History of the Knights Templar

The Order of the Temple was founded in 1118ce at Jerusalem which had been liberated from Saracen rule nineteen years earlier. The successes of the Crusaders had brought Pilgrims to the Holy Land from all over Christendom. Rich and poor, noble and peasant wrought upon by religious excitement came through the most inhospitable countries to visit and offer up their devotions at the places made sacred by associations with the life of Our Saviour.

The Order of the Temple was founded in 1118ce at Jerusalem which had been liberated from Saracen rule nineteen years earlier. The successes of the Crusaders had brought Pilgrims to the Holy Land from all over Christendom. Rich and poor, noble and peasant wrought upon by religious excitement came through the most inhospitable countries to visit and offer up their devotions at the places made sacred by associations with the life of Our Saviour.

The difficulties facing these Pilgrims were numerous. There was a lack of roads and means of transport; the routes were menaced by Saracen raiders and Christian bandits; and there was the risk of being cheated by the innkeepers and merchants of the towns through which they passed.

It was to afford some protection to these otherwise unguarded Pilgrims that Hugo de Payens and seven other Knights founded the Order. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, granted them quarters near the royal palace, and, as the site was traditionally that of Solomon’s Temple, they came to be known as “Knights of the Temple”.

The Order received many gifts of land and money, and swiftly grew into an effective fighting force. Soon it began to take a full part in the war against the infidels, and the protection of the Pilgrims became a secondary consideration. From that time until the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land in 1291, the Templars and Hospitallers were the only standing armies on the Christian side. The Grand Masters were members of the highest councils in the realm, and the Knights earned a reputation for courage and resolution in many pitched battles over a period of almost three centuries.

The Order of the Temple was largely independent of the rulers of the Holy Lands; they were subject only to the Pope at Rome. The exemption from taxation which they enjoyed, and the fame from their exploits, both served to make them the recipients and possessors of great wealth. Great houses were erected in most Christian countries – particularly in France.

This widespread wealth caused travellers to treat the Order as a banking house. Money could be deposited at one Preceptory and made available at another without the traveller incurring the risk of robbery during his journey. In these financial transactions a high reputation for financial integrity was sustained.

The story of the kingdom of Jerusalem is a sorry tale of discord, and the glorious cause which brought the Crusaders to the East was often forgotten in dynastic struggles and political intrigues. Under these circumstances it is remarkable that the eventual Saracen success was delayed so long, yet it was not until 1291 that the last stronghold of the Crusaders on the mainland of Palestine – the city of Acre – fell. The remnants of the Order retired to Cyprus, and the purpose for which it had been formed now vanished.

The Hospitallers solved this problem by taking to sea warfare, and, from Rhodes and later from Malta, kept up the struggle with the Muslims for another two hundred and fifty years. The Templars, however, lacked strong leadership, and seemed ready to settle down to managing their great possessions.

The King of France, Philip the Fair, tried to get the Order to accept him as Grand Master on the pretext that he would then lead a new Crusade, but the Knights did not choose to give up their freedom. Philip then, with the reluctant but essential connivance of Pope Clement V, determined to gain the wealth of the Order for his own use.

In 1307 he suddenly arrested all the Templars in France, and he persuaded every country but Portugal to follow suit. In this extremity, the wealth, independence, pride and secrecy of the Templars proved to have deprived them of all influential friends, and the French king was able to secure their conviction for heretical practices. Many were tortured to gain confessions, and a great deal of scandalous legend was added to the story of the Order by this means. Many resisted the power of the rack and were burned at the stake as heretics. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was the last to be put to death in Paris in 1314 – the year of Bannockburn.

Modern historians reject the trial of the Templars as thoroughly unjust, and acquit the Order of the charges brought against it, but the French king’s plan had succeeded, and the greatest Crusading force was extinguished within twenty years of the fall of Acre.

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