsed heretics 54 Templars who had recanted their confessions. In 1312 Clement issued three bulls, dissolving the Order, transferring Temple property to the Hospital (not Philip), and giving provincial councils the power to decide the fate of individual Templars. The fate of the leaders he reserved to himself. Two of these four men accepted life sentences; Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney continued to protest their innocence and were consigned to the flames on 18 March, 1314. 

Tradition had it that from the flames Jacques called on both Clement and Philip to meet him before God within the year, and it seems to have added to the Templar mystique in no small way that both did die in the course of 1314. The Templar curse may or may not have been a post facto invention; certainly it acquired a life of its own, as demonstrated at the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, when an onlooker shouted out, ‘Jacques de Molay, thus you are avenged!’ 

Apart from their ostensibly heretical recantations, the Templars are known to have had earlier contact with heresy. The Manichaean Cathars of the Languedoc in southern France—where the Templars harboured the hope of establishing their own state one day— were pursued in the Albigensian Crusade of 1208–1244, but some Templars themselves had a Cathar background. There is no hard evidence for the further rumour that some Templars might have been Johannites, who considered John the Baptist the real Messiah and Jesus of Nazareth a false prophet. That idea may have arisen because, like the Hospitallers, they had a particular regard for John the Baptist, in the way that Christians broadly had devotions to particular saints. 

Under torture, Templars had admitted to insulting the Cross and denying Christ during initiation, obscene kissing, sexual relations with demonic women, and killing newborn children. Some sacrilegious gestures were admitted without torture, but for the purpose of steeling initiates against possible treatment they might experience if captured. Again, the Templars’ own rules specified punishments for sexual misconduct, suggesting that this might occur amongst them as amongst other social groups. 

Perhaps the most bizarre charges, however, concerned their supposed worship of an idol called Baphomet, described, in different forced confessions, as a severed head (perhaps a reference to John the Baptist), a head with three faces, the face of a bearded man, a woman, and a cat. Templars are known to have had saints’ heads as relics for conventional veneration, but the charge may be related to one or other Muslim connection. Baphomet may be a corruption of the Prophet’s own name, regularly garbled in the West, where the Prophet was thought of as a devilish god worshipped in idol form by pagans, part of an infernal trinity. Alternatively, the name may be a corruption of an Arabic word meaning Father of Understanding, connoting a seeker after wisdom. It is not impossible that some Templars did become adherents of Muslim mysticism. 

Like others who stayed long in the East, the Templars accommodated themselves to local ways. They learnt Arabic, employed local Muslims as secretaries and had a general tolerance of Muslims as such. In 1173, however, an attempt by King Almaric I to form an alliance with the Shi’ite Assassins, the Templars’ opposite number in the muslim world, failed. This was mainly due to the fact that the Templars killed the assassin envoy. Broadly speaking, alliances with one group of Muslims against another posing a greater immediate threat had a long history, stretching back at least as far as the eighth century. In reality, it was not all us and them. 

The more bizarre charges against the Templars at least would seem to have been based on misunderstandings or rumours taken at face value, conveniently suiting a particular agenda. Some Templars may have had a personal lifestyle not entirely acceptable in conventional Western Christianity, but to many European spectators in the fourteenth century, the extent of the accusations seemed beyond belief. 

Certain aspects of the Templar legend rely largely on the fact that the Templars’ own archive disappeared. If it survived the two forced moves of 1187 and 1291, it was almost certainly lost when the Order was suppressed. One thing it might have supplied is hard information about the original sources of Templar wealth, and in the absence of contemporary records imaginations have run wild. 

The rumour that the Templars found buried treasure underneath the Temple Mount is enduring. Suggestions about its nature have included the Ark of the Covenant, lost with the First Temple; the treasure lost with the Second Temple; the embalmed head of John the Baptist; and documents about the origins of Christianity that would undermine official Church teaching. The treasure held in the Paris Temple, which may have included treasure from the East, was rumoured to have been smuggled out of France at the time of the arrests in Templar ships, but their destination is unknown. 

Numbers of Templars lived on in other countries and were accepted into other religious houses or other chivalric orders. It has been suggested that those on board the disappearing fleet may have joined other Templars, at a loss after 1291, in Switzerland, which around that time produced both a splendid army, apparently out of nowhere, and its famous banking system. The fleet has, alternatively, been said to have fetched up in the west of Scotland, where some suggestive tombstones have been found. The Scottish legend has been developed to argue for the descent of Freemasonry from the Templars, especially the Strict Templar Observance form of Freemasonry. 

Briefly, Freemasonry emerged in England in the seventeenth century; its Grand Lodge was established in 1717. In 1737 Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scottish Freemason who was Grand Lodge Chancellor in France, set out a history of Freemasonry as originating with the crusaders. Into this history a German Freemason, Karl Gottlieb von Hund, introduced in the 1750s the idea of a specifically Templar heritage. Through its occupation of the Temple Mount, the Order had supposedly come into possession of secret wisdom that Jacques de Molay had passed on before his execution. At the heart of Freemasonry is the story of Hiram, master-builder of the First Temple, whose extra-biblical legend had him murdered because he would not reveal his masonic secrets. 

The Templars have even been caught up in the story of the Shroud of Turin, said to have been guarded by Templars between 1204, when it was supposedly lost when Constantinople was plundered by Western Christians, and 1389, when it was put on display, interestingly, at Troyes. 

The medieval Templars emerge from this mixing-pot of historical record and speculation as different things to different people. They were themselves individuals, with individual human strengths and weaknesses; it is when they are viewed en bloc that imagination and inference begin to take over. As they resurface in one or other forum of current events, we can only begin to know the truth about them if we give appropriate consideration to the historical records available and what we can recapture of the historical contexts.


Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 (scholarly)

Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend, 2004, London: Penguin, 2005 (scholarly)

Sean Martin, The Knights Templar, Pocket Essentials: Harpenden, Herts, 2004 (popular but thoughtful)

Helen Nicholson, The Knights Templar: A New History, Thrupp, Stroud, Glos: Sutton, 2004 (scholarly)

See also:

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge, London: Jonathan Cape, 1989 (speculative)

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, trans. William Weaver, London: Secker and Warburg, 1989

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