Post-classical history

Introduction: The Temple and the Myth

On the morning of 21 January 1793, the French king, Louis XVI, was led out into the Place de la Concord in Paris to face execution. He stepped up onto the platform where the guillotine had been erected, and turned to address the huge crowd who had come to watch him die. He announced that he forgave the revolutionary council who had voted for his death, and then gave himself over to the executioner. The blade fell at 10:15. The executioner held Louis’ decapitated head up by the hair to show that the king was dead. What happened next, according to some sources,1 took the crowd by surprise: a man jumped up onto the platform and dipped his fingers in the dead king’s blood. He held his hand aloft and shouted ‘Jacques de Molay, thus you are avenged!’ The crowd cheered, understanding the reference to the last Templar Grand Master, who was burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314; the longheld popular rumour that one day the Templars would have their revenge on the French monarchy – which had brought the Order down on dubious charges of heresy, blasphemy and sodomy – seemed to have come true. Indeed, speculation was rife that the Templars were among the instigators of the revolution that had swept through France in 1789, ultimately claiming the lives of Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

Modern historians would scoff at such a notion, but it certainly illustrates the unique hold the Knights Templar have had on the European imagination ever since they emerged from obscurity in the late 1120s. They have been seen as heroic soldier-monks guarding pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades, defenders of Holy Church who fought alongside Richard the Lionheart. Their critics – in their own time, usually annalists and commentators from rival monastic orders – accused them of the sins of pride and arrogance, and were deeply suspicious of the air of secrecy that hung over the Order like a veil. To Walter Scott, they were evil, and he made them the villains of Ivanhoe. Modern historians have tried to show that the Templars were a highly efficient military organisation made up largely of illiterates who were in reality very ordinary; their achievements were to be the creation of the first standing army in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and – as the first bankers in the West – the mediaeval organisation that did most to pave the way for modern capitalism.

Those of a more speculative cast of mind – and there have been many over the centuries – have seen the Order variously as an esoteric brotherhood, hungry for forbidden knowledge; apostates involved in diabolic practices who were the witches’ next of kin; a mysterious political entity that has guided world affairs since their suppression, clandestinely directing world events from behind the scenes; and renegade Christians who supported and sheltered heretics, forged links with occult groups in the Arab world and who discovered the Turin Shroud, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Books about the Templars tend to fall into two camps: what could be termed orthodox and speculative. The former camp is represented by academics such as Malcolm Barber, whose studies The New Knighthood and The Trial of the Templars are critically acclaimed and are the books one should consult if one is seeking a comprehensive treatment of Templar history. The latter camp of speculative writers has spawned a thriving industry of books containing a multitude of theories ranging from the plausible to the risible. In France – where there is a vast literature on the Templars – the Order holds a position similar to that of Glastonbury in England, a sort of historical tabula rasa onto which almost anything can be projected.

This book will trace the Templar story, from its beginnings in the early twelfth century, through to the suppression of the Order by the Pope in 1312 and the execution of Jacques de Molay two years later. The myths surrounding them will be examined in a later chapter. Whether or not there is any truth to them is, of course, another matter.

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