Demythologizing the Knights Templar
More pseudohistory than fact surrounds this ancient order's depictions in pop culture.
by Brian Dunning
March 1, 2016
This ancient order of knights, cloaked in mystery and intrigue, find their way into more of today's movies and novels than just about any other famous characters. For a fair summary of the degree to which made-up Knights Templar mythology has permeated pop culture, one need look no further than the History Channel, the world's central warehouse of sensationalized pseudohistory. They've cast the Templars in some shadowy overlord capacity in just about every phase of human history. They've involved them in the Oak Island Money Pit, a sinkhole discovered in Nova Scotia in 1795; inexplicably entangled them with various alleged pirate treasures; with ciphers pretended to exist on the tomb of Jesus; with modern day Freemasons, separated by four centuries; and granted them fantastic treasures that they discovered buried beneath the Temple of Solomon and have kept secretly hidden ever since — and various described as either the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, or even all three.
These, and many more veins of Templar mythology, all extend from the mother lode: the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, best known today as Dan Brown's main inspiration for The Da Vinci Code, in which he cast the Templars as guardians of the secret that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife. But although Holy Blood, Holy Grail is clearly the main influence of today's Templar mythology to which The History Channel owes so much of its programming, it was not the first to employ them in fiction. Sir Walter Scott used Templars for a number of characters in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe, which is set when the Templars existed, but heavily fictionalizes who they were and what they did. A number of French authors picked up this theme, most notably Maurice Druon, whose series of seven novels have been cited by modern author George R. R. Martin as his original inspiration for his series A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO series Game of Thrones. Yes, the Templars, willingly or not, have had a massive impact on modern popular mythology.
So for now, that's enough of asserting that everything we've heard about the Knights Templar is fiction, and it's time to now look at their true history. They were one of several Catholic military orders that lasted about 200 years during the Crusades of the middle ages. In 1054, Christianity split in half. The half in the West, which eventually became today's Roman Catholic Church, recognized the authority of the Pope; while the half in the East, which eventually became today's Eastern Orthodox Church, did not recognize the authority of the Pope. Simultaneously a great power in the East was beginning to spread to the West: the Turks, most of whom were these Eastern non-papist Christians, and most of the rest of whom were Sunni Muslims. Pope Urban II, together with Byzantine emperor Alexios, launched the First Crusade in 1096 with the intent of crushing the dissent and reuniting all of Christendom under the authority of a single Pope.
This First Crusade was a success, and much of modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan were subdivided into four new "crusader states" called Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, controlled by the Pope. Securing these new nations was problematic. It would be expensive and a logistical nightmare.
How was the papacy to solve this problem? One way was to charter a special monastic order. They'd done it before, with the Order of Saint James of Altopascio, primarily charged with protecting Italian pilgrims to the Holy Land. These monastic orders were major charities. Wealthy Catholics who wanted to help the cause of the Church would donate money and lands to them, which allowed them to be self-sustaining and self-governing. With the advent of the Crusades, the need for such orders was multiplied. The Pope chartered two such orders right away: the Knights Hospitaller and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, both in Jerusalem where the need for security was greatest. Soon after, more orders were authorized: the Knights Templar and the Order of Saint Lazarus, also in Jerusalem, and then others over the course of the subsequent Crusades. The most famous and successful of all were the Teutonic Order, whose black cross insignia later became Germany's Iron Cross. Some of these orders still survive today (obviously with different missions), others were merged or changed or secularized or dissolved over the centuries.
As is inevitable in the world of politics, the monastic orders all competed for the best patrons and the best appointments. This was done then in much the same way it's done now, in business, politics, or any other field. Humans do what humans do to garner attention and admiration. Historian Ethan Clow wrote of the monastic orders:
Each one wanted to be the most popular and famous and therefore they developed increasingly bizarre rituals and characteristics. The same way modern day fraternities compete with each other by being more exclusive and throwing the best parties...
Like any order they wanted to make people think they were great. They wanted young nobles to join their ranks. They wanted the patronage of Kings and Dukes. There were hardly above spreading rumours to make themselves seem more special than they were.
Over the next 200 years, things settled down, and war gradually gave way to commerce. This was really the biggest key to the pseudohistory that we love to weave around the Templars today: the fact that they became merchants and bankers. Whereas they had once depended on charity from kings, by 1300 they were among the major creditors to kings. Many officials in governments and business were Templars, and in many ways they did hold the keys to a lot of finance. They became the perfect targets for charges leveled by today's conspiracy theorists and alternative historians that they were the New World Order, the Illuminati, what have you. Couple their very real power with their mythological holdings like important religious artifacts, and sooner or later suspicion was bound to spread.
All of this brings us to the granddaddy of Templar mythology, that on Friday the 13th, 1307, all the Knights Templar throughout Europe were simultaneously arrested at dawn and executed, to satisfy the greed of France's King Phillip IV who was in deep financial debt to them. Those few who escaped are said to have kept the secrets of all the Templars' vast hidden treasures, and this became the basic foundation for today's Templar treasure legends. Well, there are elements of truth to this, and elements of fiction. Let's see what really happened.
Philip IV of France, known as the Iron King (there's more inspiration for George R. R. Martin) ruled from 1284 until his death in 1314. It is true that the French Crown was in substantial debt to the Templars, but his move against them had at least as much to do with Philip's desire to take over more power from the Pope. At this time, the Church was starting to lose its power and its relevance, and in a bit of a lame move, the Pope in 1302 issued a papal bull — basically an executive order — stating that there is no salvation outside the Church. This was a shot across the bows to the monarchs, and Philip took it as it was intended, as a sort of declaration of war, deepening his rift with the Church. Not only that, but many French officials were Templars nominally controlled by Pope Clement, and Philip wanted to replace them all with his own officers. It was time to send a shot back at the Pope. Get rid of his Templars once and for all, killing multiple birds with one stone.
Meanwhile, trying to clean his own house, Clement had been attempting for two years to merge the Templars and the Hospitallers, both reluctant to do so; and both Grand Masters (including the Templar, Jacques de Molay) were there in France for discussions. The head of the Templars, right there, in person, within Philip's grasp.
Seizing this opportunity, Philip sent bailiffs all over France with sealed orders, so that on October 13, the orders would be opened and all the Templars arrested on made-up heresy charges. Note that Philip was only able to make this happen in France; he had no control over the Templars spread throughout the Middle East and the rest of Europe. But he did still manage to arrest a lot of them, probably about 625, which is the number that seems to be most often reported. None were immediately executed as the story is often told, though many were tortured into confessing heresy. Some bailiffs gave advance warning to some Templars, and of course all of those outside France were safe.
It wasn't for another full month that Pope Clement, under pressure from King Philip's stack of signed confessions, issued a papal bull calling on all Christian monarchs throughout Europe to arrest all Templars everywhere. But during that month, nearly all of them had taken protective measures, with most joining the Hospitallers as Clement wanted. Many others simply retired.
It wasn't until 1312 — five years after the popular Friday the 13th date — that Clement actually dissolved the Knights Templar by papal bull, and granted their property to the Hospitallers. This was not nearly so big a deal as it's usually portrayed, since the vast majority of these transfers simply stayed with the Templars who became Hospitallers.
The majority of the Templars who were arrested did confess heresy, because doing so allowed them to be released and were allowed to either retain their property and join the Hospitallers, or even simply retire if they preferred. Only a few who recanted their forced confessions were executed by Philip, most of them in 1310 after three years of imprisonment; probably a few dozen. Most notably, Grand Master Jacques de Molay recanted his forced confession as did the Preceptor of Normandy Geoffroi de Charney. These two were infamously burned at the stake in 1314 after seven years of imprisonment, steadfastly maintaining their integrity.
And so ended the order of the Knights Templar, but as we've seen, they didn't suddenly vanish or have any reason to hide away their treasures. What happened in reality was a gradual transition over several years to fold in themselves and their assets with the Knights Hospitaller. To accept today's conspiracy theories claiming that there are hidden Templar treasures of tremendous value is to suggest that personal and commercial fortunes were simply abandoned willingly in the early 1300s, with nobody bothering to collect them, and nobody reporting anything missing. For most Templars, the dissolution of their order meant little more than a change of tunic from a red cross on a white background to a white cross on a red background, though admittedly there were some dramatic moments for many of them. Commerce continued, their early banks continued to invest, and at no time did anyone notice a massive fund suddenly disappear. If they had, I guarantee you the Hospitallers would have mounted whatever effort was needed to reclaim it. So enjoy your Da Vinci Code and your History Channel as the fictional entertainments they are intended to be, and please don't confuse them with real history.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Demythologizing the Knights Templar." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Mar 2016. Web.
17 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4508>
References & Further Reading
Baigent, M., Leigh, R., Lincoln, H. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.
Barber, M. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Burman, E. The Templars: Knights of God. Wellingborough: Crucible, 1986.
Clow, E. "The Knights Templar and The Holy Fictionalization of History." Skeptic North. Skeptic North, 9 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/01/the-knights-templar-and-the-holy-fictionalization-of-history/>
Ralls, K. Knights Templar Encyclopedia: The essential guide to the people, places, events, and symbols of the Order of the Temple. Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2007.
Sheaffer, R. "The Da Vinci Code Cult: A Critical Look at Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code." Reading Room. The Skeptics Society, 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. <http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/the-davinci-code-cult/>
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