Me­dieval re­li­gious or­der with power, se­crets and a bloody demise


The plan­ning was metic­u­lous. Signed and sealed, laden with ac­cu­sa­tion and in­struc­tion, the let­ters were sent by the king to local au­thor­i­ties through­out his realm. They were to act ex­actly one month later, si­mul­ta­ne­ously and at the crack of dawn — on a Fri­day the 13th, as it hap­pened. The tar­gets were un­aware of what lay in store, their leader even spend­ing time with the king and seem­ing to en­joy his fa­vor. The hour came, and armed men launched their sur­prise, sum­mar­ily car­ry­ing off hun­dreds to the king’s dun­geons, and many ul­ti­mately to their deaths. It was a per­for­mance rem­i­nis­cent of a Stal­in­ist purge or Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives.

The year was 1307, and the month was Oc­to­ber. The king was Philip IV of France. And his vic­tims were all mem­bers of the or­der of “the Poor Fel­low-Sol­diers of Christ and the Tem­ple of Jerusalem,” bet­ter known as the Knights Tem­plar — or sim­ply the Tem­plars. Over a pe­riod of two cen­turies, this char­i­ta­ble and mil­i­tary or­der of Cru­saders had grown in power and wealth. At a stroke, and with the ac­qui­es­cence of a weak­ened pope, Philip de­stroyed the or­der, im­pris­on­ing its lead­ers and burn­ing many at the stake. “God will avenge our death,” said James of Mo­lay, the last Grand Mas­ter, as he faced the flames on an is­land in the Seine.

And, in a way, God has. The Tem­plars live on in pop­u­lar cul­ture — from the video game “As­sas­sin’s Creed” to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Philip IV does not.

Dan Jones, the au­thor of well-re­garded his­to­ries of the Plan­ta­genets and the Wars of the Roses, ob­vi­ously gives no cre­dence to the con­spir­a­to­rial fan­tasies that have been spun around the Tem­plars over the years. No, they do not guard the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, and never did. No, a sur­viv­ing rem­nant does not pro­tect the iden­ti­ties of the de­scen­dants of Je­sus and Mary Magde­lene. No, the or­der does not se­cretly run the world — that’s the Tri­lat­eral Com­mis­sion or maybe Skull and Bones. In “The Tem­plars,” Jones rel­e­gates this cu­ri­ous af­ter­life to an epi­logue. His aim is to present a grip­ping his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, and in this he suc­ceeds.

The raw ma­te­rial is rich. Founded by a French knight in 1119, af­ter the suc­cess­ful First Cru­sade, the Tem­plars be­gan with a mis­sion to pro­tect throngs of pil­grims now trav­el­ing to the Holy Land. The mem­bers of the or­der wore white robes with a dis­tinc­tive red cross, em­braced

As seen in this mod­ern-day cos­tume, Knights Tem­plar wore white robes with a dis­tinc­tive red cross. By pa­pal de­cree, they were ex­empt from taxes and local laws.

per­sonal poverty and lived ac­cord­ing to a regime cod­i­fied by the great Cis­ter­cian ab­bot Bernard of Clair­vaux. A pa­pal char­ter was fol­lowed by a pa­pal de­cree grant­ing the Tem­plars an ex­emp­tion from taxes and local laws, ef­fec­tively cre­at­ing a transna­tional en­tity whose mem­bers could go any­where. As Jones de­scribes it, the or­der comes across as a com­bi­na­tion of Black­wa­ter, Gold­man Sachs, Kroll In­ter­na­tional, FedEx, Fort Knox, Bech­tel and, well, the Red Cross.

The fi­nan­cial acu­men of the Tem­plars was con­sid­er­able. In the post-“Da Vinci Code” era, visi­tors to London of­ten make their way to the Tem­ple Church, be­tween Fleet Street and the Thames, built in the mid-12th cen­tury. The cir­cu­lar nave — typ­i­cal of Tem­plar churches — is the old­est part of the struc­ture and was used as a repos­i­tory by English no­bles and by the Crown it­self. “By the 1240s,” Jones writes, “the or­der was pro­vid­ing di­verse fi­nan­cial ser­vices to some of the rich­est and most pow­er­ful fig­ures across Chris­ten­dom.” The Tem­plars “guar­an­teed debts, ran­somed hostages and pris­on­ers of war on credit, and could ar­range very large loans — such as the one made in 1240 to Bald­win II, the em­peror of Con­stantino­ple, and se­cured by his very own frag­ment of the True Cross.”

The or­der’s mil­i­tary record was mixed. In 1187, an army of Tem­plars and oth­ers, un­der King Guy of Jerusalem, was sur­rounded and slaugh­tered by the sul­tan Sal­adin in his suc­cess­ful cam­paign to re­store Pales­tine to the Mus­lim fold. Sal­adin had played his hand skill­fully: stop­ping up wells even as he en­ticed the Chris­tians far­ther into the sear­ing flats; paus­ing long enough to al­low de­hy­dra­tion to take its toll; then mov­ing in for the kill. Some 200 Tem­plars were cap­tured, and Sal­adin be­headed them all.

That was an un­happy episode, but the Tem­plars had an­other cen­tury of in­flu­en­tial life in front of them, un­til that Fri­day the 13th in 1307. Philip IV was pi­ous, para­noid, un­scrupu­lous and mer­cu­rial — and deeply in debt to the Tem­plars. It was all too easy to man­u­fac­ture charges of heresy, blas­phemy and sex­ual de­prav­ity: uri­nat­ing on the cross, hav­ing sex on the al­tar — the usual al­le­ga­tions. The power and se­cre­tive­ness of the Tem­plars only fu­eled the charges. The de­ci­sive blow was struck in France, but within a few years the Tem­plars were ex­tinct through­out Chris­ten­dom, ex­cept in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion.

“The themes of the Tem­plar story res­onate pow­er­fully to­day,” Jones ob­serves. He rightly does not pon­tif­i­cate about this and draws no spe­cious parallels, but the reader can’t help rec­og­niz­ing fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. There is the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in the West with what we now call the Mid­dle East. Re­li­gions col­lide and atroc­i­ties abound. Cries of “Al­lahu akhbar” pierce the din of bat­tle. The power of states is threat­ened, or seen to be threat­ened, by un­ac­count­able forces with global ten­ta­cles. In­for­ma­tion is un­re­li­able and eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated, al­low­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries to take root and spread.

Noth­ing is left of the Tem­plars ex­cept words on parch­ment and ru­ins in stone. An older cru­sad­ing or­der with cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties, the Knights Hospi­taller, does still ex­ist, af­ter a fash­ion — its ge­netic prog­eny are the Knights of Malta. They have a pala­tial head­quar­ters on the Aven­tine in Rome. They have a pa­pal char­ter and en­joy quasi-sov­er­eign sta­tus. They can is­sue their own pass­ports. They main­tain diplo­matic re­la­tions with a hun­dred coun­tries. And, like the Tem­plars, they do not rule the world. Cullen Mur­phy is the ed­i­tor at large of Van­ity Fair. He is the au­thor of “God’s Jury: The In­qui­si­tion and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern World.” His new book “Car­toon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make Be­lieve,” will be pub­lished this month.


By Dan Jones Vik­ing. 428 pp. $30

THE TEM­PLARS The Rise and Spec­tac­u­lar Fall of God’s Holy War­riors

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