Last year, I visited a small synagogue in the Portuguese town of Tomar. Under Templar administration of the town, Jews had enjoyed a degree of protection. They had even flourished as a community.
But in the centuries that followed the crushing of the Templar order, the Jews faced the full horror of the Inquisition. The synagogue was turned into a prison for Tomar’s Jewish families. Eventually, a mournful curator told me, they were led into the public square and burned at the stake as heretics.
The blood libel myth
In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries – when the Templar order was at its height – a number of children were alleged to have been murdered by the Jewish community in various towns in Europe. These accusations were certainly false and designed primarily to enable the seizure of the assets of prominent, wealthy Jews.
Hugh of Lincoln was one of the reported cases of a child being murdered in a so-called ‘blood libel’. The child was supposedly killed in a way that mocked Christ’s crucifixion and the propaganda alleged that the blood was collected for Jewish rituals. No real proof exists for any of this and modern scholars reject these accusations as baseless.
As in an earlier case involving a child called William of Norwich, Hugh of Lincoln was an innocent boy who simply disappeared. It was later said that Koppin the Jew lured the boy in to his house where he was kept a prisoner for a month in the year 1255. Eventually he was scourged and crucified. According to Evelyn Lord in her excellent book ‘The Knights Templar in Britain’ – Koppin and 18 other Jews were arrested, tried and confessed to the murder. They were then executed.
Jews forced into money lending in the medieval period
Due to various prohibitions put on Jewish people, they established a niche in medieval society as money lenders and this was how some became very rich. Their clients included kings, bishops and princes and the sums involved were huge.
For Christians, the church ban on earning interest meant that this kind of money lending activity was strictly speaking sinful. However, many cathedrals were built by taking out loans with the Jewish money lenders. And many wealthy Jews made discreet donations to the church in the hope of currying favour and protection.
Officially, the kings of England did protect the Jews having brought them over with the Norman Conquest. But that protection seems to have broken down from the time of King Stephen and a hundred years later under Edward I, the already hugely persecuted Jews were forced to leave England and did not return until the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century.
Templar relationship with the Jews
The Templars seem to have had a complex relationship with the Jews. They certainly were not anti-semitic – or no more than most people at the time. If we look at the case of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln, we can get an idea of how Templars and Jews interacted.
The Jews lived in houses in the centre of Lincoln many of which they rented from the Knights Templar. Basically, the Templars were their landlords. It’s hard to say that the Templars would have been more sympathetic to the Jews than their very hostile neighbours though one could speculate that the intensified persecution of the Jews was commercially disruptive to the Temple.
The Order of the Temple was a going financial concern in its own right. It operated a complex financial web across its thousand preceptories from England to Aragon to the Holy Land. Credit notes could be taken from one preceptory – say in London – and cashed in at another preceptory – say in Acre. Like the Jews, the Templars bankrolled church and state alike, particularly in France. Indeed, the debts owed by the French king to the Temple undoubtedly led to their downfall.
The Jews also lent heavily to medieval monarchs. Aaron, another Jew who lived in Lincoln, was one of the biggest money lenders in England in the twelfth century. King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart, is estimated to have owed him £616 12s 8d. When he died, the monarchy seized all his assets and this came to somewhere around fifteen thousand pounds – a vast amount in the Middle Ages.
The Templars were therefore landlords to many of these Jewish merchants, fellow money lenders (though operating differently) to kings and princes and in England, the Temple also was responsible for holding the taxes levied specifically on Jews. These monies were placed in the London Temple. This could have created some antagonism between the Jews and Templars.
Stories that the Templars were really Jews are nonsense
There is some wild online speculation that the Templars were Jewish because they were bankers – I hope nobody takes that kind of forced logic seriously. Both groups in medieval society were engaged in finance at a very primitive level and for different reasons.
In England, both groups came under increasing levels of attack in the second half of the thirteenth century and the common cause was the need for finance on the part of the king. They would eventually see their assets seized and in the case of the Temple, they would be snuffed out for all eternity.