Templar church in London

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The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.

As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?

Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.

They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest.  Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.

Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France.  This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.

The fall of Acre – two hundred years today – 1291

Acre is now the modern Israeli town of Akko – but back in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was a bastion of Templar and Hospitaller power in the region. A bastion of crusader strength against the Saracens. Long after Jerusalem had fallen to Saladin, Acre held out but in 1291 – it finally fell. I visited in March this year and took some photos including the secret Templar tunnel under the castle.

Templar expert Dr Evelyn Lord talks to The Templar Knight blog!

Knights templar chapel
Knights templar chapel (Photo credit: rogersanderson)

I’m often asked if I can recommend any books that describe what the Templars were really all about – and I won’t hesitate to point you in the direction of the works of Dr Evelyn Lord…who has very kindly shared some of her insights on the Knights Templar below. When I began to write Quest for the True Cross – one of the first books I read was The Knights Templar in Britain and it I recommend it to any of you who want to understand the Order of the Temple.

So without any further ado – here is Dr Lord to shine some light on the real Templars:

In view of the assertion that the instigator of the recent massacre in Norway that he is a member of a society called the Knights Templar, some defence of the Templars has to be made. There is a Masonic-like organisation of Knights Templar today, who are not right-wing and have a charitable function. The medieval Templars were founded to protect pilgrims in the east, and were eventually caught up in the Crusades, although this was not their prime purpose.

In medieval Britain the Templars had no military function. Their importance nationally came from their role as advisers and councillors to the crown, and bankers and holders of safe-deposits to the crown and the nobility. At times they helped to found the first ‘royal’ navy, and acted as tax collectors. The latter helped to make them unpopular.

They had extensive estates in Britain, devoted to agriculture, either arable or pastoral depending on the countryside where they were situated. A percentage of their produce had to be sent east, but as Britain was far removed from the theatre of war, this was usually sent as a percentage of cash profits, although one estate, Rothley in Leicestershire, was supposed to send all their profits east. There were more Templar estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire than other counties, but this was because they were large counties with land to spare. The most important estates after the London Temple were in Hertfordshire and Essex, and the most profitable in Leicestershire.

The Templars were landlords like any other medieval baron; collecting rents from tenants, putting them to work on the Templars’ land, improving and reclaiming land from marsh, fens and waste, and running markets to sell their produce.

After their suppression the Templars’ estates in theory were given to the Knights Hospitallers, but in practice in England many of the descendants of the original donors to the Templars, took these back, and Edward II had already given some of the Temple land to his supporters. So the Hospitallers in England did not get all the Templar land at the suppression, although they did get the best known Templar site – Cressing Temple.

Safed – home to the Templars and the Jewish Kabbalah

To Jewish people, Safed – or Tzfat – has a special significance as the home of the Kabbalah. That is the mystical secrets believed to be contained within the five books of Moses otherwise known as the Torah.  But it was once the site of a castle built by the Knights Hospitaller and occupied by the Knights Templar. Long after Jerusalem had fallen, the warrior monks continued to hold Safed until Sultan Baybars launched a ferocious attack and leveled the castle.

Baybars was furious that the Templars and crusaders were making overtures to the Mongol armies that had crashed through the Middle East – the idea being that if the Mongols could be won over to the Christian cause, they might crush the Saracens once and for all. Baybars was not going to tolerate that and so devastated Safed.

Safed was always a city very holy to the Jews and in the Kabbalistic view – Jerusalem embodied the earth, Tiberias was water, Hebron was fire and Safed was air.

The Kabbalah originated in Jewish Al-Andalus and was brought to what is now Israel by Jews fleeing the persecution of the Catholic monarchs of Spain – the newly created country that overwhelmed the caliphate of Al-Andalus and ended the long co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews on the Iberian peninsula.

Many of the once prosperous Jews of Al-Andalus had long drifted in mystical thought – many think as a sign of despair at their deteriorating social condition under the Catholic Spanish monarchs. Forced to convert or flee in the 1490s, they found solace in a very other worldly belief system.

Kabbalist thinkers like Moses Cordovero and Joseph Caro made their home in Safed – an already holy town and well situated in Galilee.  They were succeeded by a rabbi who would become a leading beacon of the Kabbalist movement – Isaac Luria (1534-1572).

Lurian kabbalism is almost impossible to understand – deliberately so one suspects – but in a nutshell, God was everywhere but was required to contract in order to create a space for Creation to take place. The void was filled with light and in part created man out of whose mouth, nose and eyes this light flowed creating vessels.

Now I’m probably going to make a superficial mess out of this explanation – but basically, some of these ‘vessels’ couldn’t cope with or resisted the divine light and broke thereby bringing evil in to the world. OK -that’s probably an awful explanation but it’s the best I’m going to do here!  You can read more about Kabbalah at your leisure – one blog post is not going to unlock the secret.

Here are the synagogues where the Kabbalah was articulated from my visit to Safed this year – hope you like my photos.

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Why were the Templars suppressed?

templar4I almost feel like this is a game of Templar medieval Cluedo – were they killed with the Turkish mace in the banqueting hall or with the lance in the dovecote?  The web is not short of sweeping conclusions so I thought I’d have a go at dissecting some of the theories – briefly of course, in the spirit of blogging!

So, let’s look at some possible reasons.

ULTRA-RICH TEMPLARS:  The Templars did become very wealthy.  Nobles placed their estates/wealth with the Order for safekeeping while on crusade.  The Order developed ingenious ways of transferring wealth from one preceptory to another developing a primitive version of the modern banking system.  They lent money to kings and popes who were not always disposed to paying that money back.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they got way too rich and powerful.

A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES:  Templars operated as an order of monastic warriors with their own command structure headed up by the Grand Master in Jerusalem.  From early on in their history, the papacy gave the Templars an enviable degree of independence.  They did not have to answer to local bishops, they ran their own estates as semi-independent fiefdoms, they could even recruit former excommunicates…only the pope could take them to task.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they were just too big for their crusading boots.

templar5TEMPLAR FAILURE:  The Templars were formed to protect pilgrims being attacked as they journeyed to the holy places in outremer.  However, the order evolved in to a well-oiled military machine.  Their estates around Europe funded their military exploits in the Holy Land.  Together with the rival order of warrior monks, the Hospitallers, they put some backbone in to the crusades.  But from as early as the 1180s – just over 60 years from the order’s formation – things started to go wrong. The defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 wiped out the Templar success against Saladin at Montgisard. Now the brave knights were on the back foot.  Barring a few outstanding moments, it was the Saracens who were now notching up victories – Battle of Jaffa, Battle of Al-Mansurah, Siege of Safad, etc.  In 1300, together with the Hospitallers, the Templars tried to take Tortosa and failed dismally.  The crusades were over.

Conclusion: With the veneer of invincibility wearing off and the crusades unraveling completely by the early 14th century, the Templars were well past their prime and a force no longer needed.

HOSPITALLER DEVIOUSNESS:  There were two main orders of warrior monks in the Holy Land – the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.  Both were engaged in the last attempt to establish a Christian foothold in the Holy Land in 1300.  The Hospitallers were as wealthy as the Templars.  After the suppression of the Templars, the Hospitallers acquired much of their property.

Conclusion: The Hospitallers wanted to preserve their wealth and position – so they were complicit in destroying the Templars.

EVIL FRENCH KING:  Phillippe the Bel – or king Philip IV of France – fought wars on several fronts against the English and in Flanders.  Wars cost money and he ran up impressive debts.  To raise money, the king expelled French Jews in 1306 – the year before the Templars were outlawed.  He attacked the church and even sent a party of knights to arrest the pope who died as a result of his captivity.  Phillippe then got a more compliant pope – Clement V – based in Avignon and not Rome, who was far more compliant (if he knew what was good for him).  Phillippe also raided Lombard merchants for money to try and erase his debts.  The king owed the Templars a great deal of money and they had turned him down for another substantial loan.

Conclusion: Closing down and expropriating Templar assets fitted in to a pattern of grabbing assets that was a hallmark of Phillipe’s reign.

There are plenty of other factors to consider.

France had been divided by the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries – a Gnostic variant on Christianity that exposed a deep well of resentment against papal interference in all aspects of political life.  The result of the crusade against the Cathars was the emergence of the Dominican order and the inquisition.  Possibly this created a climate where allegations of heresy against the Templars were more readily accepted.

Some argue that the Templars themselves were heretics and the church was forced to wipe them out to protect its position.  This view comes in different variants but the recurring themes are that the Templars had either picked up heretical ideas in the East or even discovered ‘secrets’ (often dug up under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, now the Al Aqsa mosque).  Those secrets of course include the Holy Grail.  Evidence is thin on the ground though some of the symbols much beloved of the Templars raise eyebrows – for example the demi-god Abraxas.

There is also the theory that having failed in the Holy Land, the Templars now consisted of a large army, well funded and organised, with not much to do.  Where was it going to go?  How would its hunger for power be sated?  Were the Templars even contemplating some kind of coup d’etat against the French king?

And of course – were the Templars engaging in those practices that caused so much abhorrence to the medieval mind?  The charge of sodomy was of course leveled against them by a bishop, incidentally, who went on to level the same charge against the English king, Edward II.  His charges stuck in both cases.

The jury is still out and this is one game of Cluedo that hasn’t drawn to a conclusion after seven hundred years of being played.

Who were the Hospitallers?

English: One reported version of the flag of t...

At around the same time that the Templars were formed in the Holy Land in the early 12th century – up pops another order of military monks called the Hospitallers.  Unlike the Templars, they were not subsequently persecuted out of existence and still exist as a formal organisation today – though not exactly resembling the medieval order.

So how different were they from the Templars?    Well, as we know I hope, the Templars were formed to protect pilgrims on their way to the holy sites from attacks by bandits and Saracens.  The Hospitallers seem to have been formed to serve the medical hospital, such as it was, in Jerusalem.  Hence the name of the order.

According to Karen Ralls in her excellent ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’, there were hospitals in Jerusalem after the First Crusade and possibly even before – but they were not in continuous use.  Then along came the Benedictines who set up a hospital near the Holy Sepulchre around the year 1080.  It was the chap in charge of this place – a man called Gerard – who went on to become the first Grand Master of the Hospitallers.

Pope Paschal II recognised the Hospitallers in 1113, five years before the official founding date of the Templars.  Both Templars and Hospitallers were under the direct protection of the papacy in Rome. Like the Templars, they seem to have evolved quite rapidly from providing services to pilgrims in to becoming a full blown military order with, it’s believed, quite a formidable fleet.  Also like the Templars, they found themselves retreating across the Mediterranean – first to Rhodes and then Malta – as the Saracens gained the upper hand in the Middle East.

Gerard died in 1120 and his skull is still revered as a relic at the Convent of Saint Ursula in Valletta in Malta.  The “Maltese Cross” is the one most associated with the Hospitallers whose black mantles – in contrast to the white of the Templar knights – were emblazoned with a white cross.   I do wonder if the Hospitallers could easily have been confused for Templar serjeants – the more junior rank of Templars who also wore black mantles.

As you can imagine, there was some rivalry between the Hospitallers and Templars and when the Templar order was crushed by the papacy and king of France, it should come as no surprise to find that the Hospitallers made a grab for Templar properties.