Since their downfall, opinions on the guilt of the Knights Templar have been bitterly divided. Right down to our own time, experts have quarrelled over whether the charges against the Order were true or trumped up lies.
So let’s look at what a mixture of historians, lawyers and writers have said about the Templars and decide who is telling the truth.
I’m relying quite heavily on a book for this blog post that I thoroughly recommend – it’s called The Knights Templar in Britain by Evelyn Lord. So, as you know, the Knights Templar were rounded up, arrested and tortured by the king of France in 1307. From that moment, people began to take sides.
The legendary poet Dante, author of The Divine Comedy was supportive of the Templars, This might have been shaped by his own hostility to France. The French were backing Dante’s political opponents in Florence so the poet accused the king of just wanting their money by levelling scurrilous accusations.
Over in Spain, a writer called Ramon Llull took the opposite position. He wanted to see the religious military orders united. Immediately before the Templars were arrested, there had been demands from the pope for them to unite with the Knights Hospitaller but they had refused.
The last Templar grand master Jacques de Molay had given Llull full hospitality when he had stayed in Cyprus on his way to conduct missionary work to the Muslims – an endeavour that would eventually lead to his death. Although the Templar leader had been kind to Llull, he reciprocated by condemning the knights for not merging with other orders.
The sixteenth century saw the great witchcraft mania and the Templars were sucked into this as an example of evildoers who practice the satanic arts. In his book De Occulta Philosophia, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa accused the order of being depraved, in effect accepting the charges made against them during their trial. All the heretical rituals the Templars were said to have practised were assumed to have been fact.
The Protestant Reformation posed a conundrum for the new religion. They hated Catholics. So, were the Templars rebels against the pope or the worst example of corruption in the Catholic church? One seventeenth century Protestant clergyman, Thomas Fuller, decided they were corrupt. But the Royal Society, a bastion of early scientific thought, declared for the Templars.
The eighteenth century saw the rise of the Enlightenment and the Freemasons. The Dupuy brothers took a very anti-Templar line declaring the order had been corrupt for a hundred years before they were put on trial. The Dupuys worked for the French “sun king” Louis XIV so not surprising they were taking a hostile line perhaps. In contrast, the Freemasons embraced the Templars as historical forerunners.
The nineteenth century continued to show that the Knights Templar were as divisive as ever. Access to medieval documents and a spirit of scientific enquiry led some to exonerate the order and put the papacy firmly in the dock. But novelist Walter Scott made the Templars the baddies in his hugely successful historical novel Ivanhoe. Scott drew on a widely held view at the time the order was crushed that they were double dealing between the crusaders and their Saracen rivals.
Down to our own time, nobody can quite seem to make up their mind whether the knights were a force for good or evil. Assassins Creed has the Templars as a centuries old conspiracy to enslave humanity. Dan Brown subscribes to the Priory of Sion theory with the Templars doing their bit to protect the bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
So – over to you. Templars – good or evil – guilty or innocent?