The Templars were founded in Jerusalem on Christmas Day 1119 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the spot which marks the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A religious order of fighting knights, their headquarters was on the Temple Mount, that vast platform rising above the city where King Solomon had built his Temple two thousand years before. Surrounded by these potent historical and sacred associations, the Templars assumed their responsibility to protect pilgrims visiting the holy shrines and to defend the Holy Land.
The Templars soon became a formidable international organisation. Vast donations of properties were made in Europe to maintain this elite taskforce overseas, and special rights and privileges were granted by popes and kings. Dressed in their white tunics emblazoned with a red cross, they became the West’s first uniformed standing army and also pioneered an extensive financial network that reached from London and Paris to the Euphrates and the Nile. As an order they became powerful and wealthy, but as individuals their existence was simple and austere. Their bravery was legendary, their dedication was absolute and their attrition rate was high; at least twenty thousand Templars were killed, either on the battlefield or after being taken captive and refusing to renounce their faith to save their lives.
Yet in the end the Templars were destroyed not by the Muslims in the East but by their fellow Christians in the West. On Friday 13 October 1307 the Templars were arrested throughout France and soon elsewhere throughout Europe. They were charged with heinous heresies, obscenities, homosexual practises and idol worship; many were tortured and confessed. The end came in 1314 when the Templars’ last Grand Master was burnt alive at the stake.
The shock and mystery of their downfall has excited interest in the Templars for seven centuries since. Some historians have conjectured that the Templars’ sojourn in the East brought them into contact with Gnosticism, the ancient heresy embraced by the Cathars of France, while the Freemasons have drawn a line of occult knowledge transmitted from the Temple of Solomon via the Templars to themselves.
Never has speculation about the Templars been more feverish than today. Did the Templars carry out excavations beneath the Temple Mount and find something extraordinary that explains their rise to power and wealth and, according to some, their continued but clandestine existence to this day? Was it some vast treasure? Or the Ark of the Covenant? The Holy Grail? The secret to the life of Christ and his message? And where did this secret travel when the Templars were suppressed? To Scotland, to America?
What is certainly true is that the rise and fall of the Templars exactly corresponded to the two centuries of the crusading venture in the East, where after a series of outrages against Western pilgrims and Eastern Christians, and in the face of renewed aggression which threatened all of Europe, the First Crusade was launched in 1095 to recover Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine from Muslim occupation. Simultaneously, the struggle was being fought in the Iberian peninsula where the Templars eventually helped liberate Spain and Portugal. But the crusading effort in the East, with the Templars at its heart, was never enough to withstand the overwhelming Muslim forces that could be brought into the field when they were united by the likes of Saladin or the Mamelukes. In 1291 when the Mamelukes drove the last Frankish settlers out of the Holy Land, the Templars lost the main purpose of their existence, and soon they fell victim to the rapacious greed and tyrannical ambitions of the King of France.
One of the great Templar mysteries has always been the role played by the Papacy in the downfall of the order. The Pope was meant to be their protector and to the Pope alone the Templars owed obedience, yet to judge from the apparently supine acquiescence of the Papacy to the demands of the King of France, the Pope either betrayed the Templars or believed them guilty of terrible crimes. These conjectures took a dramatic turn in 2007, when the Vatican published a facsimile edition of a parchment recording the Templar leaders’ testimony to Papal investigators at Chinon in 1308. This document had been discovered in the Vatican Secret Archives and revealed–seven hundred years too late to save the lives of James of Molay and countless other knights–that the Pope believed the Templars innocent of heresy.