The Templars in the West
By the time of their downfall in 1307 the Templars had built up a network of at least 870 castles and preceptories (that is houses and estates) throughout almost every European country which adhered to the Roman Catholic faith. But overwhelmingly their principal properties were in France, with lesser numbers in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Britain. Today the situation is reversed. The most numerous Templar survivals are in Britain, Spain and Portugal, but owing to the destruction of the Templars by King Philip IV there is almost nothing to see in France.
Nevertheless it is still possible to follow the drama of events in France. Wandering round the Temple quarter in Paris, where the Templar leaders were arrested at dawn, and going to the spot along the Seine where the last Grand Master, James of Molay, was bound to a stake and burnt to death, works powerfully on the imagination and helps bring the climactic history of the order alive. In Spain and Portugal, countries which the Templars helped liberate from Muslim occupation, the order was protected and continued in new guises. For this reason several magnificent Templar castles and churches have survived there more or less intact. Much can be seen in Britain, too, where Templars were treated lightly and their properties largely returned to the noble families which had donated them to the order.
Perhaps no country in the West is more associated with the Templars than France. Their dramatic rise and fall was played out in such places as Troyes, Paris and Chinon. But the assault on the Templars by the French crown was so vicious and complete that very little remains to be seen. The ghosts of the Templars still inhabit certain quarters of Paris, however, and you can walk in their footsteps today.
PARIS: THE TEMPLE
The Paris Temple was in the area known today as the Marais, which is on the Right Bank just west of the Bastille. The Marais is one of the most atmospheric parts of Paris; it was left largely untouched by Baron Haussmann, the nineteenth-century planner whose love of the straight line and the grand vista led him to demolish great swathes of the old city to create the long broad boulevards lined by six- to seven-storey buildings with uniform grey facades and mansard roofs that are the architectural hallmark of Paris today. Instead the Marais is a warren of enchanting narrow streets which preserve magnificent Renaissance mansions built round intimate courtyards and humbler but no less appealing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century streets of stucco facades and slatted shutters. Yet the area was nothing more than a riverside swamp (marais) until the Knights Templar drained the land in the 1140s and built their headquarters in its northern part, then outside the city walls, in what is now called the Quartier du Temple.
Now nothing remains of the Paris Temple except the name itself. But the rues du Temple, Bretagne, Picardie and Beranger more or less define the place occupied by the Templars’ French headquarters, which was a considerable compound fortified with walls and towers to which they added, in the late thirteenth century, a powerfully built keep which was nearly twice as high as the White Tower, the keep at the heart of the Tower of London. The Templar keep in Paris was the main strongroom for the Templar bank, which was also, in effect, the treasury of the kings of France.
The close relationship between the French crown and the Templars probably explains why King Philip IV’s officials were able to walk right in to the Temple at dawn on Friday 13 October 1307. Their action was so sudden, and the shock and surprise so complete, that there was no resistance. The keep, which had been the Templars’ stronghold, immediately became their prison, and the two thousand or so Templars arrested simultaneously throughout France were also brought here for incarceration, examination and torture.
After the abolition of the Templars, the Paris Temple became the abode of artisans and debtors eager to avoid official regulations by living outside the city walls. But a new wall built in 1357 brought the Temple within the embrace of the growing city where it remained standing for four and a half centuries more. During the French Revolution King Louis XVI was imprisoned in the Templar keep and it was from there in January 1793 that he was led out to the guillotine in what is now the Place de la Concorde. In 1808 the keep was demolished by Napoleon, who was eager to eradicate anything that might become a focus of sympathy for the royal family.
Ile des Javiaux: the Burning of the Last Templars
On the evening of 18 March 1314 James of Molay, the Templar Grand Master, and Geoffrey of Charney, the Templar’s master of Normandy, were burnt at the stake on the Ile de Javiaux in the Seine. It is said that as James of Molay was bound to the stake he asked to be allowed to face the Cathedral of Notre Dame. You can revisit the scene, but you must make allowances for changes in the river. Medieval maps of Paris show four islands in the Seine. The westernmost is the Ile de la Cité with the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The next two islands to the east are shown as uninhabited; they have since joined together to form the Ile St Louis. The easternmost island of the four, which is also shown as uninhabited, is the Ile des Javiaux–but there is no island there today. Instead the island has become attached to the north bank of the Seine, and what was once the river channel to the north is now the Boulevard Morland. Along the Quai Henri IV, which follows the outline of what was the southern side of the Ile des Javiaux, there is a plaque which reads: A cet endroit Jacques de Molay dernier grand maitre de l’ordre du Temple été brulé le 18 Mars 1314–‘On this spot James of Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on 18 March 1314’. The Cathedral of Notre Dame still forms part of the view.
In Spain, as discussed earlier, the Templars were protected by King Jaime II of Aragon and reformed as the Order of Montessa, retaining most of their former properties and playing a role in defending the frontier against the remaining Muslim kingdoms of Andalusia.
There are, therefore, a number of well-preserved Templar sites in Spain, including the castles at Peñíscola near Valencia and Miravet in Catalonia. However, it is the Templars’ church at Segovia and their castle at Ponferrada that perhaps best illustrate the order’s presence and their architecture in Spain.
SEGOVIA: CHURCH OF VERA CRUZ
Segovia, about fifty miles north of Madrid, is a small medieval city built on a rocky ridge. It is famous for its Roman aqueduct, its late Gothic cathedral and the Alcazar, a fortified palace of the Spanish kings which was built upon the remains of an earlier Arab fortress. But across the river in a striking position in open countryside and looking back at the walled medieval city and its Alcazar is Segovia’s finest ancient church, the Iglesia Vera Cruz, the Church of the True Cross. Patterned on the Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it was built by the Templars in the early thirteenth century and is still impressive despite the alteration of its appearance caused by the addition of a later tower. On the outside the church is twelve-sided but the nave within is circular, and at its centre is a two-storey chamber where a chapel on its upper floor contained a piece of the True Cross (now removed to the nearby village church at Zamarramala).
PONFERRADA: THE TEMPLAR CASTLE
During the twelfth century the Christian rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms made extremely generous donations to the military orders. The Templars and the Hospitallers received estates in the north and castles in central Spain with the intention that they should defend the invasion routes used by the Muslim armies. One of these kingdoms was Leon, which later divided, one part joining Castile, the other joining Portugal. As part of this policy of bestowing lands on the military orders, in 1178 Ferdinand II of Leon donated Ponferrada to the Templars so that they could protect the pilgrimage route across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
The cathedral at Compostela was said to hold the remains of Jesus’ cousin, Saint James the Apostle, a belief that sprang up not long after the Great Mosque at Cordoba in southern Spain was said to hold a bone from the body of the Prophet Mohammed. Soon Saint James was being identified with the Reconquista and was seen fighting alongside the Christians at forty battles against the occupying Arabs. The pilgrimage to the saint’s relics at Compostela quickly caught the imagination of Christian Europe, and at the height of its popularity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the city was receiving over half a million pilgrims a year. After Jerusalem and Rome, Compostela was regarded as the third holiest site in Christendom, and completion of a pilgrimage to the relics ensured the remission of half one’s time in Purgatory.
The Castillo de los Templarios is one of the most beautiful examples of military architecture in Spain. It had been a mud and pebble Roman castro which the Templars built up into an enormous castle built on an irregular square plan with powerful stone walls and crenellated ramparts linking twelve large towers. By guaranteeing the security of pilgrims against local brigands and Muslim incursions, the Templars ensured that Ponferrada and the region enjoyed the benefits of the passing trade, including commercial development and population growth. The castle rises above the river Sil and dominates the city’s historic quarter. The approach is over a drawbridge spanning a moat; you then enter through a double arch flanked by two towers. A vast courtyard lies within, off which are various chambers including an armoury and stables, and on the far side a massive keep where the Templar master of Castille had his quarters. Recently restored, the castle has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Portugal came into existence as a separate kingdom during the centuries of Christian resistance against the Muslim forces that had occupied the Iberian peninsula, a resistance in which the Templars played an important part. As in Spain, the Portuguese monarchy refused to turn against the Templars when the French king Philip IV found it politically and financially convenient to destroy them, and instead the new Order of Christ was founded. The finest Templar monuments are found in central Portugal, close to one another at Tomar and Almourol. There are, in addition and outside the direct orbit of this book, superb monuments from the Order of Christ at Sagres, where Henry the Navigator made his base, and at Belém, outside of Lisbon.
After the Christian reconquest of central Portugal from the Muslims, a vast part of the frontier region was given to the Knights Templar by the Portuguese king. Tomar, to the northeast of present-day Lisbon, was founded in 1160 on the site of an ancient Roman city when the Templar Grand Master of Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the castle and monastery that would become the headquarters of the order in the country. The Templar presence at Tomar protected Christian settlers from the north against Arab incursions, and in 1190 they saved the entire country from being overrun by Abu Yusef al-Mansur, the Almohad caliph of Morocco. Al-Mansur had already ravaged southern Portugal by the time he laid siege to Tomar where he faced a vastly outnumbered garrison of Templars, yet they broke the back of al-Mansur’s attack and drove him back to Morocco.
Thankful to the Templars for helping to establish and defend the new kingdom of Portugal, King Diniz resisted French and Papal pressure to suppress the order and hand over its possessions to the Church. Instead, in 1319 he transferred Templar property and personnel to the newly created Order of Christ, which for a while was centred at Castro Marim in the Algarve but after 1356 returned to Tomar. Prince Henry the Navigator, who was made Grand Master of the Order of Christ in 1418, renovated and enlarged the Convento do Cristo (as the Templars’ castle with its round church was called) and designed the geometrical pattern of streets seen in Tomar today, even as he was using Templar resources to send his ships on bold voyages into the Atlantic and down the coast of Africa, his caravels powered before the winds by sails painted with the Templar cross.
Convento do Cristo
Built as a Templar stronghold in 1160, the Convento do Cristo sits impressively on a hill overlooking the river Nabão and the town. The castle has an outer wall and a citadel with a keep inside. The keep is one of the oldest in Portugal; the idea was introduced to the country by the Templars, as was the use of round towers in the outer walls, which were less susceptible to mining than square towers and improved the defensive lines of fire. When Tomar was founded, most of its inhabitants lived in houses enclosed within the protective outer walls of the castle. As Grand Master of the Order of Christ, Prince Henry the Navigator had his palace here; its remains can be seen immediately to the right when entering the castle walls.
The famous round church within the castle was built in the second half of the twelfth century and like several other Templar churches across Europe it was modelled after the Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. From the outside it is a sixteen–sided structure, with strong buttresses, round windows and a bell tower. Inside the church is circular and has a central octagonal structure, connected by arches to a surrounding ambulatory. After Prince Henry the Navigator became Grand Master of the Order of Christ he had a Gothic nave added to the round church, so that the rotunda became the apse of the enlarged church. The Convent of Christ of Tomar is one of Portugal’s most important historical and artistic monuments and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Church of Santa Maria do Olival
On the eastern side of Tomar is the Templar church of Santa Maria do Olival. Twenty-two Portuguese Templar masters were buried in the church, among them Gauldim Pais, master from 1157 to 1195 and the founder of the castle and the city of Tomar. He made a name for himself during the conquest of Santarem in 1147, followed by Lisbon in 1149, before heading off to Outremer where he took part in the siege of Gaza in 1153. The original inscribed slab still covers the recess in the wall containing Pais’ ashes. His bravery in his tireless struggle against the Muslim invader made him the epitome of a Knight Templar, and his memory continues to be cherished in Portugal.
The church passed into the hands of the successor to the Templars, the Order of Christ, and during the age of discoveries when Portugal was building up a great empire overseas, Santa Maria do Olival served as the mother church of all the churches of Africa, Asia and the Americas. The interior of the church is very simple. Its three naves are covered by a wooden roof supported by pointed arches rising from columns lacking capitals. The main chapel of the apse is covered by a Gothic ribbed vault. Above the church entrance is a window in the form of an open rose, while a window above the apse is in the form of the Signum Salmonis, that is the Seal of Solomon.
About twelve miles south of Tomar is the remarkable castle of Almourol rising from a small rocky island in the middle of the Tagus river. An older castle stood on this site when the area passed to the control of the Knights Templar during the Reconquista, but by 1171 they had rebuilt what they found, introducing innovations from their experience in Outremer, including the ten round towers set along the outer walls and the three-storey keep, just as at Tomar.
The castle on its island has a fairy-tale quality, as though conjured up by some medieval magician. Arriving at the island by boat, you can climb up through the trees to the well-preserved castle and keep.
Place names such as Temple, Temple Hirst, Temple Bruer, Temple Balsall, Templecombe, Temple Ewell and Strood Temple Manor are scattered across England, and Scotland too, testimony to the way the story of the Knights Templar is woven into the living fabric of Britain. And that is not to mention the many other places without Temple in their name but which nevertheless have powerful Templar associations.
For example, in London the Church of All Hallows by the Tower, right by the Tower of London, has an altar in its crypt that the Templars are said to have brought from their last foothold in the Holy Land at Athlit, south of Haifa. Saint Mary the Virgin at Shipley in West Sussex is the village parish church, but its strong Romanesque design, the high spacious nave and chancel and the massive central tower mark it as a Templar edifice. The manor and land were among the earliest endowments to the order, and the church was built soon after, in about 1140. The Templars also made their presence felt at the shrine of Saint Thomas Cantilupe in Hereford Cathedral. Saint Thomas, the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation, died in 1282. He was bishop of Hereford but also provincial Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and fourteen Templars are carved round the base of his tomb. The Old Temple Kirk in the village of Temple in Midlothian, Scotland, is Gothic in style and might be late twelfth-century Templar work, though more probably it was built later by the Hospitallers. Nevertheless the village of Temple, not far from Edinburgh, was certainly the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Scotland, and if in fact nothing tangible remains from their time, the place can justly lay claim to genuine historical associations. In contrast, associations of a speculative kind have attached themselves to nearby Rosslyn Chapel, just a few miles’ walk away, which, since featuring in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, has become one of the most visited sites in Scotland.
More is said about Rosslyn Chapel below, but of indisputable historical interest there is nothing to beat Temple Church in London and Cressing Temple in the county of Essex.
LONDON: THE TEMPLE CHURCH
The Temple Church is the oldest building in the Inns of Court, a quiet backwater of London south of Fleet Street, unless you are part of Britain’s industrious legal profession for whom this is the mother hive. Rather like Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the Inns are divided into distinct institutions: Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. The first two get their names from the Knights Templar whose headquarters were at this spot.
Hugh of Payns, the first Grand Master of the Templars, established the first Templar house in London in 1128, on the site of present-day Southampton House in Holborn. This became known as the Old Temple when the Templars moved to a larger site to the south between Fleet Street and the River Thames. The new site originally included much of what is now Lincoln’s Inn, and the knights were probably responsible for establishing New Street (now Chancery Lane), which led from Holborn down to their new quarters.
Following their custom, the Templars built a round church patterned on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An inscription on the Round (as the rotunda is called) recorded that it was consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, on 10 February 1185, in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is thought that King Henry II was also present on that day, inaugurating a long association between the kings of England and the Temple.
Among the other buildings erected by the Templars were dormitories, chambers, storehouses, stables and two dining halls, one of them in the consecrated central portion and connected to the church by a cloister. King John was one of several kings to stay here, and during his visit in 1215 he received a deputation of barons demanding a charter of liberties; and when Magna Carta was signed later in the year, the master of the Temple was one of the witnesses. Taking advantage of their special privileges, the Templars made their sanctuary a safe place for depositing treasure, and during the thirteenth century the New Temple became a busy financial centre. The first lawyers came to live in the Temple at this time as legal advisors to the order of the Knights Templar, which was one of the foremost international organisations of the age. The Templars thrived, adding to their round church a fine nave, which was consecrated in the presence of King Henry III in 1240.
After the dissolution of the Knights Templar the Pope granted their estates to the Knights Hospitaller, but King Edward II of England seized the New Temple for the Crown. Nevertheless the consecrated portion was conceded to the Hospitallers and the rest was sold to them later. But the Hospitallers do not seem to have occupied the Temple personally; instead it was let and served a source of revenue, and by the 1340s it had become tenanted by lawyers. These formed themselves into two legal societies, one using the hall next to the cloisters (the inner inn), the other using the unconsecrated buildings between the inner portion and the Outer Temple. The Temple Church became the chapel of those two societies. In 1540 King Henry VIII abolished the Hospitallers in England and confiscated their property, which the Crown continues to let to the Inner and Middle Temple. Likewise it is for the sovereign to provide a priest for the church, who to this day bears the title of Master of the Temple.
The symbolism of the Round was all-important. Jerusalem lay at the centre of all medieval maps and was the hub of the Crusaders’ world. The most sacred place in this most sacred city was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with its Rotunda built over the site believed to be the burial place of Jesus Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the goal of every pilgrim, whose protection was the Templars’ care, just as the church itself, of all buildings on earth, had to be defended from its enemies. By building round churches throughout Europe, the Templars recreated the sanctity of this most holy place. To be buried in such a place was devoutly to be desired, for to be buried in the Round was as though one was buried in Jerusalem itself. Among the knights buried in the Round was the most powerful man of his generation: William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, advisor to King John, regent to Henry III, and one of the instigators of Magna Carta in 1215. His sons’ effigies lie around his own.
There are nine marble effigies in all as well as a stone coffin set into the floor. William, who is depicted at rest, took the cross and went crusading in the Holy Land from 1183 to 1186 where he vowed to join the Templars, a vow he fullfilled on his deathbed in 1219. But William’s sons, who never took the cross, are shown with their eyes wide open, and drawing their swords from their scabbards. They are all portrayed in their early thirties, the age at which Jesus died and at which, it is said, the dead will rise on his return.
The effigies are not memorials of what has long since been and gone; they speak of what is yet to come. The Templars wore white robes with red crosses, and in the Book of Revelation 7:14 the martyrs of Christ, clad in white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb, are those who will be called to life at the ‘first resurrection’. For a millennium they will reign with Christ, and at its end Satan will lead all the nations of the earth against ‘the beloved city’ (Revelation 20:9)–Jerusalem, site of the final battle. And so these knights have good reason to draw their swords, for by being buried in the Round they are already buried ‘in Jerusalem’, and in Jerusalem they shall rise again. Here in the Temple Church, in this replica of the Holy Sepulchre itself, the knights are waiting for their call to life, to arms and to the last climactic defence of their most sacred place on earth.
The Second World War inflicted considerable damage on the Temple area. In 1941 at the height of the Blitz, Temple Church was hit by German bombs. War and time account for the austere appearance of the church today, for much has been rebuilt but without the original decorations. The walls of the Round were once painted with lozenges and bands of colour and the grotesque heads were painted too. The famous stone knights were also damaged in the bombing, but they still have an eerie presence.
CRESSING TEMPLE, ESSEX
Cressing Temple is the oldest Templar holding outside London and the largest and most important in the county of Essex. The property lies along the high road between London and Colchester and was donated to the Templars in 1137 by Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen of England and niece of Baldwin, the first king of Jerusalem. Unlike other Templar sites, which are built of stone, the monuments at Cressing Temple are two vast barns of wood, magnificent structures which dominate the landscape; the timbered interiors are of cathedral-like dimensions. The Wheat Barn and the Barley Barn, built between 1206 and 1256, are the two finest Templar-built barns in Europe while the Barley Barn is the oldest timber-framed barn in the world.
Cressing Temple, originally over 14,000 acres in extent, occupied a fertile site with good transport links by road and river, and by establishing a market here the Templars developed their holding as a considerable agricultural enterprise worked by over 160 tenant farmers, its surplus providing a profit which went towards paying for the order’s activities in Outremer. The property would have been in the charge of a preceptor accompanied by two or three knights or sergeants, together with a chaplain, a bailiff and numerous household servants. In 1309 the estate was recorded as possessing a mansion house with associated buildings including a bakehouse, a brewhouse, a dairy, a granary and a smithy, as well as gardens, a dovecote, a chapel with cemetery, a watermill and a windmill. After the suppression of the order in 1312, Cressing Temple was given to the Knights Hospitaller.
ROSSLYN CHAPEL, SCOTLAND
Rosslyn Chapel, at Roslin, seven miles south of Edinburgh, has been co-opted into every alternative history of Britain, and among the claims made for the chapel are that it has associations with the Holy Grail, the Templars and the Freemasons.
Originally named the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Matthew, Rosslyn was designed by William St Clair (also spelt Sinclair), 1st Earl of Caithness, whose ancestors were Norman nobles. Construction of the chapel, which was built on the pattern of the choir in Glasgow Cathedral, began in 1456. The original intention was for it to be part of a much larger church, for the fashion in Scotland was to build ambitious private churches able to support a resident clerical community. But the grandiose scheme was never completed, and after William’s death in about 1491, it fell to his son to roof over the chapel and see the interior carving and decoration to its conclusion.
Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code synthesises much that has been written about Rosslyn in the alternative histories. For example, he claims that Rosslyn was built on the site of an ancient Mithraic temple, and that it is ‘an exact architectural blueprint of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem’–this despite the fact that the chapel follows the pattern of the choir in Glasgow Cathedral. He also claims that it stands on a north-south meridian that runs through Glastonbury, on a Rose Line from which the chapel gets its name. In fact Rosslyn’s longitude is W3:08:41, while Glastonbury’s is W2:42:52, centred on the Abbey, or W2:41:41 centred on the ancient Tor. And like any good Scots kirk, Rosslyn’s name refers simply to it location, ‘ross’ meaning promontory or headland, and ‘lyn’ meaning pool or stream.
Brown also attempts to link the chapel with the Templars. Though Rosslyn does lie only four miles to the northwest of Temple, the Knights Templar headquarters in Scotland, the chapel was built well over a century after the dissolution of the Templars. As for any link between the Sinclairs and the order, the one thing that can be said for certain is that a descendant of William Sinclair testified against the Templars during their trial at Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace in 1309.
Nevertheless, Rosslyn Chapel is an extraordinary place to visit. The exterior is alive with exaggeratedly decorated stone buttresses, arches, finials and canopies, and the interior stonework is if anything even more exotic, every surface covered in richly allegorical sculpture that draws heavily on biblical and medieval Christian symbolism–the Seven Deadly Sins, the Dance of Death and so on–and also on figurative naturalistic work and pagan mythological images–look out for the numerous Green Men.
The most remarkable of all the thousands of pieces of virtuoso stonework is the twisted Prentice Pillar, which stands at a corner of the Lady Chapel, to the right of the main altar, with entwined dragons at its foot. Local legend has it that the column was created by an apprentice subsequently murdered by his master in a jealous rage. Dan Brown’s idea that a second facing pillar is an ‘exact replica’ of Boaz, the pillar that the Bible places on the left of the entrance to Solomon’s Temple, is pure invention. There is a second column at Rosslyn dubbed the Mason’s Pillar, but the name developed out of a local legend to do with stone-carving and has nothing to do with Freemasons. Nor is there a ‘massive subterranean chamber’ lurking beneath the chapel, as Dan Brown claims, though high-tech efforts to find one are unceasing.
In 2005 a modern-day descendant, Dr Andrew Sinclair, denounced The Da Vinci Code. ‘The book is preposterous,’ he said, ‘its message pernicious, its history a bungle and a muddle. What it says about the Grail and Rosslyn is absolute invention.’ But as every good conspiracy theorist knows, he would say that.