The Knights Templar were officially founded in January 1120, at a Church Council which met at Nablus in the ‘Crusader’ kingdom of Jerusalem.
The First Crusade had captured Jerusalem in 1099. Christian pilgrims had been coming to Jerusalem from western Europe for centuries, but now that Jerusalem and its environs were ruled by Christians for the first time since the 630s more and more of them travelled out to visit the holy places. They visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and went down to the River Jordan to bathe (in commemoration of Christ’s baptism there). But there were many bandits on the roads and many of them were attacked and robbed, or killed.
Some people who came out to Jerusalem on pilgrimage or with the crusade stayed in Jerusalem and spent their days in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, praying alongside the Christian priests who looked after the church. One small group of knights who had been doing this decided that they should do something practical to help the security situation, so they set up the group that became the Templars and the Council of Nablus approved it.
There are several accounts of the Templars’ beginnings written within twenty years of their foundation, but they are very brief and don’t say much other than that the Order began. Two accounts say more. One, written in the 1160s, or even as late as 1184, by Archbishop William of Tyre, says that the group of knights went to the Patriarch of Jerusalem (the chief religious authority – historically the equivalent of the pope) for advice, and he advised them to form a military band to make the roads safe for pilgrims. The other account, written after Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187 and known as the Chronique d’Ernoul, says that the knights went to the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, and he advised them to form a military band to help protect the kingdom against the Muslims. My guess is that both the patriarch and the king approved the new group.
The first Templars were based at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The king of Jerusalem gave them the Aqsa mosque on the Temple platform in Jerusalem as their base. The Aqsa mosque is on the south side of the Temple platform. The Templars did NOT own the Dome of the Rock, which was in the care of a group of priests who followed a set of religious regulations known as ‘the Rule of St Augustine’. Some modern writers confuse the two buildings (you will find a modern map of central Jerusalem useful here – any tourist guidebook to Jerusalem should help you). The crusaders didn’t know what these Islamic buildings were, so they called the Aqsa mosque ‘the Temple of Solomon’ and the Dome of the Rock ‘the Lord's Temple’. As the Templars were given the so-called ‘Temple of Solomon’, they became known as the Templars.
The new group attracted the attention of the pilgrims whom the knights helped, and these pilgrims gave them money to help their work. Back in Europe, the pilgrims gave them donations of land and incomes (rents, taxes), so that the Templars started to build up a network of property in Europe as well as in the Holy Land, with houses (called ‘commanderies’) in the major towns of Europe and in the countryside.
In January 1129, at a Church council at Troyes in Champagne, France, the Templars were given official papal acknowledgement as a fully-fledged religious institution, with a religious rule of life and a uniform (‘habit’). The concept of defending Christianity was central to their institution, so their official seal had a picture of the church of the Holy Sepulchre on one side, as this represented the centre of the Christian faith. On the other side was a picture of two knights on one horse, representing the poverty of the order and the brotherhood between its members.
Over the next 160 years the Templars continued to attract gifts of land and money in western Europe, and played an important role in defending pilgrims in the Holy Land and also formed part of the army of the kingdom of Jerusalem. However, there was such a great need for military protection for pilgrims in the kingdom of Jerusalem that another religious institution in Jerusalem, the Hospital of St John, began to hire mercenaries to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Soon the Hospital was recruiting knights to fight as well as caring for the sick. So the second great military religious institution, the Knights Hospitaller, began.
Because the Templars had to collect and move large quantities of money from western Europe to the Holy Land, they had to devise means of recording and transporting money securely. Pilgrims asked them to look after their money during their travels, and King Louis VII of France borrowed money from them, and the Hospitallers, during his crusade (the ‘Second Crusade’) of 1147–49. So the Templars built up a reputation as a group which could keep money safe and transfer it from one place to another. Modern writers call them ‘bankers’, although they were not strictly bankers as they didn’t reinvest money deposited with them and they did not pay interest on money deposited with them.
The Templars continued to play a leading role in protecting pilgrims and in the military defence of the ‘crusader states’ in the Middle East until the last western Christian towns and fortresses on the mainland of Palestine and Syria were captured by the sultan of Egypt in 1291. They and the Hospitallers then retreated to Cyprus and planned a new crusade. But western leaders were not very enthusiastic – they were fighting wars between themselves. King Philip IV of France had a financial crisis in his kingdom. He tried taxes – and fell foul of the pope, Boniface VIII, who forbad him to tax the clergy. In 1303 Philip’s minister, Guillaume de Nogaret, had the pope arrested, and he died shortly afterwards of shock. But although this showed that it could be dangerous to stand in the way of the king of France, it didn’t help Philip IV’s financial problems.
On 13 October 1307 King Philip IV of France had all the Templars in the kingdom of France arrested in a ‘dawn swoop’. All their property was confiscated and the Templars were told that they were guilty of heresy, blasphemy, idolatry and sodomy, and that if they did not confess their guilt they would be killed. According to a contemporary writer (possibly in Paris), 36 Templars from their Paris house died rather than confess to the allegations. However, enough Templars did confess under torture for the king to be able to claim that he had been justified in taking action against the Templars. As he had shown that the Templars were heretics, he could now keep their property. The pope, Clement V, disagreed. He was furious with Philip IV for taking action on a Church matter without consulting him, but because the French Templars had confessed (even though it was under torture), he had to continue the investigations.
Heresy in the early 14th century was seen in the same way as communism in the 1950s, child abuse or Islamic terrorism now: as a cancer in society which must be destroyed, otherwise the whole of society would collapse. Many innocent people were falsely accused for personal motives of ambition or revenge and many lives and careers were ruined. From the 1250s, torture was routinely used to get confessions from those accused of heresy. The investigators of heresy (inquisitors) developed systems of getting from those accused exactly the information that they wanted. Once accused of heresy, a person was assumed guilty, no one would defend them because the defender would then be assumed to be guilty of heresy too, and the only option for the innocent was to admit to some heresy, abjure or ‘swear off’ all heresy, and plead for mercy. The accused would then usually be absolved of heresy, allowed back into society and given penance to do. However, if the accused refused to admit to guilt they would be assumed guilty and obdurate (a hardened heretic) and would be handed over to the state authorities for punishment – either imprisonment or burning at the stake.
If a person accused of heresy decided to confess in order to escape that punishment, but then later insisted that they were not guilty and that they had confessed only under torture, they would be regarded as a hardened heretic and burned at the stake. This is what happened to some of the Templars in France, including the Grand Master, who was burned at the stake in March 1314 for going back on his ‘confession’.
In 2007 the Vatican published a document which was claimed to show that Pope Clement V found the Templars innocent. In fact this document, which was already well known to scholars, stated that the Templars were guilty of horrible heresies, but that they had confessed and sworn off heresy and pleaded for mercy, so had been absolved and were being allowed back into society. The document does not mention the penance that they would have to do, as it had not yet been decided. Penance was finally decided in March 1314, as lifetime imprisonment – at which point the Grand Master objected, pleaded his innocence, and was sentenced to burning at the stake instead.
Going back to the rest of the Order: the Templars in western Europe were arrested and trials were held. Those in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Greece were not arrested and there is little record of what happened to them. Outside France, the trials did not find much evidence of Templar guilt, only that most Templars were badly educated and did not know any theology, which as they were knights and working men, not clerics, was not surprising. At a Church Council in Vienne (in what is now south-eastern France, but was then part of the Holy Roman Empire), in spring 1312, Pope Clement V announced that he had NOT found the Order of the Temple guilty, but it had been so defamed that it could not continue. He dissolved the Order, transferred its lands to the Knights Hospitaller, and said that its members should go into other religious orders. The Order no longer existed and no one could join it in the future. That was the end of the Templars.
Most contemporary writers reckoned that the Templars were innocent, but that the king of France had them arrested on trumped-up charges because he wanted their money. Most modern scholars agree with them. A few contemporary writers thought that the Templars must be guilty because surely the king of France would never bring such charges against them if the charges were lies. Others said that whatever the truth was, it was not wise to argue with the king and pope – it was safer to keep one’s opinion to oneself.
There has been a lot of speculation about what happened to the Templars who escaped arrest. Although a few individuals have been traced, and a few groups of Templars did turn up, at a Church Council in Germany during the trial and at Vienne in November/December 1311, there is no evidence that large numbers escaped or did anything notable. They certainly did not go to Scotland, or sail across the Atlantic. Most of those who evaded arrest probably took refuge with their relatives. The Templars’ property on Cyprus, where their treasury was, passed to the Hospitallers.
The Templars are not particularly mysterious. People who haven’t read anything about them by reputable scholars (such as Malcolm Barber or Alan Forey), think that they are mysterious. They probably think that the canons of the Lord’s Temple are mysterious, too. It is true that the Templars’ central archive has been lost (destroyed by the Ottoman Turks when they captured Cyprus in the sixteenth century), so documentary information about the Templars in Syria, Palestine and Cyprus is thin. There is archaeological evidence, of course, and evidence from contemporary commentators. However, there is a vast amount of information about the Templars in western Europe which survives in town and state archives across western Europe and is awaiting publication; scholars are working through it slowly. Those people who believe that evidence extracted by torture is accurate think that the Templars were mysterious because the charges against them claimed that they had secrets. The Templars who were not tortured denied that they had secrets.