There’s a thing about the Knights Templar, something romantic lodged in the European brain. Maybe it’s the idea of monk-like knights dedicated to fighting for Christendom, or the tales of valour in the holy land and the Iberian peninsula, or their tragic ending at the hands of the king of France… Who knows why stories get lodged into the collective imagination, but this one did. Historian Dan Jones’s very readable book The Templars tells the story well.
The Templars arose in the aftermath of the first crusade, which culminated in the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. When the main Christian forces had returned home the occupied lands were always vulnerable to being recaptured by local or regional forces. The Knights Templar were established to help protect these Christian outposts and keep safe routes for pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Knights Templar were founded in 1119, and in 1129 rules were established for the lives of these knights, based on the rules that had been established for the recently established Cistercian order of monks. The hugely influential Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in this. They were effectively fighting monks, with a code that meant they would fight to the death for the cause.
How strange to the modern mind that the rules of monasticism should be applied to the battlefield.
In subsequent battles, particularly from the second crusade in 1147, preached by Bernard himself, the Templars proved to be the most effective European fighting force, often, with the similar Knights Hospitaller, formed the vanguard or rearguard of the advancing forces.
Through the many crusades and the Spanish reconquista, up to the mid-1250s, the Templars played a major role. They provided trans-national services such as banking and fighting forces to the various kings in Europe. They became very powerful, which was fine while they held the confidence of those kings.
But the various crusades were not well organised and the Templars took the brunt of failures of the leaders who came looking for glory. There were a number of massacres of Templars and eventually the crusader project seemed to be coming to nought, with all gains being cancelled out. It seems there was some blame pointed at the Templars for these failures.
Jones tells the story of the various crusades and battles in an engaging manner. The balance of power clearly changed when the Mongols arrived and sacked Baghdad in 1258, and the Mamluk state joining Egypt and Syria was established in 1260. The Christians were effectively squeezed out.
The Templars remained influential across Europe until the coming of the French king Philip IV. Philip was a new sort of French king, establishing a strong centralised state, and moving against other sources of power. His first target was to get rid of the Jews, next came the Templars. On Friday 13 October 1307 all Templars in France were seized, imprisoned and tortured.
Neither the French pope Clement V nor the other European leaders agreed with Philip’s move, but it seems that the pope was persuaded to spread the investigation of Templars throughout Europe. These were the days of inquisition to detect heresy, so it was not difficult to trump up charges. The net effect was that the order of the Temple was suppressed in 1312, and the last leader of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt to death after recanting his forced confession a couple of years later.
It had been less than 200 years. What a story!
Footnote. Since the fall of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire Western forces have been engaged in the Middle East in many ways, including establishing the Israeli outpost safeguarding Jerusalem, several encounters in Iraq, Syria, catastrophe in Egypt (Suez),… Le plus ça change…
Featured image from the website Knight Templar International.