The Knights Templar (Poor Knights of Christ/Order of the Temple)

The Knights Templar, also known as the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon or more simply just the Order of the Temple, was founded in the year 1119 CE by Hugues de Payen a French knight and was formerly endorsed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Troyes in 1129.

The Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon was a monastic order at first consisting of only Payen and eight other knights. It had but a single goal and only the best of intentions, to provide much needed protection for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and other Holy Places that had been conquered in the First Crusade of 1096 CE.

A headquarters was made available on the Temple Mount in the Al Aqsa Mosque, a religious structure believed to have been built over the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. It was from this location that the impoverished order took its name, their symbol two knights riding tandem on a single horse.

They were a hardy, rough and tumble bunch whose presence on the battlefield often meant the difference between victory and defeat for the Crusaders, warrior monks whose numbers and reputation grew quickly. With success in battle came wealth and power and in 1139 the Omne Datum Optimum, a papal bull, effectively placed them above the law, allowed them to cross borders with impunity, exempted them from taxes and made them answerable only to the Pope, privileges that enraged many in the Catholic Church’s upper hierarchy.

The Templars soon found themselves transformed into a medieval economic powerhouse, whose assets included businesses, vineyards, farms, castles, ports and a fleet of ships. A type of checking (promissory note) that allowed travelers to deposit money with a preceptory (community of Templars) in one location and retrieve it in another (thereby making pilgrims a less tempting target for those intent on nefarious misdeeds) proved to be a revolutionary idea and the once “poor fellows” [1] eventually managing the treasuries of kings and countries became the bankers of Europe. 

Unfortunately for the Templars a series of military reversals beginning in the mid 1100s tilted the table so to speak. In 1187 the Saracens under their leader Saladin took Jerusalem, forcing the Poor Knights to relocate further north, a seeming trigger that soon had Christianity itself in steady retreat as battles were lost and cities fell. In 1291 Acre, Tortosa and Atlit were lost, then finally, after an abortive attempt at invasion, even the garrison on tiny Arwad (Ruad) Island was withdrawn. By the end of 1302 its last mainland foothold a memory and a military alliance with the Mongols no longer feasible, the Order was reduced to observing events in the Middle East from an offshore headquarters on the island of Cyprus.

With the Holy Land and their original reason for being a dead issue, the Templars turned their attention to Europe, where with over 15,000 Templar Houses and a vast banking and business network they had become an integral part of everyday life; unfortunately their military setbacks translated into a loss of both influence and prestige, and the European nobility many deeply in debt to the Order began conspiring to also lessen their authority.

In 1252 the English king Henry III had suggested the Templars liberties and possessions be both constrained and reduced. On Friday, October 13, 1307, the French king Philippe le Bel (Philip IV) went a step further arresting a large number of Knights Templar including Grand Master Jacques de Molay, he found the treasury at the Paris preceptory empty, however, the Order having been warned in advance. On 22 November, that same year, Pope Clement V, under pressure, issued a bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae; it instructed the Christian monarchs of Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets.

The Order was officially dissolved by Pope Clement at the Council of Vienne in 1312, its assets for the most part turned over to the Hospitallers, the debts of the nobility and others canceled.

The arrested Templars were charged with heresy (while the majority of the charges were undoubtedly fraudulent, some such as the Templar’s association with the Assassins [2] did have a kernel of truth) and tortured until they confessed to blasphemy many burned at the stake. Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, was interred in the Chateau de Chinon in the Loire Valley before being taken to Paris for execution. He was burned alive on March 18, 1314, and even as the flames consumed him allegedly called out that Clement and Philip would soon meet him before God (within the year both notables had followed de Molay into the hereafter).

The Order as a legal entity was eradicated throughout mainland Europe, but did it really cease to exist? On the Iberian Peninsula many members simply transferred to newly created orders such as the Order of Montesa and the Order of Christ, the latter destined to become a maritime organization of some importance (the power behind the throne?) with many noteworthy explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus sailing under its flag the Templar Cross. Others, following their assets, joined the Knights Hospitaller, a military and religious order originally founded in the 11th century to provide care for ailing pilgrims, and it is suspected, though unproven, that a few fled to countries beyond the Pope’s control such as Scotland where according to some they were a factor in the founding of the Freemasons.

[1] Referring to yet another Templar designation, the "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon."

[2] The Assassins, also known as Nizaris and followers of Hassan-i-Sabbah, were an extremely radical and decidedly unorthodox Muslim order. They are believed to have heavily influenced the early Knights Templar, (both their internal infrastructure and their uniforms of red on white were remarkably similar). Indeed the two groups seem to have embraced each other on many levels, along with that old adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It was a true marriage of convenience with the Assassins at times allied with the warrior monks against a common foe, at other times paying them tribute in order to avoid a military confrontation.

There are disputes over the origins of their name, some say it’s derived from the Arabic word hashshashin (users of hashish) while others maintain it comes from the Arabic word Assasseen or guardian. Whatever its derivation it quickly became synonymous with fear, as operating from fortresses in Persia and Syria they terrorized their enemies Christian and Muslim alike.

If they thought themselves the true masters of fear, however, they were mistaken. Two centuries after their inception they crossed paths with the Mongols and learned as did everyone who had stood against the highly disciplined, ferocious and all conquering nomads just what the true meaning of fear really is.

The Mongols ravaged Persia, ruthlessly obliterating all opposition and unfortunately for the Assassins this also included them. Their mountain strongholds were destroyed one after the other, the defenders put to death, their first and greatest fortress Alamut "Eagles Nest" finally falling to the invaders in 1256 (a fate which would befall the Syrian branch of the Muslim order less than two decades later this time at the hands of Baybars the Egyptian Mamluk sultan). [3]

[3] Baybars (also spelled Baibars) the great Mamluk general, later to become sultan, had been instrumental in defeating the Mongols in 1260 at the battle of Ayn Jalut (or Ain Jalut), a first for any military force opposed to the fierce Asian horsemen, the area encompassing Syria and the Holy Land remaining, for the most part, beyond their reach.

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