The Siren's Call: What really happened to the Knights Templar?
By By Nick Owchar
Jan 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM
The Templars were an elite taskforce -- consider them the Green Berets of the Middle Ages. They were known for their service to the pope, their fierce determination to wrest Jerusalem from the enemy, their great wealth and, like many groups, their secrecy.
For a group so secret, though, they've received an incredible amount of attention both in the years BDB (before Dan Brown) and ever since.
Michael Haag, who has occasionally contributed to our pages, decided to weigh in and settle the misinformation bandied about by various recent books with his own, "The Templars: The History & the Myth" (Harper: 384 pp., $15.99 paper). He shared some of his revelations with the Siren's Call during a recent conversation.
The Siren's Call: Why did the Templars appeal to you enough that you set out to write a book on them? Was it the result of coming across them in the course of writing your other books about Alexandria and "The Da Vinci Code"?
Michael Haag: I already had a pretty good knowledge of the history, the landscape and the architecture of the Crusader period; writing about the Templars brought things into sharp focus. I have traveled widely throughout the Middle East and have visited every Crusader and Arab castle of significance, including the Templars' last redoubt at Sidon in Lebanon, their fortified city of Tortosa and their castle at Safita. I've also been to the Hospitaller's great castle of Krak de Chevaliers and the Assassins' eyrie at Masyaf, all in Syria, not to mention the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the Templars had their headquarters, the mount itself giving the knights their popular name (properly they were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon).
TSC: They also figure in Lawrence Durrell's "Avignon Quintet," don't they? You're writing about him, aren't you?
MH: Yes, as it happens, I am writing a biography of Lawrence Durrell, who, as you say, runs the Templars as a theme through his "Avignon Quintet." There is an element of economy in this: informing myself about Durrell's interest in the Templars by writing a book about the Templars! Durrell's interest in the Templars, which goes hand in glove with his interest in the Cathars and Gnosticism (also discussed in my book), is one that is widely shared -- for the Templars have enjoyed an afterlife that goes well beyond their destruction in 1312 and continues to this day. Which is why I deal not only with the history of the Templars, which lasted only two centuries, but also with the myth of the Templars, which is rooted in the foundation of Solomon's Temple 3,000 years ago and remains alive in various forms in the present day.
TSC: There are so many books now out there about the Templars, thanks in large part to the interest Dan Brown created with his "Code." Was there something that these books weren't saying about the Templars that you felt needed to be told?
MH: Books about the Templars fall into two categories. Some are strictly history and confine themselves to the two centuries of the Templars' existence. Others are speculative and deal in the many stories surrounding the Templars, in what you might call the afterlife of the Templars that continues in the popular imagination to this day. I wanted to take a serious look at both the history and the mythic afterlife and to show how they are intimately related and always have been -- how the Templars became the subject of popular imagination already at their inception, celebrities, you might say, the superstars of the Middle Ages.
Already during their heyday, the Templars attracted to themselves many associations, legends, rumors and romances. When the story of the Holy Grail first began circulating in medieval Europe, it was immediately associated with the Templars. This star quality of the Templars was due partly to their prominent role in the central movement of the times, the Crusades and the defense of the Crusader states in the East, where the Templars were surrounded by potent historical and sacred associations. After all, the Templars were founded on Christmas Day 1119, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot which marks the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they were headquartered on the Temple Mount, which indelibly associated them with stories surrounding the Temple of Solomon -- and nothing in medieval Christendom could beat that!
But being in the spotlight is not always the most favorable place to be, certainly not when things begin to go wrong. And for the Templars, everything went wrong when the Crusaders lost Acre in 1292; the West's hold on the Holy Land was lost and so was the Templars' raison d'être.
Their extinction was breathtakingly swift, wasn't it?
It is the most dramatic thing about them; knights belonging to an order of great power, wealth and reputation, owing obedience only to the Pope, were arrested in dawn raids across France, tortured and made to confess to abominable crimes and heresies, were often put to the stake, and their order dissolved. The reasons for their fall have long been shrouded in mystery and this has given rise to yet more fevered speculations. What did the Templars really know, what did they really possess, what were they really all about? And why did the pope, the very man to whom they owed sole obedience, let them down, abolish their order and let them go to the stake?
Do we now have any answers to these questions?
We do. New discoveries in the Vatican's Secret Archives, just as I was considering writing this book, revealed the truth of the pope's role in the end of the Templars and revealed the truth about the Templars themselves -- and, no, the Templars were not heretics nor blasphemers, and for what it was worth, they took to the stake and to their graves the pope's blessings and absolutions. But the pope, and indeed the papacy itself, the very independence of the Roman Catholic Church, was under threat from the king of France, a fanatic with totalitarian designs. My book has been the first book to revise the history of the Templars, and revise their afterlife too, in the light of these remarkable revelations.
Whenever the Templars are mentioned in books and articles, I usually find that it is in connection with their vast wealth - and, along with this, their vast greed. Why?
They were extremely expensive to maintain. They were the most superb fighting force in the world at that time, something like supersonic fighter-bomber pilots in our day, where each man and his equipment costs a fortune to keep operational. A single mounted knight in France in the 13th century required the proceeds from 3,750 acres to equip and maintain himself, and for Templars operating overseas in the Holy Land, the costs were much greater since much had to be imported, not least their horses. The Templars' training, their armor, their horses, their squires, their sergeants, not to mention building and maintaining castles, required an enormous outlay. And the knights themselves could suffer high mortality rates in climactic battles and needed to be replaced. All these costs were met through donations from the faithful back in Europe, usually in the form of estates large and small as well as tithes from the Church.
As individuals, the Templars were poor ascetics, but as an order, they were extremely wealthy. In fact, they became so accomplished at moving funds between Europe and the East that they soon set up as international bankers -- the first bankers of modern times. Their lands and their liquid wealth made them a ready target for greed, and the greed came not from among the Templars but from Philip IV, the king of France, who, after stealing the wealth and properties of France's Jews and throwing them out of the country, turned on the Templars. That was the real motive for the Friday the 13th arrests: The king of France needed money to pursue his wars in Flanders and against the English, and he also was asserting himself against the papacy, laying claim to being the man who called all the shots in Europe, whether secular or religious. It was a form of expropriation and nationalization, accompanied by tortures and executions and, of course, the necessary propaganda and lies -- blaming the Templars for being blasphemers, for being heretics, for being haughty and greedy. In the minds of many, the mud stuck.
Few really seem to associate any other characteristic with them, though, except greed. No one talks about, for instance, their fantastic ability as military strategists and fortress builders. What excellent qualities should people know about?
Well, in comparison to the egregious greed, cruelty and lies of the king of France, the Templars were honest in their faith and straightforward in their conduct. They should be remembered for their bravery, which was legendary, their dedication, which was absolute -- a few dozen Templars could turn the weight of battle and save a kingdom. Their attrition rate was high: At least 20,000 Templars were killed either on the battlefield or after being taken captive and refusing to renounce their faith to save their lives. Without the Templars, the Crusader venture in the East would have lasted only half as long as it did. After the Battle of Hattin, in which Saladin was victorious, he ordered the decapitation in cold blood of all his Templar captives, a hundred men, fearing them above all others because "they have great fervor in religion, paying no attention to the things of this world."
As builders of castles and churches, they were men of powerful vision and exquisite taste; they have left behind them in the Middle East today numerous beautiful monuments speaking of the Romanesque and Gothic styles of the France and England from which they came.
Tell us a little bit more about their organization as an elite task force - were they the first to submit only to papal authority? In defending the Holy Land, why was this direct line of obedience only to the pope so important?
In the late 11th century, the Church was involved in the Investiture Controversy over whether the secular powers of Europe or the papacy itself had the authority to appoint high church officials in each and every state. Secular kings and princes were eager to have the authority for themselves, as it would give them control over the great wealth and powers such officials could command. But in the event, it was an argument that the papacy won. Papal assertion did not end there; only the pope could establish a university or approve a monastic order; and when the Byzantine Empire sent to Rome for help against a fresh Muslim invasion, it was the pope who raised the First Crusade.
By means of a series of papal bulls in the early 12th century, the Templars were recognized as an independent and permanent order within the Catholic Church answerable to no one but the pope. Their "grand master" was chosen from among the ranks of Templar knights who conducted their elections free from any outside interference. The Templars were also given their own priesthood answerable to the grand master, which made the order independent of the diocesan bishops in both Europe and the East. The First Crusade itself had been called for by the pope, and the kingdom of Jerusalem, like the other Crusader states, owed themselves to papal initiative and the continuing goodwill and energy of the papacy for support and maintenance from the West. The pope did not want to see the Templars fall subject to religious or political rivalries. It is not that the pope actually controlled the Templars; rather, by owing allegiance to no one but the pope, the Templars maintained their independence from all and sundry and could give themselves freely and single-mindedly to their supreme task, the defense and preservation of the Holy Land.
Defending Jerusalem, you said earlier, was their reason for existing. When it fell, the Templars were in limbo, but didn't they try to find a new mission for themselves?
The Templars were founded to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and other sites throughout the Holy Land. In time their task became to defend the Holy Land itself -- not just Jerusalem but the several Crusader states which included the kingdom of Jerusalem, the county of Tripoli and the principality of Antioch. The city of Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, though it changed hands several times thereafter, but meanwhile the new capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem became the port city of Acre, and when Acre fell in 1292 the Crusader venture was effectively over. Yes, there were a few attempts to regain the Holy Land, and the Templars, who were temporarily based in Cyprus, took the lead in these, but when finally they lost their tiny island outpost of Ruad in 1302, they looked highly redundant.
The Hospitallers were also a religious order of fighting monks, and they might have found themselves in the same boat as the Templars. But they quickly captured the island of Rhodes from the Byzantine Empire, which was Christian, and turned it into a state of their own, which allowed them to harass the surrounding Muslim powers and which also gave them protection from jealous Christian powers in Europe. The Hospitallers eventually retreated to Malta, finally to be driven out by Napoleon in 1798, though the order still exists and even has quasi-sovereign state observer status within the United Nations.
The Templars might have enjoyed a twilight existence in this way had they taken some large and defensible island, perhaps Cyprus, as their own. But instead of putting their own interests first, they so completely identified with their role as defenders of the Holy Land that they placed their trust in the pope and the king of France, Philip IV, who were contemplating launching yet another crusade. The Templar grand master Jacques de Molay and other high officers of the order were in France precisely to discuss such matters when they and all other Templars on French soil were arrested at dawn in October 1307 by Philip IV and accused of blasphemy and heresy.
When people ask, "Who were the Templars?," they're not using the correct verb tense, right? Some people believe they still exist today through their connections to the Freemasons and others.
In the mythic sense, the Templars are with us today, if only because many people wish it to be so. Such people include the Freemasons, some branches of which claim descent from the Templars who are said to have survived the persecutions of Philip IV and gone underground, to arise again wearing aprons and carrying trowels, among them such seditious figures as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The French Revolution was blamed on the Freemasons, who some people with lively imaginations said were really the Templars in disguise. Bringing matters more up to date, the Templars are behind the World Bank, the IMF, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, and also NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and the Skull and Bones Society at Yale. All of this is discussed in my book.
But the claim that the Templars discovered America, on the face of it one of the most far-fetched claims of all, actually contains a great deal more than a grain of truth.
They were not eradicated everywhere throughout Europe. In Spain and Portugal, they had performed good service in the local crusades, what we now call the Reconquista, against the Arab occupation of the Iberian peninsula, and instead of being disbanded, they were simply reestablished under other names and given royal protection and favor. In Portugal, the Templars became the Order of Christ, and none less than Prince Henry the Navigator became their grand master, using Templar wealth and zeal to send ships down the coast of Africa and far out into the Atlantic, to the Azores and Madeira. The achievements of Vasco da Gama, who found the first sea route round Africa to India in 1498; of Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1519 initiated the first voyage round the world; and of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, were all the fruits of Prince Henry the Navigator's lifelong endeavor as Grand Master of what had been the Templars.