In 1118, nine French knights arrived in the Holy Land and installed themselves next to the site of the former Temple of Solomon. One of these men, Hugh de Payens, took leadership of the group and along with his eight companions founded the Poor Knights of Christ. Their order was both military and monastic, and they all swore vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to Theocletus, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Due to their close proximity to the former temple site, they soon became known as the Knights of the Temple, or the Templars. The stated purpose of their Order, the Order of the Temple, was to protect pilgrims who came to visit the Holy Land, in particular along the route between Jerusalem and St. Jean d'Acre. Within ten years, the number of Templar Knights had reached 300, and their personal army comprised some 3000 men.
At the same time, another very prominent Order existed in Jerusalem to serve the needs of pilgrims, called the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Hospitalers. When the Hospitalers were founded before the First Crusade by the French nobleman Gerard, they performed charitable rather than military functions. Their purpose was to care for sick pilgrims near the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Jerusalem. Under the Order's second Grand Marshal, Raymond du Puy, however, the Hospitalers began to take on military duties in addition to their work at the Church of St. John. By 1200, their charitable duties were playing a secondary role to their military duties. While there does not appear to have been any official relationship between the Knights Templar and the Hospitalers, the two Orders were very similar and borrowed ideas from each other.
A candidate for entry to the Order of the Temple was put through severe testing before he could be admitted. He was first on a probationary status, during which time he was tested for his sincerity and strength of character by being asked to perform many types of unpleasant tasks. Once a candidate had proven himself worthy, he would earn the right to wear the standard white tunic of the Order, with its red Latin Cross (see picture). The new Knight would now join his brethren in living by the motto of "Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam." (Not for us, Lord, not for us, but to Thy Name give glory.) The seal of the Order depicted two horsemen on the same horse, signifying the sanctity of poverty and service.
In 1128 a Council of the Church was held at Troyes in France to prepare a constitution for the quickly growing Templars. They were given a charter by Pope Honorius II, through much support from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, head of the Cistercian Order and the closest confidant of the Pope. The constitution of the Order was based very closely on St. Bernard's own order. This constitution ruled the Templars' daily duties, which kept their life simple and monastic, with part of each day spent in prayer, and the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience became officially required of all candidates. The constitution also declared the administration of the Order, making it a very closed brotherhood restricted to men of noble birth. This administration was also very centralized. The head of the Order was the Grand Master, and next in line was his deputy, the Seneschal, followed by the Marshal, and the Commander. They ruled over three ranks of members: knights, chaplains and sergeants. The order was divided into provinces and commanderies, each of which was run along the same hierarchical structure. Most importantly, the 1128 constitution granted the Order of the Temple virtual sovereignty, making them exempt from the local King and Patriarch, and answering only the Pope. The Order was not only exempted from taxes, but now had the right to impose its own. Additionally, the Order now had the power to appoint clergy.
As the Templars' popularity increased throughout the 12th century, they quickly became a force to be reckoned with throughout Europe and the Middle East. Numbering some 20,000 at their peak, they became extremely important in defending the Crusader states, especially the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, from attacks by Muslim forces. Along with the surge in popularity and membership, the Order amassed great wealth and political power, as it was given many gifts of money and land in both Palestine and Europe. During this time, the Templars began to establish a sophisticated banking system and many Western Kings, nobles and merchants came to rely upon them for this service.
In 1187, Jerusalem finally fell to Muslim forces under the command of Saladin. By 1291 the Templars had abandoned the Holy Land completely and moved their operations to Cyprus, thereby losing their chief purpose, the defense of Palestine. Because their fortunes were so intimately linked with those of Christendom in the Holy Land, the failure of the Second Crusade marked the beginning of the decline of Templar power. They became less attached to the ideal of poverty and became arrogant and luxurious. The Church did not have as much power over the wealth of the Order as it would have liked, and disagreements ensued between the Pope and the Order.
Soon thereafter, unrest grew among the Kings of Europe about the wealth and power of this vast military Order, many of whom were know returning to France and other parts of the European continent. Their main enemy was Philip IV, King of France, who induced Pope Clement V to imprison them and bring accusations against them. In 1307, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay and many other Templars living in France were arrested and imprisoned. Under torture, they confessed to blasphemy, devil worship and other crimes. The Templars in England suffered the same fate. Edward II accused them in 1309 of various crimes, and all Order members that could be found were imprisoned and tortured, and their possessions and land were confiscated.
On April 3, 1312 a Council was called in Vienne, France, where the Pope announced the abolition of the Order and transferred its remaining property to the Hospitalers. On March 18th, 1314, Philip finally got his way and had the 22nd Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, dragged to the stake and burned.
Most indication is that Philip lashed out at the Templars so harshly due to his own financial problems. In both France and England, the royal government seized most of the Order's assets, despite the Pope's directive that it be transferred to the Hospitalers.
Despite the efforts of jealous Kings and a fearful Pope, not all members of the Order of the Temple could be imprisoned or executed. Some had remained in Cyprus and Sicily, while others had escaped to Portugal and quiet parts of Germany where they could live in peace.
The chief legacy of the Templars is in reality a religious one. For two and a half centuries the Templars flourished in a part of the world where civilization was much higher than in Europe. Many were able to learn from Near Eastern sages of new ways of thought, of new religious ideas, and of sciences and art. Ideas were not suppressed in the East as they were in Christian Europe by a Church ever mindful to grow in power through the enslavement of the minds and beliefs of their population. Many of the Templars most likely studied with the Alchemists and Sufi mystics in the Near East. When the Templars were accused as heretics, one of the crimes for which they were persecuted was trampling on the Christian cross. They were also said to have worshipped a goat-headed God (possibly Baphomet) and to turn away from the popular beliefs related to Christ and the God of the Christian Church.
Today, many groups claim descent from the Templar
tradition, ranging from Christian social groups with honorary titles to
occult secret societies. It is known that many of the symbols, practices
and organizational techniques of the Templars have survived through various
Masonic bodies, namely the York Rite, as well as the Rosicrucians, and
many other gnostic secret societies.
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