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.)

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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]