Following the colossal success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, two new thrillers, The Last Templar and The Templar Legacy, have remained firmly planted on the New York Times best-seller list. These books don’t chase the chimera of the Holy Grail, so breathlessly pursued by the two protagonists of the Code; instead they focus on one of the links in the chain of clues in Brown’s book—that of the extraordinary Order of the Knights Templar.
The real Templars bear little resemblance to their fictional re-creations. They were founded in the Holy Land in 1119 by two French knights, who swore to devote themselves to the protection of Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and the holy places. Crusaders had captured Jerusalem in 1099 and then struggled to establish an effective military and political structure to protect their conquests. The contribution of these founding knights was tiny, but they quickly captured the imagination of the Western Christian world. Soon, they were given a base in the al-Aqsa Mosque, which Christians believed had been the site of the Temple of Solomon. They received papal recognition at the council of Troyes in Champagne in 1129, where they were described as a “military order,” a quite unique institution at the time, for they not only swore the usual monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but made a fourth key promise—to defend the holy places from the infidel.
From then on they grew rapidly into an international order, receiving lands in the West that they developed into a great network of preceptories. This enabled them to supply men and money for the cause of the Holy Land, as well as to offer a range of services to crusaders, most important help with finance, a role that they expanded into something like a modern banking service.
Such an order might seem invulnerable, but by the early 14th century, the Knights Templar faced a serious crisis. In 1291 the Christians had been driven out of Palestine by the Mamluks of Egypt and were thus obliged to wage the holy war from their remaining base in Cyprus. This expulsion was particularly serious for the Templars, whose prestige and functions were so closely identified with the defense of the sites associated with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. They were desperate to see papal plans for a new crusade take concrete form. In 1307, in response to a request from Pope Clement V, James of Molay, the grand master, therefore traveled to the West to advise the papacy and gather support in the courts of Christendom.
It was thus that on Oct. 12, 1307, James of Molay was present in Paris, holding one of the cords of the pall at the funeral of Catherine, wife of Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV, “the Fair,” of France. But the master had no idea what awaited him. Without warning, royal officials, acting on secret orders from Philip, fell upon the Templars living in France, in a coordinated operation that took hundreds into custody. The order for the arrests said that the Templars were not a force dedicated to the defense of the Holy Land, willing to endure martyrdom for their beliefs—they were in fact apostates who denied Christ, spat on crucifixes, engaged in indecent kissing and compulsory sodomy, and worshipped idols.
Although rulers outside France initially found the allegations difficult to believe, and the pope was outraged because he had not been consulted, at first sight the charges seemed justified. Most of the Templars confessed to one or more of the allegations, including Molay himself, who repeated his admissions in public in the presence of a select gathering of university theologians. In the end, neither the papal attempt to take over the trial, nor a robust defense of the order led by two Templar lawyer-priests, could shake the impact of these first confessions. In March of 1312, at the Council of Vienne, the pope felt obliged to suppress the order after nearly two centuries of service to the Christian faith. Two years later, on March 14, 1314, Molay and Geoffrey of Charney, preceptor of Normandy, were burnt to death as relapsed heretics on an island in the Seine in the center of Paris.
The trial caused a sensation and remains a subject of fascination and speculation seven centuries later. The circumstances are intriguing, not the least because they evoke such striking modern parallels; Stalinist show trials and McCarthyite inquisitions have their medieval precursors. Philip the Fair himself was certainly motivated to suppress the order by an interest in their property, for he presided over a regime in constant financial crisis. Yet as a fanatically pious and often credulous king, he may have genuinely believed that his realm was threatened by a secret anti-Christian conspiracy, which it was his duty to crush.
Few historians today doubt that the charges were concocted and the confessions obtained by torture. But Templar innocence has been given no protection against modern sensationalism, for the raw material offered by the order’s spectacular demise is too tempting to ignore. Among the first to exploit it were the 18th-century Freemasons. The Freemasons adopted the legend of the murder of Hiram, king of Tyre, who was employed to build Solomon’s Temple and was murdered because he would not reveal Masonic secrets. According to the Freemasons’ version of history, the Templars were abolished because, as occupants of Solomon’s Temple, they held key knowledge that could potentially discredit both church and state.
As myth has it, on that March evening in 1314, unique knowledge was supposedly handed down to the care of future generations, making the Templars and their mystery a particularly fertile resource for novelists and popular historians. Sir Walter Scott, whose eye for a gripping story made his books best sellers in their time, created the template for fiction and drama that many have since followed. In Ivanhoe, which he published in 1819, his villainous Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, views with contempt the austerities of the first Templars, since whose time he and his fellows have adopted secret practices “dedicated to ends of which our pious founders little dreamed.” Today, as Casaubon says in Umberto Eco’s satire Foucault’s Pendulum, “The Templars have something to do with everything.”