For almost 200 years, the famous Knights Templar had considerable power, wealth, and influence across Europe and the Mediterranean. But it all came to an abrupt and bloody end in 1314. The Knights were originally founded as a Christian monastic-military order, devoted to protecting pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land following the First Crusade. If a “monastic-military” order sounds a bit odd, you’re right. Thanks to huge donations from Kings and Cardinals across Europe, the Knights Templar became one of the richest and most powerful orders in the Middle Ages. By start of the 1300’s, the Templars had established a system of churches, castles, and even banks throughout western Europe. It was an unusual mix – their Christian work, military skills, and financial know-how. And it was all that wealth and power that ultimately lead to their quick and deadly downfall.
During the First Crusade, Christian armies from throughout western Europe banded together and captured Jerusalem from Muslim control in 1099. Arabs had controlled the holy city since taking it from the Byzantine Roman Empire in 638 AD. Groups of Christian pilgrims from across Europe then started visiting Palestine. Many however, were robbed and killed as they journeyed across dangerous Muslim-controlled territories.
Around 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens saw their plight and created a military order along with eight other French knights, calling it The Order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. That was quite a mouthful, so they became known over time simply as the Knights of the Temple, or Knights Templar.
With the support of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, they set up headquarters in the palace on the sacred Temple Mount, and pledged to protect Christian visitors to the Holy Land. Like monks, they took a vows of poverty, chastity and prayer; and were forbidden from drinking, gambling or swearing. As knights, they readily killed to defend Christian pilgrims. The order wore white surcoats with a large blood red cross, signifying their willingness to die as martyrs.
In 1129, the Order received formal endorsement from the Catholic Church in Rome, which helped bolster their reputation and membership. In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull allowing the Knights Templar special rights, including exemption from taxes and placing them under the Pope’s sole authority. Though sworn to poverty, suddenly the Knights received vast amounts of gold, land, and even the sons of nobility to grow their order.
They served bravely in the Second and Third Crusades, gaining a reputation as fierce, fearless warriors who never retreated.
As the Knights Templar grew, they established new chapters throughout western Europe and the Mediterranean. They even set up a network of banks, allowing religious pilgrims and noblemen to deposit assets in their home kingdoms, and withdraw funds in Palestine. The Templars would also go on to own a sizable fleet of sailing ships, and even the Mediterranean island of Cyprus!
In the late 12th century, during the Second Crusade, Muslim armies under Sultan Saladin retook Jerusalem following the infamous Battle of Hattin near the Sea of Galilee. This forced the Knights Templar to retreat to the Mediterranean coast. European support of the Crusades began to erode over the decades that followed. Many of the nobility and religious leaders became jealous and critical of the Templars’ failures, huge wealth and powerful influence. The Knights were accountable only to the Pope himself, which meant unlimited power and freedom. But as it turned out, this influence could not save them from the power of one ruthless King.
By 1303, the Knights Templar lost Cyprus to the Egyptians, and their key foothold in the Muslim world. They established a base of operations back in Paris, where they unfortunately fell under French King Philip IV. Philip despised the Templars as they had denied the debt-ridden monarch numerous loans. King Philip, AKA the ‘Plague of France,’ had led his kingdom into bankruptcy with endless wars. Heavily in debt, he took any source of money that presented itself.
First, he turned to the Catholic Church, having two Popes assassinated, before making sure Pope Clement V was next. This gave him enough influence and power to have the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon in France. His next target was the Jews. He had them all arrested on a single day, confiscated all their money and property, and banished them from the kingdom. But this was nothing compared to what he had in store for the Templars.
As with any medieval Order, the Knights Templar had secret initiation ceremonies surrounding their religious activities, which served the devious King well. Philip sent secret documents by couriers throughout the courts of France. The papers included lurid lies about the Templars including whispers of black magic, devil worship and scandalous homosexual rituals. He invited the current Templar Grandmaster, Jasques de Molay, to his sister-in-law’s funeral to make sure that he was in close proximity.
In the early morning of Friday, October 13, 1307, he ordered scores of French Templars arrested, including the order’s Grandmaster.
On what grounds? Heresy. The arrest warrants contained the words: “God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in our kingdom.” In the weeks that followed, more than 600 Templars were arrested. He had them all imprisoned. The Knights were kept in isolation and fed meager rations of bread and water. Most of the Knights were brutally tortured until they confessed to the King’s long list of false charges, which included heresy, homosexuality, sodomy, financial corruption, fraud, worshipping Baphomet, spitting on the crucifix, and denying Christ.
Common torture practices of medieval inquisitors included the Strappado, the infamous Rack, or having their feet slowly dipped in boiling oil. The despicable inventions would be used for centuries, up through the Catholic Inquisitions. Given those ruthless conditions, it’s not surprising that within weeks, hundreds of Templars confessed to blasphemy and worse, including Grandmaster Jacques de Molay.
Pope Clement V was horrified. The Templars were still extremely popular with the people. King Philip made sure the allegations against them were so horrific, including graphic details of their supposed heresy, that it would be impossible for the Church to look the other way. The Knight’s coerced “confessions” forced the Pope’s hands. Clement issued a papal bull ordering the other Christian kings to arrest their Templars as well. Their lands and money were confiscated and officially dispersed to other religious orders and also royal coffers.
The pitiful Templars lingered in their dungeon cells for two more years before King Philip declared 54 of them guilty and burned them at the stake in 1310.
Under continued pressure from the French King, Pope Clement V reluctantly dissolved the Knights Templar in 1312. The group’s property and monetary assets were given to a rival order, the Knights Hospitallers, as well as King Philip of France and King Edward of England.
Pope Clement interviewed de Molay himself. The Grandmaster denied the confessions he gave under torture, and begged the Pope to save the remaining Knights. Clement had him acquitted. But he wasn’t released, as King Philip still wanted him to reveal where the all the hidden treasure of the Templars was stored. Given his refusal to do so, and his previous confessions, the King sentenced him to death again, as a heretic.
Jacques de Molay and several other remaining Templars, were slowly burned at the stake in the plaza in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on a Friday the 13th in the spring of 1314. Legend has it his last words were a curse: “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Calamity will occur to those who have condemned us.” Interestingly that appears to have worked. Pope Clement died of cancer a month later, and King Philip died of a stroke during a hunting trip that same year.
The Catholic Church has since acknowledged that the medieval persecution of the Knights Templar was grossly unjustified. The church claims that Pope Clement was pressured by various jealous and greedy Kings and Cardinals to destroy the order and confiscate their vast wealth. While most agree the Knights Templar fully collapsed over 700 years ago, some groups, like the Freemasons, adopted several of the Knights’ symbols and rituals as their own. And of course, there are some today who believe the Order secretly went underground and remains active behind the scenes to this day. Regardless, the lingering shadow of that infamous Friday the 13th cannot be denied.