According to the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre, nine “noble men of knightly rank” from the Champagne region of France founded the Templar order in the year 1118. So what they do in their first ten years? Well, the answer is a bit vague:
They didn’t wear their characteristic white mantles and red crosses until after 1129 – in fact they wore secular clothes for the first few years
But they did observe holy vows of chastity and obedience as if they were monks
Nine men swore to protect all the roads leading into Jerusalem so that pilgrims could get to the sacred sites peacefully – just nine men!
They gave up holding any property themselves but pooled their resources into the new order
The King of Jerusalem gave them what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as their new headquarters
They believed the mosque was the Temple of Solomon and called it this
After nine years – William of Tyre recounts that there were still only nine knights
It does seem unusual that the order didn’t grow at all in its first decade. And yet, at the Council of Troyes in 1129, both Pope Honorius and the Patriarch of Jerusalem showered praise on the Templars and allowed them to wear a white mantle. Later they began to sew red crosses on to the front of these mantles.
With support from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – who was a leading cleric of the time but also related to one of the founder Templars and from the same part of France – the order developed its own rule book. Money was pumped into the order through bequests by rich nobles. By 1170, there were 300 knights and “countless” Templar sergeants (a lower rank that could not wear the coveted white mantle).
The mystery though is why the order appeared to stand still in its first decade and yet suddenly expand at an incredible pace after 1129 – both in terms of members and wealth. Why did the King of Jerusalem give nine knights with bold claims control of the Temple of Solomon? And why were Popes so willing to make the Templars answerable only to themselves and to no king, prince or bishop – something that would come to generate intense hatred towards the Knights Templar.
It’s vexed many down the ages. 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 then circulated 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.
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.
Whatever the answer – King Philip of France was left very much out of pocket.
My favorite programme Legend Quest went in search of King Solomon’s Ring this week – fronted as ever by the hyper-active Ashley Cowie, self-styled ‘archaeological explorer’. Off he went to find this biblical ring that can give its owner superhuman powers. And his quest started in Jerusalem.
“Just by slipping the ring on your finger…” you become all powerful, he explained.
The archangel Michael gave Solomon the ring with the star of David engraved on it, giving him the power to enslave demons and the king forced them to build the Temple of Jerusalem. But one demon stole the ring and cast it into the sea where it was eaten by a fish. Solomon was reduced from king to pauper but fortunately….managed to buy a fish to eat. Guess what? There was the ring. And off he went – back to rule Israel.
Ashley goes to Jerusalem to see the new excavations of Solomon’s walls but – unfortunately – he can’t go down because it’s an active dig. Bit of an anti-climax. So Ashley makes do with a stroll down the Via Dolorosa. And he sniffs out a local antique dealer who can show him another way to get within Solomon’s ruined temple wals. He goes to see said dealer and Ashley is taken to a back room where ‘they can speak in private’. The dealer knows of a secret entrance to Solomon’s destroyed Temple!
Sure enough, the dealer takes them to an entry to some underground passages ‘outside the city walls’. It could the be way up into Solomon’s Temple and his ring would certainly be hidden there – explains Ashley. But unfortunately, their clambering inside these dark passages leads to a dead end. Kinga – the programme field producer – opines that it’s clearly an obstacle built to keep ‘something’ in and keep people out.
Next, Ashley storms off down a rainy motorway to Tel Meggido – the supposed location for Armageddon. The End of Days battle! Ashley looks for clues of Solomon’s presence in the ruins of the hilltop settlement but there’s no signs. A smirking local archaeologist tells Ashley and Kinga that she’s seen nothing – though adds cryptically that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence’.
It then transpires that the people who originally lived in Tel Megiddo drifted at some point from the hilltop down into the valley. That’s where you might find clues, the archaeologist tells Ashley. Trouble is – there’s a maximum security Israeli prison on top of that later site now. But that doesn’t deter the intrepid Mr Cowie. Inside the prison they have excavated a ‘prayer hall’ – with a mosaic. However – little snag – it’s a Christian church. And the mosaic has been covered in sand. Take the sand away – Ashley demands. The prison guide refuses. But he offers Ashley some photographs taken before the preserving sand was laid down.
There are two fishes in the mosaic – hmmm…why is that? Ashley concludes that one fish represents Jesus and the other….get ready for this….is the fish that ate Solomon’s ring!!! Of course – it’s blindingly obvious.
This clue convinces Ashley that the Christians nabbed the ring. So where would it be now? Rome – naturally! The centre of all Christianity. Flight to Italy. Now Ashley and Kinga are in Rome. They find a church with a mosaic of fish and loaves above the door – and also a circle with the letter ‘P’ at the centre. The circle is like a wagon wheel that on closer inspection combines Greek letters that spell the word fish.
So – here’s what he concludes: Fish ate ring – fish turns up on mosaic – Christians stole ring – fish appears on church in Rome = pope must have ring!
Ashley stands in front of St Peter‘s and interviews an expert who is remarkably indecisive to my thinking but Mr Cowie reads something between the lines and concludes that what he needs is a helicopter – which Kinga is ordered to find. The resourceful producer finds one. And she has also managed to get permission to fly over the ‘restricted airspace’ of the Vatican. What does he find? A ‘wagon wheel’ design painted on the ground in St Peter’s Square (did they really need a helicopter to see that??).
The evidence is overwhelming. Fish – ring – Christians – Pope – it’s somewhere in the secret archives. Why would the pope have it? Because he has it ‘ready to do battle with evil in the final days’.