What did contemporary voices think of the Templars?


Much of what we read about the Knights Templar has come from voices since the Order was suppressed in 1307 and there’s a mixture of valid and truthful observations mixed up with complete hokum. So – what did folks at the time think of the Templars? Were they scared of them? Did they hate them?

The historian Helen Nicholson wrote about this subject in History Today and you can read the full article here. Let’s go through some of the main points:

Did people welcome the creation of religious military orders? It seems to have raised eyebrows from the start. The Templars were the first Order followed by the Hospitallers and later the Teutonic Knights. There was a medieval logic at work here. You were going on crusade – why not commit for life as a warrior monk, combining two vocations in one.

But as Nicholson writes, as early as 1150 the Abbot of Cluny (the top Benedictine of his age) wrote to Pope Eugenius saying that as far as he and his brothers were concerned, the Templars were just knights and not monks. And the abbot added, for good measure, that clearing up bandits at home was more important than waging crusades against Islam.

Pope versus Emperor. The 13th century saw the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire at increasing loggerheads pursuing conflicting foreign policies – including in the Holy Land. The Templars were completely loyal to the pope in these disputes. The Teutonic knights tended to side with the emperor. This is why you have to be careful with chroniclers like Matthew Paris who stuck his knife firmly in to the Templars accusing them of all sorts – but what you need to bear in mind is that he was a fan of the emperor….so a little biased.

Money. The suspicion that the Templars were creaming off money comes up in the late 12th century. Their preceptories, scattered all over Europe, were viewed with envy and their special privileges, granted by the pope, were thoroughly resented. But – all that said – Nicholson makes the point that they never attracted as much ire as the wealthy Cistercians and the friars – a particular object of popular scorn.

Templars versus Hospitallers.  The two Orders claimed to be in poverty but many thought they just weren’t very good at managing the vast amounts of money being channeled their way. Nicholson mentions commentaries written at the time satirising the bitchiness between the Templars and Hospitallers as each Order blamed the other for its problems. The loss of Acre in 1291 to the Saracens was even blamed on this running feud between the military monks. It’s certainly the case that when the Temple was wound up in 1307 – the Hospitallers wasted no time getting their hands on Templar property.

Losing the crusades. Rather like a football team, the Templars were hailed when they were winning but when the results from the crusades filtered back home and ordinary people heard that battles and whole cities were being lost to the Saracens – the Templars were increasingly bad mouthed. The view being – God was clearly not pleased with them. This view, Nicholson says, was increasingly prevalent in the second quarter of the 13th century.

Secret alliance with the Muslims? The Templars couldn’t win in the Holy Land. If they advised against joining battle – they were accused of being secretly in league with the Saracens. But if they threw themselves in to the fray – they were accused of being reckless. On one occasion, they warned of a massacre if battle was joined but when the secular knights insisted, the Templars – to their credit – joined in and were massacred alongside the people they had tried to save. Any time the Temple made a tactical treaty with the Muslims, this was construed as ‘proof’ they were working with them on the sly.

After 1250 – an improvement in perception. Strangely, after a bad first half to the thirteenth century, the perception of the Templars improved in the second half. Domestic issues back home were absorbing the chroniclers, the crusades had become less prominent and the Orders and church seemed to be rubbing along nicely. Of course – this would not last.

Attitudes at the time of their trial in 1307.  Well, they were accused of various crimes including denying the divinity of Christ, abuse of their initiation ceremonies, sodomy, worshiping idols, not believing in the sacraments and defrauding patrons. These abuses were said to have run for years without being checked. But the accusations looks suspiciously similar to crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Cathar heresy. Basically, if you wanted to destroy a person or organisation at this time – trump up some charges of sodomy, idol worship and fraud.

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