The end of the Knights Templar, 1314

The burning of the Templars

The burning of the Templars

Today marks the 699th anniversary of one of the major steps in the destruction of the Knights Templar: the burning of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, as a relapsed heretic. It was one of the last acts in the downfall of the Templars, but also one of the first steps in constructing a legend about them.

Temple Church in London, originally a Templar building

Temple Church in London, originally a Templar building

The Knights Templar were a monastic order formed around 1119 to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land in the aftermath of the first Crusades. Their mission quickly expanded to actively fighting the Saracens. The Templars became a popular order and received many charitable gifts. To manage their wealth, and finance their wars in the Holy Land, they gradually developing a banking network across Catholic Europe. Unfortunately, their great wealth could not redeem their military failures, and along with the other Crusaders and monastic knights the Templars were driven from the Holy Land by 1291. The greedy King of France, Philip IV, in debt to the Templars, coerced Pope Clement V into helping him destroy the Templars on the grounds of heresy. The order was dissolved in 1312. De Molay, who had confessed under torture, recanted his confession, and was officially executed for doing so. And that, more or less, was the end of the Templars in fact.

As a rule, the use of instruments indicates torture during the interrogation of the Templars

De Molay being interrogated. Note the presence of instruments to imply torture.

But it was the start of the legend of the Templars. De Molay was said to have proclaimed his innocence at the pyre, and said that God would call the Pope and the King of France to account for their sins. And both died within the year! The confessions of the Templars were interpreted to show they had secured some great relic of supernatural power, and that they had been engaged in witchcraft or diabolism. And people wondered where the great wealth of the Templar order had gone to.

The process by which these legends developed was long and complicated. By the 18th century, de Molay and the Templars had been incorporated into Masonic mythology, such that there is a Masonic order of Knights Templar, and a boy’s order named after de Molay. The Holy Grail had been connected to the Templars by the early 19th century. It would take the 20th century to add space aliens.

But why the Templars? How have they become the focus of so much mysticism and occultism? Certainly the suddenness by which the Order was suppressed, and the more fantastic elements of the confessions extorted under torture from the Templars gave them a shady reputation in the 14th century. They proved handy when 18th century seekers for  spiritual knowledge went looking for noble precedents. And that’s much akin to their role today, as dubious keepers of ancient spiritual wisdom in a hopelessly mundane and unsatisfying world.

As mythical models, the Templars might serve to help people visualize and act on their spiritual goals. But as historical figures, the Templars were ultimately failures, militarily, politically, and spiritually. People looking for spiritual enlightenment deserve better.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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4 Responses to The end of the Knights Templar, 1314

  1. Interesting stuff – I’ve been meaning to make a visit to Temple Church for years, and still not got round to it.

  2. danagpeleg1 says:

    Aren’t they related to the German Templers?

    • Brian Bixby says:

      There were Knights Templar in Germany in medieval times, Dana. And there were other military monastic orders, such as the Teutonic Knights, who switched from fighting Muslims to crusading against the pagan peoples on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.

      However, if you mean the ones in Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere in what’s now Israel in the 1868-1939 period, who I had never heard of before trying to answer your question, there’s no real connection. They both took their name from the Temple in Jerusalem, but they have different religious and historical origins. The Templars of 1119-1312 were a Catholic monastic order that had a dispensation to engage in combat with infidels. The 1868-1939 Templars were a group of German pietists (believers in a spritual inner light for guidance) with belief in an imminent Second Coming of Christ (and hence the end of the world) who thought they could hurry this along by helping to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

      Curiously enough, some of the support Israel gets from American Christian fundamentalists is based on the same idea: reconstructing Israel is a necessary step to bring on the end of the world, which these people want to see as the final triumph of God.

      • danagpeleg1 says:

        Thanks! I did mean these Templers – they have left us their special architecture too. In Jerusalem they had their branch of the Nazi party! Messianism is a terrible thing, by that I mean the aspiration to bring the End of Days closer, either by Jews or Christians… I think Netanyahu gets a lot of supports from these fundementalists. (Christian) Fundementalist supprt (Jewish) fundementalists on the back of other (mostly Moslem) people. BTW, If you ever come to Israel, you wouldn’t believe where this end is supposed to start: Mt. Megido (Hebrew: Har Megido) is a green peaceful hill in a beautiful rural valley.

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