The Knights Templar – what is their appeal?
A dissertation found on the Internet and adapted by VWBro Colin Heyward, secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Research Lodge No 305
An order of holy knights, disbanded seven centuries ago, remains the inspiration for charities, authors, publishers, drug cartels and now, a Norwegian terrorist.
The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, to give them their full name, captured the popular imagination almost as soon as nine French knights in Jerusalem established them in 1118. They provided a kind of freelance security service for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Its members - clad in the white mantle and red cross of Christian martyrs - were the best-trained fighting force of their day. So staunch that when the Muslim leader Saladin captured two hundred and thirty of them and told them they'd be spared if they converted to Islam, none chose to do so. Ecstatic Sufis decapitated them all.
Yet for all their self-description as the "Poor Knights of Christ", they soon became hugely wealthy with hundreds of ships, banks and castles at their disposal, and nine thousand estates from Scotland to Syria. How did they become so powerful?
By being officially recognised in 1128 by the Pope, who "approved" their right to take tithes and bounty, and encouraged families across Europe to donate land and money to the Order to aid the fight in the Holy Land. Before long, the Templars became the career choice for younger sons of noble families who had no prospects of inheriting estates. As in a monastic order, they took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and promised to defend the Holy Places against the infidel - in line with rules laid down by their patron, St Bernard of Clairvaux. And how did they lose their power?
After the fall of Jerusalem, the Templars fell back to Acre (in modern Turkey), to Cyprus and then to other bases in Europe. In Britain their presence is signified in many place names (Temple Cowle Street, Oxford or London's Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Court). But the returning veterans, answerable only to the Pope, were a restless crew, their vast wealth attracting envy and hostility. Their fate was sealed on Friday, 13 October 1307, when the Order was brutally disbanded by King Philip IV of France. Eager to plunder their wealth for his war against England, he killed thousands, having first tortured them into confessing that they had urinated on the host, indulged in "obscene kissing", conjured up cat demons and engaged in other crimes "too horrible to contemplate".
The myths about their bravery, bizarre practices and secret rituals - not to mention the abiding superstition about Friday the 13th - stem from this catastrophe. What prompted their "revival"?
The answer lies in the 19th century enthusiasm for all things "medieval" and those Christian philanthropists, Freemasons in particular, who found inspiration in their ethos of service. In 1804, a French doctor, Bernard-Raymond Fabro-Palaprat, founded the "Order of the Temple", one of many "neo-Templar" charitable set-ups that today are still engaged in doing good works, such as the International Order of the Knights Templar.
Did the Knights found Switzerland?
Within a few years of setting up the Order, the Knights had so impressed King Baldwin II of Jerusalem (himself a Crusader) that he granted them quarters within his own palace on the Temple Mount, supposedly the site of the Temple of Solomon and thus one of the holiest sites in Christianity. This gave the Knights both their name and their later association with the great myths/mysteries of medieval Europe: the location of the Holy Grail; custody of the Turin Shroud; and the existence of a holy bloodline.
But it was the Knights' skill in banking and fighting that prompted one of their more colourful legends: they were present at the founding of Switzerland. In the early 14th century, when the first Swiss cantons rebelled against the Holy Roman Empire, the soldiers sent to suppress them were amazed to find farmers and merchants fighting with the discipline of a first-class army. Swiss folk tales tell of "white-clad knights" fleeing persecution in France and coming to the cantons' aid. Switzerland's rise as a centre of international banking and religious tolerance is considered evidence of secret Templar influence.
Who else has invoked their name?
Novelists like Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code), Hollywood movie studios (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), conspiracy theorists, and even criminals have, over the years, exploited the mystique of the Knights’ Templar. Members of the Mexican drug cartel Los Caballeros Templarios, cite the order as their inspiration, as does Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. As Umberto Eco once remarked: "The lunatic is easily recognised. Sooner or later he brings up the Templars". What did Breivik see in the Knights?
In a confession posted online before his murderous assaults, Breivik claimed to have formed, with eight other volunteers, the 'Knights Templar Europe" - a new, anti-Muslim military organisation that would lead a 21st century crusade against Islamic immigrants to
Europe. The asceticism of the original Knights was, to Breivik, the key to success. "The path of the knight isn't really compatible with that of a person seeking to establish a family”, he wrote. The Templars' religious fervour and their role in victories over the Muslim armies, has attracted the admiration of other European right-wing extremists, including Paul Ray, a former member of the English Defence League, who now runs his own "Ancient Order of the Templar Knights".
And what about Mexico's Caballeros Templarios? This new drug cartel, in the Mexican state of Michoacin, models itself on the Knights. A recent police raid on one of their training camps came across a twenty-two page "code of conduct" that forbids members to take drugs or harm women. In an initiation ceremony involving a blood pact, "medieval" helmets and white uniforms, the "gentlemen" are sworn to secrecy and to protect the poor. Of course, for a group implicated in dozens of kidnappings and murders, this Robin Hood-style ideology may be no more than a stunt to win over the local populace. But even if it's genuine, one imagines that neither the drug cartel, nor Breivik, would wish to embrace the values that the original Order actually espoused. What was the historical reality?
Although the Templars' primary mission was military, the vast majority of its members were active in creating a financial infrastructure to support the fighting branch, and soon developed a sophisticated banking system. They even persuaded pilgrims to the Holy Land to deposit their valuables with the Order in exchange for letters of credit - an early version of the traveller's cheque. In short, they were bankers.
As for being anti-Muslim, the Order was eventually suppressed on the grounds that it sympathised with Islam - much being made of the fact that the Order's last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, had a Saracen secretary. This was the pretext for its suppression by King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V (who seized its assets). However, before being burnt alive at the stake in 1314, De Molay had the last laugh, he cursed Philip and Clement before God. Both men were dead before the end of the year.