The Knights Templar

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Podcast Transcript

In the early 12th century, a military monastic order developed in the Middle East with the express intent of protecting Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.

Despite its rather modest mission statement, over the next 200 years, this organization became one of the most powerful entities throughout the Middle East and Europe. 

However, its success and power eventually planted the seeds of its own destruction.

Learn more about the Knights Templar, their rise and spectacular fall, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The Knights Templar are one of the groups from history that people have kept a fascination with for hundreds of years. There have been many stories, movies, TV shows, and computer games about the Knights Templar, and there are probably many more that will still be created. 

The story of the Knight Templar and how they rose to prominence begins with the first crusade in the year 1099. 

The Fatimid Caliphate controlled much of the Holy Land, particularly Jerusalem. The crusades and their causes will be the subject of a future episode, but suffice it to say for now, Pope Urban II answered the call from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to send an armed pilgrimage to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.

In 1099, they captured Jerusalem, and the Crusaders set up a Western-style Christian kingdom. 

Now that Jerusalem was under Christian control, it became a popular destination for European pilgrims. 

The trip to Jerusalem was a dangerous one for pilgrims. Once they arrived in the port city of Jaffa, the trip to Jerusalem was filled with danger even though the distance was rather short. There were constant threats of bandits, and there were cases of entire groups of pilgrims, numbering over 100, who were all slaughtered. 

To help remedy this situation, in 1119, a French knight by the name of Hugues de Payens petitioned King Baldwin II of Jerusalem as well as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Warmum, to create a monastic order with the mission of protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land. 

In 1120, at the Council of Nablus, the King granted his petition and gave the new order a headquarters on the Temple Mount inside the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

With their headquarters on the Temple Mount, the new order was named the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.  Or, as they were commonly known, the Templars.

The order began with only nine monks/knights. They initially had no money and relied on donations. The Templars were unique in that they were both a monastic order and a military order. They were not cloistered monks who voluntarily separated themselves from society and devoted themselves to prayer. 

The Templars had a very particular mission, and that mission often involved getting their hands dirty. They went out with pilgrims to guard them, which quickly earned the respect and favor of those whom they protected.

The order remained rather small for several years. Its big break occurred in 1128. A nephew of the knights was Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot and high-ranking official in the church. He was a founder of the Cistercian Order and helped reform the Benedictine Order. 

Bernard and Hugues de Payens set down a list of 72 rules for the Templars, which became known as the ??Latin Rules. The rules were based on the rules established by both Saint Augustine and Saint Benedict but were modified for the special mission of the Templars.

It basically provided ground rules for the organization of the order and the conduct of its members. 

With a formal system of rules in place, the next year, in 1129, the order was given formal approval at the Council of Troyes, which was an assembly of French bishops.

This was a huge public relations coup for the order. 

With the blessing of the church, the Templars became a hugely popular organization to support. People began donating money to the knights/monks that protected pilgrims, and wealthy families would encourage one of their younger sons to join the Templars.

As big as the approval of the Council of Troyes was, things were about to get even better for the Templars. 

In 1135, at the Council of Pisa, Pope Innocent II announced that he was making a large donation to the order. 

The thing that really fundamentally changed the order took place in 1139. Pope Innocent II gave the Templars something far greater than cash. He issued a papal bull titled Omne Datum Optimum, which, translated from Latin, roughly means “Every perfect gift.”

Omne Datum Optimum gave the Knights Templar a host of privileges that were given to no other religious order. 

For starters, the spoils of war taken from any Muslim conquests were to be given to the order. That by itself obviously changed the incentives and focus of the order. 

The Templars would report directly to the Pope. That means that they wouldn’t be subject to the jurisdiction of local bishops anywhere where the Catholic Church held sway. They could build churches on any land they owned and appoint their own chaplains and priests.

Moreover, they were exempt from any local taxes and tithes to local churches. Moreover, they were able to travel freely between any Catholic country. 

These privileges might not seem like much, but collectively, they allowed the Templars to do things no one else could do. 

The Templars were still nominally a military order. In fact, they developed a reputation as having some of the finest soldiers in the world. However, very few of the Templars were front-line soldiers. Most of the order was designed to support the monks/knights who fought on the front lines.

At the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, a small group of 500 Templars defeated a much larger army led by the great Muslim general Saladin. 

What changed was the services they provided to pilgrims and crusaders. 

They no longer just protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They sort of provided a full package of services. 

For example, it was extremely dangerous to transport money long distances. You literally had to carry a bag of gold or silver, which was a prime target for thieves. 

The Templars solved this problem by issuing letters of credit. You would deposit your money at a local Templar house, and they would issue you a note indicating the amount deposited. 

You would then take that note with you to Jerusalem, where they would then issue you the same amount of money. 

It was an early form of banking and one of the earliest forms of checks. 

When aristocratic men went off to fight in the Crusades, they would often put their fortune under the control of the Templars for safekeeping until they returned. 

Their exemption from local taxes and the ability to travel freely between countries gave them the legal foundation to become perhaps the world’s first multinational corporation. 

While the individual members of the order were required to take an oath of poverty, the order itself grew fantastically wealthy. 

They purchased large amounts of land, including productive farmland. They funded the construction of cathedrals and built fortified castles. They funded artisans and owned manufacturing centers. 

They developed their distinctive dress of a white tunic with a red cross. 

They built their own fleet of ships and were involved in the transport of goods around the Mediterranean. In 1191, they literally purchased the island of Cyprus from King Richard I of England, who captured it during the Crusades.

There was also one other thing they did with their money. They lent it to various kings who needed money to fund their wars. They did so by charging interest, which was usually taboo under medieval Church usury laws.

The Templars reached the peak of their power in the late 12th century. They were sucked into a war in Spain to fight the Moors, and the Muslims began to unify under the general Saladin, which Templars had previously defeated. 

Saladin managed to recapture Jerusalem in 1187, subsequently expelling the Templars from the headquarters and reverting Al-Aqsa to its use as a mosque. The Templars had to move their headquarters to the city of Acre in what is today northern Israel.

Without Jerusalem, their original mission of protecting pilgrims was no longer possible.

Nonetheless, throughout the 13th century, while not at the peak of their power, the Templars were still very powerful and very rich. 

Back in Europe, by the end of the 13th century and the start of the 14th century, the Templars were losing popularity with many rulers who owed them money, and they also were losing control.  

In 1291, they lost Acre, and by 1303, they had lost the last of their possessions in the Middle East. 

In particular, the one ruler in Europe they had a problem with was King Philip IV of France.

Philip had become heavily in debt to the Templars in the early 14th century. He was so much in debt that it was debatable if he could pay them back. 

Moreover, the papacy had changed. A new pope, Clement V, was elected, who was heavily under the influence of France. In fact, he moved the entire papacy to Avignon in France, where it remained for almost 70 years. 

As the Templars answered directly to the pope, this became a problem. 

In 1305, the pope suggested that the Knights Templar merge with the Knights Hospitaller, which I’ve discussed in the previous episode. Both orders resisted the request.

In 1306, the pope ordered the masters of each order to France to further discuss the merge. 

The Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, arrived in France early in 1307. While in France, he discussed several topics with the pope, including scandalous charges that were brought against one of its members. 

Both the pope and de Molay agreed that the charges were probably false, but Clement asked King Philip for assistance in the investigation. 

Philip found in the accusations the opening he was looking for. On October 13, 1307, he ordered the arrest of all the Templars in France.

Philip accused the templars of basically everything. Blasphemy, idolatry, sodomy, heresy, and many other crimes. 

In 1312, Pope Clement issued a papal bull titled Vox in Excelso which disbanded the order. 

Templars were tortured to extract false confessions, and in 1314, Jacques de Molay and other Templars were burned alive at the stake. Reportedly, his last words while being burned alive were, “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death.”

Clement was dead within a month, and Philip was dead within a year.

The remaining Templars were absorbed into other military orders. Much of the Templar wealth in France was confiscated by King Philip, and other properties were seized by other localities. Investigations into the Templars were conducted in other countries, but there were no further arrests. 

Formally, much of the remaining Templar land was given to the Knights Hospitaller. 

The memory of the Templars has been kept alive over the centuries. They have been the supposed source of secret societies, and there have been claims that much of their wealth is hidden, yet to be discovered. 

Much of the attention we still give to the Templars is due to their incredible rise and their dramatic fall.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Ayden over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Best Podcast Ever!!

Hey Gary!

I just wanted you to know that I absolutely love your show! I’m 14 years old, and I’ve been listening to your podcast for just over a year now. I listen to at least four episodes every night while I’m going to sleep, and it really helps me with my insomnia. Some of my favorite episodes have to be your one on The Eradication of Diseases or The History of Chocolate. I look forward to the new episode every single day, and I’m proud to call myself a proud member of the completionist club, having listened to every single episode multiple times.

Thank you so much!

Thanks, Ayden! That is quite the compliment. I’m glad to hear you enjoy the show. Now if you could, do me a favor, and get some sleep.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.