The  facts  behind  the  fiction  of  the  Knights  Templar:

In  this  comprehensive  and  accessible  introduction,  Helen  Nicholson,  leading  specialist  in  the  history  of  this  legendary  medieval  order,  gives  a  full  account  of  the  Knights  of  the  Order  of  the  Temple  of  Solomon,  bringing  the  latest  findings  to  a general  audience.  The  Order  was  founded  in  the  twelfth  century,  in  Jerusalem,  at  the  height  of  the  crusades  as  a  fighting  force.  It  soon  became  powerful  throughout  Europe;  eventually  so  rich  and  influential  that  it  challenged  the  might  of  kings.  In  a  terrible  wave  of  violence  the  Order  was  persecuted  into  extinction.  Since  then  numerous  theories  have  emerged,  from  the  tales  of  the  Holy  Grail  to  Dan  Brown's  The  Da  Vinci  Code  and  other  novels.  Putting  many  of  the  myths  to  rest,  Nicholson's  vibrant  history  of  these  storm  troops  of  the  papacy  proves  even  more  revelatory  than  the  lengend.


by  Helen  Nicholson


This account of the Templars is based on what the surviving historical evidence tells us about the Order of the Temple and what professional historians have deduced about the Order from this evidence. This means that it also includes myths about the Templars that were written during the existence of the Order - during the twelfth, thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries - but not the modern myths about the Order. It has been a convention of European historical writing since classical times that history should be based on written sources, preferably eyewitness sources but, if not, then written as soon after the actual events as possible. This history of the Knights Templar follows this ancient convention, and so modern oral myths of the Templars — supposed "tradition" which was not actually written down until recently - will not be considered as historical evidence.

This brief history of the Knights Templar is based on recent academic work on the Order of the Temple, both my own research and the work of other professional scholars who study the history of the Order. Not only are modern scholars finding new evidence about the Templars, such as charters in archives and archaeological material, but they are also reassessing old evidence such as chronicles and other "writings, asking new questions and coming to new conclusions. I have tried to include the latest findings and theories so far as I can, and I apologise to colleagues if I have overlooked anything significant. I have given extensive references in the notes, so that: readers can see where I have found my material. Unlike most histories of the Templars, this is not a chronological account. It gives an outline history of the Order, but my intention is to analyse events rather than simply retelling them in the order that they happened. A narrative history of the Templars is misleading because it implies that the Templars rose and then declined, that criticism increased steadily, and that events that happened first caused events which happened later. In fact the Order did not rise and decline, criticism fell abruptly after 1250, and events which happened later often had no connection with events that happened earlier! 


It has been said that the Templars were nothing special, and that in most respects they were really very ordinary. This is true, but this is one of the facts which makes the Templars very interesting. We know very little about ordinary people of the twelfth, thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Most of the Brothers of the Order of the Temple came either from the lower ranks of knights or were not of knightly descent at all; many were craftsmen, or people who performed ordinary agricultural tasks such as herding sheep and cattle. People of these social groups left very few records, but through the surviving evidence from the Templars we can catch some glimpses of their beliefs, what mattered to them, and their everyday lives. We find people who did not travel far to join a religious house; who stayed in the same area all their lives, near to their families. They were loyal to their families, to their old lords and to their king, even when they had joined the Order of the Temple and were supposed to have left all their old ties behind them. These were devout people, with an simple faith based on Christ as king (with God the Father the omnipotent ruler in the background) and Christ's mother and bride, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as patroness and lady of the Order who protected it as a medieval queen would protect her favourite religious Orders and knights. Their dearest desire was to lay down their lives on the battlefield in the war against evil, defending Christendom: against its enemies, in the service of their divine king and queen, and so to win the reward of eternal life in heaven, wearing the martyr's crown. As I will describe in Chapter 5, 'Religious Life', for the most part the Templars were not educated; the knights and squires could read, their own language, but not Latin. In England suitable religious texts and apart of the Old Testament were translated into colloquial French (the language of the warrior classes) so that the Templars could understand when these texts were read to them - reading aloud was normal at this period, so they probably listened rather than reading for themselves. In other parts of the Order education was discouraged: the Brothers were supposed to be serving God and His Lady in battle, not as scholars! We may guess that this distrust of book learning was one of the factors that helped bring about the Order's downfall.

Away from the frontiers, the Order in Europe concentrated on raising money for the war against the Muslims, so much that contemporaries saw the Templars as more concerned about money than anything else. The Templars had no interest in women, these contemporaries said: money was their only love. Nowadays it is easy to sympathize with the Templars and see them as the persecuted underdogs, the pure idealists who were, destroyed; by an autocratic government for its own self-interested ends. But in the early fourteenth century the Templars in Europe were not regarded as outsiders but were at the centre of the establishment. They were best known in everyday life for their financial activities: looking after the treasure of the crowns of Europe, and financial services for nobles, knights, merchants and squires. As finance managers they were respected, but they also aroused some anger when they made mistakes. If we think of the Templars as bank managers and bank clerks we probably get a far better idea of how people in cities such as London and Paris in the early fourteenth century would have regarded the Templars. I will consider their role in economics and commerce further in Chapter 7.

It is difficult to study the Templars without always having at the back of one's mind the eventual fate of the Brothers: arrested on trumped-up charges, some burned at the stake for going back on the confessions which they had made under pressure of interrogation, including torture; others serving out the rest of their days in other monastic houses, their original vocation as knights of Christ lost to them; still others returning to secular life, and the Order's possessions given to its rival Order, the Hospital of St John. Thirty-odd years later, Pope Clement VI was complaining that the Hospital had done so little good in the war against the Muslims with the Templars' lands that he would take them back and use them to form a new Military Order - as had already been done in Valencia and Portugal. The Hospital's lack of grand achievement was not its own fault: it was still recovering from the financial crisis resulting from the expenses of its conquest of Rhodes (1306-9), reimbursing King Philip IV of France for his 'expenses' in arresting and trying the Templars, and the legal costs of trying to recover the Templars' lands, many of which had been taken back by the families of the original donors or confiscated by secular rulers. The Hospital survived, but it was a close thing. In 1312 it did not have public opinion in its favour; but Pope Clement V wanted to maintain it to carry on the defence of Christendom against the Muslims, and its wily Master Fulk de Villaret managed the Order's affairs with sufficient skill to give the King of France little opportunity of attacking the Order as he had the Templars.

Yet for almost two hundred years before the arrests of 1307 the Order of the Temple had operated in the Holy Land and throughout Europe as a respected religious Order. The shock and indignation with which most secular rulers outside France greeted the papal instruction to arrest the Templars at the end of 1307 indicates that the arrest of the Order came as a complete surprise to almost everyone. Until 1307, the Templars were a familiar and accepted part of Latin Christendom, with their small houses and commandefies with little chapels and big barns scattered across Europe, and fine castles in dangerous frontier areas: frontiers with the Muslims in the Holy Land and Spain, frontiers with non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians in Poland, Bohemia and Croatia, and also with fortified houses and castles in areas where there was no strong central authority to ensure law and order, such as southern France and Ireland. Their knights, with their beards and in their long dark tunics and white mantles, with the red cross on the left side, and a dark cap on their heads, were a familiar sight in every royal court in Catholic Europe and the crusader states in the Holy Land (or the 'Latin East'). Their sergeants of serving Brothers, far more common than the knights and dressed all in black, were often confused with the Brothers of the Hospital of St John, who also wore black but with a white cross on the mantle rather than the Templars' red cross. In Germany and the East from the end of the twelfth century the Templar knight-Brothers were confused with the Teutonic Order, whose knight-Brothers wore a black tunic with a white mantle and a black cross. If in doubt, contemporaries referred to all these groups as 'Templars'.

The Templars, one satirist joked, were too fond of money, unlike the Hospitallers, who were too fond of horses - but they were doughty men who were all too ready to die in Christ's name on the battlefield. In time of defeat in the East, some such as Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey, would complain that the Templars and Hospitallers must be deceiving Christendom, because such fine warriors would otherwise have defeated the Muslims long ago. Clearly they weren't trying; they must be in alliance with the Muslims; all the money which the West sent to them must be going to waste - perhaps they simply poured it into the ground! Such comments show how little even educated people in western Europe appreciated the political realities of the Latin East, even though the Christian rulers of the crusader states and the Military Orders in the East went to enormous lengths to keep kings, nobles and Church leaders informed of developments through the regular despatch of newsletters. Yet at a day-today level in Catholic Europe and in the Holy Land, the Templars - were well-respected religious men, landowners, bankers, farmers, traders, sheep farmers and so on. We can best understand them if we remember this and evaluate the Order on the basis of the whole of its history and not simply the last five disastrous years.  


There are many popularly believed myths about the Order of the Temple. The first is that there is very little evidence surviving about the Order. In fact a great deal of evidence, survives. It is true that the central archive of the Order is lost: this was originally held at the Order's headquarters, at first in Jerusalem, then at Acre, then (after 1291) on Cyprus. After the dissolution of the Order by Pope Clement in 1312 the archive passed into the possession of the Hospital of St John. Presumably it remained on Cyprus and was destroyed when the Ottoman Turks captured Cyprus in 1571, along with the Hospital's documents relating to Cyprus. This archive would have held all the Templars' charters granting them land and privileges in the crusader states and in Cyprus, and general papal privileges, the proceedings of their general chapters and some of the more important correspondence and donation charters from Europe - much of this sort of material for the Hospital of St John during the twelfth to early fourteenth centuries is still in the Hospital's archive in the National Library of Malta. The loss of the Templars' central archive means that we do not know exactly what property and privileges the Templars held in the crusader states and in Cyprus. However, anything that concerned both them and the Hospital is preserved in the Hospital's archives, while papal bulls for the Templars are preserved in the papal registers in the Vatican. In other words, the loss of the central archive has meant the loss of certain valuable documents, but not all of them.

For the Order's European possessions, much remains in archives and museums across Europe. Charters relating to the Order's English possessions, for example, are preserved in the Hospital's cartulary in the British Library. The cartulary of the commandery of Sandford survives and has been published. Other charters relating to the Order in England survive in other monastic cartularies. Documents issued by the English royal chancery relating to the Templars after around 1200 are preserved in the registers in the Public Record Office, and many have been published, for the most part in calendar form. The English government records are particularly well preserved, but there is also a good deal of documentation surviving in the Iberian Peninsula, for example in the archives in Madrid and Barcelona. Many of the French government records for this period were destroyed in the eighteenth century, but royal letters and charters and some financial records have survived. In addition much material survives in French local archives; many cartularies of individual French commanderies have been published.

Yet charters cannot tell us everything we want to know about the Templars. They show us patterns of patronage: who gave what to the Order, how patrons were related to each other and sometimes what they expected in return. They seldom give much indication of why patrons gave to the Templars, except that they regarded the Order as being of high spiritual value, and believed the Brothers' prayers on their behalf were worth having. Occasionally a donor's charter refers to the Templars' defence of Christendom, but this is unusual. Charters tell us what land and rights the Order had in a particular area, although we do not always know whether they were actually able to use that land or those rights or whether someone else had a claim on them. These are problems historians face in studying all religious Orders in the Middle Ages. Charters also usually include witness lists, which tell us (among other things) who was living in the Templars' commandery at that time and their order of precedence, as the most important usually comes first in the list, it may tell us if they held any office. But charters are not always dated, although they usually tell us where they were written. In short, charters give us some evidence, but not all we want to know.

Other evidence, of the Orders actual activities comes from chronicles. Those written in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries recorded recent events and provided a commentary on them. They vary in quality. Chroniclers tended to moralize on the terrible state of the world, and had a rather pessimistic view of the situation in the. Holy Land and the Military Orders' activities. Annals gave a year-by-year account of events, but with little commentary. From the twelfth century we also have histories, which differ from the chronicle in that they focus on one event (such as a crusade) or one theme (such as William of Tyre's history of the kingdom of Jerusalem). These can be contemporary or near-contemporary. Their joy and their difficulty is, that they give a very personal view. The writer always had a message, and all evidence was interpreted to underline this message.

None of these sources are "objective" in the modern sense of the word, nor were they intended to be. Their accuracy in recording actual events depended on the quality of their sources: whether they were eyewitness or relying on information from other people. Chapter 2 will show that William of Tyre is an unreliable witness for the activities of the Military Orders in the period before 1165, as he was at university in Europe from around 1146-65, his information for the siege of Ascalon (1153) must have been taken from secondhand information given to him by people who wanted to exonerate their ancestors for failing to assist the Templars when they broke into the city. William was writing around twenty years or more after events at Ascalon; if we use contemporary European sources for the siege, we receive a completely different picture of what happened., and must be reliable because contradicting the charge would result in their receiving still worse treatment, and who would, when a lie brings more torture? The Brothers' evidence is potentially more reliable for regions where we know that no torture was used (such as Cyprus, Aragon, England, and parts of France outside the control of the king of France), but even here the Brothers were under pressure to confess, and so their testimonies would have been distorted in some way. Some modern scholars, reading the Templars' 'confessions' from France, have wondered whether there was some truth behind some of the charges against the Order - for instance, that the charge that the Templars denied Christ might refer to some test of obedience during the admission ceremony - but the records of the trial from, outside France tell a completely different story. Where no torture was used, the Templars emphatically denied all the charges, and when told that the Brothers in France had confessed, retorted that they were lying. 

Third-party evidence was only occasionally brought in, and this varies in quality: in Cyprus it appears to be objective, in France it was usually objective, but in England much of it was popular gossip, the sort of material now known as 'curban myths'. So the evidence from the trial has to be used with great care.

Archaeological evidence survives in quantity, as the Order had houses scattered across Europe as well as in the East. Some work has been done on the Order's archaeological remains, but much remains to be done. Seven centuries of war and 'improvements' have, obviously, left their mark. Some Templar churches are still in use as churches and the excavation work that can be done is therefore limited. But in some places - such as Larzac in the Languedoc, France,, and Cressing in Essex, England - our knowledge of the Order of the Temple is increasing through archaeological investigation.

In short, a good deal of material about the Templars survives. The Order is far from being a mystery. Far more could be made of the surviving evidence, but this problem will be overcome as the cartularies are published and as historians become more confident in using different forms of evidence.

Other myths about the Templars abound. It is not true, for example, that the Templars were found guilty as charged in 1312; Pope Clement V declared the charges not proven, but dissolved the Order because it had been brought into so much disrepute that it could not continue to operate. The Templars were not monks, although they took the three monastic vows: of poverty, chastity and obedience; they were religious people who followed a religious Rule of life and wore a distinctive habit, but who unlike monks did not live in an enclosed house and whose purpose was not to pray and fight spiritual battles, but to fight physical battles in defence of Christendom. Their houses in Europe did not have large outer walls, to keep outsiders out, except in dangerous areas where there was no strong central government to enforce law and order - they were more like manor houses than monasteries: The Templars, did not introduce playing cards to Europe — these did not come to Europe until, the  late  fourteenth  century,   and  are  first mentioned in the sources in the 1370s, half a century after the demise of the Order of the Temple. There is no evidence at all that the Templars had any knowledge of science, and certainly they had no knowledge of magic. Medieval magic was a supremely literate science, recorded and performed in Latin, whereas the Templars in general were remarkably illiterate, apparently through deliberate policy, since educated Brothers were likely to be troublemakers.

The Templars did have ships to carry personnel, pilgrims, and supplies across the Mediterranean between the West and the East and back, but if the Hospital after 1312 is any guide they did not have more than four galleys (warships) and few other ships, and if they needed more they hired them. They certainly could riot spare ships to indulge in world exploration - in any case, their ships were not strong enough to cross an ocean and could not carry enough water for more than a few days. The Order had vast resources in land, but was always very short of liquid capital, which was needed to invest, in fortifications and personnel in the East. Hence their houses in the West were always very small in comparison to the houses of other religious Orders (except when they performed an important political role, as at Paris, where the Temple was the royal treasury office). No Templar house in the West could compare in size or wealth with the great monastic houses such as Citeaux or Clairvaux in what is now France, or Fountains Abbey or Bury St Edmunds Abbey in England - to cite but a few. This was because these monasteries existed as powerhouses of prayer on a single site, whereas the houses of the Temple in the West existed to raise funds and other supplies for the war in the East, and all their resources were concentrated in the East. The Templars did not contribute towards the building costs of cathedrals or castles in the West, as they had barely enough money to finance the building of their own castles in the East.

The Templars were not particularly secretive - no more so than other religious Orders of their period, and certainly no more so than the other leading Military Orders., the Hospital of St John and the Teutonic Order. During the trial of the Order, some Brothers admitted that no outsiders were supposed to be present at their admission ceremonies, but others stated that in fact outsiders were sometimes present. Again, chapter meetings of all religious Orders were supposed to be secret, because outsiders should not know about the internal problems of the Order. Which modern international corporation would allow outsiders to come uninvited to its board meetings? Perhaps the Templars were particularly insistent about evicting non-members of the Order from chapter meetings, but there is no evidence for this.

There is no evidence before October 1307 that the Templars were especially unpopular: if it were possible to conduct a poll of the population of Europe at that period to discover the most unpopular religious Order, the Cistercians and the Friars would probably have been rivals for first position, with the Teutonic Order the most unpopular in Poland. At that time the Templars were still receiving pious donations, and contemporaries saw their Order as one of the best religious Orders. Certainly its financial operations irritated some; equally, certainly its failure to defend the Holy Land was a great disappointment to Christendom. The Order was vulnerable to attack because it had had a single, specific vocation in which it could be seen to succeed or fail. Most modern scholars, like most contemporaries of the trial outside France, consider that Philip IV of France attacked the Order of the Temple because he needed its money, and to demonstrate that he was the most Christian king of Europe. He also had Pope Boniface VIII arrested, persecuted the Jews and Lombard bankers of France, burned a religious woman, Marguerite Porete, at the stake in 1310 for writing a book which three respected religious men had approved as non-heretical, and prosecuted Bishop Guichard of Troyes and the lovers of his own daughters-in-law. Those he attacked were accused of heresy or sorcery and 'unnatural' vices. These actions point towards a deliberate policy against anyone whose demise could assist his financial situation or raise his prestige. In considering the Templars' downfall, we must ask whether the Order could have continued to exist after 1310 even if there had never been any trial. After 1291 the central headquarters of the Order (the 'convent') was on Cyprus. In 1306 the Brothers were involved in a coup against the king, Henry II. When the king returned to power in 1310 he had the leading Templars arrested and imprisoned. Along with the other leaders of the coup, they died in prison in around 1316. Although the trial in the West made Henry's actions against the Templars more straightforward and ensured that the pope would not interfere to rescue the Order, events on Cyprus could have brought about the end of the Order even if Philip IV had not begun the trial. The Templar officials on Cyprus led the Order. Without its leading officials, the Order could not continue to operate, trial or no trial. Henry was also able to destroy many of the nobles of Cyprus, members of the powerful Ibelin family, and their relatives were unable to save them. It is hard to see how the papacy which was unable to save the Templars in France could have intervened to save them in faraway Cyprus; while the kings of the West would have been happy to take over the Templars' property in the West, as they actually did in 1307-8. If any of these Christian powers had objected to his punishment of the Templars, Henry could simply have resorted to the same methods as Philip IV of France and accused the Brothers of being heretics.

Finally the Order of the Temple was dissolved in 1312 and then ceased to exist.

It is true that the new religious Military Orders in the Iberian Peninsula, the Orders of Christ and of Montesa; were successors to the Order and inherited its property, but their scope was far more limited than the original Order, their operations limited to a single area, and they were very closely linked to the king, in contrast to the Order of the Temple's at least theoretical independence. The Order of the Temple could not continue after the pope had removed ecclesiastical recognition of the Order and taken away its property. Its organizational structure had been destroyed; it could no longer raise money or operate as an institution. And, as noted, it no longer had any of its chief officials to lead it. It is true that certain Templar houses held on in areas where the secular lords were sympathetic towards the Order and hostile to outside interference. For example, in Brunswick in what is now north-western Germany, Otto of Brunswick, commander of the Templars' house at Supplingenberg and a member of the high nobility, remained as secular lord of Supplingenberg after the dissolution of the Order; only on his death did the commandery pass to the Hospital. At Miihlen, a nunnery near Frankfurt which belonged to the Order of the Temple, the nuns resented being transferred to the Order of the Hospital and wanted to remain as Templars. Some individual Templars fled: in 1313 King James II of Aragon wrote to Bishop Pons of Lerida (Lleida) that the former Templar Brother Bernard des Fons now ambassador for the alcalde of Tunis, had come to Aragon on an embassy. Bernard had obviously found a new career among those whom he had originally sworn to fight if they attacked the Christians, and was now pursuing by a rather different route his former vocation of ensuring the safety of Christendom. James does not state that Bernard had become a Muslim, and as the Muslim rulers were perfectly happy to employ Christians, Bernard had probably remained a Christian. Yet he was now a former
Templar; he could not be a Templar any more, because the Order no longer existed.  

Some writers have speculated that in remote areas such as Scotland, Templars could have survived as an Order. Yet there had never been many Templars in Scotland even during the heyday of the Order, and the Anglo—Scottish wars had reduced them still further. By 1338 the Hospitallers were complaining that they had no possessions at all in Scotland; all had been destroyed in the war. The same would have applied to the Templars. The English, connections of the Scottish Templars would have made Scotland the last place for them to take refuge in 1312, following Robert Bruce's rebellion and coronation in 1306 and the resumption of the anti-English war. The modern 'Templar' orders date back no further than the romantic revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

As this book is not aimed at academic scholars I have tried to use accessible language: for instance, 'Europe' rather than 'Citramer' or 'Christendom on this side of-the sea'.1 have tried to use the form of place names that will be most familiar to English-speaking readers, or at least most pronounceable, although I have also given alternative forms to assist readers in locating them on a map. This book does not attempt to replace the great scholarly works on the Order, by Marie Luise Bulst-Thiele, Alain Demurger, Alan Forey and Malcolm Barber.

Those seeking more information on the Order should refer to these works.