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The Knights Templar

‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’

Napoleon Bonaparte

Acknowledgements

Thanks are due to Nicholas Mark Harding, for lending me certain not-so-ancient tomes on this occasion, Mike Paine for the usual moral support, and Richard Leigh, for his advice relating to matters discussed in Chapter 4.

Introduction: The Temple and the Myth

On the morning of 21 January 1793, the French king, Louis XVI, was led out into the Place de la Concord in Paris to face execution. He stepped up onto the platform where the guillotine had been erected, and turned to address the huge crowd who had come to watch him die. He announced that he forgave the revolutionary council who had voted for his death, and then gave himself over to the executioner. The blade fell at 10:15. The executioner held Louis’ decapitated head up by the hair to show that the king was dead. What happened next, according to some sources,1 took the crowd by surprise: a man jumped up onto the platform and dipped his fingers in the dead king’s blood. He held his hand aloft and shouted ‘Jacques de Molay, thus you are avenged!’ The crowd cheered, understanding the reference to the last Templar Grand Master, who was burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314; the longheld popular rumour that one day the Templars would have their revenge on the French monarchy – which had brought the Order down on dubious charges of heresy, blasphemy and sodomy – seemed to have come true. Indeed, speculation was rife that the Templars were among the instigators of the revolution that had swept through France in 1789, ultimately claiming the lives of Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

Modern historians would scoff at such a notion, but it certainly illustrates the unique hold the Knights Templar have had on the European imagination ever since they emerged from obscurity in the late 1120s. They have been seen as heroic soldier-monks guarding pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades, defenders of Holy Church who fought alongside Richard the Lionheart. Their critics – in their own time, usually annalists and commentators from rival monastic orders – accused them of the sins of pride and arrogance, and were deeply suspicious of the air of secrecy that hung over the Order like a veil. To Walter Scott, they were evil, and he made them the villains of Ivanhoe. Modern historians have tried to show that the Templars were a highly efficient military organisation made up largely of illiterates who were in reality very ordinary; their achievements were to be the creation of the first standing army in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and – as the first bankers in the West – the mediaeval organisation that did most to pave the way for modern capitalism.

Those of a more speculative cast of mind – and there have been many over the centuries – have seen the Order variously as an esoteric brotherhood, hungry for forbidden knowledge; apostates involved in diabolic practices who were the witches’ next of kin; a mysterious political entity that has guided world affairs since their suppression, clandestinely directing world events from behind the scenes; and renegade Christians who supported and sheltered heretics, forged links with occult groups in the Arab world and who discovered the Turin Shroud, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Books about the Templars tend to fall into two camps: what could be termed orthodox and speculative. The former camp is represented by academics such as Malcolm Barber, whose studies The New Knighthood and The Trial of the Templars are critically acclaimed and are the books one should consult if one is seeking a comprehensive treatment of Templar history. The latter camp of speculative writers has spawned a thriving industry of books containing a multitude of theories ranging from the plausible to the risible. In France – where there is a vast literature on the Templars – the Order holds a position similar to that of Glastonbury in England, a sort of historical tabula rasa onto which almost anything can be projected.

This book will trace the Templar story, from its beginnings in the early twelfth century, through to the suppression of the Order by the Pope in 1312 and the execution of Jacques de Molay two years later. The myths surrounding them will be examined in a later chapter. Whether or not there is any truth to them is, of course, another matter.

The Rise of the Order of the Temple (1119–45)

The Order of Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Order of the Temple or The Knights Templar, was founded by the French nobleman Hugues de Payen in around the year 1119 in Jerusalem. The Holy City, back in Christian hands ever since the First Crusade twenty years previously, was the main destination for pilgrims from Europe. They came in their droves, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead – the roads around Jerusalem were notorious for the bands of robbers that haunted them, preying on the travellers to the Holy Places. Sometimes these robbers were Saracens; sometimes they were lapsed crusaders. To counter this threat, Hugues de Payen gathered a group of nine knights together to protect the pilgrims.

Hugues and his brothers did not look like the knights of popular imagination. They had no money, wore clothes that were donated to them and suffered from a constant shortage of new recruits and equipment in the early years of their existence. Yet by 1129, at the Council of Troyes, the Templars had become almost overnight the heroes of Christian Europe, and between 1139 and 1145, the Pope issued a series of three papal bulls that gave the Templars almost total power, making them answerable to none save the pontiff himself. It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds of the Middle Ages, if not of all European history.

If we are to understand why and how the Templars rose to such prominence so quickly after such apparently humble beginnings, we need to take a look at the background to the Jerusalem in which they found themselves at their inception, and trace the history of the city itself, right back to the original Temple of Solomon.

The First Temple

The original temple in Jerusalem was the Temple of Solomon, built by the great king around the year 950 BC. The site – known ever since as the Temple Mount or the Temple platform – had been chosen by his father, King David, who recognised it as the spot on which Abraham had prepared his son Isaac for sacrifice.

Abraham is thought to have lived 18 centuries before Christ, and was one of the founding fathers of the Jewish nation. His attempt to sacrifice Isaac symbolised both his obedience to God and his fear of Him. As Abraham raised the knife to kill his child, God spoke and ordered him to stay his hand; Abraham complied, and God was pleased. He promised Abraham that He would ‘shower blessings’ on him and make his people, the Jews, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore’.2 The spot of the attempted sacrifice came to represent, for the Jews, their unbreakable

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