Here’s one bit of evidence that says yes – they were.
In 1307, the Templars were accused of some terrible crimes – by medieval standards. Christ’s divinity was being denied in their secret initiation ceremonies. They venerated idols, possibly including the head of a cat. Templars were encouraged to be homosexual and in their rites, kissed each other at the base of the spine, on the navel and the mouth. The holy sacraments were ignored because the Templars thought they were a sham. And so it went on. But were any of these charges true?
King Philip IV of France – Philip the Fair – had form when it came to trumping up charges against those who crossed his path. Pope Boniface VIII refused to be bullied by the French king so Philip unleashed his spin doctors to characterise the pontiff as a heretic, sodomite, wizard and magician.
But it’s an example of the king’s bullying of a French bishop that suggests the crimes against the Templars may have been made up. In his book on the Templar trials, Malcolm Barber gives the example of Guichard, the bishop of Troyes, who had fallen out with Philip’s wife Joan of Navarre and her mother Blanche.
Philip’s spin doctors set to work dreaming up some pretty steamy charges. Guichard was accused of making a wax image of the queen, baptising it and then sticking pins in the dummy. This apparently resulted in the queen’s death in 1305. He then made a potion from snakes, scorpions, toads and spiders with the intention of poisoning the royal princes. The bishop was thrown into prison and witnesses were tortured to back up the allegations.
By 1313 however, the king was distracted by the Templar trials and the bishop was released from jail later that year. He died after being transferred to a bishopric in modern day Bosnia. The manner of his treatment and over-the-top charges sounds very familiar. A king who wanted somebody out of the way got his advisers to set about total character assassination throwing everything they could at the bishop. So – could the same tactics have been employed against the Knights Templar?
According to the medieval chronicler William of Tyre – who wasn’t a huge fan of the Templars – the order appeared in the year 1118. They promised to live as canons of the church living under vows of chastity and obedience. Nine knights banded together to form the Knights Templar with two playing a particularly prominent role: Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St Omer.
They pledged to guard the routes to Jerusalem for pilgrims, protecting them from robbers and assassins. In an act of supreme generosity but also laden with meaning, this new militaristic religious order was given what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as its new headquarters. In 1118, it was under crusader Christian control and believed to be the temple of Solomon. Nearby was what’s now the Dome of the Rock but had then been renamed the Temple of the Lord with a crucifix placed on its golden dome.
They wore secular clothes for the first nine years of operation but then in 1129, a group of knights appeared before pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes – where he gave them permission to wear a white habit, signifying their purity. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his day, drew up new rules for the order. The Templars did not have to answer to any power in Christendom except the pope himself.
It’s aroused some curiosity as to how the Templars rose so fast to a point where the pope would take them under his wing within a decade of their formation. By 1170, according to William of Tyre, there were about 300 Templar knights and “countless” Templar sergeants – who were not permitted to wear the white habit, which had now acquired a red cross as well.
From this point onwards – their military, political and financial power increased rapidly.
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.