Sometime around 1340 Ludolph of Sudheim, a German priest travelling around the Holy Land, encountered two elderly men, one from Burgundy, the other from Toulouse, in the mountains by the Dead Sea. They told him they were Knights Templar, taken prisoner by the Mamluks after the fall of Acre in May 1291 – the last, decisive defeat for the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. They had survived cutting wood for the sultan.
It must have been an awkward conversation. Ludolph had to break the news that the Templars had been suppressed by the Pope some thirty years before – on 22 March 1312.
As a story it almost sounds too good to be true, but it captures something of the extraordinary trajectory of the order. Just as the loss of Acre presaged the order’s demise, so its beginnings are entwined with the aftermath of the First Crusade, when Christian pilgrims to the newly conquered Holy Lands required military escorts to travel beyond and between the areas in Latin control.
Founded around 1119, some 20 years after Jerusalem fell into Crusader hands, the creation of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon was formalised at the Council of Troyes in 1129. It was commonly said that the order had only nine knights for its first nine years, a figurative truth that also nods to the way in which the order always seems to have had a mystical identity alongside its material one. Myths and fantasies accreted to it; arguably they were its downfall.
The Templars are best understood in the context of the great spiritual renewal that swept Europe in the long 12th century which roughly spans the founding of the Carthusians in 1084 to that of the Dominican friars in 1216. But, of course, the Templars were different. The great Cistercian scholar Bernard of Clairvaux, an early supporter, acclaimed them as “A new sort of knighthood… fighting indefatigably a double fight against flesh and blood as well as against the immaterial forces of evil”. But they were a new sort of monasticism too, one which – counterintuitively – privileged violence over contemplation. “Whether one dies in bed or in war, the death of his saints will doubtlessly be precious in the sight of the Lord,” Bernard wrote. “However, the more precious is death in war.” To kill an evil man in battle wasn’t homicide, he said, “but rather a malicide”.
The Templars were also a new financial system. They grew quickly on donations; Alfonso I of Aragon went so far as to bequeath them a third of his kingdom in 1131. But their vast institutional reach – at their peak they had a network of some 870 houses and castles stretching across Europe and into the Holy Lands – made them the preferred choice for transferring large sums internationally as well as to secure holdings of wealth. They became the lender of first and last resort. In 1261 Henry III placed the Crown Jewels in the safety of the Paris Temple; a few years later he used them as a security for a loan. But Baldwin II of Constantinople had something better: in 1240 he offered a relic of the True Cross as security.
But their raison d’être were the Christian kingdoms of the Holy Land. At first they fought in white. “What is whiteness if not pure chastity?”, the order’s first Latin rule noted. “Chastity is inviolability of mind, healthiness of body.” The familiar red cross was added at the time of the Second Crusade.
After the loss of Outremer, though, the Templars increasingly seemed to offer a poor return – spiritual and temporal – for money.
And in the end it was all about money. The Templars were rich; Philip IV of France was in need. In the autumn of 1307 he pounced. The Templars were arrested and required to answer charges of, among other things, blasphemy, idolatry and institutional sodomy. Was it true, they were asked, that on joining the order you were required to deny Christ three times and to spit on a crucifix three times? Were you stripped naked by the knight receiving you and kissed on the base of your spine, on your navel, and on your lips? Were you told, “If any brother of the Order wishes to lie with [you] carnally, [you] shall accept this because it is a duty”?
Those who confessed were to be pardoned; those who resisted would be condemned. In Paris, in May 1310, 54 Templars who refused to confess were burned alive as heretics.
After Pope Clement V suppressed the order in 1312, the veteran Master of the Temple, James of Molay, and another senior colleague, Geoffrey of Charney, recanted their confessions. They too were burned alive as heretics.
The true history of the Templars ends there. The mythic history was only just beginning.
This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in the March 2022 issue of History Today.
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