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27 Jul

Knights Templar

The Knights Templar or the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon was the first military-religious order established in the Holy Land during the Crusades and served as a model to the Knights Hospitaller (although founded earlier) and to the Teutonic Knights. The Knights Templar were founded by a group of knights of Champagne in Jerusalem in 1118 when they took an oath to protect the pilgrims on their way to the holy places and to follow the monastic vow of poverty, chastity and obedience before the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II offered them a part of his palace next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and above what was believed to be the ruins of the Temple of Solomon after which the Knights Templar were named.

The co-founder and first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Hugues de Payens went to Europe in 1126 and gained the support of Bernard of Clairvaux which was of great importance for the future rise of the Knights Templar. Bernard who was at the time one of the greatest religious authorities assisted the Council of Troyes in 1228 which recognized and confirmed the Order of the Knights Templar and issued the Rule of the Knights Templar which precisely determined the organization of the order.

The Knights Templar originally consisted of two classes:

  • Knights of noble birth who were the only ones allowed to wear white mantles and served as heavy chivalry.
  • Sergeants or servitors who were generally of lower social status and merely carried out orders. They wore black or brown surcoat.

The papal bull Omne Datum Optimum issued by Pope Innocent II in 1139 introduced a third class, the chaplains who took care for spiritual matters.

Seal of the Knights Templar

Seal of the Knights Templar

Organization of the Knights Templar was based on strict hierarchy and discipline similar to those in monastic orders. The Grand Master who had almost an absolute authority was on the top of the hierarchy but he had to respect the decisions of the chapter, a consulting body in all important matters. The seat of the Knights Templar was in Jerusalem until its fall in 1187, in Acre from 1191 to 1291 and in Cyprus from 1291 to 1312.

The Papal Bull of Innocent II which made the Knights Templar indirectly responsible only to the Pope was confirmed by his successors several times and gave the Knights Templar also the right to built their own churches which resulted in de facto autonomous church organization of the Knights Templar. Their autonomy within the Catholic Church later caused severe conflicts with the Catholic authorities and greatly contributed to the fall of the Knights Templar.

The visits of Hugues de Payens of Western European courts including the English and Scottish resulted in the first donations in a form of land and money to the Knights Templar and enlarged the number of the order’s members. The primal goal of the Knights Templar remained closely tied to the Holy Land and defending the Christian gains until their dissolution but their influence in Europe began to spread very early. The Knights Templar were highly respected and well received by the Christian kings of the Iberian Peninsula. They were often fighting against the Moors in the first lines, while the Spanish military orders of Calatrava, Santiago and Alcantara were following the Knights Templar’s model.

The Knights Templar also played an important role in the development of international banking system. The cities under Arab and Byzantine authorities were highly developed and had a well-established monetary economy for centuries before the Crusades, while the Knights Templar quickly adopted their system. They started lending money to the pilgrims and to the Crusaders, transferring the founds for military expeditions from Europe to the Holy Land and often acted as mediators in ransom negotiations, while their services eventually became available in Europe as well. Thus the Knights Templar became next to the Jews the leading bankers which was slightly unusual considering their relation to the Church and their oath to poverty. However, their financial services brought them great wealth, while their communities in Europe became a kind of safe deposits in which their wealthy clients including the French and English kings kept their treasures. The Knights Templar also played an important role in the introduction of sophisticated bookkeeping and accounting system as well as in the negotiable instrument which was one of the most important inventions in medieval financial system introduced by the Italian bankers in the 13th century.

By the 13th century the Knights Templar had their own fleet and took care for transport of pilgrims as well as for commercial transport to the Holy Land and back to Europe. Their service also included accommodation and protection to the holy places. Thus the Knights Templar had great profit from the “religious tourism” which was at the time very popular.

The Knights Templar gained large estates through donations, purchase, conquests (especially in the Iberian Peninsula) and melioration (drying out marshes in England). However, in contrary to monastic orders which acted as feudal lords and were primarily directed in self-sufficient economy the Knights Templar were engaged in agriculture exclusively for profit.

A portrait of Jacques de Molay

Jacques de Molay

Their privileged position eventually brought the Knights Templar into conflict with both religious and secular authorities. King of Jerusalem, Almalric I (1162-1174) considered banishing the Knights Templar from the Holy Land, while the Third Lateran Council in 1179 discussed about their abuse of privileges. The criticism of the Knights Templar increased over the time but they were well protected as long as they were protegees of the Popes. However, by the middle of the 13th century even the Popes began to criticize the order.

There were several causes for unpopularity of the Knights Templar. Besides their privileged position which resulted in the conflict with secular and religious authorities the Knights Templar also failed to gain support of wider population. Among other against them were held also their methods of recruitment of new members, especially when occurred rumors that anyone could became a member of the Knights Templar for money including excommunicated individuals. The prestige of the Knights Templar began to decline after their military failures in the Holy Land. They suffered several severe defeats against the Muslims which resulted in inner instability and accusations of betrayal, inefficiency and arrogance. In addition, they also came in severe conflicts with the Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land in the second half of the 13th century.

It is important to mention that all military orders in the Holy Land became criticized by the end of the 13th century. By that time the Crusade idea turned off course and became abused for achieving political goals. The military orders in the Holy Land were accused for failure of the Crusades although they were the only ones who defended the remaining Christian holdings. The military orders were accused of increasing their wealth with founds which were intended for defense of the Crusader states in the Middle East. For that reason emerged the idea of uniting the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller into a single order which could serve the Christian cause more efficiently for lower costs. However, the Knights Templar rejected such ideas emphasizing tradition, prestige and goals of both orders, while the Knights Hospitaller at the time already established their political influence by capturing Rhodes in 1309 and by fighting against the Turks.

The final fall of the Knights Templar took place in France where they were the strongest. However, the French King Philip IV the Fair (1285-1314) was their greatest and most determined enemy. Philip IV was one the most powerful king of his time forcing the Papacy to move its papal seat to Avignon and making Pope Clement V his marionette. Thus he had all instruments against the Knights Templar in his hands. Philip’s bitter act against the Knights Templar was probably motivated by his financial difficulties on the one hand and need of additional financial sources for his war against the Flanders on the other. However, there were other reasons as well. The Knights Templar in France were virtually a state within the state and represented an obstacle to Philip’s centralization of his authority. Philip IV strongly supported the idea of uniting the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller into a single military order which would be subdued to the French crown. However, such idea was rejected by Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay in 1306.

Execution of Knights Templar

Knights Templar being burned at the stake

Philip IV the Fair took advantage of the rumors of heresy, immorality and secret rituals of the Knights Templar to act against them. He had the members of the Knights Templar arrested, put on trial and tortured until confessing the accusations with support of Pope Clement V. Pope Clement V officially dissolved the order of the Knights Templar with the papal bull at the Council in Vienna in 1312, while the Templar were completely destroyed by 1314 when their Grand Master Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake in Paris.

The process against the Knights Templar was completely political and a precedent in the medieval history. Much of their property was formally given to the Knights Hospitaller but in reality acquired by the secular rulers. Their guilt was never proven, while the majority of historians agree that the accusations against the Knights Templar were unjustified. Despite their fame the Knights Templar were neither the wealthiest nor the most influential military order (power and wealth of the Knights Hospitaller was not any lesser if not even greater). However, their tragic and for the medieval world sensational trial which resulted in their dissolution made the Knights Templar the most famous of all medieval military orders.

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