This is one of the most unexpected stories I’ve discovered about the Knights Templar. In 1306, the Templars were accused of dumping waste into the river Fleet in London – a gross and irresponsible act of urban pollution.
A year later, they’d have bigger things to worry about when the King of France issued arrest warrants and imprisoned hundreds of Templar knights. But in 1306 in London, their main concern was a serious accusation by Henry Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln.
The earl was furious at the Templars – accusing them of blocking the river Fleet by building a water mill. The Fleet was a tributary of the river Thames that’s now invisible to Londoners. In the 19th century it was roofed over and today flows through the city’s sewers. But in the medieval period, it was a busy waterway along the edge of the ancient city walls of London.
In the 1180s, the Templars had abandoned their original headquarters to move closer to both the river Fleet and the much bigger river Thames. The rushing water could power a mill and help with their commercial activities. But in the 1240s, a group of Carmelite friars – the White Friars as they were known – moved in nearby. They complained about the polluting activities of the Templars ten years before the Earl of Lincoln.
DISCOVER MORE: Medieval friars who wrote about the Templars
In 1290, the White Friars claimed that the stench from the river was so bad as a result of Templar pollution that some of their brothers had died from the unhealthy aroma (disease was believed to be caused by evil smells). And they told the king that the stink was so bad that even the frankincense they burned during holy mass couldn’t mask it.
In truth though, the friars were always moaning about something – and accusing other people of causing problems of their own making. Plus, it was very likely in their interests to undermine the Templars. Because after the Knights Templar were destroyed, the White Friars muscled in on their role as political power brokers and bankers.
In 1307, a commission was eventually set up to look at why the River Fleet had become so filthy. And it turned out that the culprits were the butchers and leather workers further upstream at Smithfield meat market. They were involved in tanning animal skins, which was a filthy and pretty disgusting process. It was these people, and not the Templars, who had been engaged in systematic pollution of the Fleet.
But regrettably by then – the Knights Templar had been shut down by order of the Pope.