James Bond

James Bond, 11th January 2011

The Knights Templar

Monks who were licensed to kill was James Bonds apt description of the Knights Templar.

The role of the Templars has its origins in the period after the First Crusade.

The Muslims had taken Jerusalem in 637 and for most of the following period had exercised a fairly tolerant rule, allowing the Christian inhabitants of the area to live in peace.

Pope Urban 1 launched the first Crusade in 1095, in part because of a generally worsening political situation in the Holy Land and in part to occupy the considerable numbers of quarrelsome young knights who had been rendered landless by primogeniture.

The First Crusade was a success in that Jerusalem was taken but at the cost of much bloodshed, which ruined relations between Christians and Muslims, and still has repercussions today.

Although the Holy Land had been taken it was never to be a peaceful place again and pilgrimage became a dangerous undertaking. The result was the setting up of several religious orders combining monasticism and knighthood whose role was to defend the Holy places and Christian pilgrims.

One of these was the Order of the Temple, set up shortly before 1120, and actively encouraged by Bernard de Clairvaux, an important early member of the Cistercian order. The Templar Rules had much in common with the Cistercians, but there were concessions to their more strenuous way of life. For example, unlike the monks, who were vegetarian, the Knights were allowed meat three times a week.

Knights templer.jpg

From relatively humble beginnings (only nine members were recorded in 1129) the order rapidly grew and developed provinces across Europe. In order to raise funds for their primary role in the Holy Land the Templars received gifts of land to generate income. Sometimes they built and manned castles in exchange, as in the Holy Land and in Spain and Portugal. As time went on and their wealth grew they bought further land to consolidate their possessions, and engaged in improvement such as land drainage. Because of their international role they developed the function of bankers and travel agents for the many pilgrims who wished to visit the Holy Land. All this activity led to an infrastructure of buildings, including barns, churches, treasuries and hostelries for travellers. But always the focus was on the mission in the Holy Land with the result that building in Europe was generally of modest proportions.

Jerusalem was of course central to this mission and in particular the Temple, where they had their headquarters and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which stood over the supposed site of the Crucifixion and of Christ's tomb. This was the holiest of places for the pilgrims and its circular form was often imitated in the churches erected by the Templars.

But the City of Jerusalem was retaken by Saladin in 1187. The remaining territory of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was effectively lost at the Siege of Acre in 1291 and the Templars withdrew to the small island of Ruad from which they were eventually expelled in 1303. They withdrew to Cyprus but with the loss of the Holy Land the Templars role was substantially diminished. In 1307 King Philip IV of France, who had been casting envious eyes on the Templars wealth gained the Popes approval to move against them. A number of serious and sensational charges were laid and confessions extracted under torture. When the leaders subsequently retracted their confessions they were executed. For nearly two hundred years the Templars had played an important role in Christendom but now the order was disbanded. In countries where the Templars were tried without torture no evidence of the wrongdoings alleged by Philip were produced and the modern interpretation is that the charges were trumped up solely to enable their riches to be pillaged.

The often shadowy remains of the Templars infrastructure are of interest to the archaeologist. They are to be found in many places throughout Europe and the Middle East, and James took us on a lightning tour of the major ones. In Britain a number of sites are known. The Temple area in London was let to the lawyers by the Hospitallers, the Templars successors, on condition they maintained the Church, which still stands today. In Bristol the name lingers on in Temple Meads, and the Temple Church, which was bombed out in the Second World War, has been excavated with interesting results. Temple Combe in Somerset is another local site, which featured in a Time Team investigation, but is still not fully understood. Baldock, Herts, was a new town founded by the Templars around 1138, its name being derived from Baghdad - so named in memory of the Holy Land. Other places mentioned included Templeton in Pembrokeshire, Temple Bruer in Lincolnshire, Garway in Herefordshire, Temple Guiting in Gloucestershire, Sandford-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, Temple Cressing in Essex and Strood Camera in Kent. All places worthy of a diversion if you happen to find yourself in the vicinity!

In concentrating on the known facts of the Knights Templar James showed us that the truth is so much more absorbing than the sensational tales which have grown up around them in the succeeding centuries.

James talk was detailed, exhaustive and stimulating. This report could only hope to give the bare bones of what he had to tell us.

Peter Johnson

For a more detailed account he recommends the following recent books:

Helen Nicholson, The Knights Templar: a New History (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001)

Juliet Faith, The Knights Templar in Somerset (History Press, Stroud, 2009).