The enduring popularity of the Knights Templar

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon have an extraordinarily profile for a military order that lasted only two centuries and has been defunct for last 700 years. Better known as the Knights Templar they were created to help enforce the Crusades to Palestine in the early 12th century and were dissolved by papal decree in the early 14th century, they have a durable cultural appeal appearing in the last week alone in such unlikely places as the Assassin’s Creed video game, the Holy Grail mythology and a new book of historical fiction. In their 200 years of existence they grew extremely powerful the speed of which was only matched by the downfall. Geordie Torr explores the mysteries around them in his book The Templars.

Like the Knights Hospitallers, the Templars were founded out of policing need during the Crusades. The Crusades began out of the the need to protect pilgrims heading from Europe to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Pilgrimage was always a dangerous business subject to shipwrecks, robbery and murder. From the 7th century on, Muslim forces controlled the land route but initially left Christians travellers and natives in peace. By the 11th century they began to be seen as infidels with forced conversions and anti-Christian laws. In 1009 the Egyptian ruler of Jerusalem ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the supposed site of Calvary. Throughout the 11th century the Middle East grew increasingly lawless. Constantinople was the sole bulwark and although the Byzantine Empire clawed back losses to the Muslims late in the century they asked for more help from the west.

Pope Urban II convened the Council of Clermont in 1095 calling Christians to take up arms to liberate the Holy Land. What became known as the first Crusade a year later was a mostly French affair as England was preoccupied with the Norman Conquest while Spain was dealing with its own Muslim invasion. After two years of travel and fighting the French force reached Jerusalem in 1099 and breached the walls after an eight-day siege, massacring the local Muslim and Jewish population. Only 300 of the 1500 knights stayed on in the new Kingdom of Jerusalem and new Frankish king Baldwin I’s most pressing problem was to ensure the safety of returning pilgrims.

Jerusalem was the main Christian kingdom but there were three others: County of Edessa (Turkey/Syria), principality of Antioch (southern Turkey) and the County of Tripoli (Lebanon) which looked after the land routes. Together the four were known as Outremer (French for overseas). Soldiers and rulers in Outremer were French while commercial operations were run by Italians. Plans to create a force of knights to protect pilgrims began in 1114. Hugh de Troyes count of Champagne met Baldwin in his own pilgrimage and instructed his vassal Hugh de Payns to form an order of military monks. De Payns recruited from pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre which they helped rebuild. In 1119 nine knights including de Payns formed the confraternity Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ pledging to protect Jerusalem by force.

They were based at the Temple Mount, which gave them the familiar name of Templars. The site is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Templars moved into the Al Aqsa mosque, the former Temple of Solomon. In the early days they survived on alms accepting leftovers from the Knights Hospitallers, another quasi-military order which was set up to aid sick pilgrims. In 1126 King Baldwin II wrote to influential Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux describing the Templar order seeking his support to send some members back to Europe to lobby the pope for funding. De Payns and others travelled to France and England attracting new recruits and donations. Bernard became a major ally calling them “fearless knights” who kept Jerusalem open for pilgrims and in 1129 he urged the Council of Troyes to issue the Templars a white uniform signifying purity (the red cross was later added to the tunic) and a set of rules including the right to own land, which would make the order very wealthy. Ten years later a papal bull approved the rules saying they answered only to the pope.

The Templars had a mostly defensive role in the Kingdom of Jerusalem but a new Muslim leader Nur ad-Din was about to make life more difficult in the Outremer. He failed to take Damascus but Edessa did fall to him after a siege in 1144. Bernard of Clairview led a call for a second Crusade and large French and German armies set off in 1147. When they arrived in the Middle East they decided Damascus was a more inviting target than Edessa but a 50,000 strong army was routed there by Nur ad-Din’s forces. There was bitter recriminations at the Crusade’s failure with the German blaming the Templars while the French stuck by them.

Defeat led to a hunkering down in Jerusalem. The Templars were responsible for Outremer’s castles but were also dragged into battle defending Gaza from the Egyptians with the siege of Ascalon and further north setting up a military base in Tortosa. Ad-Din was a constant thorn in the side of the Franks invading Antioch’s territory leaving only a rump state around the city. There was also a new enemy to contend with Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin. While Templar cavalry had a victory over him at Montgisard, Saladin recovered to command a huge army at Hattin in Galilee where he took advantage of intemperate defenders to surround the Templar army depleting the remaining Crusader castles in the process. Jerusalem had to surrender to him in 1187. The Templar headquarters were reconsecrated as the Al Aqsa mosque and the large golden cross over the Dome of the Rock was pulled down. The Franks had a handful of castles left to keep a toehold in the Holy Land.

The fall of Jerusalem led to a third crusade led by the kings of England, France and Germany. Crusaders put the garrison at Acre under siege in 1188 though they themselves were surrounded on land by Saladin’s forces. The siege was broken by the sea arrival of English King Richard’s forces including a large contingent of Templars. Richard accepted the surrender of the garrison and marched south. He captured Jaffa but decided against an attack on Jerusalem thinking he could not hold on to it. In 1192 he and Saladin signed the treaty of Jaffa, a three year truce to guarantee the safety of pilgrims and continued Christian ownership of the coast between Tyre and Jaffa. Richard went home and Saladin died a year later.

Despite the truce, Pope Innocent III called for a Fourth Crusade, this time against Egypt but there was little enthusiasm. Ironically a powerful earthquake in 1202 led to a period of peace with both sides preoccupied with reconstruction. Undeterred the pope called for a Fifth Crusade against Egypt in 1213. A large European army assembled but had no central control. They captured the Egyptian port of Damietta and marched on Cairo but were trapped in rising Nile floodwaters with defenders opening the sluice gates. While the invaders argued among themselves, many drowned or were slaughtered.

The war was ended with a truce that saw the Crusaders leave Egypt and led to another treaty where they regained Jerusalem without a fight. The holy city would remain unfortified and Muslims retained control of the Temple Mount. Both sides broke the terms of the wider truce and the pope called for yet another Crusade. The Franks regained control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and much of Galilee. Infighting between Hospitallers and Templars didn’t help their cause and in a battle at La Forbie near Gaza Muslims killed 5000 Christian soldiers effectively ending their power in Outremer. Jerusalem changed hands again. The second half of the 13th century was a long slow loss of the remainder of the Holy Land. A seventh Crusade got bogged down in Egypt. The eighth and ninth Crusades were a rabble. Antioch, the Franks’ first state, fell after a siege in 1267.

The dominoes fell. First Tripoli in 1288, then Acre in 1291. The last outpost was the off-shore island of Ruad guarded by 120 Templar knights. A fleet of galleys laid siege and it fell in 1302 bringing 202 years of European occupation of the Middle East to an end. The Templars moved to Cyprus but their time was almost up too. A new French pope Clement V wasn’t a bishop but elected through the manipulation of King of France Philip IV. Philip was jealously eyeing off Templar properties and inherited a large debt he owed to the Templars. In 1307 he ordered their properties raided and all Templars arrested. As they answered only to the pope, Philip was exceeding his authority but he relied on the forced confessions of heresy to make it a fait accompli the pope could not question. While the pope prevaricated, Philip threatened military action and in 1312 Clement issued a papal bull to suppress the order. He also turned over their assets to their rivals the Hospitallers. The edict was followed with less force outside France though all property was eventually confiscated. In Iberia where the Templars fought the Reconquista against the Moors they were protected from prosecution and formed new orders.

At its peak the Templars had 15,000 to 20,000 members. Although a military order, few members took part in fighting. Most helped manage the order’s administration and business interests. Individuals took a vow of poverty but the order itself had no restrictions and coffers swelled from donations. They also benefited from taxes in the Crusader states. The English Templars became major creditors and wool traders. By 1312 they held property in most English counties and the Temple Church in London still survives.

Their first mention in literature was in Wolfram von Eschenach’s Parzival (c1220)`based on Chretian des Troyes’ Perceval the Story of the Grail. Parzival expands on des Troyes idea of the Grail as a Chalice of Jesus’ blood by suggesting the Templars guarded it at one of their castles. The mystery around the organisation and the speed of their demise fed rumours around their continued survival and what they learned at Temple Mount. Early 18th century Scottish-born senior French Freemason Andrew Ramsay concocted a Freemason history that included connections with Crusading knights stating “every Mason is a Knight Templar”. German masons also claimed the Templars gained secret wisdom in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem saying that before the final grand master was burned at the stake, he ordered that information to taken from the Paris temple and hidden. Some believed that information ended up in Scotland.

Conspiracy theories went into overdrive in 1797 when Jesuit Augustin Barruel linked the Templars with the Illuminati, a group of radical Bohemian intellectuals. He claimed a Templar-Freemason-Illuminati plot was behind the French Revolution to destabilise the Catholic Church and European monarchies. In the 19th century American temperance societies named themselves for Templars because they were crusading against alcohol. In 1867 archaeologists found Templar artifacts including a sword and a cross in a shaft under the Dome of the Rock, leading to more theories of items of even greater religious significance there.

Fiction writers including Walter Scott enjoyed mining Templar legend for their stories. But Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln went overboard with their The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (1982) concocting a fanciful link from the Masons to the Templars and back to Jesus. Writer Anthony Burgess thought the work was “a marvelous theme for a novel”. Dan Brown agreed borrowing many of its theories for his bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003). The Holy Blood authors sued Brown for plagiarism but the judge argued because they presented their book as a historical study, it was open to interpretation and use in fiction without copyright infringement. Umberto Eco took a more playful tone in his absurdist Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) which notes that one surefire way to conjure up a conspiracy theory was to invoke the Templars.

It is no surprise they turn up in video games such as Assassin’s Creed. The Templars’ hold on popular imagination shows no sign of waning 700 years after their disappearance.

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