Knights Templars (in medieval history)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Knights Templars (in medieval history)

Knights Templars (tĕm´plərz), in medieval history, members of the military and religious order of the Poor Knights of Christ, called the Knights of the Temple of Solomon from their house in Jerusalem.

Origins

Like the Knights Hospitalers and the Teutonic Knights, the Templars were formed during the Crusades. They originally had a purely military function. Founded when Hugh de Payens and eight other knights joined together c.1118 to protect pilgrims, the order grew rapidly. St. Bernard of Clairvaux drew up its rules, and it was recognized at the Council of Troyes (1128) and confirmed by Pope Honorius III.

Rise to Power

The Templars received gifts of estates and money, and the organization soon became one of the most powerful in Europe. By combining monastic privilege with chivalrous adventure, they attracted many nobles. The order, organized under a grand master and general council, had its headquarters at Jerusalem. It was directly responsible only to the pope and thus was free from the control of the secular crusading leaders. As Crusaders the knights were important both in fighting the Muslims (notably at Gaza in 1244 and later at Damietta, during the Fifth Crusade) and in the internal struggles of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (see Jerusalem, Latin Kingdom of). Although the Knights of the White Cross (the Hospitalers) were at first probably larger and richer, the Templars, who wore the red cross on a white ground, were greater warriors. In the later crusades the deadly rivalry of the three orders helped weaken the Crusaders' chances of success.

When Jerusalem fell to the Muslims (1187), the Templars operated from Acre; after its fall (1291) the order retreated to Cyprus. By that time the Templars had ceased to be primarily a fighting organization and had become the leading money handlers of Europe. From the beginning the knights aroused opposition because of their special privileges, their freedom from secular control, and their great military and financial strength. As their banking role increased—they served such kings as Henry II of England and Louis IX of France—and their landholdings grew, they aroused the hostility, fear, and jealousy of secular rulers and of the secular clergy as well.

Persecution and Destruction of the Templars

When the Crusades failed, the Hospitalers became a naval patrol in the East, but the Templars grew more worldly, more decadent, and more hated. In 1307, Philip IV of France, who needed money for his Flemish war and was unable to obtain it elsewhere, began a persecution of the Templars. With the aid of Pope Clement V, the king had members of the order arrested and their possessions confiscated. By 1308 the persecutions were in full process. The knights were put on trial and were tortured to extract confessions of sacrilegious practices. The pope at first opposed the trials but soon reversed his position, and at the Council of Vienne (1311–12) he dissolved the order by papal bull.

The Templars were completely destroyed by 1314. Much of their property, theoretically designated for the Hospitalers, was acquired by secular rulers. The leaders of the order, including the last grand master, Jacques de Molay, were tried by ecclesiastic judges and sentenced to life imprisonment, but after denouncing their confessions they were burned at the stake (1314) as lapsed heretics by civil authorities. It is impossible to evaluate fairly the Templars and their fate; the injustices of their final treatment have led some to consider them blameless, yet the charges against them were not entirely unfounded.

Bibliography

The literature on the Templars is vast. A defense of the order is C. G. Addison, The History of the Knights Templars (rev. ed. 1912). See also the studies by E. Simon (1959) and T. W. Parker (1963).

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