Helen J Nicholson, a specialist in the history of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitalier, shares a brief history of the medieval order of military monks…
This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Order of the Temple was a religious-military institution founded by a group of warriors in Jerusalem in the decades following the First Crusade of 1097–99. The group first received royal and church approval in 1120, and papal authorisation in January 1129. They protected Christian pilgrims on the roads to the pilgrimage sites around Jerusalem and also helped to defend the territories that the First Crusade had conquered. As members of a religious order, they made three vows: to obey their superior officer, to avoid sexual activity and to have no personal property. They were called ‘Templars’ after their headquarters in Jerusalem, the Aqsa mosque, which westerners believed was King Solomon’s temple.
Western European Christians gave the Templars gifts of land, money and tax concessions to help their work, and the brothers of the order also traded and acted as government officials for the rulers of western Christendom. They farmed wide estates in western Europe, lodged travellers in their houses and acted as bankers. But in the Middle East they and their fellow military orders, such as the Hospitallers, faced increasingly well-organised assaults from ever more effective Islamic forces. The sultan of Egypt conquered Jerusalem in 1244, and in 1291, Acre, the final capital of the crusaders’ kingdom, fell to the Muslim army following a bloody siege. The Templars and the Hospitallers who escaped the massacre at the hands of the sultan’s forces moved their headquarters to Cyprus and set about trying to organise a new crusade.
The Templar grand master, Jacques de Molay, was in France planning such a crusade when he and all the Templars in France were arrested on the order of King Philip IV of France in October 1307. The brothers were charged with heresy, and the normal procedures for heresy cases were used against them, including torture to extract confessions.
In April 1312 Pope Clement announced that although the Templars were not proven guilty, the order’s good name had been so damaged that it could not continue. He dissolved the order and transferred most of its properties to the Hospitallers. The Templars were sent to live in other religious houses, and their order ceased to exist.
The Templars’ estates in Britain were concentrated in the east of England and the south Midlands, with some lands on the English-Welsh border, and only two sites in Scotland. Their location depended mainly on which landowners had donated property, although the Templars also purchased estates.
Templar farms and other lands were grouped into commanderies, which were larger manors that administered several lesser holdings. Commanderies in Britain were on flat or gently rolling land, and often sited on rivers for good transportation.
At the time of the arrests in January 1308, there were Templars resident in only 35 of their houses in England. The king’s sheriffs who arrested the Templars also confiscated their lands. Royal officials administered these and sent their revenues to the king’s exchequer. The king gave some of the estates to his favourites and to important nobles. Many lands were returned to the families who had originally given them to the Templars.
In May 1312 Pope Clement gave the Templars’ lands to the Hospitallers, but the king and his nobles refused to give them up. It took the Hospitallers more than two decades to gain the bulk of the Templars’ English estates; they never recovered some properties.
The trials across Europe
King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of all the Templars in France on 13 October 1307, charged with denying Christ when they were received into the order, spitting on the cross and exchanging obscene kisses, committing sodomy with each other, and worshipping an idol. He ordered torture be used to get confessions, as was usual in heresy trials.
Pope Clement V initially protested, then ordered the arrest of all Templars in Christendom and their interrogation for heresy. But even though in August 1308 he reported that the leading Templars in France had confessed to “horrible things” and that he had absolved them – on condition that they perform penance – he tried to ensure that the Templars had a fair hearing. In fact the only Templars to confess to any of the charges were those under the jurisdiction of the king of France or of his relatives.
In the kingdom of Aragon, King James II ordered the Templars’ arrest but had to besiege them in their castles before he could enforce this. The Templars were interrogated but confessed nothing.
In northern Italy the archbishop of Ravenna refused to allow torture to be used and no Templars confessed. In Cyprus, the Templars and non-Templars who gave evidence insisted that they were innocent. In Portugal King Dinis brought a legal case against the Templars to recover lands given to them by his predecessors, but there was no heresy trial. In all, the results of the trial outside France supported the Templars’ innocence.