The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.
Start with nine very determined knights and a couple of sacred oaths. Add a jealous and vindictive king, a puppet pope, a mysterious wagon train, and a medieval “celebrity roast,” and you get the amazing -and sometimes bizarre- story of the warrior-monks known as the Knights Templar.
At the end of the First Crusade (1095-1099), the Christian armies of Europe had succeeded in wresting control of the Holy Land and the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. But very soon afterward, the Muslims started winning battles and regaining some of their lands, which made traveling to the Holy Land from Europe a perilous undertaking for pilgrims and non pilgrims alike.
In 1118, nine knights, concerned for the welfare of the Christian pilgrims, bound themselves together in the creation of a knightly order of warrior-monks called the Knights Templar. The order’s full name -the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon- was a reference to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem, where the Templars were stationed when they took their vows. They vowed to consecrate their swords and their very lives to the defense of the Christian faith, and to live humbly and simply according to the monkish dictates of poverty, chastity, and humility.
THE PRICE OF ADMISSION
Candidates seeking to join the Knights Templar had to prove that they came from noble families or that their father was a knight. Potential Templars also had to be at a least 21, unmarried, and free of all obligations, including debt. Eventually, the competition for admission was so great that the candidates had to pay a very high fee to get in, making it increasingly difficult for anyone but the well-heeled (mostly noblemen) to apply. In addition to fully-armed knights, there were originally three other categories of Templars: the sergeants, who formed the light cavalry; the farmers, entrusted with the administration of the Knights Templar’s affairs; and the chaplains, charged with ministering to the spiritual needs of the order. Another one of their vows was to swear complete and utter obedience to their boss, the grand master (who answered only to the pope).
MONKS WITH MUSCLE
The Templar knights were the shock troops of the Crusader forces. They rarely wielded the largest force in any particular battle. But the effectiveness of medieval armies was often determined not by numerical superiority, but by training and equipment. Weight of armor, rigor of discipline, and sophistication of battle tactics (all of which the Templars had on their side, and their opponents, for the most part, didn’t) proved to be as decisive as firepower would be later.
When the Templars went into battle -a mere dozen fully armed knights, charging on heavy horses- they would function like 20th-century tanks, easily scattering a force of 200 or 300 Saracens (the Crusaders’ name for Muslim soldiers). A massed charge of 100 mounted knights could crush 3,000 adversaries.
NO RETREAT, NO NOTHING
When taken prisoner, the Templars (if they were lucky) were told they might be allowed to live -on the condition that they renounce their faith. At the siege of Safed, in Palestine in 1264, ninety Templars met their death in battle; 80 others were taken prisoner and told their lives would be spared if they denied Christ. They refused and were executed. This fidelity to their faith, although very admirable, cost the Templars dearly. Overall, it’s been estimated that in less than two centuries, almost 20,000 Templars -knights and sergeants- perished in war. This death toll could also be attributed to one of their most solemn vows: when in battle, no matter what the odds, they swore not to retreat.
AND THEY WERE WELL MANORED TOO
Remember those other vows the Templars swore? To live like monks and obey the vows of poverty and humility? Apparently, someone needed to remind them. Within a few decades of their founding, the Knights Templar had become -perhaps with the exception of the papacy- the most powerful, most prestigious, and most apparently unshakable institution of its age. And the foundation of this tremendous power and influence was money.
From 1128 (a mere decade after the organization’s founding) onward, the order began expanding at an extraordinary pace, taking in not just new members recruited from the noblest houses of Europe, but also huge donations of money, property, and arms. Because they were under the pope’s protection -and were themselves designated the protectors of the Christian faith- kings, princes, and church officials were, shall we say, obliged to give freely.
Within another year or so, the Knights Templar owned vast tracts of land in France, Scotland, England, Spain, and Portugal. Another decade passed, and their possessions extended to Italy, Austria, Germany, and Hungary, and as far east as Egypt and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), as wells Palestine. By the late 12th century, their European possessions alone numbered more than 7,000 estates. These were mostly manors, farms, churches, monasteries, and castles -all of which generated considerable revenue.
MONKS WITH MUSCLE AND MONEY…
(Image credit: Pline)
Since the Templars had so many well-fortified castles scattered through Europe (more than 800 of them, at one point), these were logical places for noblemen to deposit their wealth when they went on crusades to the Holy Land. A nobleman would naturally take only the ablest men and would have to leave his treasure only lightly guarded. So the Templar castles became natural places to leave money -especially since they were populated by warrior-monks who’d sworn a vow of poverty.
Being the good businessmen they were, the Templars even gave the noblemen a letter of draft with a secret code that could only be recognized by Templars -sort of like the personal identification number you get with a bank card. They could then present the letter and code to any Templar castle along the way and withdraw gold in coins that were used in that particular area. So the Templars became the de facto bankers of Europe.
…AND TAX EXEMPT STATUS
The order was exempt from all taxes, as well as tolls on roads, bridges, and rivers. The Templars could offer sanctuary, like any church of the day, or convene their own courts to try local cases. They ran their own markets and fairs, pocketing most of the proceeds. Their many commercial activities included the operation of farms, vineyards, and mines. At the peak of their power, the Templars handled much, if not most, of the available capital in all of Western Europe. They also lent money and collected interest (a practice expressly forbidden under church law) on a massive scale. The English monarchs, for example, were chronically in debt to the Templars.
A RISING STAR
Let’s introduce an actual Knight Templar. Jacques de Molay was one of the up-and-comers of the Templar organization in the 13th century. Born in France in the duchy of Burgundy to a noble but poor family, he joined the Templars in 1265 at age 21. Like those before him, Jacques had most likely joined the Templars in hopes of doing glorious battle with the enemies of Christendom (he did see some action in Syria). But the fame-and-fortune bit may have also served as a motivator.
UP THE ORGANIZATION
On his way up the ladder of Templar success, he was named English master of the temple (the head Templar in England). By 1291, de Molay had moved from England to the island of Cyprus, which, more than 100 years earlier, Richard the Lionhearted had sold to the Knights Templar (and you didn’t even know he owned Cyprus, did you?).
Jacques de Molay was elevated to the office of 23rd grand master of the Knights Templar sometime in the 1290s. He stayed in Cyprus until fate put him on a collision course with the evil and powerful king who wanted to destroy him -and the Knights Templar.
The knights had some very powerful enemies, notably King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V. Philip was enormously ambitious both for himself and for his country, and had little compunction about crushing anyone or anything that stood in his way. (His nickname, “Philip the Fair,” referred to his good looks -he was tall and handsome, with long blond hair and blue eyes- and not his political modus operandi.)
PHILIP THE UNFAIR
He’d already engineered the kidnapping and murder of one pope, Boniface VIII, and is widely believed to have orchestrated the death, probably by poison, of another (Benedict XI). By 1305 he’d installed his own puppet pope, Clement V, on the papal throne, which had been moved to Avignon, France (its a long story). Anyway, with the pope in his pocket, the French king had the latitude he needed to move against the organization whose wealth and power he coveted: the Knights Templar. (In addition to greed, the king had a personal grudge against the knights. He’d asked to be received into the order as an honorary Templar -the kind of status previously conferred upon Richard the Lionhearted- and had been insultingly refused.)
The official reason for Philip’s displeasure with the Knights Templar was that they were a bunch of heretics who indulged in a variety of “perversions” at their secret ceremonies. The Templars, it was alleged, worshipped demonic powers. They were accused of infanticide, and if that wasn’t bad enough, of engaging in “obscene kissing” at their initiation ceremonies.
What really happened at these ceremonies? This much is known: When a new knight was admitted to the order, the secret proceedings began with the candidates answering a long series of questions designed to determine whether he was truly ready to swear complete obedience to the Templars. If the candidate passed this test, he was admitted. The white mantle of the order (a loose, sleeveless cloak) stamped with the red cross of the Crusaders was placed by the master over the neck of the candidate. Then the master kissed the new entrant on the mouth. To end the ceremony, the master delivered a lengthy sermon on the duties of every Templar.
THE OLD “SATANIC RITUALS” CHARGE
One charge leveled against the Templars stands out as the most bizarre and improbable. These soldiers of Christ, who had fought and laid down their lives for Christendom by the thousands, were accused of ritually denying Christ and of trampling and spitting on the cross. These charges, like most of the aforementioned accusations, were in all likelihood fabricated. No matter. With his laundry list of charges and the blessing of the pope, Philip the Fair planned a secret operation designed to strike a swift and lethal blow to the Templar’s organization. Philip and Clement V summoned Jacques de Molay to France -supposedly to discuss a new crusade to retake the Holy Land- in the autumn of 1307.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE PREQUEL
In a dawn raid on Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip’s forces captured and arrested de Molay and many of his brethren in Paris and throughout France, apparently without a hint of struggle or protest. There has never been a definitive explanation of why the Templars, who were reputed to be such fierce warriors on the battlefield, went into captivity so meekly.
A lot of evidence suggests that de Molay and his men had been tipped off in advance of the supposedly super secret raids. Although exact numbers are impossible to come by, many knights apparently remained at large -as did the entire Templar fleet of ships, which appeared to have vanished, along with whatever loot it may have been carrying (probably most of the Templar’s loot).
Another possible clue lies in the story of the number of wagons, rumored to be loaded with Templar treasure, which was seen leaving Paris a week before the mass arrests. Some believe that the unlucky ones such as de Molay were willing to stay behind to face whatever fate had in store in order to protect whatever was in those wagons. Speaking of luck: the superstition that Friday the 13th is a day of misfortune is believed to stem from Philip’s raids against the Knights Templar on that date.
PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES
Philip had no actual proof of his accusations -because Templar meetings and initiations were held in highest secrecy- so he had to resort to torture in order to get the confessions he wanted. Seventy-two Templars in France eventually “confessed” to the aforementioned perversions and heresies against the church, but 54 of them later recanted. Philip declared that the 54 were heretics and had them all burned at the stake.
A COALITION OF ONE
Philip’s efforts to badger other European leaders into joining him in his persecution of the Templars met with limited success.
In Lorraine, which today is in France but was part of Germany at the time, the reigning Duke supported the Templars; a few were tried and quickly exonerated. Most Templars simply shaved their beards, dressed like civilians, and melted away into the local populace -who, significantly enough, did not betray them.
In the rest of Germany, the Templars defied their would-be judges, appearing in court fully armed. Thoroughly intimidated, the judges promptly pronounced them innocent.
In both Germany and Spain, whole new orders were created as a refuge for fugitive Templars.
In Scotland Robert Bruce was getting ready to fight the English and he needed all the help he could get. It’s rumored that he ignored the papal order to arrest the Templars and welcomed them into his army.
In Portugal, the Templars were cleared by an inquiry and simply modified their name, becoming the Knights of Christ. (Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sea captain and explorer who commanded the first fleet to reach India from Europe in the 1490s, was a Knight of Christ.)
GOOD KNIGHT, JACQUES
After his arrest on that morning in October, 1307, de Molay spent nearly seven years in prison. Pope Clement officially abolished the Knights Templar in March 1312, after which most of the knights still being held were released, but de Molay wasn’t so lucky. Even though he confessed to denying Christ and trampling on the Holy Cross, he steadfastly denounced any accusations that his order’s initiation ritual consisted of homosexual practices. On March 18, 1314, de Molay was paraded before the populace to publicly confess his and his order’s sins. But he refused to play ball. Instead, he withdrew his earlier confessions and said that the only crime he was guilty of was lying about his so-called sins in order to end the torture to which he was subjected. Understandably, this did not sit well with either Philip or the pope.
A CURSE ON YOUR MAISON
After this disappointing performance (to Philip, that is), the French king had Grand Master de Molay roasted slowly on a spit over burning coals. Scholars have claimed that, as de Molay burned in agony, he cordially invited both King Philip and Pope Clement to meet him before God within a year. Sure enough, both of them died within a year of de Molay’s death. Whether de Molay actually made this statement will forever remain a mystery. As will that question of the scheduled meeting in heaven.
THE MYTH LIVES ON
Jacques de Molay’s death in 1314 signaled the end of the Knights Templar as a formal -and formidable- organization. But in the centuries that followed their mystique only seemed to intensify; it’s even speculated that the Templars traveled to North America before Columbus. In any case, the surviving Templars were no doubt peeved at Philip and Clement for their treachery, so their navy declared guerrilla war on all French ships. The naval battle flag of the Templars is familiar to everyone even today. After all, who hasn’t seen a black flag with a white skull and crossbones?
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute