Ever since Hollywood took command of the storytelling aspect of the Knights Templar, the history and mystery of the fallen order has blossomed into a majestic conspiracy theory. The Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon have captured imagination of several authors and storytellers because their history is one of glory and treachery.
The motto of the Knights Templar:
“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name be the Glory.” –Psalm 115
For the record, there is no Templar castle hidden in Boston, there is no American-Freemason-Templar organization, the Constitution does not have a map on it, and Nick Cage is not a history professor.
Beginning in 1118, just after the First Crusade left European armies quizzically victorious after storming the Holy Land and conquering it in an unexpectedly fast and simple conflict, pilgrims from across Europe began pouring into Jerusalem. Banditry accosted many of the wealthy pilgrims, lawlessness was rampant in the countrysides and trails around the Crusader stronghold. 9 knights approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem with a novel idea: an organization of monks, trained to fight, designated to protect the pilgrims. With the blessing of the king of Jerusalem, the knights formed their order and were given a wing in Baldwin’s central complex to be their headquarters. The wing that they occupied was believed to be directly above the granulated remains of the Temple of Solomon; hence the name, the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, or later simplified down to just “the Knights Templar”.
Although relatively unknown for many years, the knights became internationally famous when Bernard de Clairvaux (later became a saint, also has a dog named after him) advocated for them at the Council of Troyes in 1128 and won sanctioned support of the Church. People were originally wary that holy men should not be men of war, but with some clever writings, Bernard convinced Europe that holy men packing heat was a good strategy and donations to the Knights Templar began to flow in. In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued the bull Omne Datum Optimum, which placed the Knights Templar order directly under the authority of the Papacy. That meant that Knights Templar were not subjected to taxation, borders, or laws of any man save the Pope.
Pope Innocent II gave the order the 12th century version of a blank check
One of the primary tenants of the Templar order was poverty, so the knights themselves did not live opulently regardless of the money that they raked in each year. The Order began to become fabulously wealthy and spread itself across Europe and the Crusader kingdoms. The strength of the Templar army and the strength of their convictions made it so that they were one of the most trusted organizations in all of Europe, and people who would go off to fight in the Crusades would leave ownership of their lands to either the Knights Templar or a different Templar order, the Knights Hospitaller. The Templars actually began a system of “traveller’s checks” and primitive IOU notations that would allow withdrawals at other Templar banks for any amount that was deposited at another Templar hub.
Being the Bank system of Europe didn’t hurt their income either. The Templars owned half as much property as the Hospitallers, but were substantially more wealthy
As the Crusades continued, the Europeans began to lose. Like, a lot. The Crusader knights then were left with huge amounts of power, a ton of property, the Papacy’s personal seal of approval, and spare time.
Other orders began asserting their influence around Europe and would help or quash coups in assorted kingdoms, which leads to the story of the downfall of the Knights Templar: King Philip IV of France was in debt to the Templar order and was dead center in a bare-knuckle political brawl over the Holy Roman Empire. Philip went so far as to say that the Vatican was wrong when it elected a German-favoring pope into the seat, and in 1309 started a separate papacy in Avignon, France. Philip feared Templar influence on his tentative position in Europe’s power structure, but perhaps more likely, he really wanted the cash that the Templar order had stocked away in France. There is a story about Philip having to hide away from an angry mob in a Templar building, where he experienced the raw majesty of the Templar order’s wealth (something like 2077 liters of wine being drunk by his court in a few days). Lo and behold, several days later, the Templars begin being arrested on charges of heresy and irreverence. After extreme torture, many Templars confessed to everything from kicking the cross to “obscene kisses at ceremonies” (one Templar was recorded saying that the torture was so bad that he would have admitted to having killed God by the end). Clement V, the French pope, did little to aid the Templars, and their order who stood against Saracens for 200 years was eradicated in a matter of 3 years as rulers from around Europe who were in debt to the Templar order turned on them and wiped them out.
This is supposed to be a picture of one of the “obscene kisses”
As for why the Templar order remains so relevant in pop culture? Several legends survived the order, giving the remembrance of the order of knights a near magical mysterious quality. First off, the Order was founded on the footsteps of the Temple of Solomon, one of the most biblically powerful locations in Christian theology. When the order had to ship out at the close of the Crusader era, stories began to arise that postulated that they had located the Holy Grail somewhere in the dirt beneath their headquarters and jealously guarded it as they clandestinely ferried it to Europe. Secondly, the order began to be suspected of heresy, witchcraft, black magic, sacrifices, Satanism, demon worship, and a whole host of other things before it was eradicated. Most historians believe the charges to be propaganda circulated by angry opposition forces similar to the Blood Libel that circulated about Jewish people killing babies at night (For real, Jewish communities were accused and in some cases killed because of fear that they were using the blood of Christian children for their magic). A third, though likely not final reason why Templars are still seen as oddly magic comes from the legendary last statement of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. As he burned at the stake, he reportedly said, “Within one year, God will summon both Clement and Philip to His Judgment for these actions.” Serendipitously, both Philip and Clement supposedly died within a year of Molay’s immolation.