The Templar connection

According to John Hamill and R.A. Gilbert:

There is not the slightest evidence that the Order of the Temple survived in any form even for four decades, let alone for four centuries. There is, indeed, not the slightest historical support for the Templar theory of origin. But no matter: for those with a vision of chivalry, such difficulties were minor problems be glossed over. They wished Freemasonry to be derived fro Templarism; ergo, it was so.7

That seems dismissive enough - but we have already seen their first assertion is not entirely accurate; Portugal's Knights of Christ were, initially, more or less Portugal's Knights Templar under a new name, even retaining the same bar the Templar Cross. The pope may have officially disbanded Templars in March 1312, but the overwhelming majority knights survived, some to join other Orders, some to join mercenary armies, and others to go whither they willed.

The evidence suggests, however, that the rest of Hamill and Gilbert's dismissal is probably a fair statement of truth.

The bonds between Scotland and France in the eighteenth century were far closer than those between Scotland and England; thus many of the Rites and Orders which developed then, and which are still present in Freemasonry today, had a Scots-French origin.

The first reference to Masonic Templars in Scotland is in 1769, but the origins can be traced back further. The introduction of chivalric Orders to Freemasonry, with their higher, more esoteric Degrees, took place very early on in actual Masonic history - and occurred, as might be expected, in France.

A Jacobite, the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, was initiated a Freemason in England in 1730; moving to France, he delivered a lecture to the nascent French Masons in 1736, in which he spoke of the brotherhood, symbolism and secret signs between Crusading knights, 'religious and warrior princes', though he didn't mention the Templars by name. The Saracens infiltrated the Crusaders' organization; the knights, having discovered the existence of these spies, became more careful in the future, and instituted certain signs and words for the purpose of guarding against them; and, as many of their workmen were new converts to Christianity, they adopted certain symbolic ceremonies, in order more readily to instruct their proselytes in the new religion.8

When these knights returned to their home countries, Ramsay said, they established Lodges in which to preserve, study and teach the esoteric architecture they had learned in Palestine, particularly with regard to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

For good or for bad, Ramsay's Oration was directly responsible for the proliferation of chivalric Rites within Freemasonry in the eighteenth century; they particularly appealed to the nobility, and caught the imagination of many influential Masons. It might also have been indirectly responsible, at least in part, for the later upsurge in Romanticism; interest in chivalry, Arthuriana, etc. of the nineteenth century. 

The effects on Masonry were far-reaching. The Ancient; Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, widely practised by American Masons today, is effectively Ecossaise, a 'Scottish' Rite developed in France, and inspired by Ramsay's Oration (The English equivalent, usually known as the Rose Croix a later development, not being officially accepted until 1845).

The classic myth about the legacy of the Knights Templar is that after either the mass arrests in 1307 or Jacques Molay's execution in 1314, a number of Templar knights sailed to Scotland with their treasures and their secrets. This story developed fanciful details over the years (they helped Robert the Bruce win the Battle of Bannockburn, then laid low nearly 400 years, to resurface as the Freemasons; and their treasure was the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant), had its basis in claims by a self-proclaimed Scottish nobleman in Germany, around 1760. George Frederick Johnson Mason, claimed to be Knight of the Great Lion of the High Order of the Lords of the Temple at Jerusalem, and a -Provost-General of the Templar Order of the Scottish Lords. He is thought to have made considerable money by granting people titles and ranks in his Orders.

The person who really sparked off the Templar degrees within Freemasonry, however, was Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund (or Johann Gottlieb von Hund, according to A. E. Wake), who established around 1754 a complex system degrees known as the Strict Observance because of its vow: absolute obedience to Unknown Superiors.

Baron von Hund claimed that he had been initiated into Order of the Temple in 1742, though no such Order is know to have existed at that time; further, he claimed mistakenly that Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - was present at his initiation. (Interestingly, the Chevalier Andrew Ramsay had been the Young Pretender's tutor in the mid-1720s.) Von Hund also claimed that he had been commanded and empowered by Unknown Superiors to develop a new Rite. (There is, perhaps, a similarity to-be found with the hidden leaders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; see p. 214). Having commissioned him to do the job, the Unknown Superiors never contacted him again. How much of this has any factual validity is unclear. However, the Baron did as he was told, and established the Rite, with all its ritual.

The central legend of the Rite was that Jacques de Molay was succeeded as Grand Master by Pierre d'Aumont, the Templar Prior of Auvergne, who took the Order to Scotland. He was succeeded by an unbroken line of Grand Masters, who kept their identity secret: the Unknown Superiors.

Baron von Hund's Rite of the Strict Observance died with him, in 1776, largely because he was never able to produce his Unknown Superiors. But many of von Hund's ideas were picked up by the Lodge of the Rite of the Philalethes at Lyons, and (quite understandably) by the Provincial Grand Prior of Auvergne, and were adapted into a Rite which today is still practised by the Grand Priory of Helvetia. According to Pick and Knight's officially approved and very detailed Pocket History of Freemasonry, in Switzerland:

the Great Priory of England is in communion with the Grand Priory of the Rectified Scottish Rite, more often referred to as the Knights Beneficent of the Holy City. This is, in effect, the old Rite of Strict Observance of Baron von Hund. It is regarded as an exalted pinnacle of Freemasonry and its Swiss members have the privilege of attending meetings of the 33° of the Scottish Rite.9

The Great Priory of England is the governing body of today's Masonic Knights Templar or, to give them their full nam* United Religious, Military and Masonic Orders of the T( and of St John of Jerusalem, Palestine, Rhodes and Ma England and Wales and Provinces Overseas, under whose control comes the English Great Priory of the Holy Order of Knights Beneficent of the Holy City, or les Chevaliers Bienfaisants de la Cite Sainte, which apparently meets very rarely.

Brief mention must also be made of the Clerical Chapter of Knights Templar invented around 1770 by Johann Augus Starck, (son and brother of the fathers of the family of Savants of the Order of Wise Men throughout all generations of the Universe)10. claimed:

that the original Knights Templar were divided into two class military and sacerdotal; that the Clerical branch possessed the inner knowledge of the Order; that it had been perpetuated secret; that Starck was its present ambassador; that it was superior to the Secular Branch; and that if recognised by Baron von Hund, the treasures of its knowledge should be opened to him and his Rite.11

Supposedly descendants of the Essenes, the Clerical Chapter appears to bear some similarity to the Prieure de Sion. When the Templars were dissolved, the clerks the Clerical Chapter, including the Knight John Eures, reputedly rescued the secret documents and treasures, and kept them safe through to Starck's time.

Another 'Legend of Perpetuation' of the Knights Templar is the Charter of Larmenius, which first appeared in 1804. Claiming to date back to 1324, it says that Jacques de Moly passed on the succession to one Johannes Marcus Larmenius; it is then signed by twenty-two succeeding Grand Masters in turn up to Bernard Raymond Fabre-Palaprat in 1804; he claimed the Charter as historical justification of his Order of the Temple.

The situation is complicated still further by the publication in 1837 of A Sketch of the History of the Knights Templars by James Burnes, a distant relative of the poet. He was asked to provide a symbolic traditional history for the Scottish Masonic Order of the Knights Templar (founded c. 1808). He writes: 'we are told by a learned French writer, that having deserted the Temple, they had ranged themselves under the banners of Robert Bruce, by whom they were formed into a new Order, the observances of which were based on those of the Templars, and became, according to him, the source of Scottish Free Masonry'.12 

Although Burnes's book later casts doubt on it, simply by citing this legend (amongst others) he helped to perpetuate it.

Pick and Knight, like Hamill, stress that 'it is important to discount at once any theories (and there have been several) which claim an historical or ritual connexion with the medieval Military Orders with similar titles.'13

The connection was more likely to have been between Freemasonry and the French and Scottish Jacobites of the early eighteenth century. This was a romantic, idealized cause, whose romanticism and idealism were strengthened by the idea that the Freemasons were the more or less direct descendants of the Knights Templar. There may well be some truth in the belief that a number of Templars sailed to Scotland. It is also possible that some of those who arrived in Scotland kept some vestige of their chivalric tradition alive for a while. However, the period between the death of Jacques de Molay in 1314 and the formal establishment of the Freemasons' Grand Lodge 1717 is rather too long - twelve generations - for such a secret tradition to be passed down from father to son, from initiator to initiated. Even if, somehow, it had been, there is little chance that it could have remained secret for so long.

John Hamill's assessment is probably nearest to the truth. 'There was a liking - rather stronger than a liking - for ideals of chivalry, the ideals of Christian knighthood.' It is from this romantic liking of ideals that the chivalric elements Freemasonry developed, and almost certainly not from, a direct continuation of tradition.

The Chevalier Ramsay, Baron von Hund and the others blended enough history into their created mythologies for them to be accepted by the French and Scottish Freemasons of thirdly - and for them to be further embellished by a number of present-day writers who often do not distinguish between established fact and unsubstantiated fable.14 They build a convincing enough case for the casual reader - but most of their arguments and assertions were dismissed by, among others, A.E. Wake, over eighty years ago.

Wake lists several different 'Legends of Perpetuation', among which are Ramsay's Oration, Baron von Hund, an the Charter of Larmenius of which Waite says,

It began to be heard of in Paris about 1804 and was founded wholly on imposture. The only question concerning it which remains for criticism to determine is whether its chief document was forged in 1705 or at a much later period.

In 1861 the French occultist Eliphas Levi claimed that:

Prior to his death, the Chief of the Temple - that is, Jacques de Molay - organised and instituted Occult Masonry. From the purlieus of his dungeon the Grand Master erected four Metropolitan Lodges, at Naples for the East, at Edinburgh for the West, at Stockholm for the North and at Paris for the South.

Wake's only comment on Levi's assertion is 'but it will not detain us long'.

Levi also claimed that the secret aim of the Templars was the rebuilding of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem - whose foundations, it should be recalled, according to tradition lay under the Templars' original quarters. The Templars were supposed to be connected to the 'Brethren of the Thebaid' who, from almost the time of Christ, had preserved the mystical measurements of the Temple. When the Templars were disbanded, they took their secret knowledge to the lodges of operative masons - hence accounting for the symbolic elements of architecture in Freemasonry. Waite comments that 'the secret conspiracy had no other local habitation than the brain of the French occultist who put it forward in 1862.'15

And yet, and yet. There is still a lurking suspicion that somewhere in the background of the Freemasons is a link to the Knights Templar. John J. Robinson's Born in Blood argues such a direct link while at the same time admitting that 'All this is speculative, no matter how much sense it may make, because there is absolutely no historical evidence of the existence of a secret society specifically based on fugitive Templars.'16 Robinson does, however, raise some interesting questions, one being about the origin of the blood-curdling oaths which Masons were, until recently, required to make at their initiations. There is no way, he says, that such penalties as having your tongue torn out by the roots or your heart ripped out would have been required, say, for revealing an ingenious new way to hold a chisel; but they would make sense as a penally for one fugitive Templar betraying another.

True, but all the evidence seems to point to the gory penalties being a late seventeenth - or early eighteenth-century invention, like so much else in Freemasonry.

Another recent theory links the Templars and the Freemasons through a more shadowy organization. Baiger, Leigh Lincoln, in their controversial bestseller The Holy Blood the Holy Grail, say,

There was a secret order behind the Knights Templar, which created the Templars as its military and administrative arm. This order, which has functioned under a variety of names most frequently known as the Prieure de Sion (Priory of Sion). The Prieure de Sion has been directed by a sequent of Grand Masters whose names are among the most illustrious in Western history and culture. Although the Knights Templar were destroyed and dissolved between 1307 and 1314, the Prieure de Sion remained unscathed.17

Countless millions of people became aware of the Priory of Sion through Dan Brown's 2003 thriller The Da Vinci Code. Even before this, many writers expressed grave doubts about its alleged history and even its existence, let alone its significance.

Michael Howard's The Occult Conspiracy: The secret history of mystics, Templars, Masons and occult societies is a much sounder book than most on this general subject; in the few places where he mentions the Prieure de Sion he is careful to use phrasing like The foundation of the Priory can be traced back allegedly to the Gnostic adept Ormus who lived in the first century CE' and 'the Priory of Sion, which we are led to believe promoted the heresy that Jesus survived the crucifixion'.18

Lionel Fanthorpe, one of the few science fiction authors in holy orders, is even more wary about the Prieure de Sion:

The Priory of Sion may be one of the most ancient, powerful, and remarkable secret societies in the world; or it may be the last vestigial trace of an inner group of Knights Templars; or it could be a perfectly innocent, respectable, and prosaic 'friendly society'; or it may not exist at all.19

The Prieure de Sion in fact dates back as far as 1956 when four men in Annemasse, in south-eastern France, set it up as, it seems, some sort of local political pressure group with Catholic principles; it was apparently named after a hill, Col du Mt Sion, some 10 miles southwest of the town. One of them, Pierre Plantard, later wove a web of pretence and deception around it, claiming it as a secret society predating the Knights Templar. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln originated the idea that its purpose was to protect the supposed Merovingian bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown took these invented ideas and based his novel on them. Although the Priory of Sion still claims to exist, it appears to be more a self-conscious metafiction than anything else.

It is perhaps worth noting that none of the more serious historical works on the Templars20 mentions the Prieure de Sion even in passing. As a top Masonic historian, John Hamill's comment is worth noting:

As far as I am aware the Prieure de Sion was never referred to before the appearance of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. With certainty I can say there is no reference to it in any Masonic literature.21

Just because we know, or strongly suspect, that most of the 'ancient' Templar-type Orders and Rites were created out of whole cloth in the eighteenth century, does not, of course, necessarily mean that there could not have been a very secret society, completely hidden from view, from the time of the Templars (or even from the time of Christ) to the present day. But we should beware of any complex theory which is largely based, as is the case with Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, on lists of Grand Masters through the ages. The eighteenth century was awash with such. We should, perhaps, be even more suspicious when these lists include such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo and Claude Debussy.22

Too frequently, books on secret societies throw so many disparate elements into the melting pot of theories that some of them are bound to adhere to each other. Statisticians have long been aware that you can find links between almost anything if you try hard enough - and if you select only the data which support your case. This book, which includes many of these same elements, is trying to tread a careful line between credulousness and scepticism. It cannot really be doubted that there are some such links - but the conclusions drawn from them ought not to be flights of fancy.

It is not just the Templar-type Orders within Freemasonry which are clouded with such confusion; as Waite says,

The Roll of Templar Grand Masters - which no one has seen in England - is no worse than the fraudulent charter of Craft succession produced by James Anderson; the general Templar claim of the Strict Observance is a colourable romance of history when placed side by side with the ineffable mendacities which passed for literal Craft history in England during the eighteenth century, not to speak of forged documents, like the Charter of Cologne ei hoc genus omen. 23

The Quatuor Coronati Lodge is the section of Freemasonry specifically dedicated to historical research of all matters Masonic 'actual and traditional';24 its Transactions, known as Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, are very highly regarded. It freely admits the difficulty of sorting out the facts from the fictions. It is largely due to the present-day work of Quatuor Coronati that many of the wilder claims of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have now been dismissed.