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.
Did the Knights Templar reach America? I hear a resounding “no” from medieval scholars everywhere but let’s go through the various theories about how the Templars may have been in the New World a century before Christopher Columbus.
Our starting point is the decision in October 1307 by the king of France, Philip the Fair, to round up every Knight Templar in his realm and put them on trial for heresy, idolatry, sodomy and corruption. Philip knew the Templars were astoundingly wealthy and he had big debts to pay. But when his men turned up at the Paris Temple, the order’s heavily fortified HQ, the cupboard was bare. Knights had fled with whatever treasure was behind those immense walls.
So where had they gone? It’s normally assumed they fled to La Rochelle – a port where the order kept a large fleet. This port is in south west France so the fleet then rounded the French coast past Brittany and on to England. From there, the Templars are said to have hugged the coastline until reaching Scotland. It is then asserted that they helped Robert the Bruce win his famous victory against the English at Bannockburn after which – some while later – the knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney.
This would have happened decades after the Templars were disbanded in 1307. The Sinclairs – or St Clairs – already had a Templar connection. In 1128, the second baron of Roslin, Henry St Clair, had met the founder of the Knights Templar, Hugh de Payens, when he visited Scotland to spread the word about the new order. Rosslyn chapel had not been built at this time by the way.
So – Henry Sinclair and the Templars embarked at the end of the fourteenth century in a fleet of ships bound for Iceland then past the declining communities in Greenland following old Viking routes. These would eventually lead them to Vinland, the fabled settlement established by the Vikings in the New World – roughly corresponding to Nova Scotia. It is claimed that the local Mi’kmaq Indians still tell tales of white-skinned people who came from lands over the seas in their folklore. Some of their art incorporates a red cross on a white background, as does their tribal emblem.
The most bizarre claim is that the Mi’kmaq worshipped Sinclair in the form of a god called Glooscap. This has been rubbished by one blogger who has researched the subject and believes that Glooscap was actually a giant in the form of a beaver. That would rather rule out Sinclair!
Why would the Templars have undertaken such a long and dangerous journey? Because they were running off with the treasure found under the Temple of Solomon and/or a bunch of precious relics plus alchemical secrets etc. Where is this fabulous wealth today? Somewhere in north America waiting to be discovered.
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.