KNIGHTS TEMPLAR : In the year 1119, nine French knights living in Jerusalem formed a religious order devoted to the protection of pilgrims travelling to the Christian holy sites in that city. Together, they took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the presence of the patriarch of Jerusalem, and King Baldwin II gave them a place to live near the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. This inspired the name of the new order, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Knights Templar.
Many strange claims have been floated in recent years about the founding of the order, but it made perfect sense in the context of the time. Aiding pilgrims on their way to sacred sites was a religious duty in the Middle Ages, enshrined in canon law and accepted in the popular culture of the time. The road between the port city of Joppa and Jerusalem, the principal pilgrim route, was infested by robbers and wild animals but only 40 miles (64 kilometers) long, short enough that nine competent knights devoted to the task could have a real impact on pilgrim safety.
The order remained very small for its first decade, and the title “Poor” well describes their situation; despite intermittent support from the King of Jerusalem, they had to make do on resources so limited that on occasion two brothers had to ride a single horse. A letter from the first Grand Master, Hugues de Payens, to the members in Jerusalem at the time of the Council of Troyes in 1128 makes it clear that the Poor Fellow Soldiers were struggling for survival. Fortunately for the order, help was on its way. Few people had heard of the Templars until Hugues travelled to Europe in 1128 to publicize it, but his journey brought back a torrent of donations and scores of new recruits. More valuable still, at the Council of Troyes the Catholic Church formally recognized the Templars and made their property exempt from church tithes and ordinary taxes, while the influential Bernard of Clairvaux (later canonized by the church) helped write a monastic rule for them and penned a widely circulated essay, In Praise of the New Knighthood, extolling the Templars and encouraging others to support them. Within a few decades donations of land from nobles across Europe gave the Templars so much real estate that a network of local centres, called commanderies, had to be set up to manage Templar properties and send the profits to Palestine. A Templar navy had to be built to convey recruits and supplies the length of the Mediterranean, and castles rose in vulnerable points throughout the Holy Land as the Templars redirected their efforts from the protection of pilgrimage routes to the defense of the crusader kingdoms against Muslim efforts at reconquest. Even so, the Templar rule assigned ten knights to guard duty on the Joppa road as long as the crusader presence in Palestine lasted.
By 1170 the Templars had nearly a thousand brother knights in the Holy Land, divided more or less evenly between the crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Tripoli. Squires (noble recruits not yet admitted to the rank of brother knight), sergeants (cavalrymen of peasant origin), and Turcopoles (mounted archers recruited from the native Palestinian population) expanded the Templars’ total fighting force to perhaps 10,000 men. Along with the two other major crusading orders of the time, the Knights Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, the Templars made up about half the effective fighting force of the crusader states, and their training, experience, and discipline made the military orders the iron backbone of the Crusades. The Templars’ black and white banner, the Beauceant, was seen on every battlefield in the Holy Land as long as the Crusades lasted.
At the core of Templar discipline was their rule. The original or “Primitive Rule” given to the Templars at the Council of Troyes was closely modelled on the rule of the Cistercian order of monks, and had little relevance to the Templars’ military life or the conditions they faced in Palestine. The rule was later expanded by retrais or additional sections covering the order’s organization, the duties of its officers and members, and the penances imposed on those who violated its laws. The rule divided the Templars into brother knights, who were of noble birth and alone could vote in chapter meetings; chaplains, who administered the rites of the Catholic Church to the brothers; and serving brothers, a class that included squires and sergeants, as well as craftsmen such as armourers, blacksmiths, cooks, and the like, who provided all the goods and services needed to keep a medieval military force in action. A fourth class of lay affiliates consisted of men and women who pledged support to the order and received a variety of honorary membership in return.
Sensational claims about a “secret rule” were made during the trials of the Templars in the fourteenth century, and have been repeated by pro-and anti-Templar writers over the last two centuries, but the reality was more prosaic. The Templar rule has survived in numerous copies (see Upton-Ward 1992 for an English translation) and contains detailed information about Templar military tactics and procedures; for this reason one of the retrais requires that copies of the rule be restricted to officials of the order, so that they would not fall into enemy hands.
According to the rule, any man who applied to join the Templars had to be voted into membership by a majority of brother knights in the chapter house where the application was made. A simple initiation ritual followed, in which the new member affirmed that he was neither married or vowed to another religious order, had no debts he could not pay, had no hidden illness, had not bribed any member of the order in the hope of admission, and was not a serf. He then pledged himself to the order for the rest of his life, was received into the order, and heard a lecture on his duties and responsibilities. The ritual, which survives in numerous texts of the Templar rule, has close similarities to other medieval initiation rituals, including the reception of new members into other monastic orders and the admission of apprentices, fellow craftsmen, and masters into trade guilds.
The Templar rule forbade any member from having any money of his own – if money was found in a brother’s possessions on his death, his body was left unburied for dogs to eat – but the order itself quickly became rich. Financial systems evolved to transfer funds from Europe to the crusader kingdoms soon found other uses, and the Templars became the first international bankers in medieval Europe. From the time of King Philip Augustus of France (1165–1223) until the end of the order, the French royal house banked its treasury at the Templar centre in Paris. The Grand Masters of the order served as advisers, financiers, and field marshals to crusading kings for more than a century.
The efforts of the Templars and the other military orders, however, could not save the crusader states once the Arab world united against them. Despite the Third Crusade, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Saladin (Yusuf Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138–93) in 1187, and later crusades merely slowed down the tide of Arab advances. The fall of Acre in 1291 removed the last crusader foothold in Palestine and deprived the military orders of their original reason for existence. The Knights Hospitallers moved to the Greek island of Rhodes and continued the fight from there; the Teutonic Knights returned home to Germany and launched a new holy war against the pagan Balts and Slavs of eastern Europe. The Templars alone failed to find another mission, and contented themselves with lobbying European courts for a new crusade.
This proved to be a fatal mistake. Envied for their wealth and privileges, hated for their arrogance, and blamed by many for the failure of the Crusades, the Templars offered a tempting target to any monarch bold enough to seize the opportunity. Perpetually short of money, Philip IV of France had long regarded the rich Templar properties in his country with a greedy eye. His handpicked papal candidate, Clement V, was elected Pope in 1305. All that was needed was an excuse, and rumours of Templar improprieties circulated by Esquin de Floryan, a renegade Templar from southern France, provided that.
At dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, in an operation that would have done credit to a modern police state, royal officials carried out coordinated raids and mass arrests in every Templar chapter house in France. The charge was heresy. Two thousand Templars, of whom around a hundred were brother knights, landed in prison. Torture was used and confessions duly followed, alleging that the Templars had a secret initiation ritual requiring novices to renounce Christ, trample on a cross, and kiss their initiator on the anus, while Templar chapter meetings focused on the worship of an idol called Baphomet. This name has been subject to any number of strange interpretations over the years, but is simply the standard medieval French mispronunciation of “Muhammad,” equivalent to the contemporary English “Mahound;” the implication was that the Templars, during their time in Palestine, had gone over to the enemy.
The following year, under intense pressure from the French king, Pope Clement decreed that Templars elsewhere in Europe be arrested and tried. Some arrests followed, but convictions were very few; in several trials, notably in Germany, the Templars were found innocent of all charges. In 1312, Clement called a general council of the Church at Vienne to condemn the Templars, but found that many of the bishops and cardinals supported the order and wanted to give them the right to formally respond to the charges against them. Clement, caught between the recalcitrant council and an enraged King Philip, summarily dissolved the Templar order on his own authority.
Outside France, the dissolution of the Templars simply involved a change of habit for its members. Most Templars found new homes in other military orders; German Templars joined the Teutonic Knights, Templars in Spain joined the Spanish military orders of Montesa and Calatrava, while the king of Portugal simply renamed the Portuguese Templars “Knights of Christ” and helped them continue as before. In England, King Edward II settled pensions on the Templars and arranged for them to transfer to monastic orders. Even in France, of the 2000 seized in the 1307 arrests, the vast majority was set free; an uncertain number died during torture, and only 60 were actually executed. One of these was the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake in 1314. As he died, according to contemporary legend, he pronounced a curse against King Philip and Pope Clement. If so, the curse was a potent one, for both king and pope were dead before the year was out.
Jacques de Molay’s death marked the end of the history of the Templars, but it was only the beginning of the history of the Templar myth. That myth has essentially nothing to do with the historical Knights Templar, and everything to do with the history of secret societies in the western world from the 1730s to the present.
At the time of the Templars’ destruction, and for hundreds of years thereafter, almost everyone in Europe believed that Philip IV had destroyed the Templars to get at their wealth, and only a handful of propagandists for the French royal house and the official historians of the Papacy even claimed to believe the stories about heresy and the worship of Baphomet. The contemporary poet Dante Alighieri, whose great poem The Divine Comedy commented on most of the events of his time, referred to the Templars’ fate in Canto XX of the Purgatorio as purely a result of Philip’s greed and spite. The great Renaissance legal theorist Jean Bodin, two centuries later, cited the Templars as a classic example of a group oppressed and destroyed by an unjust monarch. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, this view and the orthodox claim that the Templars had done exactly what Philip IV said they did were the only opinions about the Templars in circulation.
Abruptly, in the late 1730s, a third set of claims began to appear, insisting that the Templars were the secret guardians of an ancient wisdom ruthlessly suppressed by the forces of orthodoxy. These first surfaced in Masonic circles in France linked to the Jacobites – supporters of the exiled House of Stuart – and drew their theme from the famous 1736 Masonic address of the Chevalier Andrew Ramsay, an influential Jacobite who argued that Freemasonry itself was descended from the knightly orders of the Crusades.
Within a few years of Ramsay’s address, rumours circulated through the French court about a new, “Scottish” Freemasonry above the three Craft degrees of ordinary Masonry. French sources claim that the first Scottish system was launched by Ramsay himself and included the three degrees of Scottish Master, Novice, and Knight of the Temple. More degrees followed; a 1744< pamphlet from Paris claims that there were six or seven degrees above Master Mason at that time, while in 1751 most French lodges worked a system of nine degrees.
Central to the entire system of Scottish degrees was the claim that they descended from Templar traditions preserved in Scotland, and that the Templars themselves had been guardians of an ancient wisdom that now survived in the higher degrees of Freemasonry. Many historians of Freemasonry have argued that the entire Templar myth was created by Jacobite propagandists at this time, as part of a struggle for control of French Freemasonry between Jacobites and their opponents, and the evidence does seem to support this claim.
After the catastrophic defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1745 put an end to the hope of a Stuart restoration, several different systems of Scottish Masonry surfaced in public, among them the Royal Order of Scotland in The Hague in 1750, the Rite of Perfection (the source of today’s Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite) in Paris in 1754, and the Rite of Strict Observance in Saxony, also in 1754. All these rites had connections to the Jacobite court in exile and included, as part of their teachings, the claim that surviving Templars had carried their mysteries to Scotland in the years after 1307 and established Freemasonry there. This claim was originally a secret teaching but, like most Masonic secrets, it slipped out at an early date, and sparked a lively market for Templar degrees within Masonry. Eighteenth-century Masonry being what it was, supply soon caught up with demand, and soon more than a dozen newly minted Templar rites with no connection to the Stuart cause competed with the Scottish degrees for membership and influence. The Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an eighteenth-century German Rosicrucian order, also found room for the Templars in their origin story, claiming that Templars were initiated in 1188 into the Rosicrucian order, originally founded in Alexandria in 96 CE, and brought its teachings back to Europe with them.
The next major element of the Templar myth arrived by way of the French Revolution. Many of the liberals who originally supported the National Assembly in its struggle against royal privilege in the heady days of 1789 were Freemasons. During the Revolution years, a handful of journalists turned this fact into the foundation for a claim that the Revolution itself had been hatched as a Masonic plot. One contributor to this literature was Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt, a former radical whose book Le Tombeau de Jacques Molay (The Tomb of Jacques Molay, 1796) claimed that the Freemasons were exacting their vengeance against the French monarchy for the death of Jacques de Molay. Cadet de Gassicourt’s book also introduced the idea that the Templars had been influenced by the Order of Assassins, and strung together more than a dozen unrelated secret societies into a supposedly continuous tradition of anarchist conspirators plotting across the centuries.
This theme was taken up readily by conservatives in the decades immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, when secret societies – many of them linked in one way or another with the Templar degrees of Freemasonry – played an important role in spreading liberal political ideas across Europe and fomenting rebellion against the attempts of autocratic regimes to stamp out the influence of the French Revolution. The two great founders of modern conspiracy theory, Augustin de Barruel and John Robison, both drew on Cadet de Gassicourt’s work in claiming that Freemasonry had been infiltrated by a vast conspiracy against religions and governments.
Far more influential than either of these authors in shaping the Templar myth, however, was the Austrian scholar Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, whose Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum (The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed, 1818) and several later books argued that the Templars had been Gnostic heretics, practising an orgiastic cult of the goddess Achamoth or Baphomet passed on in secret since the third century CE. Von Hammer-Purgstall was an employee of Prince Klemens von Metternich, chief minister to the Emperor of Austria and leader of the conservative reaction in post-Napoleonic Europe, and his books on the Templars were anything but disinterested scholarly research; rather, they were part of a deliberate strategy of disinformation meant to tar the revolutionary secret societies of the era with charges of sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices.
As with so much disinformation involving secret societies, however, von Hammer-Purgstall’s assault on the Templars had the unintended consequence of creating new secret societies on the model of the disinformation project – in this case, making sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices popular among would-be Templars. France was the scene of most of these transformations, as von Hammer-Purgstall’s book arrived there in the middle of a full-blown Templar renaissance. This was launched by Bernard Fabrè-Palaprat, a Freemason who in 1804 announced that he had a charter dating back to the time of Jacques de Molay himself. According to this document, the Charter of Transmission, de Molay had passed on the Grand Mastership of the Templars to one Johannes Marcus Larmenius, who kept the order alive in secret and passed it on in his turn. The charter is an eighteenth-century forgery and Larmenius apparently never existed, but the ploy allowed Fabrè-Palaprat to launch his own Order of the Temple and attract hundreds of members.
The Templar revival quickly found common ground with the burgeoning French alternative-spirituality scene. By 1828 French Templars were claiming a direct descent from the ancient Gnostics, and Eliphas Lévi’s immensely influential 1860 Histoire de la Magie (History of Magic) argued that the Templars were Gnostic sorcerers practising the true, magical Christianity of Jesus as passed on through the “secret church” of the apostle John, and their idol Baphomet was the goat-symbol of the all-powerful Astral Light, the mysterious substance that made magic possible. See Gnosticism; Magic.
By 1903 the Aryan racial mystic Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels was laying the foundations for the Ordo Novi Templi, a racist occult order that foreshadowed Hitler’s SS. In 1906 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which practised a system of sex magic borrowed from other magical orders of its time, was established, and in 1912 Aleister Crowley, for whom sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices were the breath of life, took charge of the OTO in England and America and proclaimed to his new Templars a gospel very nearly identical with von Hammer-Purgstall’s fantasies.
Nor was this the last hurrah of the Templars. All the elements of the Templar mythology just surveyed remain live options in the alternative scene today, and many have penetrated popular culture as well. Bestselling books repeat the old claims of a Templar origin for Freemasonry and link the Templars to Gnostics, Assassins, and others. New elements have entered the myth in recent years; Pierre Plantard’s extraordinary Priory of Sion hoax, and its various mutations at the hands of other authors, grafted an entirely new body of fable onto the existing mythology, centring on the Merovingian kings of Dark Age France, the alleged mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, and exotic accounts of Christian origins. These same speculative claims have also found a home in the world of popular fiction, most notably in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003).
In recent years new Templar orders of various kinds have sprouted throughout the western world, promoting almost every imaginable ideology except the orthodox Catholicism that motivated the original Templars. The reaction of the simple, devout soldier-monks of the Knights Templar to all this can scarcely be imagined.
- medieval guilds
- Christian origins
- Priory of Sion
- Crowley, Aleister
- Ordo Novi Templi (ONT)
- Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).
- French Revolution
- Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite
- Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross
- Rite of Perfection
- Rite of Strict Observance
- Royal Order of Scotland
- high degrees
- Scottish degrees
- Ramsay, Andrew Michael
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006