The Knights Templar: Warriors of Christ

On 27 November 1095, Pope Urban II rose to address the 300 or so leading clerics who had assembled to hear him speak at the especially convened Council of Clermont. In fact such was the excitement that had been generated the meeting had to be abandoned and recommence outside.

He had earlier received a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexus Comnenus for military assistance in his war against the Seljuk Turks but what he was now to say created a tumult and was to change the history of the world forever:

“When Jesus Christ summons you to his defence, let no base affection detain you in your houses. Whomsoever will abandon his home, his father, his mother, his wife, his children, his inheritance, will be recompensed a hundred-fold, and possess eternal life.”

He then went on to detail a whole series of atrocities carried out by the Muslims including forced circumcision and sometimes even the castration of Christians whose blood would then be poured into the baptismal font. The streets of Jerusalem, he said, ran with Christian blood:

“It is the duty of every Christian to destroy that vile race from the land of our friends.”

He ended his address with the cry “Dieu le Volt” (God Wills It).

With these words Pope Urban II had begun the Crusades. The response to his plea to re-take the Holy Land and the sacred city of Jerusalem for Christianity must have been beyond his wildest dreams.

As the news was spread by the many thousands of priests who were sent to take the message to the people the whole of Christendom was electrified by the prospect of Holy War as Kings, Noblemen, and Peasants flocked to the Papal Banner.

By July 1096 thousands of knights and men-at-arms had descended upon the unprepared city of Constantinople and the Emperor Alexus Comnenus who had only wanted a few hundred men to bolster his own forces was suddenly a very frightened man.

With so many aggressive highly-charged warriors in his city of great wealth and splendour temptation would have been great. He closed the gates and barred them entry.

He couldn’t wait to be rid of them and in August he provided the ships to take them across the Bosphorus where they could take out their frustrations on the cause of their coming.

It was to take another three years of constant squabbling and hard fighting before they arrived at the gates of Jerusalem where laying siege to the city the much depleted Christian Army, exhausted, half-starved and dehydrated, seemed spent; but through a combination of fasting, prayer, penance, religious zeal, and no little artifice on 15 July 1099 the city fell.

A great massacre then ensued and it was said that the streets of the city ran with blood, ankle deep in some places but – Christendom had been avenged.

The Crusaders were not exactly keen to share out the spoils of their victory rather being eager to grab whatever they could and every faction had to be satisfied.

Four new Christian States were created in the Holy Land, or the Outremer, as it was to become known. There was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli.

Weighed down with booty many Crusaders now began to depart for home yet the territory captured for Christ in the First Crusade still had to be defended.

In 1119 some twenty years after the conclusion of the First Crusade the French nobleman Hughes de Payens, along with a number of his relatives had banded together as Armed Christian Warriors dedicated to the protection of pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land.

They approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem for permission to establish themselves in the city as a Religious Order. He granted them permission to do so providing them with a site on the Temple Mount where it was believed King Solomon’s Temple had previously stood hence the name The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon which very quickly became abbreviated to the Knights Templar.

For some years the Knights Templar went quietly about their business but at the Council of Troyes in 1129 their activities were officially sanctioned by the Church and they were now Warrior Monks authorised by the Pope to carry the sword and kill in the name of God. Blessed by the Church and recognised as defenders of Christendom donations to the Order began to flood in from across Europe all of which disappeared straight into its coffers with no formal accounting.

The Knights themselves had already been obliged to take a vow of poverty and hand over all of their own goods and property.

In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued the Papal Bull Omne Datum Optimum which ordered that all Knights Templar be permitted to pass through any land unmolested, that they were subject to no authority other than that of the Pope, and that they should pay no tax. With their great wealth and Papal protection the Knights Templar very quickly became the most powerful force in Christian Europe.

The Knights Templar established Chapters in many countries including England, France, and Portugal but despite their ever increasing power the number of actual warriors was always quite small with the majority of Templar Knights being bankers, accountants, lawyers, and administrators. Despite this they remained a very effective fighting force and were to become the shock troops of the Crusader Army.

At the Battle of Montgisard a Christian Army led by little more than 80 Knights Templar defeated a much larger force led by Saladin.

Because they were so slight in numbers the Knights would form a tightly-packed, heavily armoured squad that would charge straight at the centre of any opposing army, their task was to punch a hole in the enemy lines for others to exploit and they were to prove extremely effective.

The Battle of Montgisard was a famous Crusader victory but it was not to be a decisive one and brought only a temporary respite for the increasingly beleaguered State of Jerusalem.

Away from the Holy Land the Knights Templar had become immensely powerful and an integral part of the fabric of medieval life.

Designated a charity by the Pope the donations, often made under pressure, continued to roll in and much of the money was spent increasing their portfolio of property and land. They ran vineyards and farms, bought and sold livestock, controlled an import/export business, were involved in manufacturing, traded in cloth, and possessed their own fleet of ships.

Their raison d’etre had changed from being merely the defenders of Christendom in the Holy Land to bank rolling much of Europe. They introduced the first cheque designed to protect pilgrim’s goods whilst they were away from home where they could deposit their valuables in a Templar House for which they would be provided with a letter of credit which they could then cash in at a later date.

Though usury (the charging of interest on loans) was banned by the Church, the Templar’s used their privileged status to circumvent this by charging rent. This not only increased their power but also brought them considerable enmity.

In 1186, following the death of Baldwin IV his sister Queen Sybilla succeeded to the throne of Jerusalem but it was her husband Guy de Lusignan who ruled.

He was a hot-tempered and arrogant man with a high opinion of himself that was not shared by many who knew him and unlike his predecessor Baldwin he was determined to pursue an aggressive policy towards the Saracens and Queen Sybilla did nothing to prevent him riding rough-shod over those who opposed him.

Along with his thuggish ally Raynald de Chatillon and enthusiastically supported by the Knights Templar he set about deliberately antagonising the Saracens whenever and wherever he could.

This was a gamble given that the Muslim world had become united in the previous decade under the leadership of Sal-ah-Uddin (Saladin) who had been making inroads into Crusader territory and by the early 1180’s much of it was surrounded. At the same time, under the divisive rule of Guy de Lusignan, Christian unity was becoming fractured.

The influence of the Knights Templar in the Outremer during this period cannot be underestimated and though there were many other Holy Orders present the Knights Templar were in effect the Pope’s private army in the Holy Land and were considered to be of unimpeachable Godliness. They had after all taken a vow of celibacy, of frugality, of poverty, and to give their life in the service of God.

Many Nobles, aware of their increasingly perilous position counselled Guy to come to a peaceful settlement with Saladin who was a man known not to enjoy war for its own sake.

Guy de Lusignan was interested only in cementing his own authority and urged on by the Knights Templar refused to listen. His intransigence suited Saladin who thought he knew his enemy well enough. He had been deeply offended the previous year when Raynald had ambushed a Haji Caravan and kidnapped his sister, who later died in captivity.

Raynald had deepened the offence by demanding a ransom for her release. Outraged, Saladin had laid siege to Raynald’s Castle, Kerak de Chevalier, the most powerful fortress in the Crusader Kingdom but was unable to break in. Even so, he would not forget the insult – Saladin was determined to capture Jerusalem and rid the Holy Land of the Infidel once and for all.

He laid siege to the fortress of Tiberias that belonged to King Raymond III of Tripoli in the hope of luring the Franks as they were known, out from behind their fortifications to give battle.

Raymond, aware of Saladin’s strategy counselled against taking the bait and said that he was willing to forsake Tiberias for the greater good of Christendom.

Guy urged on by the Knights Templar who declared it to be God’s Will was impatient to confront Saladin and abandoned his encampment at the Suffuriya Springs and advancing his army in oppressive heat and away from their supply of water to raise the siege.

The Franks were harassed throughout their march by Muslim bowmen who circled the army raining arrows down upon them as Saladin having cut off their line of retreat secured the watering holes en-route poisoning many.

Exhausted and making slow progress the Crusader Army, some 20,000 strong including most of the Outremer nobility and 160 Knights Templar under the command of the Orders Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort set up camp on a plateau n known as The Horns of Hattin, where they were soon surrounded.

Travelling with de Ridefort was the Bishop of Acre who accompanied the army following the Outremers leading cleric the Patriarch of Jerusalem falling mysteriously ill on the eve of the campaign. The Bishop carried with him the Relic of the Holy Cross and it was believed with this in their possession they could not possibly fail.

As time wore on however, hot and dehydrated their need for water outweighed any military objective as again and again in their desperation they charged the Muslim lines in an attempt to break through but were unable to do so.

Saladin was no less determined to prevent any escape and whenever a breakthrough threatened would personally rally his troops and lead the counter-attack.

On 4 July 1287, as the sun beat relentlessly down upon the exhausted Franks, many of whom had removed their armour and were on their knees praying for a miracle, Saladin launched the final assault – there was to be no miracle.

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The Crusader Army was annihilated and thousands killed with those captured offered the choice of converting to Islam or be executed. Any Knights Templar found alive on the battlefield were beheaded, the only exception being the Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort who not only allowed his person to be taken when a Templar Knight was expected to fight to the death, but then agreed to be ransomed.

Among others captured were Guy de Lusignan and Raynald de Chatillon.

Saladin had them both brought to his tent where he offered Guy a cup of iced water. When Guy passed the cup to Raynald, Saladin allowed him to drink before taking out his sword and slitting his throat. Witnessing this Guy fell to his knees and begged for mercy.

Saladin made it clear that Raynald had caused him great offence and that his death had been just but told Guy that a King does not kill a King.

Gerard de Ridefort having been taken alive and ransomed once was captured again just a month after his release and when the news of this second capitulation reached Europe it did untold damage to the reputation of the Knights Templar.

Following his victory at the Horns of Hattin, Saladin advanced on Jerusalem. The city, by now full of refugees, was in a state of panic and its fall appeared imminent.

As one of only four Knights remaining in the city, Balian of Ibelin took command of its defence, though he had little to defend it with and was forced to knight men, often servants and court officials, whether they were worthy of the honour or not.

The people meanwhile, fearing a massacre as occurred in 1099, were too terrified to show themselves. Even so, Balian refused to surrender the city and on 20 September a siege began.

Fortunately for Balian Jerusalem’s walls remained strong and though the fighting was fierce at times it was sporadic and intermittent. But he was no fool and he knew that the city could not hold out indefinitely against the Saracens. He also knew that no help was on the way.

Realising the pointless waste of life that a prolonged siege would incur Balian and Saladin negotiated a settlement. Both were humane men, at least by the standards of the day – there would be no massacre.

It was agreed that the Christian population of Jerusalem would be sold into slavery but would be permitted to purchase their freedom if they could and the price was set differently for men, women, and children.

Aware that most could not afford this Balian haggled with Saladin over the price of their freedom and he was indeed to reduce it threefold. The truth is that he would probably have been willing just to let them all go but he was not in a position to do so and instead he paid for the release of some out of his own purse, as did other Muslim Nobles and indeed did Balian himself.

On 2 October, with the negotiations over, Jerusalem was surrendered.

With the loss of Jerusalem Christian power was broken with only the port city of Tyre maintaining a Crusader presence in the Holy Land.

There is little doubt that the reputation of the Templar’s suffered as a result of their defeat in the Holy Land while the behaviour of Gerard de Ridefort had made him the object of ridicule and no longer the unconquerable Warriors of Christ and with no Kingdom to defend people began to question the reason for their existence.

The Second Crusade of 1199 saw them again heavily involved but further military catastrophes at Jaffa and at the Battle of Al-Mansurah damaged their reputation even further.

Following the Fall of Acre in 1291, they were forced from the Holy Land altogether and had to relocate to Cyprus.

By the mid-thirteenth century the Templar’s had lost considerable tracts of land, the donations had ceased to come in, and they were no longer able to protect their trade routes overseas. With the announcement of every new Crusade their fortunes would temporarily revive but every new Crusade would prove to be less successful than the last.

Even so, when in 1292, Jacques de Molay was appointed the new Grand Master few could have imagined his fate.

Jacques de Molay, already in his fifties and therefore quite elderly for the time was a veteran of numerous Templar campaigns. Respected for his courage and tenacity he was a natural choice to be the Orders new Grand Master and he set about his task with vigour and determined to turn around its fortunes he embarked upon a tour of Europe where he was received at the Courts of most of the leading Monarchs including Philip Augustus of France and Charles II of Naples. He also travelled to England where he met Edward I, and he was granted a private audience with the Pope.

Despite being greeted warmly and receiving a great many assurances of assistance he could get no firm commitment to another Crusade and without that commitment there was little possibility of the Knights Templar restoring their fortunes. Indeed, so desperate was de Molay to regain a foothold in the Holy Land that he was even willing to negotiate a possible invasion plan with the Mongols.

De Molay’s determination to revive Templar power however had unnerved a great many who had profited from its decline and feared the consequences of any resurgence. Rumours began to circulate regarding the Templar’s secret initiation rites, that they were sacrilegious in some way, perhaps even heretical.

Early in 1307, Pope Clement V invited de Molay and his rival Fulk de Vilaret, the leader of the Knights Hospitaller, to discuss uniting the Orders. He hoped that by doing so he would be able to wield greater control over them.

As it transpired, de Vilaret failed to turn up and in his absence talk turned to the rumours that were damaging the Templar’s reputation. After repeated reassurances that the rumours had no substance to them and were the result of pernicious gossip de Molay and the Pope departed on friendly terms. It appeared to de Molay that the allegations regarding the Knights Templar had been dismissed, but the Pope remained unsure.

The power base of the Knights Templar lay in France and Clement requested that its King, Philip IV, investigate further.

The Knights Templar had long been suspected of being peddlers in sorcery and magic believed by many to be responsible for droughts, crop failures, the death of livestock, the sinking of ships, and many other dark deeds.

Such rumours had been common currency for many years and had been given even greater impetus by Philip IV himself who had long cast an envious eye on Templar gold.

Philip IV was a man with grand designs and in his efforts to achieve them he had run up a considerable debt much of which he owed to the Templar’s, not that he had any intention of repaying it. When they refused to loan him any further money, and armed with his remit from the Pope, he ordered their arrest.

On 13 October 1307 (believed to be the origin of the unlucky Friday the Thirteenth) Jacques de Molay and any other Knights Templar that could be found were rounded up and thrown into jail. They were then charged with offences that included apostasy, idolatry, heresy, sodomy, bestiality, fraud, corruption, and secrecy.

Put to the torture many, including de Molay, confessed and prominent people across Europe were scandalised by these forced confessions. Could it be true that the famed Warriors of Christ had been working for the devil all along?

Philip sent copies of the confessions to the Pope in Rome requesting his approval for what he had done.

On 22 November, Pope Clement V issued the Papal Bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae which ordered that all Knights Templar the length and breadth of the Christian world be arrested and their assets seized.

Whereas Philip was concerned only to grab the Templar’s many priceless treasures, the Pope, though certainly not immune to the attractions of greed and avarice was primarily concerned with Templar power. He was troubled by the rumour that they intended to establish their own State, just as the Teutonic Knights had in Germany and the Knights Hospitaller had on the Island of Rhodes. This he feared would pose a direct threat to Catholic hegemony in mainland Europe.

Also, because of their presumed wealth and status they would very quickly become the most powerful of these States.

Philip was delighted at the turn of events but Clement now appeared to have pangs of guilt. He now ordered that Papal hearings should be held to determine Templar guilt or innocence.

Philip furious that his smash and grab raid on Templar assets was being interfered with responded by having dozens of those in his charge burned at the stake. He also threatened military action against those Templar’s still at large.

Under increasing pressure Pope Clement cancelled the proposed Papal Hearings and instead issued the Papal Bull Vox in Excelso which disbanded the Order.

If Philip IV believed the seizure of Templar treasure would make him rich beyond his wildest dreams he was to be sorely disappointed. The Templar’s it appeared were broke.

This has since led to persistent rumours that they had either hidden their treasure, or that there wealth lay not in material goods at all but in the possession of a great secret.

Old, sick, half-starved and suffering from the effects of torture the 70 year old Jacques de Molay was close to death but his imminent demise did not spare him execution.

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On 18 March 1314, on a small island in the River Seine he was bound to a post and set alight. Just before the flames were lit he requested that he be allowed to die facing Notre Dame Cathedral and that his hands should be tied in a way that he could hold them together in prayer.

As the flames licked about him he issued a curse upon both Philip IV and Pope Clement V, saying that they would both die within the years end and would be made to account for their actions before God:

“Let evil swiftly befall those who have wrongly condemned us – God will avenge us.”

Pope Clement was to die later the same month, wracked by guilt and begging forgiveness for what he had done.

Philip IV was to be killed that November in a hunting accident, just as he was preparing to go on Crusade.

The history of the Knights Templar has long been one shrouded in mystery and they remain a rich source of conspiracy: How did they become so rich and powerful so quickly and what became of their great wealth? What was the true nature of their relationship with the Vatican? What is the meaning of Templar symbolism and imagery? What of their long association with Freemasonry? Why did their initiation rites almost exclusively revolve around a series of sexual humiliations? What was the reason for their almost paranoid secrecy?

Their original headquarters had been built upon the ruins of King Solomon’s Temple and it has long been rumoured that they discovered something of very great importance there.

It has been suggested that they discovered the Holy Grail and following the Order’s dissolution it was taken to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland by some Knights Templar who had escaped the purge and presented to the Freemasons for safekeeping. They then encoded its secrets in the very architecture of the building before burying it deep beneath its foundations.

Others believe that they took the Holy Grail to the Castle of the heretical Cathars in southern France and that following their suppression in 1310 it was spirited away to no one knows where.

The first recorded owner of the Turin Shroud was the wife of a Templar Knight and some see this as proof that they were in possession of Holy Relics, if not the Holy Grail then perhaps the Ark of the Covenant. Others that they possessed neither but instead held a great secret – could it be that Jesus Christ had married Mary Magdalene, that she had borne him children, and that they had discovered the existence of a Holy bloodline, a bloodline that continues to this day?

There is little actual evidence to back up many of the often outrageous claims made on behalf of the Knights Templar but they have provided the source material for the phenomenal success of books such The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.

I see little validity in such claims but there are many who think otherwise. Is that you, can there be smoke without fire?

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