How and why the Templars were formed has vexed many minds down the centuries. So let’s look at the different theories:
THE OFFICIAL VERSION
Well, not really an official version as such but the one we get from the medieval chroniclers at the time – though even they don’t agree much on the details. We’re told there were nine knights, mostly from the Champagne region of France, who decided to set up a kind of private security firm to protect pilgrims on the way into Jerusalem.
With surprising ease, they secured the backing of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the King of Jerusalem and the Pope. The knights set themselves up in what was called the Temple of Solomon but we know today as the Al Aqsa mosque. In their first ten years, if the chroniclers are to be believed, they hardly grew at all.
They evolved by the time of the Second Crusade into something very different. Now, they were no longer just a pilgrim protection programme but fearless knights at the forefront of the fight against the Saracens. The Templars had also established a kind of primitive banking system and extensive network of highly lucrative farming estates across Europe funding their activities in the Holy Land.
The account doesn’t wash with some modern commentators such as Tim Wallace-Murphy. Instead, they believe the Templars were set up by a clandestine group of families called the Rex Deus. They could trace their ancestry back through Jesus Christ (who did not die on the cross but had a family) and on to the priests of the original Temple of Solomon and even to ancient Egypt.
The Catholic church had elevated Christ to a supernatural, celibate God but the Ebionites (an early heresy that emphasised the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus) were closer to the truth. Jesus was a bearer of ancient wisdom whose descendants posed a direct threat to the authority of the church by their very existence. The knowledge Jesus possessed was best expressed by groups like the Gnostics and this version of Christianity required no hierarchy of bishops and popes to intermediate between humanity and the divine.
The Knights Templar were set up by Rex Deus adherents who included Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the king and patriarch of Jerusalem and Hugh, count of Champagne. Their purpose was to discover sacred truths located beneath the Temple of Solomon that would overturn the established church.
PRIORY OF SION
More or less all of the above from the Rex Deus brigade with some modifications. Jesus came to France with Mary Magdalene and raised a family. The Holy Grail is the bloodline of Christ that the priory is sworn to protect. The Templars were created as part of this mission though at some point, the Templars and priory fell out with each other.
You will all be familiar with this theory thanks to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code – which in turn borrows heavily from a 1980s blockbuster called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail …… which in turn drew from a series of forged documents by a 1950s former French fascist sympathiser and fantasist called Pierre Plantard. I have blogged about this elsewhere.
The account from the medieval chroniclers reads like a legend. But most historians have taken the idea of nine knights forming the order to protect pilgrims as fact. We only have solid details on three or four of those knights and next to nothing on the mysterious Gondomar (perhaps a Portuguese knight) for example.
However, the alternatives to the medieval account are certainly a mixed bag and most of the theories don’t stand up to scrutiny. The authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail even admit that their Priory of Sion based account is based on an approach to research that most historians would utterly reject.
However, there is undoubtedly a fog of mystery hanging over the early years of the Templars with plenty of questions left to answer.
The Templar Timeline
- 1118 – Foundation of the Knights Templar by nine knights
- 1118 – Hugh de Payens becomes first Grand Master
- 1127 – First Templar church and preceptory in London
- 1129 – Council of Troyes establishes the rules that will govern the Templars
- 1139 – Omne datum Optimum – a papal bull makes the Templars answerable only to the pope
- 1147 – the Second Crusade with the fall of Edessa and its aftermath brings the Templars centre stage in the Holy Land
- 1174 – the rise of Saladin
- 1187 – disaster at the Battle of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem
- 1192 – Templars in Acre
- 1204 – the Fourth Crusade ends with the plundering of Constantinople
- 1248 – the crusade of King Louis
- 1291 – Acre falls to the Mamluks and the Templars edged out of the Holy Land
- 1302 – Ruad falls and Templars massacred
- 1307 – Templars arrested under orders of the King of France and Pope Clement V
Here’s an interesting video on the origins of the Knights Templar: