Though their order was dissolved more than 700 years ago, the Knights Templar have continued to cast a spell over the world. Terrorists and drug cartels evoke them. Dan Brown’s mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code was partly inspired by one of the most famous Templar legends—that the Templars were the guardians of the Holy Grail. (Find out what the Templars had to do with Friday the 13th.)
In The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, British historian Dan Jones winnows the facts from the fiction to tell the true story of this legendary armed religious order. Speaking from a pub in London, Jones explained how the Templars went from protecting pilgrims during the Crusades to controlling a vast financial empire, how their belief in religious martyrdom is shared by groups like ISIS, and why the Templars’ crusading spirit and anti-Muslim rhetoric is attracting a new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Most of us know of the Templars through The Da Vinci Code. How much of that book is based in historical fact?
Vanishingly little! [Laughs] What the Da Vinci Code does very effectively is to present a pseudo-history of the Templars and to roll up ideas like the Priory of Sion and notions about the Holy Grail as a metaphor for the secret bloodline of Christ. It’s certainly captured people’s imaginations.
If you read the passages specifically about the Templars within the Da Vinci Code, they’re a wonderful admixture of Templar myth and Templar history. He switches seamlessly between factual statements, like them being founded in Jerusalem in 1119, to myth and speculation, all of which has swirled around the Templars. The effect feels very real but, taken as a whole, it’s a hocus-pocus of speculation and half-truth.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Who were the Templars? And when and where did they operate?
Their beginnings can be traced to Jerusalem and the aftermath of the First Crusade. After the First Crusade, when the city switched from Muslim to Christian occupation, there was an influx of pilgrims from the West. Their experience, as we know from pilgrim diaries, was that the area around Jerusalem and the holy sites was extremely dangerous.
Pilgrim diaries describe corpses piling up on the roadside where they’d been attacked by bandits and left to be devoured by wild beasts. Around the year 1119, a group of mostly French knights, from the Champagne region, decided to set up a roadside rescue service, a sort of medieval AAA, with the purpose of protecting pilgrims around Jerusalem.
In the decades that followed, they grew from being a pilgrim rescue service to an elite, paramilitary unit in the armies of the Crusades. Early in their history they were granted lodgings in the building that we call today the Al-Aqsa mosque on Al-Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary") or Temple Mount.
They are sometimes described as “monk-warriors” but that is slightly misleading. They weren’t actually monks, though they lived a monk-like existence, originally modelled on the rule of the Cistercians. Their full name was the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon—Knights Templar for short.
COURTESY OF VIKING
Reading your book, I was struck by the number of place names that I see on the news today every night, from Aleppo to Gaza to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Tease out some of the parallels between then and now.
It’s about intractable, seemingly endless wars in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt—wars that are both between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Western Christian invaders. When I was writing the book, the fact that we were going back to places like Aleppo, Mosul, or Damascus was a reminder that many of the issues that were alive at the time of the Crusades are still alive today.
On medieval Christian maps, the area around Jerusalem was depicted as the centre of the world both geographically and spiritually. In some sense, it still is the centre of the world—a trouble spot through which trade routes pass and around which religious disputes have been fought for centuries upon centuries.
The phrase “the clash of civilizations” is popular among right-wing thinkers today to describe the conflict between the West and Islam. Would it be unfair to call the Templars a sort of Christian version of ISIS?
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Joshua Green’s recently published book about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. In it, Green describes some of Bannon’s reading, which includes French writer Rene Guenon, who argues that the fall of the Templars was a key moment in a long-running clash of civilizations.
It’s easy to read the history of the Crusades as a clash of civilizations although I don’t think this is quite correct. It’s a clash of ideologies in part but also a free-for-all skirmish over an almost universally mythologized territory.
As regards the Templars as a medieval ISIS, I think superficially there’s much in the methods and ideologies of a group like the Islamic State that we can also recognize in the most militant Christian groups of the Middle Ages, the centrality of martyrdom being high among them. There is also the idea that the individual member of the organization is disposable but the ideology is what binds the organization together—and a belief that victory can only be counted once the Holy Lands are rid of all but true believers.
Christian Orthodox worshippers celebrate Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Knights Templar first gathered at the church, which is reputed to contain the tomb of Jesus Christ. - PHOTOGRAPH BY AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP, GETTY
As well as being Christian warriors, the Templars eventually controlled a vast financial network that included real estate, banking, and even a prototypical version of Western Union. Take us inside this empire.
Absolutely right! From the very early years they attracted support in the form of material and financial donations from pious Christians, who wanted to earn credit with the Almighty but didn’t fancy the job of going to fight themselves. [Laughs] As a result, the Templars built up a network of land and estates in Ireland, England, France, as well as in the kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Germany, as far as Cyprus.
These estates were managed in order to maximize revenue and as a result the Templars became both extremely cash and property rich. By the 13th century, they’d also developed the ability to move wealth around their territories. We know that during the Fifth Crusade, from 1213 to 1221, the Pope was using Templars as tax collectors because they had the ability to go around, collect tax, and move it to the Crusades.
The Templars were especially close to the kings of France. When Louis IX found himself out of cash during the Seventh Crusade, the Templars were actively involved in provisioning his armies and renting ships to get the crusaders down to Egypt. During the crusade, Louis IX was captured and the Templars weighed in and paid the final instalment of his ransom, which they were able to raise in a day from cash held on their ships.
The Templars are often described as bankers, and I use that term as shorthand in the book, but I think a better term today might be to describe them as providing medieval financial services. As well as acting as a crude bank of deposits and withdrawals, they were also subcontracting much of the treasury and tax collection of the French crown and Papacy across many different territories.
The wealth of the Templars eventually led to their sudden and brutal downfall under the French king Philip IV. Talk us through this episode and explain how what we now call “fake news” was a factor.
In 1291, the crusader states were lost, and the Templars were kicked out of the Holy Land and had to retreat to Cyprus. That led to some 15 years of introspection across the Western Christian world. The idea went around the polite circles of Western Europe that perhaps reform of the military orders was in order, including rolling up the Templars and creating a new military order.
In 1306, Jacques de Molay, the last Templar master, was summoned back to Europe to discuss plans for a new crusade and to defend the order against the suggestion that the Templars ought to be rolled up. The Pope to whom he had to answer, Clement V from Gascony in France, was effectively under the thumb of Philip IV.
On Friday 13th, 1307, Philip laid the groundwork for an attack on the Templars to raid their wealth and bolster his position as a Christian reforming king. He sent agents to every Templar house in France to arrest every member of the Templars they could find and put them in prison. Many were tortured and put on show trials.
The accusations levelled against them accord to the modern shorthand of “fake news.” They took aspects of Templar life—for example, the Kiss of Peace—and magnified them into incidences of deviance and sexual impropriety.
The process of persecuting the Templars in France and, more widely, across every territory in which they operated, ran between 1307-1312, at which time the Templars were formally abolished by a papal council known as the Council of Vienne. Two years later Jacques de Molay and several other Templar masters were brought from prison to be sentenced by a group of cardinals for their personal misdeeds. Jacques de Molay and one of his colleagues retracted previous confessions they’d made of heresy under torture and were burned at the stake in Paris.
As Jacques de Molay dies, one eyewitness says the Templar master asked God to take revenge on the people who had tormented him. Lo and behold, within a year, both Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V were dead. [Laughs]
Norwegian terrorist and white supremacist Anders Breivik claimed to be part of a revived international Templar cell. Do you believe there is any truth to this and that, in these factional times, the organization could see a comeback?
Anders Breivik claimed to have been a founding member of a revived order of the Templars. He said nine founders got together in London and decided to found a new order of the Temple with the avowed mission of combating and doing harm to Muslims within Europe.
The imagery and symbolism of the Templars are still incredibly alluring, particularly to neo-fascists, white supremacists, and Islamophobes, who believe we are engaged in a cosmic clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. Whether Free Masons or even Mexican drug cartels, like Los Caballeros Templarios, large numbers of people have co-opted Templar symbolism, protocol, and beliefs to further their own modern goals.
The Templars continue to spawn books, movies, and even video games, like Assassin’s Creed. Why do you think this is? And what can they teach us?
Wound into this incredible story is the most extraordinary myth, legend, and symbolism that still captures people’s imaginations today and did so even at the time of the Templars! In the 13th century, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach placed the Templars at the heart of his King Arthur story, Parzival, as the defenders of the Holy Grail. They symbolize something exotic, strange, and mysterious, which is both alien and tantalizingly familiar to us today.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.