The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?
As the official version has it, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (as the Templars are more properly called) established their order in 1118, when 8 or 9 French noblemen made a vow to Baldwin II, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, to defend pilgrims to the Holy Land. They took their name from the Temple Quarter of Jerusalem, where they had their base, and these ‘Templar’ knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Donations of property in Europe quickly made the Templars extremely rich, while donations of younger sons in search of a role in life made them more numerous. At the height of their power there were around 400 of these ‘poor’ knights in Jerusalem. It’s fair to say that, in spite of their ever growing wealth and influence, the Templars weren’t all that successful at protecting many of the great frontier castles that guarded the passes into the Holy Land, which were entrusted into their care. Forced out of stronghold after stronghold, by 1302 the Templars had become virtual refugees in Europe – albeit rich ones, thanks to developing successful secondary careers as bankers and moneylenders (although this did nothing to improve their popularity).
Envy and resentment of the Templars’ prosperity and power only increased over time. Rumours began to spread that the Templars had been corrupted by the Mohammedan ways of the East and they were reported to have discovered strange secrets while excavating the site of the Temple of Solomon. Soon added to the charges against them were heresy, sodomy, worshipping cats and a mysterious deity called Baphomet, denying Christ and the crucifixion, spitting on the cross during initiation rites and so on – the list was endless. In the year 1307 on Friday 13 (a date which has forever afterwards had negative associations for the superstitious ) King Philip of France sent agents to arrest all the Templars in his kingdom on the same day. They were charged with heresy, but it was their money Philip was after. Confessions were tortured out of the arrested knights, and the rest of Europe followed the French lead. The Templars’ property was either seized or turned over to the Knights Hospitaller. As for the Templars themselves, those who weren’t burned were forced either to to join other orders or to quietly disappear. Within 5 years Pope Clement V had outlawed the order and on March 11, 1314, the Templars’ grand master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris. He allegedly cursed both the French king and the pope as he died; both followed him to the grave within the year.
After 1314 the Templars effectively vanished from European history – unless, that is, you believe the alternative histories propagated by various pseudo-historians and a handful of modern neo-Templar orders. Perhaps most prominent among these are the Freemasons, who claim that the Templars fled to Scotland, either joining the armies of Robert the Bruce or establishing their own orders, which in due course became Masonic. Almost as dubious is the claim, reiterated by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, that the Templars were merely a front organisation for the ‘Priory of Sion’, which survived the Knights’ downfall unscathed. According to Brown and his sources the Priory of Sion was the guardian of the Templars’ true secret: that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene. This ‘holy blood’ or sang real is supposedly the true origin of the myth of the Holy Grail, on the grounds that the medieval French for ‘Holy Grail’ was the similar-sounding san graal. Templar occultists also like to link the knights to every other hermetic mystery or conspiracy theory around. For instance, the head of Baphomet is often said to have been what later turned up in church history as the Turin Shroud. Other Templar occultists claim that the Shroud represents not Jesus, but Jacques de Molay. Others still hold that Baphomet is merely the mispronunciation of ‘Mahomet’ or Mohammed – or even the alchemical symbol known as Caput Mortum or ‘Death’s Head’.
What is even more interesting is the recent discovery of evidence which casts doubt even on the known historical facts concerning the Templars. In September 2001, a document known as the ‘Chinon Parchment’ dated 17–20 August 1308 was discovered in the Vatican Secret Archives by Barbara Frale, apparently after having been filed in the wrong place in 1628. It is a record of the trial of the Templars and shows that Pope Clement absolved the Templars of all heresies in 1308 before formally disbanding the Order in 1312. Indeed, the current position of the Roman Catholic Church is that the medieval persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust, that nothing was inherently wrong with the Order or its Rule, and that Pope Clement was pressed into his actions by the magnitude of the public scandal and by the dominating influence of King Philip, who was Clement’s relative.
In historical terms, however, the Templar ‘order’ has not existed in any meaningful sense since Pope Clement V dissolved it. Without papal sanction, a knightly order of this kind is nothing more than a club with a fancy name, a few fragments of empty iconography and a wishful claim to historical antecedents. As far as the unsourced speculation is concerned, meanwhile, the fact is that these days you can seemingly say pretty much whatever you like about the Templars as long as it has even the smallest kernel of truth. This is probably why today the Templars are variously claimed to be responsible for building Europe’s Gothic cathedrals and discovering America in the thirteenth century, orchestrating the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, and pulling the strings of the New World Order in the twenty-first. In truth, however, if the Templars are to be found anywhere in the present day, it is in their surviving round churches (modelled on Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre), the many sites that maintain the name ‘Temple’ because of a centuries-old association with the Templars (like the Temple areas of London and Dublin) and in the ruined and empty castles of Palestine.