Something to Do with Everything

For many people at the time and since, the destruction of the Templars was inexplicable. How could such an important and powerful organisation seemingly devoted to the defence of Christendom and enjoying the protection of the Papacy have fallen to charges of blasphemy, heresy and sodomy–charges pressed by the king of France, aided by Church inquisitors, and apparently condoned by the Pope himself?

But since the recent discovery of the Chinon Parchment and its publication in 2004 the mystery has been solved. The reality is that the Templars were the victims of a titanic power struggle between France and the Papacy, between emerging European nationalism on the one hand and the universalist claims of the Church on the other. The Templars did indeed practise various strange rituals, not uncommon among military organisations, but their admission of these was deliberately twisted by the French state to appear as heresy and so forth. The Pope himself understood that these rituals were fundamentally innocent and personally cleared the Templars of the charges–but he kept his absolution secret for the time being for fear of a French assault on the institution of the Papacy itself and then died before he could publicly set the record straight. In the commotion of returning the Papacy from Avignon to Rome the Chinon Parchment got lost among the jumble and went unrecognised until 2001.

For nearly seven hundred years, therefore, the public and historians and experts of every kind were confronted with an incomplete account, one with many gaps and seeming contradictions but so dramatic that it demanded explanation–and became an open invitation to speculation and conspiracy theories. These have long taken on a life of their own–‘The Templars have something to do with everything’, as Umberto Eco wrote in Foucault’s Pendulum–and not even the discovery of the Chinon Parchment is likely to put them to rest.

The Immediate Reaction

Some of the most sensible reactions to the charges against the Templars and the destruction of the order came at the time. Dante, as we have seen, who wrote his Purgatorio during the trial of the Templars, had nothing to say about the supposed avarice of the order. But he was in no doubt about the greed, power-seeking and dishonesty of King Philip IV of France and the malign influence of his entire Capetian dynasty. Dante’s Italian compatriots generally thought the same: Italian bankers in France, like the Jews, had already been made to suffer Philip’s rapaciousness, while in the following generation the writer and poet Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, supported the Templars’ innocence and ridiculed the Inquisition.

In Portugal, the French assault on the Templars was also seen for what it was, and with royal support, and the permission of the Papacy, the Templars continued to flourish in Portugal under another name. The Germans and the English, too, tended to be sceptical about Templar guilt. In fact it was really only in France and among people under French sway that the story of Templar heresy was swallowed. Ramon Lull is an example. He was a Catalan philosopher and mystic who eagerly expected that Philip IV would lead a new crusade to the East. At first he believed in the honour and good faith of the Templars, but in 1308, during the trial and the full force of the French monarchy’s propaganda campaign against the order, he fell into line with the French court and changed his mind; but if he thought that the condemnation of the Templars would purify Christians and lead to a new crusade, he was disappointed.

Meanwhile, as the flame of the Crusader ideal flickered and died, the Templars were taking on a mythic life of their own.

The Romance of the Templars

Well before the end of the Order, the Knights Templar were entering into the realm of myth. The first mention of the Templars in literature came in about 1220 in Parzival by the German knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. He based his work on Chrétien des Troyes’ romance Perceval, The Story of the Grail, begun in 1181 and left unfinished at his death in 1190. Chrétien’s association with Troyes may be significant: it was the capital of the counts of Champagne who played an important role in the founding of the Templars and also in promoting their great champion Bernard of Clairvaux. Certainly Troyes represented a link with the East through Chrétien’s patroness, the countess Marie of Champagne, who was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was the lively young wife of Louis VII, the incompetent leader of the Second Crusade; she accompanied him on the venture, and upon her arrival in the East lost no time in embarking on a flagrant affair with her uncle Raymond of Antioch. She later married Henry II, king of England. Bernard of Clairvaux did not much approve of the free-spirited Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he found flighty and indecorous. But for a poet she made good copy, and it is not hard to imagine her inspiring Chrétien when he invented the character of Guinevere in his earlier work Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which he wrote specifically at Marie’s request.

The hint of a Templar link in Chrétien’s romance was made manifest in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, in which he makes the Knights Templar the guardians of the Grail. Eschenbach had visited Outremer in about 1200 and he set sections of his poem in the East. His Templars are pure warriors, defenders of the sacred territories which contain the Grail, just as the real Templars defended the Holy Land:

[They] are continually riding out on sorties in quest of adventure. Whether these same Templars reap trouble or renown they bear it for their sins. I will tell you how they are nourished. They live from a stone whose essence is most pure. If you have never heard of it I shall name it for you here. It is called “Lapsit exillis”. By virtue of the stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which he is reborn.

Eschenbach explains that Lapsit exillis, the name given to the Grail, is a stone that was once set in Lucifer’s crown but which fell with him from heaven, and which serves the Templars as an elixir of life–a notion that would not be entirely out of place in a dualist cosmology.

The Grail Quest

The Grail was invented in the late twelfth century by Chrétien de Troyes: no mention of a Grail had ever been made before. Curiously, there was nothing explicitly religious about Chrétien’s Grail; he did not write about it as the cup or chalice at the Last Supper. For that matter he did not describe it as a cup or chalice at all, but rather as a serving dish, which is the usual and original meaning of the Old French word graal. But there is something wonderful about the Grail’s first appearance in the pages of Chrétien’s story at the beginning of a rich man’s feast, and all the more wonderful and strange because Chrétien never finished his story. This is how it makes its first appearance on the page:

Then two other squires entered holding in their hands candelabra of pure gold, crafted with enamel inlays. The young men carrying the candelabra were extremely handsome. In each of the candelabra there were at least ten candles burning. A maiden accompanying the two young men was carrying a grail with her two hands; she was beautiful, noble, and richly attired. After she had entered the hall carrying the grail the room was so brightly illumined that the candles lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the sun rises. (Arthurian Romances, Penguin, 1991)

What is tantalising about this appearance of the Grail is that Perceval, the hero of the romance, knows exactly what it is, but he fails to tell us before the story breaks off (when Chrétien dies). Is the story allegorical? People have argued over that point for more than eight hundred years. And if allegorical, is the allegory religious? That too has never been resolved. But this haunting image was soon inspiring writers to complete the tale–among them Wolfram von Eschenbach, who in Parzival, his thirteenth-century German adaptation, introduced the Knights Templar to literature by making them guardians of the Grail.

Chrétien de Troyes was writing when medieval Western society, so attached to its tradition, was opening onto a wider world, the world of the Mediterranean, the world of the East, to worlds of ideas and beliefs that it was discovering or rediscovering, not least on account of the Crusades. Writing about the Grail meant writing about this cultural and spiritual quest, and yet strangely it has always been a genre, regardless of its religious overtones, that has belonged to secular writers, never to the Church. And so, free from doctrine and canon, the Grail has been endlessly reinvented down to the present time.

Templars and Witchcraft

It is curious that it was precisely as Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages and into the ages of awakening and reason that the first sinister mystifications about the Templars were developed in both the popular and learned imaginations. The story begins in 1487 with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, ironically one of the earliest books to be printed–the invention of the printing press is usually taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages.

There had always been a belief in evil spirits, but there had also been a confidence that the Church could shield believers from their influence; exorcism was routinely practised by the clergy to banish unclean spirits, while external threats, such as the Muslim conquests, would be countered by the Crusades and the knightly class, including the military orders. But the failure of the Crusades and the loss of confidence in the Church helped set off a pathological fear that demons were taking possession of Christian people.

By the end of the fifteenth century the fear of witchcraft had grown into an epidemic which forced the Church to intervene. In 1484 a Papal bull, Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, legitimised the belief in witches and granted permission to bishops and secular authorities to prosecute them if there were no representatives from the Inquisition. The Malleus Maleficarum was published three years later; written by two experienced and enthusiastic Dominican witch-hunters, it established the procedural rules for witchcraft trials and quickly became notorious. The title, which translates as ‘The Hammer of the Witches’, in effect means the persecution of witches–a term which was applied to anyone from heretics, devil-worshippers and practitioners of magic to prostitutes and superstitious old women. By a chance remark made in a book published a generation later, the Templars became associated with this murky and paranoid world of the esoteric.

The book was De Occulta Philosophia; it was by a German, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, and after its publication in 1531 it became the most widely read and influential of the Renaissance magical texts. Agrippa was a serious humanist scholar whose interests spilled over into folklore and the occult. The purpose of his book, he said, was ‘to distinguish between the good and holy science of magic and the scandalous and impious practises of black magic, and to restore the former’s good name’. In the process he examined the various ways in which the powers emanating from spirits and demons could be harnessed and controlled. And then he wrote these fateful lines: ‘It is well known that evil demons can be attracted by bad and profane arts, in the manner in which Psellus relates that the Gnostic magicians used to practise, who used to carry out disgusting and foul abominations, like those formerly used in the rites of Priapus and in the service of the idol called Panor, to whom people used to sacrifice with their private parts bared. Nor were they much different, if what we read is truth and not fantasy, from the detestable heresy of the Templars; and similar things are known about the witches and their senile craziness in wandering into offences of this sort.’

By placing the Templars alongside witches as his two examples of perverted Christian magicians Agrippa thrust the order into the phantasmagoria of occult forces which were the subject of the persecuting craze for which the Malleus Maleficarum was a handbook. Suddenly the Templars were raised from the depths of half-forgotten failures and became the focus of the darkest disturbing forces in the European mind–its victims or its masters. In this way the Templars entered the Renaissance and were to advance into the Age of Enlightenment.

Solomon’s Temple and the Freemasons

At a time when most workers were tied to the land, masons were freelancers who sought work where they could, and in Scotland and England during the Middle Ages they began to form themselves into mutual help associations. There were two kinds of masons, the ‘rough masons’ who worked in hard stone, laying foundations and raising walls, and the more mobile masons who carved the fine facades on cathedrals from softer stone, freestone as it was called, and these elite masons were called freestone masons, or freemasons for short. As the freemasons travelled round Britain they would stay at lodges, and after the Reformation in the sixteenth century one of their activities at their lodges was to read the Bible. The Catholic Church had discouraged the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, fearing that the Bible would replace the Papacy as the font of authority. This was precisely what Protestants in Scotland and England were eager to do, for the Bible was discovered to have revolutionary implications; for example it spoke of prophets who had overthrown wicked kings, and at the same time it failed to support the notion that the bishop of Rome, that is the Pope, should be the supreme leader of a universal Church.

On the other hand the Protestants decided that the Bible was itself the word of God, and those who were freemasons paid close attention to the Second Book of Chronicles with its description of how Solomon asked Hiram to build the Temple, and to the detailed measurements of the Temple, which God would only have troubled to mention, in their view, because they contained some profound theological truths. The freemasons were particularly impressed by that other Hiram, not Hiram the king of Tyre, but Hiram the widow’s son, the one they called Hiram Abiff. The most remarkable work at Solomon’s Temple had been done by Hiram Abiff, the casting of the enormous basin known as the Sea of Bronze and of the huge bronze pillars known as Jachin and Boaz. As the Bible said, this Hiram was a man ‘filled with wisdom and understanding’.

The efficacy of these freemasons’ mutual assistance associations depended on their exclusivity, that they should be clubs open to freemasons only, and the point was made by developing a system of signs and rituals supposedly passed down from ancient times and by means of which adherents gained access to the private meetings. One such ritual concerned Hiram Abiff, to whom the masons gave a history that went far beyond his brief mention in the Bible. Hiram Abiff, they said, knew the secret of the Temple. Three villains kidnapped Hiram and threatened to kill him if he did not reveal the secret ‘Master’s word’–a term used by the masons in their trade to differentiate the pay and assignments of workers, but also, as the ritual now implied, bearing deeper and mystical significance. But Hiram refused to reveal the secret, and his assailants murdered him.

When Solomon heard about this, he wondered what was Hiram’s secret, and he sent three masons to look for his body, also telling them that if they could not find the secret, then the first thing they saw when they found Hiram’s body should itself become the secret of the Temple. The masons found Hiram Abiff’s coffin, and when they opened it the first thing they saw was his hand–and from this the masons made the handshake and other signs of recognition the new secret. On the basis of this story, the masons developed the ritual by which a Freemason advances through degrees, the first being apprentice mason, the second being entered apprentice, and so to the third degree when he becomes a master mason. Advancing to the third degree requires that the initiate must agree to undergo the sufferings of Hiram Abiff should he ever reveal the Freemasons’ secrets, and that if he ever broke his oath it would be right for his fellow Freemasons to cut out his heart, his liver and his entrails, in the same way as a traitor was disembowelled as part of the process of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

But already these associations of artisan freemasons were undergoing a transition that would alter their fundamental nature. To enhance the standing of their associations, freemasons invited influential people to serve as patrons. This gave the freemasons a social appeal which together with their study of the Bible began to attract an inquiring elite comprising gentlemen and scholars, professionals and merchants, so that by about 1700 these ‘admitted’ or ‘speculative masons’ outnumbered ‘operative masons’, as the artisans were called. In fact the modern institution that we recognise as Freemasonry was born when a group of four London lodges made up of both operative and admitted masons merged in 1717 to create a Grand Lodge. They placed at their head not a practising mason but a gentleman, and never again would a true stonemason ever serve as a Grand Master.

Enlightenment and Mystery

The meaning of the Hiram story is unclear as perhaps it was meant to be, for its true purpose may have been to link the Freemasons with antiquity. For all that educated people of the Enlightenment looked towards the future, they also looked back towards the past for they believed that antiquity had possessed much learning and wisdom that had since been lost, and that it was their duty to recover what they could from biblical and classical times. For example, Sir Isaac Newton made such recovery a major part of his work and attempted for years to decipher the wisdom hidden in biblical prophecy and alchemy. His Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, which described gravitation and the laws of motion, was central to the scientific revolution and the acceptance that rational investigation can reveal the inner workings of nature–and yet Newton was convinced that it was merely a rediscovery of ancient knowledge.

Though Newton, who died in 1727, was never himself a mason, Freemasonry did attract eminent intellectuals, including several members of the Royal Society, in effect the British academy of sciences, men who stood for rationalism and deism, but who also found it entirely appropriate that the Freemasons should identify themselves with the Temple of Solomon, built by Solomon and Hiram Abiff, those mysterious exemplars of ancient wisdom.

Sir Isaac Newton and the Temple of Solomon

One of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment, the scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, wrote something like four hundred and seventy books–many of them on theological subjects and several about the Temple of Solomon. Newton was convinced that Solomon was the greatest philosopher of all time, and he also believed that he owed his own breakthrough formulation of the law of gravity to his close reading of those portions of the Bible, 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, which give in great detail the measurements of Solomon’s Temple. Moreover Newton saw in those same figures all manner of prophecies of great and terrible events that would take place over the coming four hundred years, including the Second Coming of Christ in 1948.

Freemasons and Templars

News of the formation of London’s Grand Lodge and the activities of British Freemasons soon spread across Europe. By the 1730s masonic lodges had been founded in the Netherlands, France, Germany and elsewhere, often by representatives of the London Grand Lodge who travelled abroad for the purpose, but sometimes by local residents who were inspired by the Grand Lodge but were not under its direction. But if Freemasonry proved popular in Europe, it was also alien and troubling for some. It did not grow out of the old artisan organisations of France, Germany and elsewhere on the continent, which had long since ceased to exist. Instead it was imported from Britain, home of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had definitively curtailed the powers of the king and divided authority between the monarchy, Parliament and the judiciary, and that had instituted a degree of religious toleration. Britain was widely admired by the people of Europe as a progressive and tolerant nation, but its institutions and inventions, not least Freemasonry, were deeply distrusted by Europe’s autocratic rulers and the Catholic Church.

Though the Freemasons in Britain were an innocuous and largely middle-class fraternal organisation, whose lodges fulfiled a similar social function as the London coffee house, they acquired a cult of secrecy and linked this to a mysterious knowledge associated with Solomon’s Temple. Earlier, Agrippa had linked the Templars to witchcraft and occult powers. It remained for these elements to be drawn together into one powerful occultic myth, and this is what happened when the Freemasons were directly linked to the Templars–which happened not in Britain but in continental Europe.

The first step was taken in 1736 or 1737 by a Scotsman called Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Jacobite exile living in France who, as chancellor of the French Grand Lodge, introduced a fictitious Crusader background to the Freemasons and notions of aristocratic class. British Freemasonry was democratic in nature; its members included artisans and aristocrats, professional men, learned men and middle-class traders, all content to rub shoulders with one another. But neither rubbing shoulders nor belonging to an institution that had grown from workingmen’s beginnings appealed to the upper strata of French society. The gentry and nobility of France wanted recognition of social distinctions, and they wanted it reinforced by style, nostalgia and romance. Ramsay gave it to them by the bucketful, suggesting that the stonemasons had also been knightly warriors in the Holy Land, and soon he had turned the French Freemasons into an ancient chivalrous international secret society. ‘Our ancestors, the Crusaders, who had come from all parts of Christendom to the Holy Land, wanted to group persons from every nation in a single spiritual confraternity’, Ramsay announced in his Oration to Saint John’s Lodge in Paris, variously dated 27 December 1736 or 21 March 1737.

In Ramsay’s version of the past, the Crusaders had attempted to restore the Temple of Solomon in a hostile environment and had devised a system of secret signs and rituals to protect themselves against their Muslim enemy, who otherwise would infiltrate their positions and cut their throats. Ramsay also said that at the collapse of Outremer the Crusaders returned to their homelands in Europe and established Freemason lodges there. But their lodges and their rites were neglected over time and it was only among Scotsmen that the Freemasons preserved their former splendour:

Since that time Great Britain became the seat of our Order, the conservator of our laws and the depository of our secrets…. From the British Isles the Royal Art is now repassing into France…. In this happy age when love of peace has become the virtue of heroes, this nation, one of the most spiritual in Europe, will become the centre of the Order. She will clothe our work, our statutes, our customs with grace, delicacy and good taste, essential qualities of the Order, of which the basis is wisdom, strength and beauty of genius. It is in future in our Lodges, as it were in public schools, that Frenchmen shall learn, without travelling, the characters of all nations and that strangers shall experience that France is the home of all nations.

At the time Ramsay said nothing about the Templars, perhaps because he might have offended the still powerful French monarchy and Church. In 1749, however, six years after his death, Ramsay’s monumental work The Philosophical Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion was published in Glasgow, and in it Ramsay said, ‘every Mason is a Knight Templar’, a remark that was not forgotten.

The Crusader link was further developed in Germany in about 1760, when a Frenchman who pretended to be a Scottish nobleman and called himself George Frederick Johnson claimed to have direct access to Templar secrets. This too served local tastes, as Germany was an old-fashioned society dominated by notions of rank which resisted the egalitarian and rationalist ideas inherent in British Freemasonry. A spurious connection with Templars provided the German Freemasons with Gothic atmosphere and a strong flavour of the occult.

According to Johnson’s concoction of history, the Templar Grand Masters had spent their time in the East learning the secrets and acquiring the treasure of the Jewish Essenes, later famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the people with whom John the Baptist probably had some association. This learning and this treasure was handed down from one Grand Master to another, and so came into the possession of James of Molay–who according to the story also bears the name of Hiram. On the night before his execution, James of Molay was said to have ordered a group of Templars who were somehow still at large to enter into the crypt of the Paris Temple and make off with the treasure, which consisted of the seven-branched candelabra stolen from the Temple by the Roman Emperor Titus, the crown of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and a shroud. These were taken to the Atlantic port of La Rochelle from where eighteen Templar galleys made their escape to the Isle of Mull where they called themselves Freemasons. The Scottish Freemasons, said Johnson the fake Scotsman, were the Templars’ direct heirs.

Then came the French Revolution in 1789, which shook the European public to the core. In an effort to understand those dramatic events, many accepted the fiction that secret organisations were manipulating public affairs.

The Revenge of James of Molay

James of Molay was burnt to death in Paris on the evening of 18 March 1314. The one eyewitness account of the burning of Molay, written by an anonymous monk, says that he went to his death ‘with easy mind and will’. There is no contemporary reference to him uttering a curse, yet it has since been said that as the flames engulfed the Templars’ last Grand Master he cried out for vengeance and called on the king and Pope to appear with him before the tribunal of God within a year and a day. Less than five weeks later, on 20 April, Pope Clement V died of the long and painful illness that had afflicted him throughout his pontificate. And still within that same year King Philip IV died, on 29 November, after falling from a horse while hunting.

The supposed secret survival of the Templars through the centuries opened the way for agents of the order to take their revenge for the burning of James of Molay. With a sense of prophecy owing everything to hindsight, James of Molay was now remembered to have brought his curse down on the heads of the king and Pope. The downfall of the French royal house of Capet, and the humbling of the Catholic Church in France, would come with the French Revolution–brought about by a secret conspiracy controlled by the Templars working through the Freemasons. That anyway was the belief of some extreme conservative elements in France, among them Charles de Gassicour, the author of Le Tombeau de Jacques Molay, published in 1796. Describing the death by guillotine of Louis XVI, Gassicour has someone rise up and shout, ‘James of Molay, you are avenged!’–a hated Freemason, or a Templar, whose subversive organisation had overturned the established order. Gassicour also claimed that James of Molay had founded four lodges, one in Edinburgh; that the Templars/Freemasons were associated with the Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain; that they supported Oliver Cromwell; and that they had stormed the Bastille.

Others added their voices to the story. For example in 1797 Abbé Augustin Barruel published Memoirs, his account of the French Revolution, which he helped explain by saying that Freemasonry had derived from the Templars after their suppression, when:

a certain number of guilty knights, having escaped the proscription, united for the preservation of their horrid mysteries. To their impious code they added the vow of vengeance against the kings and priests who destroyed their Order, and against all religion which anathematised their dogmas. They made adepts, who should transmit from generation to generation the same hatred of the God of the Christians, and of Kings, and of Priests.

Addressing the Freemasons directly, he continued:

These mysteries have descended to you, and you continue to perpetuate their impiety, their vows, and their oaths. Such is your origin. The lapse of time and the change of manners have varied a part of your symbols and your frightful systems; but the essence of them remains, the vows, the oaths, the hatred, and the conspiracies are the same.

A few years later Barruel added Jews to the conspiracy, seeing them as the real power behind the Templars and the Freemasons and the ultimate manipulators of European events–a conspiracy theory that culminated in the gas ovens of the Third Reich.

Barruel was in exile from revolutionary France and published his Memoirs in London, where he was politic enough to thank the British government for granting him asylum and wrote that his claims of dangerous Freemason activities did not apply to the respectable Freemasons of Britain. The British government agreed. Worried about the virus of revolution from France, in 1799 it passed the Unlawful Societies Act, although this specifically excluded the Freemasons.

A Scottish History for the Knights Templar

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an explosion of orders, degrees and societies, among them benevolent societies that survive to this day such as the Oddfellows and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, or spiritual groups such as the Druids, given to pantheistic nature worship in imitation of Bronze Age Celtic Druids. By 1800 there were hundreds, maybe over a thousand, of these organisations in Britain, and like the Freemasons they gave themselves antique histories; the Oddfellows, for example, traced their spiritual origins back to the Jews at the time of their Babylonian exile in 586 BC. In addition to these organisations, there were other orders or degrees, about thirty in all, which claimed to be masonic, indeed were often operating unofficially within local lodges, among them the Knights Templar. Chivalry and mysticism were very much in fashion, and though at first both the English and Scottish Grand Lodges rejected the Knights Templar, saying they were a foreign corruption, in the age of Romanticism the fashion proved irresistible and eventually the Templars were accepted within British Freemasonry.

In 1843 the Order of the Knights Templar in Scotland published a Historical Notice of the Order, which was written by the Scottish masonic Templars themselves and gave an account of their origins:

It is agreed by all hands, even the French, that the Templars joined the standard of Robert the Bruce and fought in his cause until the issue of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 securely placed him on the throne. That Monarch was not ungrateful.

The account explains that after the suppression of the Knights Templar in France, local Scottish Templars gave their support to Robert the Bruce during his war of independence against the English, and that at the battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, three months after the burning of James of Molay, a troop of Templars charged against the English at the decisive moment and gave the victory to the Scots. In gratitude, Robert the Bruce protected the Templars by assimilating them into a new order, the Freemasons.

None of this had been recorded by any Scottish chronicler at the time. It was entirely made up in the nineteenth century. The masonic Scottish Templars had done what masons always do: they invented a tradition, a connection with the past, and a very flattering one for Scots Freemasons. These inventions were never meant as factual history. This is explained by Robert Cooper, Freemason and curator at the Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh in his book The Rosslyn Hoax?:

There are a number of branches within Freemasonry. Each has its own ‘story’, its own traditional history, which underpins that particular part of the Masonic system…The Royal Arch Chapter is concerned with the building of a new or second Temple, often referred to as Zerubbabel’s Temple. Another branch of Freemasonry has for its traditional history the story of Helena, wife of Constantine, and her search for the place of Christ’s crucifixion…All branches of Freemasonry, therefore, have a ‘traditional history’ on which their ceremonies are based. As well as having considerable colour (the Temple at Jerusalem must have seemed very exotic to the stonemasons of Scotland), King Solomon’s Temple added a great deal of prestige to a group of honest working men…None of the traditional histories of any of the branches of Freemasonry are, or were, intended to be taken literally. Our forebears in all the Masonic Orders manufactured suitable ‘pasts’ for allegorical purposes. They did so with romantic notions at heart but understood that these histories manufactured by, and for, themselves were not literal truths.

But many people, both masons and non-masons, failed to separate fantasy from fact. For example, in his History of Free Masonry published in Edinburgh in 1859, Alexander Laurie, who was himself a Freemason, wrote, ‘It will be necessary to give some account of the Knight Templars, the fraternity of Freemasons, whose affluence and virtues aroused the envy of contemporaries, and whose unmerited and unhappy end must have frequently excited the compassion of posterity. To prove that the order of the Knight Templars was a branch of Free Masonry would be a useless Labour, as the fact has been invariably acknowledged by Free Masons themselves, and none have been more zealous to establish it than the enemies of their order.’

Evidence and proof were irrelevant to Laurie. He asserted that it was not necessary to prove that the medieval Order of the Knights Templar was an outgrowth of the Freemasons because Freemasons already knew it, as did the enemies of Freemasonry, people like the Abbé Barruel.

The myth of the Knights Templar was taking its modern shape. The medieval order had survived but in another form. The battle of Bannockburn was established as a central event in the myth. What was needed was a central place, and its invention began in 1982 with the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and has continued with other ‘alternative histories’ such as The Hiram Key (written by two Freemasons) and The Templar Revelation, not to mention The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s novelised synthesis of these pseudo-histories, which all worked to bring Rosslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, and its founding family the St Clairs into the myth.

The Sinclairs (as the St Clairs are known in English) were themselves Templars, and Rosslyn Chapel became a repository for the Templars’ treasure or their secrets, or for some powerful iconic object such as the embalmed head of Jesus Christ or the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Or so the story goes.

The Templars Discover America

The Templars discovered America. The evidence is found at Rosslyn Chapel, richly decorated with carvings. Among these are carvings that have been identified as maize, a plant native to North America, and also carvings identified as ‘aloe cactus’ and described as a New World plant. Rosslyn Chapel was built in 1456; whoever carved the maize and aloe at Rosslyn must have known about America nearly fifty years before it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

This realisation makes sense of an old stone tower at Newport, Rhode Island. The Newport Tower is round and stands on round arches; there are those who say it was a round church built by Templar colonists who came to America. The Templars would have come in about 1308 after the suppression of their order in France, escaping with their fleet from La Rochelle, some sailing for Scotland, others for the New World; or they came in the person of Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and the son and heir of William Sinclair, Lord of Rosslyn. Henry Sinclair was a Templar, and he took charge of a voyage by the Venetian brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno, who in maps and letters later claimed to have reached Nova Scotia via Greenland in 1389 and explored some of the North American coastline more than a hundred years before the voyage of Columbus.

But there are difficulties with this account, which was first proposed by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, the authors of The Hiram Key published in 1996, and elaborated by others since. The carvings identified as maize do not really look like maize at all except in the authors’ minds. The ‘aloe cactus’ at Rosslyn could in fact be almost any kind of plant; once again its identification is owed merely to the assertion of the authors. Nor is aloe a cactus; it is a succulent; and it is native to Africa, not America, and it certainly could not have grown in New England, which has severe winters. And though Rosslyn Chapel was built in 1456, the carvings were added only after its completion. They are not carved from the stone of the structure, rather the carvings throughout the chapel were carved separately and subsequently attached, ‘glued on’ as it were, and therefore give no reliable dates.

As for the Newport Tower, it was built as a windmill for grinding grain in the seventeenth century and is mentioned in 1677 as ‘my stone build Wind Mill’ in its owner’s will. Two archaeological excavations at the tower, one in 1951, another in 2006, both concluded that the tower was built between 1650 and 1670. The Zeno brothers are known through the publication of their purported letters and a map in 1558, over a hundred and fifty years after their supposed voyage, but the documents are widely regarded as a hoax. Nor do the letters mention Henry Sinclair; they mention someone called Zichmni, the commander of the expedition, and only with some effort and imagination has he been turned into Sinclair. The matter is summed up by an article in the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal in 2002:

Henry Sinclair, an earl of Orkney of the late fourteenth century, didn’t go to America. It wasn’t until 500 years after Henry’s death that anybody suggested that he did. The sixteenth-century text that eventually gave rise to all the claims about Henry and America certainly doesn’t say so. What it says, in so many words, is that someone called Zichmni, with friends, made a trip to Greenland. None of Henry Sinclair’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries ever claimed that he went to America; and none of the antiquaries who wrote about him in the seventeenth century said so either, although they made other absurd claims about him. The story is a modern myth, based on careless reading, wishful thinking and sometimes distortion, and during the past five years or so it has taken new outrageous forms.

In one version of this ‘alternative history’, the Templars’ voyage to America is undertaken in ships of their fleet, part of the same fleet that sailed for Scotland from La Rochelle in northern France. But this much-vaunted fleet is itself a myth. The Templars did have a fleet of ships to carry pilgrims and supplies and personnel across the Mediterranean between Marseilles and Acre, but these were not suitable for ocean voyages, nor could they carry enough water for more than a few days. As for warships, the Templar ‘fleet’ is unlikely to have numbered more than four galleys. And given that Templar activities were in the Mediterranean and that their chief European port was Marseilles, it is most unlikely that more than a very few Templar ships of any kind, if any ships at all, would have been based at La Rochelle.

Nevertheless this ‘Templar fleet’, wherever it was based, has given rise to another invented history. When the order was suppressed and the fleet made its escape, the Templars altered their red cross to a skull and crossbones and continued their resistance to the Papacy and the crowned heads of Europe, all except the Scottish, by living the lives of pirates on the high seas.

The New World Order

In the United States there has been a well-established legend that the Freemasons were behind the American Revolution. They are said to have instigated violent resistance to the British and to have defied British attempts to impose taxation without representation by holding the Boston Tea Party in 1773; they drew up the Declaration of Independence in 1776, provided the leadership during the Revolutionary War, and drafted the Constitution in 1787.

But the role of the Freemasons has been exaggerated. A few Freemasons may have participated in the Boston Tea Party, but it was planned and executed by a group of radical artisans called the Sons of Liberty. Of the Committee of Five who drew up the Declaration of Independence, only one, Benjamin Franklin, was a Freemason; the Declaration was almost entirely written by Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Freemason. Of the fifty-five Americans to sign the Declaration of Independence, only nine were certainly Freemasons; and of the thirty-nine who approved the Constitution, only thirteen were or later became Freemasons. George Washington had become a Freemason at the age of twenty but did not take it seriously, regarding his lodge as a social club and showing up for only two meetings in the next forty-one years. The higher ranks of Freemasonry in the American colonies were pro-British and remained loyal to the Crown, as did at least a third of the American population. Benedict Arnold, who won the first great battle of the revolutionary war for the Americans at Saratoga, and who then defected to the British (so that in America his name is synonymous with treason) was a Freemason.

Yet in 1793, at the dedication of the Capitol building, George Washington, in his capacity as first president of the United States, but wearing his masonic apron, placed a silver plate upon the foundation stone and covered it with masonic symbols of maize, oil and wine. An inscription on the silver plate made the identification of the new republic with masonry absolutely clear: the stone had been laid, it stated, ‘in the thirteenth year of American independence, and in the year of Masonry, 5793’–that being the generally accepted number of years since God’s creation of the world. After the successful conclusion of the War of Independence, and for a generation after, Freemasonry was widely considered to be the foundation stone of the republic. The explanation lies in the creation of the revolutionary army with Washington at its head. His officers had been thrown together from a diversity of regional origins, religions and social rank, and had great responsibilities thrust upon them. Freemasonry had been popular among officers in the British army in North America, and the revolutionary army continued the practise of having military lodges, which it turned to good account. Freemasonry’s ideals of honour and fraternity offered American officers the bonds on which to build the camaraderie necessary for the survival of the army, and therefore of the American republic.

But for mythomanes there is more to it than that. The monumental building constructed to house the Senate and the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill was part of the grand plan for the entire city designed in 1791 by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who served in General George Washington’s staff as a military engineer throughout the revolutionary war. Though Washington appointed L’Enfant to lay out the new city, L’Enfant was not a Freemason, but the conspiracy theorists insist he was; and they say that his rectangular street grid overlaid by diagonal avenues creates a series of masonic patterns that also reflect the pattern of the stars. The harmony between the heavens and the earth would work its powers on those who inhabited the city, the capital of the new republic. As once the god Shalem had manifested himself on the Ophel Hill as the evening star, confirming Jerusalem as a sacred place, so Washington would become the new Jerusalem, its activities sanctified by its relationship with the spiritual world as symbolised by the stars.

Powerful masonic symbols have also been discerned in the Great Seal of the United States, which is reproduced on the reverse of the dollar bill. The seal was commissioned by Congress on 4 July 1776, immediately after it had voted its approval of the Declaration of Independence, but it would pass through three committees and take six years before a final design was approved. Benjamin Franklin, who was on the first committee, was the only Freemason involved, and his non-masonic suggestion that the seal should depict the Jews escaping from the tyranny of pharaoh was rejected. The obverse of the seal shows an eagle clutching thirteen arrows, an olive branch with thirteen leaves and thirteen fruits, the eagle defended by a shield with thirteen stripes, and above his head thirteen stars arranged in the form of the Seal of Solomon, also known as the Star of David. Thirteen represents the original thirteen American colonies that rebelled against Britain and came together to form the United States. The motto reads ‘E Pluribus Unum’, meaning ‘Out of Many, One’. The arrangement of the stars has aroused speculation, but biblical and Hebrew symbolism were as common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as classical symbolism. Charles Thomson, a Latinist who was Secretary of Congress and the person who set the various ideas for a seal into their final form, explained simply that ‘the constellation of stars denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers’.

The reverse of the seal shows a pyramid surmounted by an eye. The pyramid has thirteen courses and is inscribed at its base with MDCCLXXVI. There are two mottoes, one above the eye, the other below the pyramid. Again Charles Thomson gave his explanation: ‘The pyramid signifies strength and duration: The eye over it and the motto, Annuit Coeptus [He [God] Has Favoured Our Undertakings], allude to the many interventions of Providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it, Novus Ordo Seclorum [A New Order of the Ages], signify the beginning of the new American era in 1776.’

But ‘alternative histories’ and conspiracy theorists see things differently. They say that the pyramid and the eye on the reverse of the Great Seal are masonic and amount to a code. Expert Freemasons deny this, saying that the seal is not a masonic emblem, nor does it contain hidden masonic symbols. Certainly the pyramid is not masonic. But the eye does figure in masonic imagery, and it even appears on the Freemason’s apron worn by George Washington.

The point, however, is that there is nothing specifically masonic about the all-seeing eye, which was part of the cultural iconography of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example in 1614 the frontispiece of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the Worldshowed an eye in a cloud labelled ‘Providentia’ overlooking a globe. Nevertheless, for those given to conspiracy theories the meaning lies elsewhere. For Robert Langdon, the hero in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, novus ordo seclorum translates as ‘new secular order’, and for others it prefigures the ‘new world order’ announced by George H.W. Bush before a joint session of Congress after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the United States was mustering a coalition to drive the Iraqi forces back. ‘Out of these troubled times’, Bush told Congress, ‘our fifth objective–a New World Order–can emerge: a new era.’ The speech was delivered on 11 September 1990, exactly eleven years before that other ‘9/11’.

Mormons, Freemasons and the Key to Solomon’s Temple

In 1844 when Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, was being attacked by a mob in Illinois, he barely managed to cry out, ‘Oh Lord, my God’ before he was shot and killed. These were the first words of a recognised distress call among Freemasons–‘Oh Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?’ The phrase arises from the ritual enacted by Freemasons who are being admitted to the third degree, that of Master Mason, which allows them to participate fully in all aspects of their brotherhood. The drama at the centre of this initiation ritual is the murder of Hiram, ‘the widow’s son’ of the Bible, whom the Freemasons call Hiram Abiff. The initiate acts out the sufferings of Hiram Abiff, who while vowing to protect the Freemasons’ secrets with his life, calls out, ‘Oh Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?’

Joseph Smith was himself a Freemason, as were his brother and his father and many of their friends and co-religionists; Brigham Young, who was Smith’s successor as leader of the Mormons and led them into Utah where they founded Salt Lake City, was likewise a Freemason. In America Mormonism and Freemasonry grew out of the same soil. Indeed there are many parallels between Mormonism and Freemasonry, including degrees of elevation, sacred treasures hidden in the earth, an interest in ancient Israel and Egypt, symbolic clothing, secret means of recognition and a belief in the creative role of a supreme being.

Also both organisations have made extensive use of such motifs as the beehive, the square and compass, the all-seeing eye, the two right hands clasped to one another, and the sun, the moon and the stars. In particular, Masonic legends of a lost sacred word, once engraved upon a triangular plate of pure gold, profoundly affected the Smith family, which became well known for its treasure-hunting activities; and it was on such plates of gold, unearthed by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, that he found what he said were the words of the Angel Moroni and which he translated and published as the Book of Mormon, the gospel of the new faith of which Smith himself was its prophet. The mission of the Mormons is to restore the true revelation which became corrupted after the death of Jesus. And according to the Mormons their rituals and symbolism have come to them by divine revelation and originate in Solomon’s Temple.

Skull and Bones

For some a New World Order (Novus Ordo Mundi) means a constructive ordering of world affairs through institutions like the United Nations. For others it is a conspiracy conducted by a small and secretive but powerful group to eliminate or neutralise sovereign states, to restrict individual freedom, and to establish a world government answerable to no one but themselves. This latter idea has much in common with the beliefs of Charles de Gassicour and the Abbé Barruel, who saw the French Revolution as the culmination of an ancient historical plot by the Templars and Freemasons who were in league with everyone from the Assassins to the Jews.

According to the conspiracy theorists, the infrastructure of this New World Order is already largely in place in the form of such organisations as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, NATO, the European Union–and indeed the United Nations. They point to the statement given by David Rockefeller to the United Nations Business Council in September 1994: ‘We are on the verge of a global transformation. All we need is the right major crisis and the nations will accept the New World Order.’ But this remark is almost always quoted without context, with the suggestion that it refers to an event like 9/11, when in fact Rockefeller was referring to the need to take united action against global warming and over-population.

The 11th of September 2001 is itself seen as a conspiracy, a not uncommon version being that the attacks were a joint operation between elements in the United States government and Mossad, Israel’s secret service. The Freemasons are also blamed, as in this quotation from a website run by a former United States Air Force officer and professor of aerospace systems:

‘What happened on September 11, 2001, was nothing less than an elaborate, carefully crafted and dynamically staged satanic ritual. I believe the tumbling down of the twin towers of the World Trade Center was a blood sacrifice…A satanically energized variation of the third degree ritual of Freemasonry was staged–the Master Mason degree–in which the candidate (playing the role of Hiram Abiff, the antichrist) lying in a coffin, is raised by the strong grip of the Lion’s Paw. In the ritual it is noted that the two pillars (towers), Jachin and Boaz, have fallen and are in need of restoration. What transpired on September 11th was a black magic ceremony intended to bring about the restoration of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and the raising of its twin pillars which had fallen…’

For a small and secretive but powerful group promoting the New World Order, one does not have to go farther than the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. On High Street a windowless Graeco-Egyptian building, familiarly known as the Tomb, houses the Order of Skull and Bones. Though known as Bonesmen to the outside world, they call each other knights, and their symbol, the skull and crossbones, is the very sign that the Knights Templar are said to have adopted in exchange for their red cross. At any rate if you were Dan Brown that is something you might work in to your next novel.

Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 in rivalry to the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity. But in fact they are very different organisations. Even in the 1830s Phi Beta Kappa already had chapters at seven universities (and now extends to nearly three hundred), while Skull and Bones has remained exclusive to Yale. Phi Beta Kappa recruits members in their freshman year and has half a million living members at any one time, while Skull and Bones never has more than eight hundred and does not accept members until their senior year, by when it can have some confidence that its members will rise to positions of exceptional eminence in the future.

Originally, Skull and Bones is said to have been the American chapter of a German student organisation that called itself the Eulogian Club, after Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence. The story, however, might have been a cover. A few years earlier, in 1826, a Freemason called William Morgan was murdered in New York for revealing masonic secrets, and there was such a popular outrage and backlash that Freemasonry was all but destroyed in the United States. If the real intention had been to found a Freemason’s lodge, it would have been wise to disguise it as something else. Why the skull and bones was ever chosen as the name and symbol is unexplained. The ‘322’ on the order’s stationery is said to mark the date of death of the great orator Demosthenes, but ‘32’ might refer to the year of the order’s inception, with ‘2’ signifying that it was the second chapter after the German original.

The invitation to join the Skull and Bones comes in a student’s junior year with a tap on the shoulder as the tower clock strikes eight and a Bonesman demands, ‘Skull and Bones, accept or reject?’ President William Howard Taft and various Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and other important figures in the highest ranks of American government have been members. But not a great deal is known about the workings of the order, for everyone is sworn to secrecy, and this is closely observed. President George W. Bush was asked about his time there but would only say, ‘In my senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can’t say anything more.’ And when Senator John Kerry, Bush’s rival in the 2004 presidential election, was asked what it meant that both he and Bush were Bonesmen, he replied, ‘Not much because it’s a secret.’ George W. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, was also a Bonesman; he was president from 1988 to 1992, and had earlier been head of the CIA. While it is not true that the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, was founded by Bonesmen, it is true that the Skull and Bones can boast of a disproportionately large number of its alumni, called Patriarchs, in the intelligence services and high places in government and business.

Conspiracy theorists see the Skull and Bones as the proponent of a New World Order motivated by Hegelian philosophy and believing that the state is supreme and change is generated only by conflict, which has infiltrated all the elite control groups in the United States. One journalist who tried to get inside information warned, ‘They don’t like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They’ve got their hands on every lever of power in the country. It’s like trying to look into the Mafia.’ But George W. Bush dismisses such talk as ‘the kind of connect-the-random-dots charges that are virtually impossible to refute’.

The Templars Forever

The history of the Templars begins with their formation in Jerusalem in 1119 and ends with their destruction two centuries later in France. But in another sense it goes back three thousand years to the Ophel Hill and continues into the future. The secrecy of the Templars, their hybrid nature as monks with swords, the exotic worlds that they encompassed, their romance and sudden fall, and the mysteries left unanswered by the disappearance of their archives, have enlarged them in the popular imagination where they survive and flourish. Powerful associations with such places as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount have extended the spiritual dimensions of the order and added layers of history, legend and myth. Romantics and Freemasons, charlatans and lunatics, radicals and reactionaries, Christians, Jews and Muslims, have all contributed to the story.

Just as the search for holy relics in the Middle Ages turned up the most unlikely objects in the most convenient places, so each new pseudo-history or fanciful novel follows the money and adds new places, events and notions to the myth–so that Scotland and the French Revolution are already well established as playing a part, and America is being developed. An imminent leap from Rosslyn to Washington DC via Rhode Island, Salt Lake City and New Haven would not be surprising.

In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum some publisher’s editors are thinking up a new series of books to appeal to academics, cultists and conspiracy theorists, something ‘in these dark times to offer someone a faith, a glimpse into the beyond’, and make a little money. One suggests that they take a few dozen notions and feed them into a computer, ‘for example, the Templars fled to Scotland, or the Corpus Hermeticum arrived in Florence in 1460’, and add ‘a few connective phrases like “It’s obvious that” and “This proves that”’. And so they begin at random: ‘Joseph of Arimathea carries the Grail into France’ ‘According to Templar Tradition, Godefroy de Bouillon founded the Grand Priory of Zion in Jerusalem’ ‘Debussy was a Rosicrucian’ ‘Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée’. No! They must not overdo it, an editor warns, but the first replies, ‘We must overdo it. If we admit that in the whole universe there is even a single fact that does not reveal a mystery, then we violate hermetic thought.’ ‘That’s true’, says another. ‘Minnie’s in. And, if you’ll allow me, I’ll add a fundamental axiom: The Templars have something to do with everything.’

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