Why Are We So Fascinated by the Knights Templar?

History Hit Podcast with Dan Jones

5 mins

17 Oct 2018

Image credit: אסף.צ/ Commons

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.

The Knights Templar military order was established in Jerusalem in around 1119 or 1120 – nearly 1,000 years ago. So why is the mystique and myth around them still going so strong today? In short, what is it with the Templars thing?

Ripe for conspiracy theories

The Knights Templar was one of just many such military orders. But today, we don’t often talk about the Hospitallers or Teutonic Knights. No one’s making Hollywood movies or big budget television series about those orders, even though they were also very high-profile in their day. It’s always the Templars, right?

A little bit of that must come from the order’s origins and the fact that it was named after the Temple of Solomon which, according to the Hebrew Bible, was destroyed in 587 BC and is believed to have been located on the site known today as Haram Al Sharif or Temple Mount (see top image).

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

The central mysteries of the Christian faith all come from that site. And so, that’s partly why the Knights Templar continue to hold such fascination for so many people. But it’s also much more than that. 

No one’s making Hollywood movies or big budget television series about the Hospitallers or Teutonic Knights.

The nature of the Templars’ fall, along with the grotesque black propaganda that was levelled against them and their enormous wealth and unaccountability – as well as their story’s combination of militaristic, spiritual and financial elements – all rolls together to create an organisation that is ripe for having conspiracy theories of grand global plans and so on attached to it. 

But the nature of the Templars’ fall, the fact that they were brought down so quickly, so devastatingly and so brutally in such a short period of time, and then appeared to disappear, is perhaps the main reason for the continuing mystique surrounding them. It was as if they were just … rolled up. People find that very, very hard to believe.

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

They think that some of the Templars must have escaped, and that the ferocity with which the French crown pursued them must mean that they possessed something more than just wealth – that there must have been some great secret they had found in Jerusalem. Such theories are all total speculation but you can see why it’s alluring. 

It was as if the Templars were just … rolled up.

You could retort to such theorising with, “Hey, do you remember a company called Lehman Brothers? And what about Bear Stearns? You know, they vanished like that in 2008 too. We know this can happen”. But that doesn’t really answer the substantive point. 

Legends in their own lifetime

In Templar history there are also big holes, partly because the Templar Central Archive – which was moved from Jerusalem to Akka to Cyprus – disappeared when the Ottomans took Cyprus in the 16th century. So there’s lots of stuff we don’t know about the Templars. 

Pile onto that the fact that the Templars were genuinely legends in their own lifetime. If you go back to the early 1200s, when Wolfram Von Eschenbach was writing King Arthur stories, he plunked the Templars in as guardians of this thing called the grail.

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

Now, the idea of the grail, the history of the holy grail, is something that has a sort of a life of its own – a mystique and a mystery of its own. What was it? Did it exist? Where did it come from? What does it stand for?

The ferocity with which the French crown pursued the Templars has led some to believe that the order must have possessed something more than just wealth.

Plug that into the Templars and you have this sort of incredible concoction of myth and magic and sex and scandal and holy mystery that has proved understandably irresistible to screenwriters and novelists, to the people who were producing entertainment from the early 13th century.

The entertainment industry’s love of the Templar story is not a 20th or 21st century phenomenon. Indeed, it is as much a part of the history of the Templars as the order’s actual history. 

A medieval lesson in branding

The Templars’ branding was phenomenal, even in their day. We like to think that us 21st century kids invented branding. But the Templars had it down pat in the 1130s and 1140s. For the knights, a white uniform; for the sergeants, a black uniform, all emblazoned with the red cross which stood for the Templars’ willingness to shed blood in the name of Christ or for the blood that Christ had shed.

And their name too, which was so evocative of Christianity’s central mysteries, was a very potent, sexy idea. And when you look at the Templars over the years, they made many enemies. But only one of them really understood where the Templars were vulnerable. 

A painting depicting the Battle of Hattin in 1187.

If you take the great Sultan Saladin, for example, he thought that the way to get rid of the Templars was to kill them. After the Battle of Hattin in 1187, after which Jerusalem fell back into Muslim hands, Saladin paid a big fat fee to have every Templar who his men had been able to capture brought to him and lined up.

Two hundred Templars and Hospitallers were lined up in front of Saladin and he allowed his religious entourage to volunteer to behead them one by one. These were guys who were not headsmen, not executioners, and so it was a bloody scene. 

The entertainment industry’s love of the Templar story is not a 20th or 21st century phenomenon

He thought that this was the way to get at the Templars – to kill their members. But he was wrong because within 10 years the Templars had bounced back. 

The person who understood how to damage the Templars was Philip IV of France because he understood that the order was a brand. It represented certain values. And so Philip attacked the Templars’ chastity, their probity, their religiosity, all of which made up the core of why people donated to the order and why people joined it.

He came up with this list of accusations that essentially said, “Yeah you’ve taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but you haven’t been obedient to the church. You’ve been rolling around in this filthy money of yours and you’ve been shagging each other”. So he went hard at the Templars’ central values and that was were they were weak.