If the Knights Templar were as fantastically wealthy as many believe they were – then where did all this treasure disappear to? Because moments after the order was crushed in 1307 – nobody could find a trace of vast quantities of gold and silver – let alone the Holy Grail.
The question arises then – was the Templar treasure complete make believe?
The Templars were warriors, monks and medieval bankers. They ran a financial system through their preceptories that spanned Europe and funded their crusades in the Holy Land and Al-Andalus (modern Spain and Portugal). Kings and princes left bequests to the Templars while the living deposited their assets with the order and could draw an early type of cheque from any Templar preceptory in Europe or the Middle East when they needed ready cash. This was far better than dragging your wealth in iron chests behind you.
Nobody doubts that the Templars accumulated an awful lot of money. At key points in the crusades, they were asked to pay off ransoms for aristocratic warriors captured by the Saracens. More generally, they lent money to kings, princes and even popes becoming Christian moneylenders, an occupation in the medieval period normally associated with the Jews.
At the start of the fourteenth century, king Philip of France faced a riot in Paris when he decided to devalue the currency. Fearing for his life, he fled to the Paris Temple – the order’s headquarters. This was a well fortified building with thick walls and sturdy towers. It had to be – because inside was a huge amount of money. Philip was always cash strapped and having seen what the Templars possessed, he resolved to get his hands on their wealth. It would wipe out his debts and fund his wars with the English.
On 13th October 1307, he arrested the knights Templar throughout France and imprisoned their leaders. But when his men turned up at the Paris Temple, they found nothing. The wealth had disappeared into the ether. Accounts circulated much later that the order had been tipped off about the forthcoming arrests and a group of knights had been seen transporting sacks of bullion on carts away to the Templar port of La Rochelle. There, the order’s fleet set sail with the treasure bound for England and never to be seen again.
Did Templar treasure end up in America?
So where did it go? We enter the realm of the fanciful now with all kinds of theories. Did the wealth include priceless artefacts found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? Did the ships crawl up the British coastline and eventually end up in Scotland?
Some have argued that a group of Templars even set sail with the earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, and following ancient viking routes made their way to the New World. There, they buried the treasure in what is now Nova Scotia.
Another argument is that this whole notion of Templar treasure coincided with the romanticising of pirates in the 18th and especially the 19th century. Before then, stories of vast Templar treasure hidden down holes or in remote places were pretty much unheard of. But after novels like Treasure Island – accounts arise of the Templars becoming seafaring outlaws protecting their ill-gotten gains and robbing others.
Their pirate fleet, needless to say, is made up initially of those vessels allegedly docked at La Rochelle in France – which they used to get away from the King’s agents. You can take it as read that the historian community blows a large raspberry in the direction of all of this.