History of the Knights Templar: Origin Story, Rise & Demise

Their primary vision was to set up a roadside service to protect Christian pilgrims along very hostile terrains as they made their journeys to the Holy Land in the Middle East. But quickly, the vision turned into something bigger than they could have dared imagined: They became the Knights Templar, waging the most brutal wars against high and mighty Muslim leaders of Syria, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

Legend links them to such prized relics in Christendom as the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and even to the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Identified by their white habits (i.e. knight robes) with the insignia of a red cross (symbolic of martyrdom and Christ’s knights), this disciplined brotherhood of knights found its roots in Jerusalem, the holiest city in Christendom.

Even 700 years after their demise, the history and secretive nature of the order continue to evoke a lot of fascination and many outlandish conspiracies. The Templars’ “heroic” feats during the Crusades, especially at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, have made them the subjects of numerous books, plays, myths, video games, films, and documentaries.

What else were the Knights Templar most known for? And how did they rise to such lofty heights, politically and financially?

In order to unravel the mysteries about this enigmatic group, let’s trace our steps through their storied life, from their ascension to power to their horrific fall in 1312.

Birth of the Knights Templar

Originally made up of a group of warrior monks, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (also known as The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon) came into being around 1119 in the wake of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thankfully, their name was eventually shortened to the Knights Templar.

Recognized as a Catholic medieval military order, the Templar’s primary cause was birthed in an era when bandits violently attacked and sometimes killed Christian pilgrims who were journeying to holy sites in the Middle East.

To salvage this distressing situation, nine noblemen – led by Hugues de Payens, a French knight from Champagne in eastern France – came together to create a form of defense for these travelers. The defense was a combination of martial skills and a monastic life.

Portrait of Hugues de Payens by Henri Lehmann, 1841

The organization was headquartered on the Temple Mount (Haram-al-Sharif) in Jerusalem. The group’s membership included Western Christian warriors.

As a result of the nobility of their cause (i.e. defending pilgrims to the Holy Land), the Knights Templar was recognized by a Papal bull in January 1129. The ceremony, which was held at the Council of Troye, happened two decades after Jerusalem’s fall to Western Christian Frankish armies of the First Crusade.

Unlike the earlier knights of the early medieval era who were viewed distastefully as thugs, the Knights Templar was tagged with more honorable adjectives.

A strong advocate of the Knights Templar was the revered and influential abbot of the Catholic Church, Bernard of Clairvaux (later St. Bernard). He was responsible for drafting the first set of rules (Latin Rule) for the Templars.

Yet, there were those who regarded the Order as a clandestine society with much influence on European kings and lords. In reality, the Templars thrived on the power of the Pope; not on the local bishops or archbishops; nor kings or lords.

Why did the Pope endorse the Templars in 1129?

Considering the fact that the Templars were an utterly disciplined band of warrior-monks, the Catholic Church realized the utility of having such an organization in defending Christendom from the “infidels”.

The rules that governed the everyday lives of the Templars allowed them to be intently focused on their objectives. As a result, this made them arguably the fiercest fighting band of warriors in all of Europe at the time.

What was the Knights Templar’s Latin Rule?

Knights did not have such a good reputation before the emergence of the Templars. Knights were known for wreaking havoc to communities, including stealing and raping. As a result, Templars were required to take an oath of chastity, poverty and obedience. They were required to overcome their earthly desires and lusts and submit to the will of God. This was aimed at keeping them pious and devoted to their cause.

Just like in the monasteries, the Templars were expected to make vows before gaining admission into the organization. Usually these knights were expected to adhere to strict rules; but unlike the monks, they were not expected to remain inside their rooms all day.

A member of the Knights Templar was also required to give the highest form of reverence to the Grand Master, who is at the helm of the pyramid. Church services were to be attended, and knights were supposed to remain celibate. Worldly pleasures were strictly prohibited in the Order.

Besides their distinct white uniforms with a red cross, the Templars were supposed to grow beards but keep short hair. They were not allowed to don shoes with laces nor pointy shoes as those items were seen as capable of corrupting the soul. There was also the very bizarre rule of not using napkins on a Good Friday.

Some other Benedictine-inspired rules of the Templars included: not drinking, swearing or gambling. Knights were also required to pray frequently.

The first rules, 68 of them, of the Templars came out around 1129. With time, those rules expanded to include a host of things that the knights were not allowed to do. For example, Knights were forbidden from kissing, even kissing their family members. Members of the order were also advised not to consume too much meat as it could corrupt the body. They weren’t allowed to have gold or silver on their bridle nor on the stirrups. In addition to being celibate, they could not raise kids nor become godfathers.

Punishments for Templars that broke the rules

As stated above, the Latin rules of the Templars were largely inspired by the code of conduct that governed Benedictine monks. The punishments for any violations were often corporal or outright banishment. But then the order did leave some room for redemption. It all depended on the rule that was broken. For example, breaking one’s chastity vow resulted in outright expulsion from the order.

Lesser forms of punishment included flogging and having to eat food from the floor.

Rise of the Templars

At the apex of their fame and power, the Templars lived atop the Temple Mount with the consent of Baldwin II, the Crusader king of Jerusalem. Baldwin II and his cousins, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, were key participants of the First Crusade.

Over the next 20 years of their existence, the Templars gained political and economic dominance across Europe and the Holy Land. They also acquired lands tax-free on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor and Phoenicia.

The Templars also controlled castles throughout Jerusalem and were involved in the attack of Muslim provinces, including the disastrous siege of Damascus in the Second Crusade.

With time, the primary mission of the Knights Templar evolved to replicate that of the Crusaders’, which was to defend the holy lands from the rule of the so-called infidels, i.e. non-Christians. Though they were initially sworn to poverty and the vigils of the monastic calendar, they became incredibly wealthy as they rewarded with impressive estates by many European monarchs.

An important factor that added to the Templars’ influence was the Omne Datum Optimum decree. Issued by Pope Innocent II on March 29, 1139, the decree gave full legitimacy to the Knights Templar. It ensured the Order would not be answerable to anyone except the Pope and nobody besides the Pope could make them to swear an oath.

Robert de Craon, the 2nd Grandmaster of the Templars, immediately set about making known the new state of affairs to the public. To the annoyance of both clergy and the lords, he put the papal bull into practice with immediate effect.

As the Templars’ influence in politics and business increased so did their membership. The Order went from the original 9 members to about 300 committed members. It did not end there. There was a quantum leap in the number of knights within a brief period. By the late 13th century, the knights numbered between 15,000 and 20,000, and about 5,000 of them lived in France.

How handsome donations from Western Christendom made the Templars extremely wealthy

The Templars also received donations from people and were bequeathed plots of land in the wills of people who supported their cause. Take the case of Alfonso I of Aragon, the European monarch who bequeathed a third of his estates to the order.

Most importantly, the leaders of the Templars were skilled businessmen who could sell everything, ranging from cereals to slaves.

In the centuries that followed and with their vast wealth and track record of military successes, they became a formidable force that in some cases inspired fear rather than respect.

A Papal Bull, issued by Pope Innocent II in 1139, gave the Templars enormous privileges, including being exempt from paying taxes all across Europe. Also, the Templars were not answer to any European monarch at the time. Image: Pope Innocent II

Organizational structure of the Knight Templars

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Templars created an elite military wing dedicated to wars against the Islamic leaders of Syria, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Each attainment of Templar victory came with some form of territorial expansion for European monarchs in the Middle East.

Central to the Order were the original nine knights also known as the Knight Brothers. This hierarchy comprised of knights who originated from military nobility. They held a special status and high-ranking positions. The knight brothers wore white uniforms to symbolize their vow of chastity. This explains why married men could not become knight brothers.

Coming next after the Knight Brothers were Sergeant Brothers, who wore either black or brown uniforms. Unlike the Knight Brothers who were ordained prior to taking holy vows, the Sergeant Brother did not take full vows. This class was of the Templars was made up of common folk; mostly businessmen, estate managers, fighters, and bureaucrats. Military men were also counted among this group.

Following the Sergeant Brothers was the tier of volunteer fighters, who were made primarily of ordained priests and laymen. The priests were in charge of handling the spiritual aspect of the organization. Others on this tier were craftsmen, servants and masons. Squires also served as servants to the knights and sometimes enlisted as fighters for the Order.

Some historians have alleged that the masons who constructed buildings for the organization were the founders of the fraternal organization, the Freemasonry.

What caused the decline of the Knights Templar?

By the 13th century, the fortune of the Templars and Christianity in general had begun to take a nose dive. The crusades took a turn for the worse and calls for reform of the Templars were rampant.

The headquarters of the Templars was moved to Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus as the organization lost Jerusalem and other important cities to the Ayyubid dynasty.

In the early part of the 14th century, a group of troops stationed at the fortress of Ruad in Arwad fell to the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate.

As the Templars could not maintain control of the Holy Land, their purpose began to fade into oblivion. Consequently, their popularity and public support for them waned. If there was a silver lining to the military misfortunes of the Templars, it was the fact that they could now focus on maintaining their economic powerbase through their network of Templar property across Europe.

However, there were a number of powerful forces in Europe that had grown envious of the financial power that the order wielded. Therefore, a plethora of allegations were thrown at the Templars as a way to cripple their activities.

By the start of the 14th century, King Philip’s persecution of the Templars was at its peak, and so was the total number of Templars. Though historical accounts do not provide a specific figure, it is estimated that there were between 15,000 and 20,000 Templars at the time, and about 5,000 of them lived in France. Under Philip’s order, the Templars’ funds were confiscated by the government but only after Philip had gotten his hands on some large sums.

Philip IV of France’s allegations against the Templars

The Templars seeming obsolescence made them susceptible to the wiles of earthly powers that envied their power and their vast estate.

One of such powers was King Philip IV of France. Earlier, King Philip had been informed by some of his ministers that the Templars were involved in misdeeds such as idolatry, black magic, heresies, blasphemy, sexual rituals, and among others. As a result, the king summoned the Templars’ Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, to Paris where he was taken into custody.

Similarly, other members of the Order in France were arrested, kept in isolation in their cells for over through years and forced to confess to the allegations. The inquisitors gained the confessions they wanted through the use of typical medieval torture techniques, including horrendous ones like sleep deprivation, starvation, fire torture, and the rack. According to British historian Dan Jones’ book (“The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of the Knights Templar”), one of the Templars had blood pooled in his fingers as his hands were so tightly bound.

Friday the 13th of October 1307

Philip IV’s order for the arrest of the French Templars was effected on Friday, 13th October 1307. Perhaps this is how come Friday 13th has come to be associated with bad luck in our modern era.

On that day, the French monarch took into custody about 140 Templars, including the Grand Master Jacques de Molay. They were charged of being heretics and engaging in financial corruption as well unsavory sexual deeds. It was even said that some were coerced into admitting to the crime of cat worshipping and navel kissing.

Jacques de Molay – 23rd Grand Master of the Knights Templar

Multiple Deaths & Matters Arising

Though the Templars confessed to various crimes under duress, Pope Clement V, the then head of the Catholic Church, issued a Papal Bull titled Pastoralis Praeeminentiae on November 22, 1307. This bull ordered the arrest of all Knights Templar by Western kings and the seizure of their lands. The money of the Templars were confiscated by the government but only after Philip had gotten his hands on some large sums.

When de Molay heard news of the Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, he renounced his earlier confession but that proved futile. The Grand Master, with over 50 Templars, was burned at the stake on the Ile des Javiaux in the Seine in 1310. This closed the curtains permanently on the spectacular era of the Knights Templar.

The fate of the Templars of England, on the other hand, was quite different and less torturous. After being heavily influenced by Philip, Pope Clement V dissolved the Knights Templar in 1312, thereby stopping their activities in England. However, unlike their French counterparts, the lives of the Templars in England were spared.

Depiction of Templars being burned at the stake. Grand Master of the Knights Templar Jacques de Molay and other leading members of the Templars were burnt at the stake in 1314

Possible reasons why the Templars were targeted

Till date, many historians wonder if the alleged crimes of the Templars were really why King Philip developed such fierce animosity towards them.

A quick dive into the manner in which the Templars were persecuted and one quickly realizes that Philip most likely had less than noble reasons for his enmity towards the organization. Perhaps, you may want to call it ignoble feelings of deep jealousy.

What if Philip was intimidated by what the Templars could become if they were allowed to flourish? Note that, there were issues regarding the Templars’ independence from the various European monarchs as well as their control over one of the most prestigious independent military units in Europe.

Perhaps, Philip simply harbored secret feelings of insecurity because of the Order’s standing army which could move freely without borders.

Another train of thought leans toward the notion that the motivation for Philip’s actions was likely money. You see, early on in 1294, Philip had waged wars with England and Guy Count of Flanders. Those military campaigns had cost him huge financial losses and depleted his coffers. He might have seen the incredibly wealthy Templars as a ticket to regaining his lost wealth only if he could “remove” them.

Still, some historical accounts hold that Phillip owed the Templars a lot of money from his war with England and was not in the position to pay back as scheduled. Getting rid of the Order therefore would afford him some liberties.

Another possible reason for Philip IV’s suppression of the order had to do with the desire of high-ranking Templars to form their own nation in southeastern France. The French monarch simply could not let this happen as that would have made the Templars even more powerful.

We may never know what really pushed King Philip’s button to act the way he did. But one thing is certain: On that fateful Friday of the Templars’ arrests, their fate was sealed. Some historians assert that the French government officials who carried out the arrest did no such thing as “due diligence.” But of course they were operating under the orders of King Philip.

A number of historians have suggested some reasons why Philip ferociously went after the Templars. It was said that French monarch owed the Templars a lot of money which he could not pay. Therefore, the only way to avoid paying them was to tarnish the reputation of the order. Or is it possible that the king’s actions had been necessitated by a sense of intense jealousy of the Templars expansive reach and power?

Dissolution of the Knights Templar

In 1312, Pope Clement V officially disbanded the Order. After the dissolution of the Knights Templar, more Templars were forced to confess to various crimes. Those who did were granted pardon. The more resilient members, on the other hand, were left to rot and die behind bars.

It’s said that Edward II of England and Philip IV of France were the biggest beneficiaries of the downfall of the Templars. Those monarchs seized a lot of the holdings of the order. The few properties that were left were transferred to another order called the Knights Hospitaller.

The indestructible nature of the Templars

The Templars was basically a deathless order that could only be eliminated by ferociously going after their morals and central values.

After Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands following the Third Crusade (1189–1192), Muslim leader Saladin killed hundreds of Templars in an attempt to cripple the organization. However, the order continued to thrive as they had strong connections all across Europe and vast wealth.

The order was basically a deathless and very powerful transnational organization that thrived for many, many years. Here was an organization that was answerable to no authority except that of the Pope. Therefore, it must have been very difficult to bring them down.

Perhaps the only way of stopping the Templars was to mount a powerful PR campaign against them. And the only person in all of Europe who realized this and who was brave enough to go after them was the French monarch.

Philip IV orchestrated a massive propaganda that sought to destroy the reputation of the Templars. He did this by levelling a series of grotesque accusations, including heresy, sodomy, and financial corruption, against the Templars in France, which at the time was the heartland of the order.

Is there any connection between the Templars and the Freemasons?

In the 18th century, many Freemasons tried to revive some of the traditions, symbols and practices of the Knights Templar.

As to whether there was some form of connection or not, the Freemasons never shied away from having their organization related to the Templars, an order was deeply romanticized in Europe for many centuries.

The historical record shows that the Templars predate the famous local guilds of stonemasons of the Middle Ages by more than two centuries. Image: The Masonic Square and Compasses

Did the Knights Templar survive in any shape or form?

In the centuries after the formal disbanding of the Templars, some say that the order never died; instead it went into the shadows. There are some that say that Templars secretly dabbled in many major events that rocked all of Europe, including the French Revolution.

Stories of such nature are given a bit of credence considering the fact that not all the houses of the Templars went up in flames in the 14th century. The lives of some Templars were spared in places like England and Portugal. In the latter, those Templars reorganized themselves and morphed into the Order of Christ. It’s said that some members of the organization were at the forefront of Europe’s Age of Exploration, which spanned from the 1400s to the 1600s.

It is no secret that there are a number of international organizations in modern times which take after the style of the Knights Templar. Similar to the Templars, these organizations seek to preserve and carry on the customs and mores that characterized the medieval era.

Meaning of the red cross emblazoned on the Templars’ uniforms

Regardless of class in the Knights Templar, all members wore uniforms that had red cross boldly emblazoned on. It was believed that the red cross symbolized the blood of Christ as well the order’s willingness to defend Christendom to death.

Meaning of the Seal of the Templars

The story of the Templars is unflinching ferocity. Such is our fascination with the medieval order of warrior-knights that even to this day, there are some who believe that the Templars exist in some shape or form, dictating major events across the globe. Image: Seal of the Templars

The seal of the Templars show two men riding one horse. This image is aimed at communicating the humble beginnings from which the Templars began. The men are shown riding one horse as they could not afford buying a horse each. But then again the Templars were known for eating in pairs.

The two men shown on the seal are believed to be Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer.

Other interesting facts about the Knights Templar

Here are a few more interesting facts about the Templars:

  • After the Muslims retook Jerusalem for good, the Knights Templar moved their base to Paris, France, where they were welcomed by the French monarch. Before that the Templars used the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as their HQ.
  • The Templars were so wealthy at some point in time that they owned castles, lands, fleet of ships, and other properties across Western Europe. They even owned the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This explains why they became Europe’s leading lending institution at the time.
  • Centuries after the brutal dissolution of the Knights Templar, the Catholic Church came out and admitted that it erred in the persecution of the order. The Church claimed that the Pope at the time was pressured by secular European monarchs into ending the order.
  • The Templars were required to never break their vows. They were disciplined enough to defend those vows to defend them to last their last breath.
  • In battles, they were not allowed to retreat nor surrender, unless under very serious cases. Similarly, the Templars could not charge without being ordered.

In 1303, the Templars lost their last base in the Middle East. They then relocated to Paris, France. Image: Temple Mount, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, has been venerated as a holy site in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for thousands of years.

Who were the original nine members of the Knights Templar?

A French knight called Hugues de Payens is credited as the person who formed the Knights Templar. Payens formed the order with eight of his friends and family members.

The nine original members of this brotherhood are as follows:

  • Hugues de Payens: Little information about the First Grand Master of the Knights Templar is available. He is credited with the creation of the Code of Conduct for the order together with the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (later venerated as Saint Bernard).
  • Godefroy de Saint-Omer (also known as Godfrey): Godfrey together with Hugues de Payens was among the poor members of the organization. It is sometimes said that they were so poor that they owned only one horse together.
  • André de Montbard: Appointed 5th Grand Master of the Knights Templar by succeeding, Bernard de Tremelay, who was killed during the Siege of Ascalon.
  • Hugues ( or Hugh) : He was a Count of Champagne although he loved to be known as Count of Troyes. He called himself impotent though he was twice married. He rejected his biological son, Odo.
  • Geoffroi Bisol: He is one of the founders of the Knights Templar.
  • Archambaud de St. Amand was a founding knight of the Knights Templar. Apparently, little is known of his origins.
  • Payen de Montdidier: He was a relative of the Count of Flanders and the founder of Preceptory at Oxford and Temple Guiting, Cheltenham.
  • Rossal: He was a priest and a co-founder of the Knights Templar. Little else is known about him.
  • Gondemar (or Gondamer): He was a Portuguese monk and a co-founder of the Knights Templar.

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