How Did the Knights Templar Evolve into a Highly Profitable International Organisation?

History Hit Podcast with Dan Jones

5 mins

15 Oct 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Templars with Dan Jones on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 11 September 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Military orders like the Knights Templar or the Hospitallers or the Teutonic Knights may have started out with relatively humble ambitions but somehow, along the way, it was like they got injected with steroids and they became these huge, international institutions.

The medieval equivalent of Google?

If we look at the Templars specifically, earlier in their history they were given approval and a headquarters and so on by the Christian King of Jerusalem Baldwin II. But, really, their power and their legitimacy sprang from their relationship with the pope, and they were taken under the papal wing by way of a series of papal edicts.

And so the Templars were effectively answerable only to the pope which meant that they didn’t pay very many taxes, that they weren’t under the authority of local bishops or archbishops, and that they could own property and place themselves in multiple jurisdictions without being truly answerable to the local king or lord or whoever ruled the area. 

The Templars also had a uniform and a flag of their own, rather than those of another authority. So they were really like a global organisation in the modern sense.

A painting of Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, ceding Haram Al Sharif (also known as Temple Mount) to Knights Templar founders Hugues de Payns and Gaudefroy de Saint-Homer.

Think about how Google operates today or any of those big multinational companies that are able to have headquarters here and there but are richer than, and, in many cases, more powerful than, some states, and are beyond the discipline of states in many ways. It’s a problem that has its modern equivalent. 

After the Templars were founded in Jerusalem in around 1119 or 1120, they began the job that they were originally set up to do: that of protecting western Christian pilgrims who were travelling to the Holy Land.

They were smart and they operated through networks of important families back in France and England and gained the patronage and the approval and favour of powerful people.

That meant two things. One, that they were recruiting members from among the sort of knightly class – that is, people who were already trained to fight and wanted to fight, and who wanted to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were attracted by the idea of joining an organisation that could help them do that. 

Dan Jones discusses his book 'The Knights Templar' at the Temple in Central London, the physical embodiment of this medieval religious order that also trained warrior monks.Watch Now

The Templars get rich

But, of course, that wasn’t everybody and a lot of people approved of the Templars without necessarily wishing to sign up. So from those people the order accrued a lot in donations: donations of land, money and property. And the Templars’ donors included those from the very highest ranks of society. For example, Alfonso, the first king of Aragon, left them in his will a third of his kingdom.

On the other end of the scale, even ordinary men and women were dying and leaving the Templars what little they had: a coat, a couple of animals, a half share in a vineyard, that sort of thing. So they accrued these enormous donations from right across the social scale in western Christendom.

And one of their early successes was to organise their wealth into a system whereby they set up houses called commanderies or preceptories that were linked together in a hierarchy answerable ultimately to a grand master in Jerusalem.

These houses were very efficient at funnelling their profits to war zones, mainly to Syria, Palestine, Egypt or to the Spanish kingdoms where the battles of the Reconquista were taking aim at Muslim forces. 

A 13th-century painting of the Battle of Marrakech, one of the clashes of the Reconquista.

Did the Templars lose sight of their original goal?

The Templars order wasn’t just a massive money-making exercise. Its members were indeed pretty good at protecting the pilgrims and there are lots of accounts of Templars skirmishing.

Their military function did change with time, however, and by the middle of the 12th century they had become equivalent to some modern-day special forces – they were the vanguard or the rearguard of proper big crusading armies. They were pulling special operations, effectively; they were the Green Berets or Navy Seals of crusading armies. 

But they were also, particularly in the Holy Land, manning castles and watching roads and mountain passes. They were there to protect pilgrims as they went about. The Holy Land was still a very dangerous place despite the Templars’ presence but there was an awareness on the Muslim side.

There are lots of Muslim chronicles and when they mention the Templars it’s with a healthy degree of respect. One Islamic chronicler says, “They were the fiercest fighters of all the Franks”.

If you saw the Templars coming, you knew you had problems.

Despite this, criticism of the Templars was justified to a certain degree after 1291 in that they’d been set up to defend the crusader states and there were no longer any crusader states left to defend.

Temple Church in Central London is the physical embodiment of the Knights Templar, a religious order that also trained as warrior monks. This is history that is strong on narrative and bursting with battles and blood-lust.Watch Now

And then there’s the fact that the Templars were officially the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon and that the image on their seal was of two brothers on the same horse (see top image). Poverty was supposed to be ingrained in them.

But by the early 13th century the Templars weren’t poor anymore and they had been overtaken in that respect by the mendicant orders. You had someone like Francis of Assisi turning up to the Fifth Crusade effectively in bare feet and dressed in sack cloth.

By contrast, the Templars has grown extremely rich and their master had an enormous coterie of servants, about 10 horses of his own and a strongbox to keep his valuables in, as well as his own private cook, scribe and Saracen translator.

There’s this great moment at the Fifth Crusade where the Templars are with the Christian armies and Francis of Assisi comes along and says, “I’m going to take care of this”. And he goes over to see the sultan and tries to convert him to Christianity and the sultan is absolutely flabbergasted to see him and sends him packing – miraculously without beheading him.

The Templars’ wealth starkly contrasted with the poverty of the barefooted Francis of Assisi.

The Deloitte of its day?

So the Templars, who had been set up to be dependent on charity and on handouts, had received so much charity and handouts that, by the early 13th century, they were extremely wealthy. And they’d also become financially extremely sophisticated.

Indeed, people often say that the Templars were the first bankers. There was this idea that money could be deposited in one temple house and withdrawn from another. But that wasn’t even a part of it.

The Templars were also into financial services in a big way. They were subcontracting a huge swathe of treasury duties from the French crown for 100 years. Like half of the French treasury was running through the Paris temple. 

Meanwhile, the Templars were also employed by popes to collect crusading tax from all over Europe and deliver it to where the crusade was happening. Again, to go back to the Fifth Crusade, there were Templars in England, France, Portugal and Hungary all going out and physically collecting tax from people and funnelling it to Egypt.

Logistically, that’s an incredible operation, something that’s very, very hard to do. The Templars had to be not only skilled in getting money out of people but also capable of accountancy. But none of that had been the original purpose of the Templars – they were only supposed to be guarding pilgrims.