An organisation shrouded in mystery, the Knights Templar began as a Catholic military order created to protect pilgrims on their journeys to and from the Holy Land.
Though one of a number of religious orders at that time, the Knights Templar is certainly the most famous today. It was among the wealthiest and most powerful of the orders and its men have been widely mythologised – most famously through Arthurian lore as the guardians of the Holy Grail.
But just how did this order of religious men become so legendary?
The origins of the Knights Templar
Founded in the city of Jerusalem in 1119 by Frenchman Hugh de Payens, the organisation’s actual name was the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon.
After Jerusalem was captured by Europeans in 1099, during the First Crusade, many Christians made pilgrimages to sites in the Holy Land. But although Jerusalem was relatively secure, surrounding areas were not and so de Payens decided to form the Knights Templar in order to offer pilgrims protection.
The order derived its official name from the Temple of Solomon, which, according to Judaism, was destroyed in 587 BC and is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.
In 1119, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem’s royal palace was located on the former site of the temple – an area now known today as Temple Mount or Al Aqsa Mosque compound – and he gave the Knights Templar a wing of the palace in which to have their headquarters.
The Knights Templar lived under a strict discipline similar to that of Benedictine monks, even following the Rule of Benedict of Clairvaux. This meant that members of the order took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, for all intents and purposes, essentially lived as fighting monks.
As part of their original mission, the Knights Templar also carried out so-called “malicide”. This was another idea of Bernard of Claivaux that distinguished between “homicide” as the killing of another human being and “malicide” as the killing of evil itself.
The knights’ uniforms consisted of a white surcoat with a red cross that symbolised the blood of Christ and their own willingness to shed blood for Jesus.
A new papal purpose
The Knights Templar garnered plenty of religious and secular support. After a tour of Europe in 1127, the order began receiving large donations from nobles across the continent.
As the order grew in popularity and wealth, it came under criticism from some who questioned whether religious men should carry swords. But when Bernard of Clairvaux wrote In Praise of the New Knighthood in 1136, it silenced some of the order’s critics and served to increase the Knights Templar’s popularity.
In 1139, Pope Innocent III gave the Knights Templar special privileges; they were no longer required to pay a tithe (tax to the Church and clergy) and were answerable only to the pope himself.
The knights even had their own flag which displayed that their power was independent from secular leaders and kingdoms.
The fall of the Knights Templar
This lack of accountability to the kings and clerics of Jerusalem and Europe, coupled with the order’s growing wealth and prestige, ultimately destroyed the Knights Templar.
Since the order had been formed by a Frenchman, the order was particularly strong in France. Many of its recruits and largest donations came from the French nobility.
But the growing power of the Knights Templar made it a target of the French monarchy, which saw the order as a threat.
Under pressure from King Philip IV of France, Pope Clement V ordered the arrest of Knights Templar members across Europe in November 1307. The order’s non-French members were later exonerated. But its Frenchmen were convicted of heresy, idolatry, homosexuality and other crimes. Those who did not confess their supposed crimes were burnt at the stake.
The order was officially suppressed by papal decree in March 1312, and all its lands and wealth either given to another order named the Knights Hospitaller or to secular leaders.
But that was not quite the end of the story. In 1314, the leaders of the Knights Templar – including the order’s last grand master, Jacques de Molay – were brought out of prison and publicly burnt at the stake outside Notre Dame in Paris.
Such dramatic scenes won the knights reputations as martyrs and further fuelled the fascination with the order that has continued ever since.