One of the greatest mysteries relating to the Knights Templar is whether the order discovered some form of treasure in Jerusalem that would offer an explanation for their fabulous wealth.
Nine knights at the start of the 12th century went to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and asked for permission to guard the roads in to the holy city to safeguard pilgrims. They wanted to form a new order that would combine militaristic valour with monastic discipline and piety. The Patriarch and secular authorities gave the knights the green light and so the Templars were launched.
They asked to be based in the Al Aqsa mosque, which they believed dated back to the reign of king Solomon – pre-dating the destruction of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. King Baldwin of Jerusalem agreed to them being based at this auspicious location. These crusaders were to become the knights of the Temple – the Templars.
In a very short period of time, they began to amass significant wealth. How was this achieved? There are several explanations. The nine knights themselves were well connected aristocrats plugged into a network of well-heeled supporters in the church and state. Bequests began to flood in from those looking to support the crusade in the Holy Land and hoping for divine favour in the afterlife.
As the Templars grew establishing preceptories across Europe, they created a complex financial and economic network to fund their activity in the Middle East. The order even developed the first banking cheques allowing knights to travel great distances without having to carry their wealth in chests. The Templars became money lenders to princes and ran an efficient farming enterprise. So is this where all their money came from?
Well, not according to sources down the centuries. In the 19th century, evidence emerged of excavations underneath the Al Aqsa mosque suggesting the Templars had been digging away for something. Of course, this gave rise to speculation that they had found some form of treasure – possibly the Holy Grail (with little agreement on what that actually is) – explaining their sudden leap in wealth.
As the crusades crumbled in the 13th century, the Templars were forced to abandon Jerusalem. The theory then goes that they hauled their treasure off to be stored in their most formidable and well guarded preceptory in Paris. This building with its thick walls still stood during the 1789 French revolution but was demolished in stages in the years that followed.
So did the Templars get their wealth out of Paris as their leaders were put on trial for heresy by king Philip the Fair of France – a monarch always short of money who fleeced the Templars, the church, the Jewish community and anybody else who could pay for his wars?
When the Templars were rounded up and arrested in 1307, some were imprisoned at the fortress of Gisors in France. Graffiti on the walls was said to include the image of a large cart carrying treasure away. A caretaker at Gisors in 1929 claimed to have found an underground chapel crammed with vast riches. However, when the local authorities turned up to investigate further, there was nothing at all. He was duly fired.
In the 1960s, the French culture minister Andre Malraux ordered a new dig at Gisors using the army instead of archaeologists. But even their heavy muscle failed to reveal a thing. There was no Templar treasure.
When King Philip of France – scourge of the Templars – sent his forces to raid the Templar headquarters in Paris in 1307, the cupboard was indeed bare. There’s no doubt there had been a great deal of loot within its walls because the king had seen it himself on a previous visit but now….nothing. Had the Templars under cover of night spirited away their treasure?
Some were convinced they had. So where did it go? One theory was that the surviving knights headed to the port of La Rochelle and took their ships, loaded with riches, to England and then on to Scotland. There, they helped the plucky Scots beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn – a claim the Scots dislike as it infers they couldn’t win their own battles!
There were already Templars in Scotland, dating back to the order’s earliest days. The knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney. In the late 14th century, the story runs that Sinclair and the knights used old Viking routes to sail to Iceland, Greenland and then to Vinland in modern Canada. There, they founded a kingdom that the native Iroquois referred to as Saguenay.
Stories of Saguenay and the Scottish connection were picked up by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries who duly reported back to the Vatican. One theory is that the 17th century French artist Poussin hints at knowledge of Templars in the New World in his painting Et in Arcadia Ego, also referred to as The Arcadian Shepherds.
I will explain this theory in more depth in another blog post.