Knights Templar Also known as The Order of the Temple, the knights Templar began with lofty ideals of chivalry, crusades and Christian faith, as practiced by an exclusive club of monastic knights. It was founded between 1119 and 1188 by Hugh de Payens of Champagne, France, and a small group of knights, who dedicated themselves to protecting pilgrims to the Holy Land and routing out the infidels from the same. The order accumulated great wealth and power, which two centuries later brought about its downfall amid sordid accusations of heresy, Devil-worship, blasphemy and homosexuality.
After its inception, the knights Templar quickly gained in reputation and respect. Their banner, a white flag with a crimson cross, became symbolic of the Christian war against the infidels, and of the highest ideals. Groups were organized throughout Europe and England, but France remained the stronghold. All members pledged their complete allegiance to a Grandmaster. knights took vows of poverty, humility and chastity, which were strictly enforced. As a religious order, the Templars were not taxed by the Crown and were not subject to the laws of the land; they were answerable only to the pope.
Despite the poverty of the individual knights, the order solicited donations to finance its holy war. money poured in, and the order grew in power. The rites of the order were kept in deep secrecy. Over time, this gave rise to much curious speculation and rumour about what really went on in Templar strongholds. For generations, stories were told of blasphemous rites in which Christ was renounced as a false prophet and the cross was spit, urinated and trampled upon. Further, Templars were rumoured to engage in homosexual rituals and to worship the Devil, who appeared in the form of a black cat, which they kissed beneath the tail (see Kiss of Shame). They were also said to worship an idol named Baphomet, in some versions a stuffed human head, in others a skull or an artificial head with three faces. The Templars, it was said, roasted children and smeared their burning fat upon this idol. For years, no one acted upon these stories.
In the Holy Land, the order used its immense wealth to enter commerce. It lent money and transacted business with the enemy during times of truce. The order’s financial power, as well as its immunity to secular law, incurred increasing resentment among the nobility—in particular, king Philip IV of France, who was himself one of the order’s debtors.
The collapse of the Crusades did little to harm the order. By the 14th century, it was at its peak of power. Then Philip, coveting the order’s vast wealth, set out to seize its riches and lands by accusing the knights of heresy. The king’s willing accomplice was Pope Clement V.
On October 13, 1307, Philip arrested Grand master Jacques de Molay and 140 knights in the Paris temple. more arrests followed throughout France. The Templars were subjected to torture en masse. many confessed to the blasphemies and Demonic crimes of which they were accused, though the confessions were so varied that little conclusive proof was amassed. Nevertheless, Philip pursued his wholesale persecution of the order.
On November 22, Philip persuaded Pope Clement to issue a bull ordering all Templars to be arrested and all of their properties seized. Not all countries obeyed as zealously as Philip desired; it took a second papal bull to force king Edward II of England to torture Templars in his dominion. In other countries, leniency was shown toward the Templars, some of whom were acquitted or allowed to join other orders.
In 1310 the public trials of the Templars began in Paris. Those who had survived the brutal torture were brought forward, charged with a long list of crimes and interrogated. Some knights defended the order. Fifty-four who refused to confess were ordered by Philip to be taken to the suburbs and burned to death. Still, there was no definitive proof of heresy. Accounts of the idol Baphomet varied widely. many Templars said only that they had heard of such a thing but had never seen it. Nonetheless, opponents of the order claimed the idol was proof that the Templars had adopted the mahometanism of the infidels. Throughout Europe, Templars were convicted of sorcery and heresy and burned at the stake.
Clement officially dissolved the order in 1312. The pope specified that all assets were to be turned over to a rival order, the Hospitallers, but this was not universally followed. Assets in France and England were seized by Philip and Edward, both of whom used them for personal ends or lavished them on friends. Elsewhere in Europe, other orders took the assets.
Grand master de Molay remained in prison for seven years. In 1314 he was placed on a scaffold in Paris and ordered to make a public confession. In exchange, he would be imprisoned for life instead of being executed. To the surprise of the authorities, de Molay angrily denounced his persecution and said he had been tortured into lying. He was, he protested vigorously, innocent of all charges. Enraged, Philip ordered de molay burned alive. He died at sunset the same day, slowly and painfully in the flames.
According to legend, the dying de Molay declared that as proof of his innocence, Philip and Clement would be summoned to meet him before the throne of God within a year. Both men died within that time.
It is possible that some of the accusations against the Templars had some basis in fact, though no doubt the stories were quite exaggerated. With their exposure to other religions in the Holy Land, the Templars may have absorbed some rites and beliefs into their own system. Some scholars believe they may have adopted aspects of Gnosticism and may have ritualized homosexuality. many of their secrets will never be known.
- Hall, Manly Palmer. Masonic Orders of Fraternity. Los Angeles: Philosophical research Society, 1950.
- Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
- Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.