Crusading monks . . . and a truth more gripping than fiction
April 29, 2006
By Ben Macintyre
ON FRIDAY, October 13, 1307, hundreds of Knights Templar, the wealthy and secretive order of fighting monks, were rounded up, tortured and massacred for alleged crimes against Christianity “too horrible to contemplate”.
Friday the 13th has been regarded as a day of deep misfortune ever since, but the Templars did not go quietly into history. The order had been in existence less than two centuries when it was brutally suppressed, but its disappearance gave rise to 700 years of mystery, rumour and legend.
The mystery will seize the public’s imagination again with the release next month of the film of The Da Vinci Code. The ancient order is pivotal in the plot of Dan Brown’s bestselling book, which revives the long-running myth that the Templars survived as the guardians of dark and dangerous religious secrets: the Holy Grail, and the supposed bloodline descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Brown follows a long tradition of Templar conspiracy theorists, for few institutions have produced such a wealth of intriguing history and pure twaddle. In the 14th century the Templars were accused, among other crimes, of heresy, urinating on the Cross and sodomy. The legends variously claimed that the order survived and discovered America, fought with Robert the Bruce against the English at Bannockburn or fled to Switzerland to form the Swiss Guard.
Some trace a link between it and Freemasonry, arguing that descendants of the Templars still exert a secret influence on society. In 2004 a press release was sent from a PO Box in Hertfordshire, purporting to be from the Templars and demanding a papal apology for the massacre of 1307. The Vatican said that the request was being given “serious consideration”.
Even Brown, in his breezy canter through some of the highlights of Templar legend, concedes that there is nothing straightforward about the history of the order, “a precarious world where fact, lore and misinformation had become so intertwined that extracting a pristine truth was almost impossible”. With the impending release of The Da Vinci Code there is surely no better moment to try to establish, if not the “pristine truth”, at least something closer to the extraordinary reality.
The Knights Templar rose from obscurity to become Europe’s first military religious order, amassing enormous wealth and an unparalleled reputation for ferocity. They also invented international banking, perhaps becoming the world’s first multinational corporation.
The order was originally formed as a sort of freelance security service for foreign tourists visiting the Holy Land. Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, and in 1119 two enterprising French knights swore to devote themselves to protecting Christian pilgrims.
They set up shop near al-Aqsa mosque, which Christians believe was the site of the Temple of Solomon. (Brown suggests that this was actually a canny real-estate deal, and that the knights were searching for secret documents beneath the ruins.) The Order of Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon expanded rapidly; within a decade they had won papal approval, and with it the right to extract tithes and take booty.
The knights swore poverty, chastity and obedience, but they also vowed to defend the holy places against the infidel, thus combining the twin obsessions of medieval nobility: piety and warfare. The great Muslim leader Saladin considered them so fanatical that they could not be negotiated with. David Hume, the great Scottish Enlightenment thinker, condemned the Templars as “the most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation”.
The money poured into Templar coffers. The Da Vinci Code suggests that the knights blackmailed the Vatican with the secrets that they had supposedly found, but most of the money came from donations. At their height the Templars controlled 9,000 estates from Syria to Scotland; royal families entrusted crown jewels to their care, and they established the medieval equivalent of the traveller’s cheque. Money deposited with one Templar institution could be withdrawn at another, so that pilgrims did not need to carry gold that could be stolen. According to legend the knights also came up with the original recipe for twice-baked bread to take as a snack on Crusades: the defenders of Jerusalem were also, it seems, the knights of the round biscuit. The Templars developed codes and rituals: they wore white habits with a red cross, they were forbidden to tell jokes and to hunt anything but lions. The Templar seal showed two men riding a single horse, a symbol intended to imply poverty and the duality of the monk-soldier; it was a peculiar sign for the richest non-royal organisation outside the Vatican. By the end of the 14th century the Templars were weakened, their power eroded by the Mamluk incursions into Palestine. The order’s leaders were desperate to start another crusade to restore their waning prestige.
When the axe fell, it was spectacular. The debt-ridden French King Philip the Fair ordered the obliteration of the order: perhaps he was motivated by pure greed, but it is also possible that he had come to see the Templars as truly threatening heretics. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, and most of the Templar leadership were rounded up and confessions were extracted by torture. The knights were accused of heresy, “obscene kissing”, cannibalism, roasting babies and worshipping cats and three-headed idols in secret night-time rituals. They were also accused of homosexuality. In retrospect the two-to-a-horse emblem might have been an error: Brokeback Mountain would not be released for another seven centuries.
After seven years’ imprisonment de Molay was taken to his execution, but instead of a final confession he defended the Templars to the end: “An illustrious order which hath nobly served the cause of Christianity.” He was burnt alive on the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine. Templar lands were confiscated and given to the Knights of St John.
Within a year both King and Pope had perished, victims, it was said, of de Molay’s dying curse. So began the flow of speculation, superstition and perhaps a grain or two of truth. Undoubtedly some of the Templars survived. Did they escape with the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, only to bequeath their secrets to a novelist called Dan Brown? Did they wash up in Argyll, Scotland, or the New World? Are the heirs to the Templar tradition to be found via a PO Box in Hertford? The Freemasons of the 18th century adopted some of the Templars’ symbolism and much of their secrecy. The shrine of North America is an offshoot, as is its junior branch, the Order of DeMolay, named after the Templar martyr. John Wayne, Bill Clinton and Walt Disney were members of the Order of de Molay.
Spooky? Probably not, for gazing on these ancient mysteries for too long may produce strange results. Umberto Eco wrote in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum: “The lunatic is easily recognised. Sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
If some of the theorising is flimsy, the Templars nonetheless left solid evidence of their once-great influence: the Temple Church in London, built in 1128 and once the headquarters of the English Knights Templar, and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland — both settings for key scenes in The Da Vinci Code — and in myriad other place names such as Temple Cowley, Oxford, Templecombe, Somerset, and the Inner and Middle Temples, in London.
It is a mark of the extraordinary cultural legacy of the Templars that, seven centuries later, this monastic-military order can still excite the imagination of historians, novelists and film-makers, most recently in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, depicting the Templar Reynald de Châtillon as a bloodthirsty killer.
This enduring fascination is really no mystery: the story of the crusader monks remains one of the most remarkable and, unlike the work of Dan Brown, happens to be true.