Who Really Wiped Out The Templars?

Illustration for article titled Who Really Wiped Out The Templars?

The Templars have gained a formidable reputation, thanks to years of appearances in genre stories. They tend to be a convenient Secret Underground Order whenever someone needs to fight (or be helped by) a Secret Underground Order. But what were they really? And who wiped them out?


The Knights Templar tend to play the good guys in some stories and the bad guys in others. But whether they were “good” or “bad” in real life is up for debate. They were created to lead the Crusades, and were meant to be lean and holy monk-knight combinations. Their asceticism attracted wealth, since everybody thought that giving to the most disciplined and devout orders would be the surest ticket to Heaven. (This notion also enriched the Franciscans until they were a wealthy and powerful order.)

Over time, the Templars amassed wealth, which they loaned out at interest. Unfortunately for them, the wealth and power they gathered made them a target, as did the fact that as wealthy money-lenders, they were not well-loved. When times got tough, and the poor were either too impoverished or too rebellious to be worth taxing, the Templars began to look like a plum that could easily be plucked. Philip IV of France decided he was the man for the job. One Friday the 13th in 1307, he had all the Knights Templar arrested. (This may be the reason why we consider Friday 13th to be unlucky.) This was a long-planned undertaking, as the Knights Templar had about 2000 members.


Over the next few weeks, the members of the order were tortured relentlessly until they confessed to various sacrilegious acts, including urinating on the cross, worshiping a cat, and that old favorite, sodomy. The Templars are often portrayed as viril young knights or fanatic young priests burning with religious fervor, but at the time, most of the members of the order were old. Many succumbed to torture and the deprivation that comes with imprisonment. Those who survived were, for the most part, executed. The head of the order, Jacques de Molay, was brought up on a public stage to confess his crimes and the crimes of his order. Instead he declared his innocence, and before being burned alive, people say he claimed that within a year both Philip IV and the Pope who had authorized the trials would die. Both did die within the year – the Pope only lasted a month – and the reputation of the Templars as a powerful quasi-mystical secret society was sealed.

[Source: A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman]

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There is a critical mistake that a lot of genre fiction makes that the entry doesn’t dispel which is the timing of Templars’ creation. Contrary to what some prominent Tom Hanks films would have you believe, the Templars did not lead the First Crusade. They were created after the founding of the Kingdom of Jerusalem with the purpose of guarding the paths in and out of the Kingdom.

Their position as border and highway guards put them in an excellent position to be a medieval bank. You gave cash to a Templar office in France who provided you with a certificate which you could then redeem in the Levant. This way you didn’t have to carry cash with you on the roads and fall prey to robbers.

Once the Latin East evaporated in the early 13th Century, there was no need for a banking or military order whose focus was the Holy Land. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the Templars were wiped out and it had nothing to do with “secret histories” or heretical beliefs. By the late 13th century they were a cash rich but useless remnant of the Latin East and a ripe target to the perpetually short of funds European monarchs. There was cloth of gold to buy and wars to fight and kings and dukes didn’t want to deal with the headache of levying taxes.