The eminent nineteenth-century Catholic theologian and historian Ignaz Dollinger was once asked what he thought was the most evil day in history. He did not hesitate in his reply: it was Friday, 13 October 1307, the day the Templars were arrested in France.45The feeling that the arrests were a criminal act of unparalleled dimensions were felt at the time. Dante compared Philip IV to Pontius Pilate and charged him with avarice in the Purgatorio (Canto XX), and the subsequent myths surrounding the Templars got off to a very quick start – Clement died only a month after Jacques de Molay had called him to account before God within the year, and Philip himself died on 29 November 1314.
Although the trial and suppression had succeeded in destroying the Order of the Temple, it failed in other areas. Philip did not find the Templars’ treasure, and most of the Order’s lands ended up being passed on to the Hospital. It is also unclear just how many Templars were actually arrested (the figures range between 2,000 and 15,000), and it is likewise uncertain as to how many escaped. Certainly the Order seems to have received some kind of tip-off – shortly before the events of 13 October, Jacques de Molay recalled all the Order’s rule books and accounts and had them burnt. A brother who left the Order in 1307 was told that he was ‘wise’, as an unspecified catastrophe was looming. A memo was circulated to all French preceptories forbidding them from releasing any information about the Order’s rites and rituals.46
If the Order knew what Philip’s plans were in advance, that might explain why the French king was unable to find the Order’s treasure (assuming it to have been actual, rather than metaphorical), which was said to have been smuggled out of the Paris Temple shortly before the arrests and taken by river to the Templars’ main naval base at La Rochelle. How many Templar ships sailed from La Rochelle in the autumn of 1307 is unknown – what they were carrying likewise – but one thing is known: the Templar fleet vanished utterly.
If the Order did indeed have some kind of advance warning, and an unknown number of Templars escaped, where did they go to? Although the Order of the Temple ceased to exist in 1312, Templars did not, and various theories have been proposed as to their subsequent fate. Some were welcomed into the Hospital, while others joined the Teutonic Knights. Templars in Portugal actually went nowhere – King Diniz found the Order innocent of all crimes, and the Templars there simply changed their name to the Knights of Christ. Under this name, they continued for another two centuries, and were heavily involved in exploration. Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama were both Knights of Christ, as was Christopher Columbus’s father-in-law; it is possible that the rumours that the Templars discovered America originated with the exploits of these Knights of Christ. In Spain, likewise, the Order of Montesa was created ‘primarily as a refuge for fugitive Templars’.47
The fate of the Templar fleet has never been resolved. Almost the only place the ships could have found a safe haven would have been western Scotland, then under the control of Robert the Bruce. This theory is explored at length by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in their book The Temple and the Lodge, which proposes that a contingent of Templars landed in Argyll, helped Bruce to win the Battle of Bannockburn and then continued to reside in Scotland relatively unmolested. (All the Scottish Templars escaped arrest.) These Templars, and spin-off orders such as the Scots Guard, helped to pave the way for the emergence of Freemasonry. Eighteenth-century Freemasons were quick to capitalise on their supposed Templar ancestry.
If Scotland, at odds with both England and the Papacy, could have offered a safe haven for a group of Templars, then the emerging country of Switzerland could have provided another. One theory has been put forward48 that a group of Templars became involved with the struggle for Swiss independence sometime after the first three Cantons – Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden – signed a pact of mutual assistance in 1291. Swiss folk tales tell of white-clad knights appearing to assist the Cantons in the struggle against the Holy Roman Empire; the date is also significant, as, after 1291, the Templars were seemingly without a raison d’être for their continued existence. Whether or not these knights – assuming they were Templars – saw the emerging Swiss confederacy as a potential Ordensland of their own is impossible now to determine, but two factors lend credibility to this thesis. Firstly, the Swiss, once established, suddenly acquired, as if from nowhere, the best army in Europe. Their military prowess would remain unchallenged until the Battle of Marignano in 1515, when they were comprehensively defeated by the French. Secondly, Switzerland is famous (or infamous, depending upon one’s point of view) for its banks. The Templars were the true originators of the international banking system that is still in use today, predating the great Italian houses by more than a century. Perhaps it is this that is the Templars’ main legacy to us. As Desmond Seward notes, ‘no mediaeval institution did more for the rise of capitalism’49 than the Templars.