Do the Knights Templar still exist today? The real history that debunks the conspiracy
For centuries, the Knights Templar, a militant monastic order founded in the 12th century, has attracted numerous conspiracy theories. Accused of devil-worship in their own time, the organisation has since been linked to everything from the Holy Grail, to ‘discovering’ the Americas. In the second season of our Conspiracy podcast series, Rob Attar speaks to Steve Tibble about the myriad theories, including the notion that the Templars endure to this very day
In the late 11th century, Pope Urban II called upon Europe’s faithful to conquer the Holy Land for Christendom. An army of warriors, as well as nobles, clerics and peasants, surged across southern Europe towards the Levant in what was later called the First Crusade. The campaign ended in its primary objective: the capture of Jerusalem and resulted in the establishment of four so-called ‘Crusader states’.
However, in the aftermath of the First Crusade, these enclaves along the eastern Mediterranean coast were vulnerable to Muslim retaliation. In c1119, a group of French knights led by Hugh de Payns (sometimes spelled Hugues de Payens) formed the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the ‘Knights Templar’, to protect Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Their name derived from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – which Christians mistook to be the ancient Temple of Solomon – and where they were provided lodgings by the city’s king, Baldwin II.
Upon their formation, the Knights Templar adopted a monastic lifestyle. This included vows to renounce personal property, obedience to high-ranking officers in the order and celibacy. They were funded by donations from across Europe and were granted tax breaks by the Papacy.
Its knights were clad in white mantles bearing red crosses, while sergeants wore black tunics, similarly adorned with red crosses. Before long, their protective duties evolved into military campaigns. By the late 13th century, the Templars commanded vast wealth, land and prestige across Europe.
However, the order had attracted enemies ever since its founding. On 13 October 1307, King Philip IV of France instigated the destruction of the order by having all Templars within his realm arrested and their assets seized. A raft of accusations, spanning everything from heresy to cat worship, was levied at them.
The order’s last grand master, Jacques de Molay, confessed to the accusations [against him] under torture and was subsequently burned at the stake in Paris in 1314. Pope Clement V dissolved the Knights Templar on 22 March 1312 and their extensive assets and property was either subsequently allocated to the Hospitallers [another military religious order] or confiscated by Europe’s rulers.
Yet the sudden and brutal disappearance of one of the medieval world’s most renowned organisations would spawn centuries of intrigue and fantasy.
The conspiracy theory: The Knights Templar found the Holy Grail and went underground
The common thread running through nearly every conspiracy about the Templars is the notion that they survived their dissolution and became a shadowy sect, jealously guarding ancient wisdom.
The order attracted intrigue even at the height of its power in the medieval period. Some began to denigrate them as a cult operating within Christendom. Hysteria over alleged satanism and blasphemy behind closed doors was instrumental to their persecution and lingered in popular memory long after.
Perhaps the single most persistent myth linked to them since the 12th century is that the order came into possession of the Holy Grail. The growing perception of them as a secret society steeped in magic and arcane knowledge dovetailed with their supposed control of such an awe-inspiring relic.
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What is the source of the theory?
The Grail connection reaches back to the First Crusade and the establishment of the Crusader states.
According to historian Steve Tibble, during the 12th century “you find people talking about it. The Genoese … believed that they’d been able to buy the Holy Grail” and take it back to Italy.
“We have to remember, we’re in a time where everybody is much more pious,” says Tibble, and the fetish for holy relics was an acute “focus for devotion”.
Furthermore, the Holy Land became a magnet for what Tibble calls “military tourists”, as a multitude of Christians flocked to the region searching for “the holy lance or the true cross where Jesus was crucified”.
“The kings of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers, the Templars, everybody wanted a piece of that action,” says Tibble.
The belief that they might have come into ownership of the Holy Grail would have seemed plausible to such a god-fearing culture. And such was the growing influence of this industry that organisations like the Templars even used the prospect of trading sacred trinkets and paraphernalia as leverage to commit European rulers to crusade.
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Having amassed a fortune in part through the exchange of relics, the Templars’ wealth became an irresistible target for avaricious and cash-strapped monarchs such as Philip IV, explains Tibble.
Indeed, the Templars’ extensive commercial network has spawned the most enduring conspiracy associated with them: that they survived their elimination. Using their shipping fleet, renegades allegedly took flight and regrouped outside of Europe – possibly even as far afield as the Americas.
Tibble admits there is some evidence that a few Templars evaded the crackdown. Nevertheless, this was contingent on the fact that their persecution was not universally applied throughout Europe.
“We know that some of them escaped to Ireland and they weren’t actually hiding in secret. They were receiving a government pension,” he says.
The reasons why the theory took hold
When the French crown launched its witch-hunt against the Templars, one of the tools it used to establish ‘proof’ of heresy was torture. Many “died under torture rather than perjure themselves,” says Tibble.
Unsurprisingly, plenty did admit “to being heretics, to being Satan worshippers, to committing acts of bestiality with cats. You name it, they confess[ed] to it”. But for Tibble, this simply proves that “if you torture somebody, they’ll say whatever you want”.
The germ of some validity to the charges entered popular culture, nonetheless, and stuck.
During the Victorian era, the Templars provided a rich seam of intrigue and mystery for the burgeoning market in novellas. Tibble lays much of the blame at Scottish historian and novelist Sir Walter Scott’s feet for turning them into “larger-than-life pantomime villains”.
The 19th century saw the emergence of a “little Templar industry”, explains Tibble, that saw the forgery of “different documents and coins and artifacts”. It helped instil the idea that the Templar traditions, as well as its line of grand masters, had survived intact.
Adding fuel to such theories, fraternal organisations such as the Freemasons insinuated that they had inherited the Templars’ cache of ancient knowledge. Yet all of this was simply an attempt to invoke the lustre of a much romanticised and misunderstood body.
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The evidence that debunks the theory
Part of the reason why the Templars have attracted so many conspiracies – and why they are simply fantastical – is because the order’s suppression in 1312 entailed the destruction of its archive. Tibble believes the records, like the surviving Hospitaller ones, would likely have been “amazingly boring” and contain “no receipts for the Holy Grail”.
Notwithstanding the loss of documentary evidence, he maintains that there are things we can almost certainly discount, in any case.
For example, there’s the notion that the Templars regrouped across the Atlantic in the Americas courtesy of their mighty commercial fleet. Medieval ships capable of such distances only existed for a short time.
“Richard the Lionheart had a superb fleet that he used to transport his army down to the Middle East and North Africa,” says Tibble, “and within a couple of years that fleet [had] ceased to exist. King John was having to build another one pretty much from scratch”.
Indeed, investigations have not uncovered evidence of a mass medieval exodus of young elite soldiers. Rather, Tibble says, “they were just a tiny number of really old guys who … wanted to go home.”
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They “wanted to disappear,” he says, “and go back to their families or maybe join the Hospitallers, as some of them seemed to do”.
Yet the notion that the Knights Templar simply vanished remains inexplicable to some. For instance, one aspect of the ‘survival’ theory holds that western Scotland became a bastion for fugitive Templars. Again, “it is based on no evidence,” says Tibble. “Ironically, one of the very few places in Britain where the Templars didn’t have big assets was the west coast of Scotland.”
Attempts to weave an elite Templar army into the history of the battle of Bannockburn, fought between the armies of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, and King Edward II of England in 1314, have even been made. Its proponents imply that Robert the Bruce owed his victory over the English to a force of elite warriors hiding in north Britain. Tibble asserts that “there are lots of chronicles that are contemporary to the battle … none of them mentioned this Templar army”.
Tibble believes that the rise of the internet has made the historian’s job to clearly and authoritatively point out the historical reality based on the available evidence more urgent than ever.
However, he concedes that the Templars’ long relationship with conspiracies is because they are “a blank piece of paper [on which] we can write whatever fantasy we want”.
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Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)