Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Knights Templar

Oh, What a Knight!

I am pleased to report that The Patriot Spy, book one in the Yankee Doodle Spies, has been submitted for an award in the Best History category by the Knights Templar! Although a historical novel, The Patriot Spy accurately follows the actions that took place during the British invasion of Staten Island, Long Island and New York Island in the summer of 1776. It does so by weaving fictional plots and characters into the fabric of the campaign and the people caught up in it. So I am very flattered by the recognition.

Who are these Knights?

Sir Walter Scott

For many years, when I heard the word Templar, I thought of Roger Moore’s old TV series, The Saint.  Moore played a mysterious figure caught up in crime, espionage and whatever other mayhem you could think of – sort of like Jeremiah Creed.  Like many religious orders stemming from the middle ages, the actual Knights Templar are shrouded in mystery, myth and misunderstanding. That makes them all the more fascinating.  Or one could imagine the ever-villain knight Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in Sir Walter Scott’s, grand historical novel, Ivanhoe. More recently I got hooked on the Arn movie/mini-series, loosely based on a devout Swedish noble unfairly banished to serve as a Templar knight in the Latin Kingdom of Palestine.

Long ago in a far off Galaxy

Hugues de Pavens
The Middle East might as well have been a far off galaxy for most Europeans in the twelfth century. Time and space had a different meaning back in a time when few peasants left the farm they were born on and very few of the upper sorts left the shire. Then the call to action and a whole continent seemed to turn east. The Templars were founded in the Holy Land in 1119.  It started with just an idealistic band of knights led by Hugues de Payens, who offered their services to protect pilgrims in route to the Holy Places. They organized themselves into a religious community, sworn to protect Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and the holy places. They were called the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon, or simply the Knights of the Temple. The original rationale of the crusades was just that – protecting pilgrims and holy places from the depredations of the Seljuk Turks whose conquest of Palestine from the Arabs led to taxes and hostilities against Christians.  It then took on a whole different turn. After the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 the crusaders set upon to establish a permanent presence to protect their conquests. The original Templars played a small role at first, but they provided an imaginative inspiration to Europe’s Christians. They received the al-Aqsa Mosque as a base of operations. This mosque was thought to be the site of Solomon’s Temple. Critical to their movement, they received papal recognition as a military order in 1129 by  Pope Honorius II.  Hugues de Payens was named the first Master of the Temple. It was the great monk, Bernard de Clairvaux, who grasped the historical significance, when he wrote in De laude novae militae (“In Praise of a New Knighthood”), that a new type of Order had been created, consisting of laymen who blended the knightly and monastic life. These soldier-monks would fight to protect Christian interests. The knights swore the usual monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but made a fourth key promise—to defend the holy places from the infidel. The order expanded their presence over time and soon acquired lands in Europe from which to recruit men and raise money.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Follow the Money

And in the end, it had much to do with money.Wars cost money and the Templars set about raising it in ways unique for Christians of the day. Some of their houses in Europe functioned as finance centers, lending money and collecting fees. This functioned as a sort of international banking system in a medieval Europe devoid of modern finance and banks. The Templar’s military strength and network provided a secure place for kings and nobility to place their money and London and Paris became the prime centers. This led to a dependency on the Order that over the years would lead some in power to resent.

Military, religious and financial power became
hallmarks of the Order

Faith and Power

The Order reported only to the Pope. This combined with their growing wealth allowed the Templars to create an effective fighting force, a naval fleet, and a defensive system of fortresses in Palestine/Syria. In Spain, the Templars helped finance the Reconquista from the Saracens by the secular Spanish and Portuguese. By the 13th century the Order numbered 7000, including knights, sergeants-at-arms, non-military-sergeants, brothers, and priests. Their network consisted of some 870 castles, preceptories and convents spread throughout most of Christian Europe, Palestine and Syria. Due to their bravery, determination and discipline, they bore the lion’s share of the burden of defending the Latin Kingdoms. Indeed, they were described as “lions in battle.”  During the course of the Crusades, thousands of Templars gave their lives in such battles as Cresson, Hattin, La Forbie and Mansurah. However, Jerusalem was eventually lost to Saladin in 1187. But When the Latin kingdoms fell to the Arabs once more, the Order’s military significance waned as their retreat followed the retreat of Christendom first to Cypress and then even further west.

There is no denying the courage and devotion of the Templars in battle

A Rapid Descent

By the fourteenth century the Crusading period and spirit was all but dead. With its demise, the secular rulers of Europe began to flex their muscles against the power (not authority – yet) of the Pope.  and a transnational power like the Order, one of the world’s first non-governmental organizations (NGOS), posed a threat to this secular rise to power. More importantly, the Order possessed wealth needed by secular Kings to pay their armies and keep their vassals in line. The first such king to strike at the power of the Order was Phillip IV of France. On Oct. 12, 1307, the order’s Grand Master, James of Molay was in Paris to attend the funeral of Catherine, wife of Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV, "the Fair," of France.

De Molay was caught by surprise on Friday October 13, 1307, when, Philip’s agents arrested him. Meanwhile Phillip also launched nationwide raids on Templar properties and arrested hundreds of the Order’s members. The travesty of justice that would follow gives rise to the modern day myth of bad luck on Friday the 13th.Phillip charged that the Templars were no longer dedicated to the defense of the Holy Land, but were apostates. He accused them of denying Christ, desecrating crucifixes, engaging in indecent acts such as male kissing and compulsory sodomy. Furthermore his agents accused them of worshiping idols. At first, people outside France disbelieved the charges against the Order. The pope himself was outraged. After all, the Order operated under his authority and he was unaware of the charges. Yet at first sight the allegations seemed justified. Under heinous torture and threats many Templars confessed to some of the alleged misdeeds.

Trial? Or something else? de Molay under investigation... and worse

De Molay himself was forced to make admissions in public under the watchful eye of selected theologians. The pope tried to take over the trial but failed. A desperate defense of the Order by two of its lawyer-priests also failed. The pope did not believe the accusations, especially of a “secret protocol” that called for many of the heinous acts contained in the charges. However, the forced confessions gave him little recourse in the matter.Significantly, in those pre water boarding days, interrogations included all kinds of painful torture and mutilation. Predictably, most caved in to their tormentors demands.Under pressure, at the Council of Vienna in 1312 the pontiff suppressed the order, but did not hold it criminally liable.  Nearly two centuries of service to the Christian faith was thrown to the wind in a swirl of hysteria and conspiracy. After recanting their confessions (asserting no crimes occurred) De  Molay and Geoffrey of Charney, preceptor of Normandy, were burnt to death for heresy two years later in Paris. They were followed by about 50 other members who recanted but were condemned as “relapsed heretics” and executed. Few historians today dispute that the charges by Phillip were concocted and the confessions obtained by torture.

Execution of Jacques de Molay

Loss and legend: those Boogie Knights

The property and wealth of the order was seized by secular authorities or given over to other orders, with the exception of those members of the Order who resided in Portugal. The King of Portugal singularly giving the knights his protection. Those knights not executed by Phillip were amalgamated into other orders. Philip’s outrageous acts might well have ended the Order and consigned it to the dustbin of history except… the Templars’ spectacular demise provided grist for the rumor mill.  One legend holds that in 1314, Templar knowledge was secretly passed on to future generations.  Thus grew the idea that  the Order continued "underground" in the ensuing years, with various theories and speculations. It was held by some, for example, that they had chapters in Scotland, America (before Columbus);  that they helped to form what is now known as Switzerland; and were responsible for the birth of Freemasonry, to name but a few. The Templars and the mystery surrounding them were ready made for novelists, filmmakers and even some historians. One, the English languages’ early historical novelists, Sir Walter Scott, created the template for fiction and drama that many have since followed in Ivanhoe (published in 1819). In his version of the myth, the villainous Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and his order have indeed fallen away from its original mandate. Many other novels have connected evil doing and secret conspiracies to the Templars. This was followed by other books, periodicals, film and TV versions of the myth. Even computer games picked up on the legacy and mystery. Throughout all this, many conspiracy stories emerged and even the Nazis got drawn into some of them. Unfortunately, over time too many have accepted such stylistic and artistic embellishments as fact. Who doesn't love conspiracy theories wrapped in the mists of time? However there is no concrete evidence that the Order did manage to survive in the form which it enjoyed at the height of its influence.

Georges Sanders as dark Templar Brian de Bois-Gilbert
in one of many Hollywood treatments

The Modern Knights Templar

Today, the spirit of the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon is carried on by dedicated men of faith and action in the form of the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem. This is an Ecumenical Christian and Chivalric charitable Order that does not claim a direct lineage to the original Knights of the Temple.  But they have adopted two of the original Templar missions: Protecting Christians at risk particularly in the Holy Land and the Middle East; and keeping the road to Jerusalem open to all people. They display a devotion to God by promoting love and respect. Things they work at include improving understanding among all religions; helping pilgrims and maintaining the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Along with this they protect the poor and sick; promote justice and free speech. (The original Order’s demise was based on a travesty of justice and suppression of free speech). They also promote the ideas of chivalry; and maintain the monuments, archives, and history of the Knights Templar.Within the US the order is organized in Priories, Preceptories and Commanderies across many of the fifty states and District of Columbia. I am honored that the Priory of St. Patrick (Hudson Valley) in New York submitted The Patriot Spy for the 2015 History Book Award

The US order is affiliated with the international Order. The Ordo Supremus Militaris Templi Hierosolymitani. ( for "The Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem) is the only international Templar Order recognized by United Nations as a Non-Governmental Organization with Special Consultative Status. From the look of things today, the Order has its work cut out for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment