There are many who believe that the Knights Templar was a unique order of warriors who, during their centuries-long sojourn in Jerusalem, were guardians of the most sacred Christian treasures. Their network of castles and brotherhoods across medieval Europe may have safeguarded mythical Christian relics such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and the Blood of Jesus Chris. Many potboilers have been written that seem to make these ideas fact. But there is another ,darker, view of the order, which pains them as a coven of homosexual devil worshippers who used their power and influence to engage in horrific heresies and possible even human sacrifice.
The truth may be somewhere in the middle. Even today, Catholic brotherhoods are rocked worldwide by accusations, some proven, of paedophilia, rape and other sexual crimes.
The Knights Templar (otherwise known as the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon) were founded by Hugues de Payens (1070 - 1136) and eight other knights in 1118 or 1119, resolving to live in poverty and chastity. He was a veteran of the First Crusade (1095 - 1099) and had seen that many pilgrims to Jerusalem were being robbed and attacked. King Baldwin II (1060-1131) officially endorsed the order by giving them the Al-Aqsa Mosque near the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. This was the original site of the Temple of Solomon and one of the holiest sites in the Middle East for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Much of the mythology surrounding the Knights Templar hints at what they may have excavated while at this most holy location.
The order was formally recognised by the Pope in January 1128, in awarding them their own distinctive dress of a plain white robe, to which in 1147 a red cross was added. The Templar Rule was also handed down. This gave the master total power over the order until his death. The knights were supposed to embody pure chivalry and self-sacrifice. They were not allowed to consort in any way with women and had to remain celibate. They were forbidden to kiss mothers, wives, sisters or indeed any women at all, and if the Knight was married before joining the order, his wife had to join a nunnery. They spent their days like Benedictine monks; praying, eating in silence, saying paternosters and dressing without personal adornment. They also undertook extensive weapons training, becoming proficient with dirk, sword, mace, crossbow and axe.
Not that everyone who wanted to join the order made it that far. The chapter delved deeply into the background of any applicant, and his character was rigorously tested. Then, if he cleared those hurdles, in a highly secret swearing-in ceremony, the entrant was required to swear and oath of obedience to the master and the rule, promising to live a life of poverty and chastity. Most importantly, the vows included a promise to protect Jerusalem from the heathens. It was the secrecy of this swearing-in ceremony that led to many foul rumours circulation as to what the order got up to; rumours that Philip IV (1268 - 1314) would exploit to the full.
The rules were rigorously enforced. Anyone who broke them could be forced to eat from the floor for a year or even executed by being walled up in one of the many Templar forts. As a result of such privations, the Knights were initially seen as perfect paragons of Christian purity. However, their roles as protectors of pilgrims ultimately led to their downfall as their image became tarnished with a most 'un-knightly' activity; banking. Pilgrimage to the Holy Lands was a dangerous business and pilgrims put their life, and their savings, on the line. Pilgrims and knights journeying to the Holy Land would deposit their monies in a Templar castle in their home town in exchange for a bill of credit (the earliest form of cheque). They would then redeem the cash once in Palestine.
The simple transfer business soon grew until the Templars had a huge financials concern on their hands. They were given wills and acted as executors. Huge amounts of money and wealth were deposited in castles, and many sought to save their souls by bequeathing fortunes to the order. Eventually, the order became crucial to the French monarchy and other rulers. They collected taxes, paid pensions and even safeguarded the British Crown Jewels. A network of castles spread across Europe as gradually they acquired tremendous wealth.
Rumours also abounded regarding what the Templars extracted from the Holy land. The Holy Grail and many other relics were suspected to have been smuggled out of Jerusalem and taken to the Templar headquarters in France and England. The rumour mill also suggested that not entirely Christian practices were being followed in the mysterious lodges where the Templars live.
By the early 14th century, the Knights Templar had grown from a tiny organisation of nine impoverished knights to a network of financial power reaching every corner of Europe. They even diversified into massive farming estates generating even more wealth. Personnel numbers in the tens of thousands, though only a small proportion of these were fighting brothers. Most were lay knights or attendants concerned with cooking, cleaning and, of course, counting.
There was one big fly in the spiritual ointment. They very reason for the knights' existence had passed. The Christians had been booted out of the Holy Land and the Crusades were over. In 1291, Muslims conquered the last Crusader state, based on Acre. Soon after, the last Templars left.
Today, Friday the 13th is universally seen as a day when bad things happen. This was not always the case. But when the Templar order was all but eliminated on Friday the 13th of October 1307, the date became a resounding ill omen.
The Templars had become a rule unto themselves. Despite the fall of their possessions in the Holy Lands of Outremer (the Middle East), they still had at least 870 castles and preceptories. Papal dispensations meant they were exempted from paying royal taxes, and such was the size and strength of their army they were seen as a threatening independent military power in the midst of Europe. Many resented them.
Philip IV was crowned King of France in 1285. He inherited a kingdom in great financial difficulty. For many years the King sought to stabilise the French economy and expand his power-base. In 1306 he sought to raise extra revenue, and prices tripled as a result. Riots broke out, and such was the fury of Parisians, Philip had to take refuge in the Paris Temple. For three days the Knights Templar protected him from the mob - a kindness they would soon have cause to regret.
During this time Philip was no doubt reminded of the great wealth of the Templars; it is likely that he saw the solution to his financial problems during those three days. Guillaume de Nogaret (1260 - 1313), Philip's enforcer, came up with a scheme to solve his financial problems once and for all. They would arrest the Templars, convict them of heresy and seize the order's assets.
Philip's moves against the Templars rivalled in efficiency Hitler's Night of the Long Knives. On the 14th of September 1307, hundreds of couriers issued from Paris. The sealed instructions they carried to his closest allies and enforcers throughout France set out plans for the crackdown to come. At dawn on the 13th of October 1307, warrants of arrest were issued for every Templar in France. The warrants accused the holy order of the vilest heresies and within the space of a few hours almost 5,000 Templars the length and breadth of the country, had been taken into custody. Only 20 or so managed to escape the round-up. Such a dire portrait of the Templars was painted that no sheriff could dare resist arresting their prey.
Philip followed up on this 'shock and awe' assault upon the Templars with a publicity campaign that rivals modern-day politics. On the 15th of September, in every town and village in France, Dominican friars and royal representatives regaled the populated with sordid stories of buggery and depravity. On the 16th, Philip sent letters to his fellow kings and princes throughout Europe, explaining his actions and urging them to follow his lead.
Philip had set the scene; now he had to back up his actions. To help him he had a legion of inquisitors itching to tear the worst confessions from Templar throats. Along with the usual methods used by inquisitors, the French had developed a particularly nasty torture. Pig fat was smeared on the soles of the suspect's feet, and he was then suspended above some flames. This slow-cooked the feet like a pig on the spit; one Templar Priest was shocked when his bones fell out of his feet several days after the torture had concluded. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, the French had no prohibition against the shedding of Blood. The Grand Master de Molay (1244-1314) wrong of how skin was torn from his inner thighs, belly and back.
The crimes the order confessed to were horrible. The induction ceremony supposedly required new recruits to spit on the cross and deny Christ. A four-faced head complete with devil's horns was worshipped as a pagan idol, and many confessed to kissing the 'receptor' mouth, navel, stomach, buttocks or penis. Once inducted as a full member of the order, it was apparently improper to refuse a brother's sexual advances, according to what was confessed. In fact, the confessions were remarkably similar, and it is obvious the French inquisitors put words in the mouths of the brethren as they were tortured. Many retracted the confessions, even though retraction meant being burned at the stake.
The damage had been done. The Pope supported Philip's campaign and Templars throughout Europe were arrested and tortured. Templar lands and assets were seized, and huge amounts of wealth were soon flowing into the French royal coffers. But Philip did not have it all his own way. Indeed, perhaps the Templars did possess some relic that gave them supernatural powers.
On the 18th of March 1314, de Molay was consigned to the flames. He curned Guillaume de Nogaret to die within eight days, the Pope was given forty days and within a year, screamed Molay, Philip himself would die. One week later de Nogaret died. Pope Clement V lived for 33 more days. Philip died eight months later.
Some lodges survived the purges, and if for a minute we suspend our modern scepticism , it is possible to imagine that in a secret den in the heart of Scotland, the Knights Templar still stand guard over Chris's Blood, the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant.