The New Orders
A German pilgrim visiting the Holy Land in 1340 came upon two elderly men in the mountains overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea. They told him they had been Templars, and they recalled for him their last memories of their order, of their fellow knights being slaughtered during the desperate fighting at the fall of Acre in 1291. The two men had been taken captive, and for nearly fifty years they had eked out their lives as woodcutters, entirely cut off from news of Western Christendom. Now, with the help of the pilgrim, they were repatriated to France where they learnt that the order of the Templars was no more, and that the last Grand Master had been burnt at the stake as a heretic. Despite this the two old men were respectfully received at the Papal court at Avignon and were given the means to live out their days in peace.
Few Templars could still have been alive by that time. Some might have been grimly hanging on to life in the royal dungeons of France, others left to live quietly in monasteries on pensions, while some are known to have turned mercenary and to have taken wives. The lifespan of the Order of the Knights Templar coincided almost exactly with the claim of the Papacy to universal spiritual and temporal dominion, but Europe was now entering into a new world of rising nation states. By the time the two old Templars returned to France from the shores of the Dead Sea, their order and the world it had bestrode for two hundred years had become old news.
The Survival of the Hospitallers
It seems unlikely that the Knights Hospitaller were entirely free of strange rituals similar to those practised by the Templars, yet the Hospitallers survived the destruction of the Templars and indeed benefited from their demise by acquiring the greater part of their properties. Possibly they survived Philip IV’s avarice and ambition because their headquarters was on Rhodes, though this can hardly be the whole explanation as most of their property was in France. Certainly in 1312 Philip was already making menacing noises about ‘reforming’ the Hospitallers, and in that same year, as if to put the initiative back into Papal hands, Clement V announced his own inquiry and programme of reforms. But both Philip IV and Clement V died within a year of James of Molay, and it is this that may have saved the Knights Hospitaller.
But though no accusations of heresy, blasphemy or sodomy were made against the Hospitallers, their reputation was in some measure tarnished by the atmosphere of charges made against the Templars. Even Pope Clement VI, the namesake of that earlier Clement who had struggled to save the Templars, was writing sadly in 1343 that it was ‘the virtually unanimous and popular opinion of the clergy and laity’ that the Hospitallers were doing nothing to advance the interests of Christendom or to promote its faith.
Nevertheless, the Hospitallers held on to Rhodes until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1522. They then retreated to Malta, where they withstood a five-month Ottoman siege in 1565, and six years later Hospitaller ships were part of that great Western armada which defeated the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto off the coast of western Greece, the battle that finally put into permanent reverse the Muslim aggression that had begun when the Arabs first conquered the Holy Land nine hundred years before. But marooned on Malta, the order of the Knights Hospitaller became enfeebled; in 1792 the French National Assembly confiscated its estates, and in 1798 the Hospitallers offered no resistance when Napoleon came to Malta and after a one-day siege expelled them from the island.
The Hospitallers were dispersed throughout Europe, though they reformed, with the Tsar as Grand Master, in Russia, while in the 1820s the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem was founded in the 1820s with the intention of forming a mercenary army to liberate Greece from Ottoman rule. But this order soon took on an entirely pacific nature devoted to charitable works, as did offshoots and revivals in Britain (where Henry VIII had confiscated the property of the original order), Germany and Italy. The latter, the Sovereign Order of Malta, has its headquarters in Rome and has observer status (as a quasi-sovereign state) at the UN. It has recently returned to Malta, whose government granted it a lease on the Fort Sant Angelo.
In Britain, the modern-day Hospitallers–the (largely Protestant) Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem–are best known for their service organisation, the Saint John’s Ambulance Brigade. This was established in 1887, though already in 1882 the order had established its Saint John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem. The order remains active in Britain, the Commonwealth and the USA, and maintains its headquarters at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, London–in what had been the gatehouse to the medieval English Grand Priory of the Knights Hospitaller.
The Templars in Britain
In 1307, when Philip IV of France ordered the suppression of the Templars, Edward II of England dismissed the charges laid against them as implausible. Despite considerable pressure by the French king and the Pope, Edward resisted the Inquisition, which had no standing in English common law. Eventually each Templar was permitted to make a public statement saying ‘I am gravely defamed’ by the accusations, and for that reason, not because of any proven guilt, each asked for and was granted reconciliation with the Church and was sent to live peaceably at some monastic foundation. Nor was the king keen to hand over Templar properties to the Church, arguing that they had originally been donated by the English nobility, which was entitled to have them back. Though the Hospitallers did receive some Templar possessions, the king felt free to redistribute much of it as he liked. This reintegration of Templar property into the fabric of English life helps explain why so much of the Templar past survives today.
Scotland was caught up in a series of wars as the days of the Templars came to an end. Robert the Bruce had killed his rival John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, in 1306, an act which set Scot against Scot even as the Bruce was fighting to keep Scotland free from the English armies under Edward II. Finally the battle of Bannockburn in 1314–the very year that James of Molay was burnt at the stake–won Scottish independence for centuries to come. In recent years the writers of ‘alternative history’ have given the Templars a considerable role in these events and have argued for their continued survival ‘underground’ or disguised as, for example, the Freemasons. These speculations are examined in the following chapter on ‘Conspiracies’.
As for the more prosaic world of reality, the fate of the Templars in Scotland was that, as in England, they went unpunished, but their order was dissolved and their land was for the most part handed over to the Hospitallers. The original ownership of the land has not been forgotten, however, for even today such properties are designated in transactions as ‘Templarland’.
Spain–the Order of Montesa
The Templars had always been enthusiastically welcomed in Spain for the invaluable assistance they gave in the long struggle to free the Iberian peninsula from Arab occupation. Though the order was found guilty of heresy and other crimes in France, those Templars who were put on trial in Aragon were pronounced innocent.
Despite the protests of King Jaime II of Aragon, Pope Clement’s bull suppressing the order could not be averted. But Jaime had no intention of allowing Templar properties in Aragon and Valencia to pass to the Hospitallers. Instead in 1317, with the permission of the Papacy, he formed the new Order of Montesa–a body not essentially different from that of the Templars–which acquired the old Templar assets and was charged with the defence of the frontier. And so the Templars continued in Spain under another name. Another 175 years would pass before Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile drove out the last Muslim invaders when Granada fell to them in 1492, years in which the descendants of the Templars continued to play a vital role. The order declined thereafter and in 1587 Philip II joined the office of Grand Master with that of the crown.
The Order of Christ in Portugal
In Portugal the contribution that the Templars had made to the emergence and independence of the kingdom during its wars against the occupying Muslims was not forgotten. In 1319, with Papal permission, the Portuguese King Diniz reconstituted the Templars as the Order of Christ (Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo), and–after four years of negotiation–he was authorised by Pope John XXII to endow the order with the Templars’ possessions. Moreover, in 1357 the Order of Christ, which initially had been based in the Algarve, was transferred to the Templars’ former headquarters northeast of Lisbon at Tomar, with its magnificent rotunda patterned after Constantine’s domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In essence the Order of Christ was the Templars under another name, the main difference being that, in addition to their vows of poverty and chastity, the knights pledged obedience to the king; they had been nationalised and now existed to serve the interests of the Portuguese crown.
Successive kings of Portugal were able to install royal princes or other favourites as Grand Master of the new order. The greatest of these was Prince Henry the Navigator, appointed in 1418, who used the wealth of the order to establish the navigators’ school at Sagres from where the first great wave of exploratory voyages, likewise financed by the order, were launched down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and eventually to Asia. Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route round Africa to India in 1497, was himself a member of the order, and soon the Templar cross, adopted by the Order of Christ, was emblazoned on the sails of Portuguese ships sailing to Brazil, India and Japan. By the end of the fifteenth century the order possessed 454 commanderies in Portugal, Africa and the Indies. It is no exaggeration to say that Templar wealth, given a new purpose in the vision of Prince Henry the Navigator, inaugurated the new Age of Discovery that would transform the world–and open up the New World–over the next four centuries.
The Order of Christ was secularised in 1789 and in 1834 lost all of its possessions, under an anti-Church government. However, it was re-established–and survives–as an order of merit awarded for outstanding service to the Portuguese republic.
Prince Henry the Navigator, Grand Master of the Reconstituted Templars
Prince Henry was a younger son of King John I of Portugal and a grandson of John of Gaunt of England. In 1415, at the age of twenty-one, he commanded the expedition which achieved Portugal’s first overseas conquest when it captured Ceuta in North Africa from the Muslims. The crusading legacy in Portugal exerted tremendous influence during Prince Henry’s time. The expulsion of the Arabs and Berbers from the Algarve was still a part of the living memory of most Portuguese, and bodies of knights, including the Order of Christ, continued to man castles throughout the kingdom.
Fulfilling the mission of the Templars, reconstituted as the Order of Christ, of which he was the Grand Master, Prince Henry’s ships carried on a constant war against the infidel. But though still pursuing his crusading ideal, Henry increasingly mounted his explorations for the sake of knowledge, leading to a series of discoveries down the coast of Africa and out in the Atlantic, including the Madeira islands in 1418 and the Azores and the Cape Verde islands in 1456.
Though Henry did not himself sail with these expeditions, he was their intellectual inspiration and through the Order of Christ he provided the financial wherewithal. He based himself at Sagres on a wild and windswept Atlantic headland of the Algarve, from where the first long caravels were launched, revolutionising shipping with their wide hulls and small adaptable sails, and their ability to sail close to the wind. Here at Sagres Henry attracted astronomers, geographers, cartographers and sailors, a community of scholars and adventurers who joined together under his direction to conquer the unknown.
Prince Henry died and was buried at Sagres in 1460, but the impetus of his work continued. The achievements of Vasco da Gama, who found the first sea route round Africa to India in 1498, of Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1519 initiated the first voyage round the world, and of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, were all the fruits of Prince Henry the Navigator’s lifelong endeavour as Grand Master of what had been the Templars.
The Templar Archives
Monastic orders were scrupulous in preserving documents, both their own and those left with them for safekeeping such as deeds and wills, and the Templars were no different. Indeed their entire banking system with its record keeping, credit notes and statements was an elaboration of the archival activities of monasteries. The Templars were also landlords, traders and shipowners, activities that required documents to be filed and maintained over long periods of time. And then there was the Templars’ military, religious and diplomatic activity, all of it requiring continuous correspondence and archiving. Yet today the only surviving documents which point to the existence of the Templar archives are copied transcripts from the originals which were held in Outremer and are to do with the granting of property in the East.
The Templars kept their archive at their headquarters on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem–that is in the al-Aqsa mosque, which the Crusaders assumed stood on the site of Solomon’s Temple. At the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 the archives would have been removed to Acre where most likely they would have been held in the tower by the sea where the Templars stored their treasure; or perhaps they used their castle of Athlit, south of Haifa, which was a secure alternative. The archives were at least as valuable as any portable wealth that the Templars possessed, for they contained the evidence for the Templars’ mortgages, loans, possessions and even their right to exist which was granted in the form of Papal charters. As Acre fell in 1291 the Hospitallers managed to get their archives out to Provence, and so there is no reason why the Templars should not also have succeeded, probably taking them to Cyprus, which became the new Templar headquarters.
James of Molay had no reason to bring the Templar archives with him to the West just before his arrest; indeed the Grand Master was looking forward to the day when a new crusade would return the Templars, with their archives, to the Holy Land. Nor have searches of the French royal archives and the Papal archives turned up a hint of the Templar archives. The most likely explanation is that they remained on Cyprus where they were taken over by the Hospitallers along with the Templars’ possessions on the island in 1312. The Hospitallers moved their headquarters to Malta in 1530, but the Templar archives and those archives of the Hospitallers that specifically related to Cyprus were not taken with them, and both archives were probably destroyed when the Ottomans overran the island in 1571. The Hospitaller’s documents relating to Cyprus have never been found either.
That explains why almost everything we know about the Templars, apart from their Rule itself, comes from sources other than themselves–from bodies like the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, the Italian trading communities, the Hospitallers, and the various chroniclers and pilgrims in the Holy Land, from the Papal archives and the prosecution documents of Philip IV’s lawyers.
The loss of the Templar archives is a blow for serious historians of the order, but it has been a boon for those who prefer their speculations to be uninhibited by facts. For more on which, read on.