November 8, 2009
the sign of the cross. At once you will have indulgence for all the sins which
you confess with a contrite heart. It does not cost you much to buy, and if you
wear it with humility, you will find that it is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In this inspiring sermon Saint Bernard exhorted young men to join the Knights
Templar, a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade to
protect Christian pilgrims on route to the Holy Land. These knights have
recently been in the news because of the popular book, The De Vinci Code, a
mystery involving the bloodline of Jesus, the Knights, and the Holy Grail.
For an idealistic younger son unable to claim an inheritance because of the rule
of primogeniture this was a prestigious and altruistic way of life. (This rule
required that the family’s land would be left to the eldest son.) Chastity
seemed a small price to pay to join this Order, founded in 1118 by Hugh de
Payens and eight companions from Champagne and Provence.
The first Crusade began when Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, wrote to
Pope Urban III requesting help to repel the Turks from the Eastern part of his
Empire. The Pope seized this opportunity to save the Holy Land from the Moslems
and men flocked to fight for Jerusalem. After three difficult years the
Crusaders gained control of Jerusalem.
Pilgrims could at last travel to the land where their Savior was born, but both
the land routes and the sea ways were very dangerous. The route through
Constantinople, Nicea and Antioch was beset by bands of highway robbers and the
sea routes were roamed by pirates eager to take possession of ships and capture
Originally called The Poor Knights of Christ, the Templars at first escorted
pilgrims from Jerusalem to the banks of the Jordan, living on the alms they
received. Later they protected the route from the Mediterranean Coast to
Jerusalem, providing safe escorts for Christian pilgrims. They had no habit or
Ascent to Power
In 1128 the luck of the 'Warrior Monks" as they were nicknamed changed. St.
Bernard of Clairvaux, called the Second Pope, and the chief spokesman of
Christendom at that time, gained the Pope's backing for these knights with whom
he was greatly impressed. "First of all, there is discipline and unqualified
obedience...they live in a community, soberly and in joy, without wife and
children...Never overdressed, they bathe rarely, and are dirty and hirsute,
tanned by the coat of mail and the sun." he said. (They don't sound too
attractive - not my idea of 'knights in shining amour'!) The Rule of Saint
Benedict was approved and they now had a habit - a white mantle emblazoned with
a red cross.
The Knights were now immune from all authority except the Pope's and exempt from
taxes and even tithes. They also gained great wealth from the possessions of new
recruits who had to sign their worldly goods to the Order, donations flooding
in, and the ownership of land which included much of London and grand temples in
Paris and Jerusalem. There are still remarkable ruins of castles built by the
Knights in the Holy Land. In 1307 they even bought Yorkshire for the very cheap
price of 1300 pounds and for a time they owned Cyprus. The Knights virtually
getting around the rule against usury, and lending money to monarchs and
merchants. The clergy of the Holy Land disliked the Knight's privileges and
power because the revenue of their churches had been diminished, as the Knight's
The Knights were considered brave soldiers, the scourge of the Moslems, and
fought alongside King Richard the First and other famous monarchs. Their courage
in dying for their religion unfortunately led to a large decimation of their
numbers. If they were taken prisoner they refused to deny Christ, and many died
martyrs. Almost 20,000 may have died in the wars.
In 1314 Philip the Fair (perhaps that should be unfair?) annoyed by the Knight's
influence and power, and needing money for his war against England, decided to
destroy the Knights. The secret initiation ceremonies and meetings of the
Templars gave him the means to do this. Gaining the Pope's support, he charged
them with heresy, accusing them of blasphemy and homosexuality among other
things, so that he could seize their money and assets. Many confessed under
dreadful tortures and most were burnt at the stake.
The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake, before the
gates of the palace. According to legend de Molay cursed King Philip and Pope
Clement as he burned saying that both men would join him within a year. Clement
died one month later and Philip IV seven months after Clement.