FROM THEIR INCEPTION the Templars were an international organisation. Their purpose was in the Holy Land, but their support came from Europe, where they held land, collected tithes and received donations from the pious. They organised markets and fairs, managed their estates and traded in everything from wool and timber to olive oil and slaves. In time they built up their own formidable Mediterranean merchant fleet capable of transporting pilgrims, soldiers and supplies between Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Outremer.
Although it is usual to think of the Templars as knights on horseback charging into battle, in a very real sense the thrust of their lances depended on a vast network of support, not just from sergeants and Turcopoles but also from men like Odo of Wirmis, a brother who served the Templars but had never gone to war. Odo was among those arrested by the agents of Philip IV, king of France, at dawn on Friday, 13 October 1307 on charges of heresy, blasphemy and other heinous crimes. Sixty years old at the time of his arrest, he had joined the order at the late age of forty-four, well beyond the time that he could have served as a mounted knight; in fact, he never saw battle and probably never travelled beyond his native France. Instead Odo had been recruited to the order because he was a master carpenter, just as others manned the Templars’ preceptories in the West as administrators, agricultural workers and artisans of all kinds. Already by the 1160s the Templars had arranged their European holdings, the properties donated to them by the faithful, great and small, into seven large provinces extending from England beyond the Channel to Montenegro on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. These land holdings were the foundations of their power.
One such property was Cressing Temple, on the high road between London and Colchester in Essex. It 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 most other Templar sites, which were built of stone, the structures at Cressing Temple were built of wood, and they still survive today: two vast wooden barns, magnificent constructions which dominate the flat alluvial landscape, their timbered interiors of cathedral-like proportions. 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 there the Templars developed their holding as a considerable agricultural enterprise. The property was in the charge of a preceptor, who would have been accompanied by two or three knights or sergeants, together with a chaplain, a bailiff and numerous household servants, while the land was worked by over 160 tenant farmers. In time the estate included 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, its entire purpose being to produce a surplus whose profit went towards paying for the order’s activities in Outremer.
The same network of European estates that funded the Templars in Outremer and in the Iberian peninsula developed naturally into an international financial system. Individual monasteries had traditionally served as secure depositories for precious documents and objects, but during an age of greater movement owing to the crusades and the growth of trade and pilgrimages the Templar network of preceptories in the West – that is, houses and estates – could offer a better service. The Templars developed a system of credit notes whereby money deposited in one Templar preceptory could be withdrawn at another upon production of the note, a procedure that required the meticulous and scrupulously honest record-keeping at which they excelled.
Disciplined, pious and independent, the Templars were trusted throughout medieval society. Whether at Paris or Acre or elsewhere, the Templars kept daily records of transactions, giving details of the name of the depositor, the name of the cashier on duty, the date and nature of the transaction, the amount involved and into whose account the credit was to be made. These daily records were then transferred to a larger register, part of a vast and permanent archive. The Templars also issued statements several times a year, giving details of credits and debits and stating the origin and destination of each item. With their branch offices, so to speak, at both ends of the Mediterranean, and with major strongholds at the Paris and London Temples, not only could they take deposits but they could also make funds internationally available where and when they were needed.
An obvious extension to guarding crusaders’ documents and money was to make funds available during the expeditions themselves. The Templars operated treasure ships offshore, from which campaigning knights and nobles and kings could make emergency withdrawals; for services such as these, as well as for the currency exchange offices they ran in Jerusalem and the ports of Outremer for crusaders, pilgrims and merchants alike, they imposed charges and from them they turned a profit. An early stimulus to their activities and recognition of their potential came from King Louis VII himself when he found himself financially embarrassed during the Second Crusade and borrowed heavily from the Templar treasury. This was the beginning of the Templars’ close financial association with the French monarchy, effectively becoming its treasurers. The episode also marked the beginning of their career as Europe’s bankers, a development unintended and unforeseen yet one that arose naturally out of their situation.
From financing crusades it was a small step for the Templars to become an integral part of the European financial system. King John of England borrowed from the master of the Temple in London around the time of Magna Carta, in 1215. After the Fourth Crusade, which overthrew the Byzantine emperors and put a Frenchman on the throne instead, the new Latin emperor Baldwin II borrowed an immense sum which was secured against the True Cross. Although it was not always openly stated in documents, the Templars charged interest on loans, sometimes under the name of expenses to get round medieval scruples against interest, although sometimes they felt bold enough to declare that too. In 1274, for example, Edward I of England repaid the Templars the sum of 27,974 livres tournois together with 5333 livres, 6 sous, 8 deniers for ‘administration, expenses and interest’ – the total cost of the loan approaching 20 per cent.1 Italian merchants were already financing and insuring shipments in grain, but the stimulus of the crusades and the activities of the Templars created an international system extending across Europe and the Levant on a scale unknown before.
In return for these services and in addition to their charges, expenses and interest the Templars received various privileges and concessions. By papal bull and the decrees of French and English kings, the Templars were given full jurisdiction over their estates and their inhabitants. They also obtained royal consent to organise weekly agricultural markets and annual fairs, which formed a focus for local trade and brought much income to the order both from the dues paid by those taking part and through boosting the local economy generally. Combining agriculture with capital, the Templars were notably successful in the commercial exploitation of their estates, as in sheep-farming in England, for example, which in combination with the Templars’ ability to provide credit turned them into major suppliers of wool. Not least among the benefits they obtained was the unimpeded export of goods and funds from the West to Outremer.
As naturally as their land holdings led the Templars into the world of international finance, so they also became traders who operated their own merchant marine. Most of the Templars’ imports to Outremer such as horses, iron and wheat came by sea. At first the Templars contracted with commercial shippers and agents, but early in the thirteenth century they began building up a fleet of their own. They had a substantial presence at all the important ports of Outremer – at Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Gibelet (ancient Byblos and present-day Jubail), Tripoli, Tortosa, Jeble and Port Bonnel, north of Antioch. But their principal port was Acre, a walled city built on a tongue of land offering good protection for its double harbour.
In 1191, after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, Acre became the capital of the kingdom and the Templars’ new headquarters in the Holy Land. According to the thirteenth-century chronicler known as the Templar of Tyre, ‘The Temple was the strongest place of the city, largely situated along the seashore, like a castle. At its entrance it had a high and strong tower, the wall of which was 28 feet thick.’ He also mentioned another tower built so close to the sea that the waves washed up against it, ‘in which the Temple kept its treasure’.2
After 1218 the Templars supplemented their facilities at Acre with a new fortress of their own 30 miles to the south; known today as Atlit, the Templars called it Chastel Pelerin, because it was built on a rocky promontory with the help of pilgrims (pèlerin in French). This castle, said a German pilgrim who visited in the early 1280s, ‘is sited in the heart of the sea, fortified with walls and ramparts and barbicans so strong and castellated, that the whole world should not be able to conquer it’.3
From their ports in Outremer the Templars’ ships sailed to the West. Their major port of call in France was Marseille, from where they shipped pilgrims and merchants to the East. Italy’s Adriatic ports were also important, especially Brindisi, which had the added advantage of being near Rome. Bari and Brindisi were sources of wheat and horses, armaments and cloth, olive oil and wine, as well as pilgrims. Messina in Sicily acted both as a channel for exports from the island and as an entrepôt for shipping arriving from Catalonia and Provence. The Templars also built ships in European ports, everywhere between Spain and the Dalmatian coast.
Another Templar cargo was white slaves. They were transported in considerable numbers from East to West, where they were put to work helping to run Templar houses, especially in southern Italy and Aragon. The Hospitallers also engaged in the trade and the use of slaves; indeed the trade in white slaves was a flourishing business for everyone, including the Italian maritime powers, especially Genoa, but most of all for the Muslim states in the East. In the last decades of Outremer, as town after town fell to the Turks, the men would usually be slaughtered but their women and children would be taken to the slave markets of Aleppo or Damascus. Many thousands of Frankish women, girls and boys must have suffered this fate, as well as great numbers of native Christians.
But otherwise the great centre of the slave trade in the late thirteenth century was the Mediterranean port of Ayas, in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Marco Polo disembarked at Ayas in 1271 to begin his trip to China at about the same time that the Templars opened a wharf there. The slaves, who were Turkish, Greek, Russian and Circassian, had been acquired as a result of intertribal warfare, or because impoverished parents decided to sell their children, or because they were kidnapped, and they were brought to Ayas by Turkish and Mongol slavers.
The pick of young strong males from the south Russian steppes or the Caucasus generally went to Egypt, where they were converted to Islam and served as elite slave soldiers known as Mamelukes. In 1250 the Mamelukes seized power in Egypt for themselves – and led the final jihad that drove the Franks out of Outremer.
The Paris Temple was the Templar headquarters in France. 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. Nothing of the Temple survives today, and it is remembered only by a street name in the Quartier du Temple, the northern part of the area known as the Marais, which is on the Right Bank just west of the Bastille. But from the twelfth to the fourteenth century it was one of the key financial centres of north-west Europe.
The Temple was fortified with a perimeter wall and towers. Inside there was an impressive array of buildings, and in the late thirteenth century the Templars added a powerful keep about 165 feet high – nearly twice as high as the White Tower, the keep at the centre of the Tower of London. The Templar keep in Paris was the main strong-room for the Templar bank, and it was also, in effect, the treasury of the kings of France.
Half a century after the abolition of the Templars, Paris had expanded, and a new wall 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.
The London Temple, or the New Temple as it was called, would have been comparable to that of Paris, but only Temple Church, consecrated in 1185, remains today, amid the Inns of Court off the south side of Fleet Street. The nave of Temple Church is round, as was typical with Templar churches, its plan following that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. King John was actually resident at the New Temple at the time of Magna Carta in 1215 and was accompanied to his famous meeting with the barons at Runnymede by the master of the London Temple. But while the kings of England entrusted Templars with military, diplomatic and financial commissions, they were always careful to keep the royal treasury as part of the royal household, where it was run by royal officials, so that at most the New Temple merely served to provide additional safe-deposit space.
The Templars’ experience made them useful to the French monarchy and to the papacy, both of which wanted to maximise their revenues from taxation and reform the managing of their finances. For example, during the thirty-three-year reign of Philip II, which extended from the late twelfth century well into the thirteenth, the king’s revenues were increased by 120 per cent thanks to Templar management.
But Templar holdings were never entirely secure. Only the Paris Temple presented a truly formidable obstacle to a raid; Templar houses elsewhere in France were raided by the king; the London Temple was raided by kings of England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when in desperate need; and in Spain the kings of Aragon did the same. But these were passing events in desperate times of need, and restitution was made. Ultimately the Templars’ best protection was not the stone walls of their treasure houses but practical and moral constraints. The kings needed the Templars and their services too much to alienate them, nor could they afford to put themselves on the wrong side of a spiritual cause.
Yet in the Templars’ success as bankers and financiers lay a chief cause of their fall. The Templars, like the Church and like the crusades, were international in conception, but the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a time when national states were being constructed by European kings, especially by the kings of France. Just as the Templars raised money to defend the Holy Land with their arms, so they also provided money for the new nationalism arising in the West. But in 1307 the nation-state of France would in turn ‘nationalise’ the Templars and destroy them.