The two principal orders of knighthood of the Crusades were established prior to the launching of the first crusade in 1096 and shortly before the second crusade began in 1146. The fundamental principle on which the new orders were based was the union of monasticism and chivalry. Before this time, a man could choose to devote himself to religion and become a monk, or he could elect to become a warrior and devote himself to defending God and country. The founding of the orders of knighthood permitted the vow of religion and the vow of war to be united in a single effort to free the Holy Land from the Muslims.
The oldest of the religio-chivalric orders was the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitallers and subsequently as the Knights of Malta and the Knights of Rhodes, founded in 1048. By the middle of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers had become a powerful military factor in the East, and their membership included the most accomplished knights in Christendom. By 1153 they had become the pride of the Christians and the terror of the Saracens. Unfortunately, after a great number of victories for the cross, the moral and chivalric ideals of the order began to become corrupted by the enormous wealth that its warriors had accumulated. In 1187, the Hospitallers were almost annihilated in the disastrous battle of Tiberias, where the Saracen army under the generalship of Saladin (1137–1193), the sultan of Egypt and Syria, thoroughly defeated the Christians and reclaimed Jerusalem.
The second of the great orders of knighthood was founded in 1117 by two French knights and was originally known as the Knights of the Temple of Solomon and later as the Knights Templar or the Knights of the Red Cross. Hugues des Paiens and Geoffrey of Saint-Omer, two compassionate nobles, had observed the hardships endured by Christian travelers en route to Jerusalem and decided to serve as guides and protectors for the defenseless pilgrims. The warrior guides soon gained a reputation for their service to the helpless wayfarers; they were joined by seven other knights who admired their principles. The nine men bound themselves by the traditional vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, then added the oaths to defend the Holy Sepulcher and to protect those pilgrims who journeyed there. At first the Knights of Saint John, the Hospitallers, lent aid and encouragement to the new society of brothers. There could be no rivalry with this new order of knights who comprised only nine members and were known by others as the “Poor Soldiers of the Holy City.” It was said that Hugues and Geoffrey only had one horse between them when they first began their missions of benevolence.
Then, at the council of Troyes in 1127, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) drew up a code for the order and designed an appropriate uniform, consisting of a white tunic and mantle with a red cross on the left breast. Pope Honorius II (d. 1130) approved the following rules of conduct and discipline for the order in 1128:
• to recite vocal prayers at certain hours;
• to abstain from meat four days in the week; to cease hunting and hawking;
• to defend with their lives the mysteries of the Christian faith;
• to observe the seven sacraments of the church, the fourteen articles of faith, the creeds of the apostles and Athanasius; • to uphold the doctrines of the Two Testaments, including the interpretations of the church fathers, the unity of God and the trinity of his persons, and the virginity of Mary both before and after the birth of Jesus;
• to go beyond the seas when called to do so in defense of the cause;
• to retreat not from the foe unless outnumbered three to one.
In addition to the rules of conduct and discipline, humility was one of the first principles of membership in the Knights Templar. The helmet of the Templar must bear no crest; his beard should never be cut; his personal behavior should be that of a servant of others; and his tunic should be girt with a linen cord as a symbol that he was bound in service.
There were four classes of members in the Templars—knights, squires, servitors, and priests—each with their individual list of duties and obligations. The presiding officer of the order was called the grand master and was assisted by a lieutenant, a steward, a marshal, and a treasurer. The states of Christendom were divided into provinces, and over each was set a grand master. The grand master of Jerusalem was considered the head of the entire brotherhood, which grew in numbers, influence, and wealth to become one of the most powerful organizations in the medieval world. Counts, dukes, princes, and even kings sought to wear the red cross and white mantle of the Templar, an honor which was recognized throughout Europe.
In 1139, Pope Innocent II (d. 1143) granted the Templars an unprecedented mark of papal approval: the churches of the Templars were exempt from interdicts; their properties and revenues were free from taxation to either crown or Holy Mother Church. The Templars now had the prestige of being triumphant crusaders. They had the blessing of the pope. They had the gratitude of those whom they had protected on their pilgrimages. They had vast estates with mansions that could not be invaded by any civil officer. Thousands beseeched the order to allow them to become members of the Templars. In the course of time the Knights of the Temple became a sovereign body, pledging allegiance to no secular ruler. In spiritual matters, the pope was still recognized as supreme, but in all other matters, the grand master of Jerusalem was as independent and as wealthy as the greatest king in Europe.
What had begun as the mission of two poor knights with one horse who vowed to watch over Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem had become a privileged order of opportunists bloated with wealth. And in their new quest for power and wealth, the protection of the pilgrims was often forgotten. Even St. Bernard issued a series of exhortations that the order was accepting into its membership too many knights who were but adventurers and outlaws and that a good number of the nobility who had joined the Templars were men who had been regarded as oppressors and scourges by their serfs.
There were three divisions of the Templars in the East—Jerusalem, Antioch, and Tripoli. In Europe, there were 16 provinces—France, Auvergne, Normandy, Aquitaine, Poitou, Provence, England, Germany, Upper and Lower Italy, Apulia, Sicily, Portugal, Castile, Leon, and Aragon. A majority of the Templars were French, and it was estimated by the middle of the thirteenth century that as many as 9,000 manors were held by the Templars in France.
The chief seat of the Templars had remained in Jerusalem from the origins of the order in 1118 to 1187, when it was moved to Antioch after the Christians’ defeat by Saladin in the plain of Tiberias. The Hospitallers and the Templars had been slaughtered in battle and 230 captive knights had been beheaded when they refused the Muslims’ offer to convert to the religion of the Prophet. The grand master established the Templar headquarters in Antioch for four years, then moved to Acre in 1191. A third transfer of the Templar seat was made in 1217 when the grand master moved to the Pilgrim’s Castle near Cesarea. When the Muslims captured Acre in 1291 and overthrew the Christian kingdom, the Templars had bravely fought until they were exterminated almost to the man. The surviving Templars retreated to Cyprus, which they had purchased from King Richard the Lion-Hearted (1157–1199) for 35,000 marks.
Although defeated by the soldiers of the Prophet Muhammad and driven out of the Holy Land, the Knights Templar retained their many estates and their enormous wealth in Europe. However, especially in France, the Templars were becoming diminished in popularity, and the jealousies of the government had been aroused against them. Lords, dukes, and princes were not only envious of the order’s burgeoning treasury, but they fumed over the Templars’ exemption from the burdens of taxation imposed by church and state on others. The self-righteous among the rulers and the people were indignant over the knights’ pride, arrogance, and licentiousness, and rumors began to spread that the order had acquired heretical practices during their time in the East.
In 1306, King Philip IV (1268–1314) of France, called Philip the Fair, sought refuge for himself and the royal treasury in the Templars’ massive fortress in Paris. The unruly mobs were calling for his death, and he feared that the disloyal among his nobles would loot the nation’s wealth. While Philip was in the process of entrusting the treasury of France to the Templars’ protection, he also managed to gain sight of the incredible wealth that the Knights had accumulated. When he fully comprehended that this was only a portion of their immeasurable riches and that the Templars had forts and estates throughout France, each containing its own deposit of treasure, he was awed by the enormity of their riches.
When Philip sat more securely on his throne, he began to perceive the Templars as rivals for his kingdom. The Knights had more money and power than he, the king, and they owed their allegiance only to the pope. Philip met with Pope Clement V (c. 1260–1314) to seek his counsel on how the order might be exterminated. Although the Templars had enjoyed the blessing of the papacy for decades, the pope admitted that he had been made uneasy by accusations that the order had sought to protect their own interests by securing a separate treaty with the Mulis when the Christian kingdom in the East was falling. Clement, however, was reluctant to make any kind of move against the Knights. The king pressed his case with the pope—and made an issue of the fact that the papacy at that time was located at Avignon, which was one of Philip’s territories.
Then Philip found the mysterious Esquire de Floyran, who claimed to have been a member of the Knights Templar. Floyran said that the order had deceived the church and the people for more than a hundred years. What had begun as a pious service to pilgrims and defenders of the cross against the infidels had degenerated into a monstrous blood cult. Principal among the demons they worshipped was Baphomet, the three-headed god of the Assassins, a heretical Muslim sect. Floyran swore that he had seen initiates into the order spitting upon crucifixes, participating in vile rites, even sacrificing babies to demons.
There has never been any conclusive evidence to prove whether de Floyran was a true member of the Knights Templar who had a personal grudge against the order or if he was an imposter on the king’s own payroll, but armed with the supposed insider’s sensational accounts, the backing of the highest church officials in France, and the endorsement of William of Paris, the Grand Inquisitor, King Philip demanded that the pope conduct an investigation into such charges against the Knights Templar. Whether or not Clement believed such stories, he gave his approval that a judicial inquiry be instituted, and the knights were charged with heresy and immorality.
On the night of October 13, 1307, all of the Templars’ castles in France were surrounded by large bodies of men that were led by small parties of priests and noblemen. When the unsuspecting knights were ordered to open their gates in the name of the king, they immediately complied. Taken completely by surprise, about 900 knights were arrested, and all their property and holdings in France were seized. When word of the arrests reached other countries, other nobles and priests quickly followed suit and imprisoned the Templars wherever they might be found.
The Knights Templar were accused of infidelity, Muhammadanism, atheism, heresy, invoking Satan, worshipping demons, desecration of holy objects, and uncleanness. The prosecution had difficulty proving such charges, so they were often forced to resort to torturing the prisoners to obtain confessions. In Paris, the grand master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay (1243–1314), pleaded the innocence of the order against all such charges. In spite of his personal friendship with de Molay, who was the godfather of his younger son, Philip ordered the grand master and the 140 knights imprisoned with him to be starved, tortured, and kept in filthy dungeons.
Although the pope had little problem yielding to pressure and issuing a ban on the order, he hesitated to give his sanction to the extermination of the knights. Philip, however, was determined to see the Templars destroyed and their wealth distributed to the state. For two weeks, the knights imprisoned in Paris suffered the rack, the thumbscrew, the pincers, the branding iron, and the fire. Thirty-six died under torture without speaking. The rest confessed to every charge the Inquisition had leveled against them—the worship of Baphomet, a black cat, and a serpent; the sacrifice of babies and the murders of pious knights who opposed them.
A grand council was called in Paris on May 10, 1310, to review the confessions. But Philip’s victory was sullied when 54 of the knights withdrew their confessions and appealed to government and church officials that they had been tortured. They swore that they had remained true to their vows and that they had never practiced any kind of witchcraft or Satanism. Philip silenced their pleas three days later when he ordered all 54 of the Templars burned at the stake in a field behind the alley of St. Antoine.
In 1312, the pope convened the Council of Venice to weigh the fate of the Templars. It was decided that the order should be abolished and its property confiscated, but Pope Clement chose to reserve final judgment concerning whether the knights were guilty of the heinous charges brought against them. In spite of 573 witnesses for their defense, Templars were tortured en masse, then burned at the stake. The landed possessions of the order were transferred to the Hospitallers, and their wealth was distributed to the sovereigns of various states. Everywhere in Christendom, except in Portugal, where the Templars assumed the name of the Knights of Christ, the order as an organization was suppressed.
In 1314, as he was being burned to death on a scaffold erected for the occasion in front of Notre Dame, the Knights Templar grand master, Jacques de Molay, recanted the confession that he gave under torture and proclaimed his innocence to Pope Clement V and King Philip—and he invited them to meet him at heaven’s gate. When both dignitaries died soon after de Molay’s execution, it was believed by the public at large that the grand master and the Knights Templar had been innocent of the charges of heresy.
Although the Order was officially dissolved by Papal Decree in 1312, the mystique of the Knights Templar still remains strong in the twenty-first century. There are groups claiming an association with the Templar Order around the world. Some only affirm that they are following the ideals of the Knights Templar. Others state that they can trace a historical connection with the original order.
The Militi Templi Scotia or the Scottish Knights Templar point out that the papal Order of Suppression issued in 1312 was not enforced in Scotland because the Scots believed the charges against the Knights were unproven. Under the excommunicated King, Robert the Bruce, Scotland provided a safe haven for any Knights Templar who were able to flee Europe and reach its shores. According to tradition, the Knights who sought refuge in Scotland fought side by side with Robert the Bruce to win independence from England. In turn, the king protected the Order and Temple lands in Scotland.
The Militi Templi Scotia remains active and emphasizes its historical connection to the original Order of Templar Knights. They make a point of proclaiming that they are not a secret society and have even expanded membership to include women. As with the original Order, however, all members must be professing Christians or individuals of “high ideals.”
Another group in the United Kingdom also claims a historical continuity with the original Order because of Knights Templar who managed to reach England. The Supreme Military Order of Temple of Jerusalem of England, Wales, and Scotland states that it is not a secret society and that, as with the Militi Templi Scotia, it has no affiliation with the Freemasons. The order is open only to Christians according to the website http://theknightstemplar.org. Associated with the Supreme Military Order of Temple of Jerusalem is the North American Order of Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, Knights Templar and can be found at the website http://www.knights templar.org.
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