As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the Knights Templars and when I lecture on the topic of the Crusades, this band of knights always captures the imaginations of my students. Many have heard of this group, yet surprisingly few know who they are, what they did and how they came to be. This post offers an insight into this formidable and fascinating army as who answer the question – ‘Who were the Knights Templar anyway?’.
After the Christian success of the First Crusade (1099) which saw knights from Western Europe capture and hold Jerusalem for all of Christendom, pilgrims began to flock once again to this holy site. However, although Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land was held by Christians, much of the lands surrounding it were not.
They were territories belonging to Muslims who wanted Jerusalem back. To perpetuate the problem, thieves and bandits preyed upon pilgrims who disembarked their ships and made their way towards Jerusalem. These pilgrims needed protecting, and so a small group of 9 knights, led by Hugh de Paynes, volunteered their services in 1119 or 1120. They were granted a place to live and train in a wing of the Temple Mount (believed to have been built upon the ruins of the Temple of Solomon). The group derived their title from their headquarters.
What set the Knights Templar apart from other bands of knights were their vows. All knights took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – the same as monks. Yet unlike monks, they fought. Nevertheless they were a monastic order. St Bernard of Clairvaux, a popular monk, preacher and writer of the time described the formation of this group:
This, I repeat, is a new kind of knighthood and one unknown in ages past. It indefatigably wages a twofold combat, against the flesh and blood and against a spiritual host of evil in the heavens. When someone bravely resists a physical foe, relying solely on physical strength, I find this hardly astounding, since this is not uncommon. And when war is waged by spiritual strength against vices or demons, this, too, is nothing remarkable, though I consider it praiseworthy, for the world is full of monks. But for a man powerfully to gird himself with both swords and nobly mark his belt – who would not consider this very worthy of great admiration, even more so since it has hitherto been unknown?
I adore this passage, it neatly summarises who and what the Knights Templars were; a new form of knighthood, they were warrior monks, a concept totally new to the twelfth-century.
As the Order developed they needed rules and guidance (this was especially important given that they were a monastic order and monks love their rules) and a document known as ‘The Rule of the Templars’ was created in 1128. I have provided a list of my favourite clauses:
On the Brothers’ Dress:
‘We command that all the brothers’ habits should always be of one colour, that is white or black or brown… these robes should not be without finery and without any show of pride’.
‘If any brother out of a feeling of pride or arrogance wishes to have as his due a better and finer habit, let him be given the worst’.
On pointed shoes and shoe-laces:
‘We prohibit pointed shoes and shoe-laces and forbid any brother to wear them … For it is manifest and well known that these abominable things belong to pagans.’
These rules served to remind the Knights Templar of their vows of poverty.
For an online edition of the Rule, click here.
As the twelfth-century passed, the Knights Templar grew in numbers. They soon became something of an army, assisting the rulers of Jerusalem in their wars against their Muslim foe. They became a formidable force feared by the Muslims. Indeed, when Christians were captured on the battlefield, normally prisoners were either ransomed or sold into slavery. However Muslim armies ensured that all captured Knights Templars were executed.
As their popularity and notoriety grew, so did the wealth of the Order. They relied on donations to continue to function and these donations came in thick and fast from all over Europe. They soon became involved in business and it is claimed they were the world’s first international bank. The Templars had ‘houses’ or property they owned all over Europe. Pilgrims or crusaders could deposit money or valuables into one of these houses in exchange for a note they would cash in once they reached the Holy Land. 9A kind of cheque or credit note!)
The Downfall of the Templars
The Christians lost Jerusalem in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin and the swift destruction of the rest of the Holy Land soon followed. By 1291, the Christians had lost all of their territories in Syria and the Knights Templars were scattered throughout Europe. People questioned the purpose of the Templars after this date. Additionally, some felt they had failed to protect the Holy Land. Furthermore, their immense wealth created problems – they were a monastic order, having taken vows of poverty. The deep pockets of the Order caught the attention of many of their contemporaries and they attracted many critics.
On Friday 13th October 1307 King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Templars in France based upon rumours that the Order was heretical. The following month Pope Clement V demanded the arrest of all members of the Order across Europe. It is claimed by many historians that Philip owed the Templars huge sums of money and sought to destroy the Templars to eradicate his debts. Philip was able to persuade the Pope to follow his plan because of the political situation at the time. Trials soon followed and ridiculous accusations were levelled at the Templars.
This list contains the major categories of charges, although by June 1308 a total of 127 charges had been drawn up against the Order:
1) That during the reception ceremony or soon after, new brothers were required to deny Christ and spit on the cross, upon the command of those receiving them.
2) That they exchanged obscene kisses at their reception into the Order.
3) That their receptions and chapter meetings were held in secret at night, and that they were made to swear that they would never leave the Order.
4) That they had to swear to never reveal what was said at their reception.
5) That they worshipped a cat.
6) That they did not believe in the Mass or in the sacraments of the Church and that their priests did not speak the words of the consecration in the Mass or consecrate the host.
7) That laity such as the Master or Commander of the Order could absolve them of their sins, rather than ordained priests.
8) That they practiced institutional sodomy.
9) That they worshipped an idol, a bearded male head, and said that the head had great powers. Each of them wore around their waist a cord that had been wounds around the head.
10)That they used illegal means to acquire property and wealth and that they also abused their duties of charity and hospitality.
In essence, King Philip who led the trials accused the Templars of not believing in Christianity, spitting on the crucifix, engaging in homosexual acts and pretty much worshipping everything but God (including a cat and a bearded statute). Many knights admitted to these accusations, however, this was after enduring torture for months on end and so their confessions cannot be accepted as reliable evidence.
The Order was dissolved in 1312 and in 1314 Philip began to execute many Templar knights burning them at the stake. The then leader of the Order, Grand Master Jacques de Molay is reported to have shouted during his execution: “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death”. Interestingly, Pope Clement died the following month and King Philip died merely 8 months later.
At its peak, around 20,000 knights were members of the Templars, following the Rules laid down by their founders. They grew into an international institution and had an enduring mission to protect the Holy Land and pilgrims who visited it. Yet their wealth attracted jealousy and ultimately their success was their downfall.
For more history articles, click here.
 Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood, A Treatise on the Knights Templar and the Holy Places of Jerusalem, M.Conrad Greenia, (trans.),(Kalamazoo, 2000), pp. 33-34; Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘Liber ad Milites Templi de Laude Novae Militiae’ in J. Leclercq and H.M. Rochais (ed.) Sancti Bernardi Opera, Vol. III, Tractatus et Opuscula. (Rome, 1963), p. 214.
 J.M Upton-Ward, Rule of the Templars, p. 24.
 J.M. Upton-Ward, Rule of the Templars, p. 25.
 Taken from: K. Ralls: Knights Templar Encyclopaedia: The Essential Guide to the People, Places, Events, and Symbols of the Order of the Temple.