The fact that the Templars fell from grace so spectacularly suggests that some of the wilder accusations against them may have had some basis in reality. While most commentators at the time and subsequently have seen Philip’s avarice as the motivating factor behind his attack on the Order, there are those, such as the eminent mediaeval historian Sir Steven Runciman, who believe that there was some truth to the charges: ‘It would be unwise to dismiss these rumours [of heresy] as the unfounded invention of enemies. There was probably just enough substance to them to suggest the line along which the Order could be most convincingly attacked.’34
If the end of the Order remains controversial, then its beginnings are equally shrouded in mystery and silence.
The Mystery of Templar Origins
The traditional picture that Hugues de Payen and Godfroi de St Omer presented themselves to King Baldwin II around the year 1119 with the suggestion that they form an order of nine knights who would protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Land derives from Guillame of Tyre (died c.1186), the first chronicler to mention the Order. Yet Guillame, like most mediaeval historians, is unreliable. He notes that the Council of Troyes was held in the ninth year of the Order’s existence, which would mean that the Templars were possibly launched at the Council of Nablus in 1120, yet he also notes that they accepted no new members for the first nine years as well. As Fulk, Count of Anjou, is known to have joined the Order on his pilgrimage of 1120, this would push the foundation date of the Temple back to 1111. As Runciman notes, Guillame’s dating is ‘confused and at times demonstrably wrong’.35
If Guillame is confused, then he is not the only one. The other two chronicles dating from the late twelfth century – those of Michael the Syrian and Walter Map – disagree not only with Guillame, but also with each other. According to Michael the Syrian (d.1199), it was the King of Jerusalem who suggested to Hugues de Payen that he form a military order, and puts the initial membership at 30. Walter Map (d.c.1210) believed that the Order was founded by a knight from Burgundy called Paganus who defended pilgrims he saw frequently attacked at a horsepool near Jerusalem. Despite his best efforts, the number of infidels grew and he was forced to seek extra recruits, with the knights subsequently being given lodgings near the Temple of the Lord, which could very well be the al-Aqsa mosque, sitting as it does at the southern end of the Temple platform.
There is a further hint that the Templars were in existence before their official founding date of around 1119. Five years previously, the Bishop of Chartres had written to Hugh, Count of Champagne – himself either a founding Templar or at the very least one of the Order’s first supporters – upon his return from his second visit to the East: ‘We have heard that … before leaving Jerusalem you made a vow to join the Militia of Christ, that you will enrol in this evangelical soldiery.’36 As the phrase ‘Militia of Christ’ would also be employed by St Bernard in reference to the Templars, and given the close ties between Hugh, Bernard and the fledgling Order, it is this comment from the Bishop of Chartres that is perhaps the most persuasive evidence we have that the Templars – in one form or another – existed at least as early as 1114.
The air of mystery that surrounds the Temple’s early years is compounded by the fact that the years before the Council of Troyes are the Order’s least documented period. Indeed, they are hardly documented at all. The Templars themselves had no official records of their foundation, which is unusual for a religious order. There were no Western chroniclers in Outremer until the time of the Second Crusade, and, more remarkably, the King’s chronicler, Fulk de Chartres, who was living in Jerusalem at the time of the Order’s supposed foundation, does not mention them at all. There are only four documents existing prior to Troyes that mention the Templars, two of them making note of the Order in connection with the Hospital.37 A later chronicle – that of Ernoul and Bernard the Treasurer – also suggests that there was some kind of close link between the two Orders. Interestingly, in this version, the Templars ‘asked the king to give them his palace in front of the Lord’s Temple’.38 Indeed, recent research39 seems to confirm that the Templars were initially given accommodation by the Augustinian Canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and that the buildings they occupied were part of the Hospital, which lay just to the south.
So if the Templars were originally based at the Hospital – and possibly as early as 1111 – what were they doing? Out of the four pre-1129 documents, none of them describes the Templars as protecting pilgrims. Could they have been simply providing security at the Hospital, or was something else going on? It has frequently been asserted40 that the Templars were part of some grand design that was inaugurated with the First Crusade. While this cannot be proved, it cannot be disproved either. Sufficient gaps exist in the historical record to allow the Templars a more nebulous role than that with which they have been traditionally ascribed. Certainly there were shady characters whose names have not come down to us who were moving in the background in the early years of Outremer. Godfroi de Bouillon, for instance, was accompanied to the East by a group of anonymous advisers. The name is known of only one of them, Peter the Hermit. Peter was possibly linked to a mysterious group of monks who arrived on Godfroi’s estates at Orval in the Ardennes sometime around 1090, having travelled en masse from Calabria in Italy. Peter is then thought to have become Godfroi’s personal tutor, and, in 1095, was one of those who called for a crusade. (Indeed, Peter actually led the first band of crusaders to leave Europe.) When Jerusalem fell, Godfroi was offered the crown of Jerusalem by a group of mysterious nobles, who included ‘a certain bishop of Calabria’, and Godfroi then seems to have had an abbey built just outside the city walls, on Mount Sion. The resulting Order of Sion is one of the most obscure religious fraternities of the period, and it has been suggested41 that it is from this group that the Templars derived.
Hugh, Count of Champagne, is an even more interesting figure than Godfroi. His departure for the East in 1104 seems to have been at the behest of a group of anonymous nobles, and it is possible that Hugh visited Outremer on some kind of fact-finding mission. By the time of his second visit in 1114, the Militia of Christ – quite possibly the Templars – had been formed. Although Hugh did not join immediately, he returned to France and donated land to St Bernard, who used it to found the new monastic house of Clairvaux. St Bernard later became the Templars’ chief apologist in the West, and the Cistercians and the Templars expanded at an exponential rate, with Hugh supporting both Orders. Was Hugh working in accord with some larger plan? At the very least he seems to have been a man who was acutely aware of the zeitgeist of his time. And when he did officially join the Templars in 1125, he had to swear an oath of fealty – as would any new recruit to the Order – to his own vassal, Hugues de Payen. This is remarkable in itself, and could suggest that even at this early stage, there was a powerful mystique surrounding the Order, which its members seem to have actively encouraged.
The Temple and the Temple Mount
One tradition holds that while officially supposed to be protecting pilgrims, the Templars – or a group of them, at least – were involved in archaeological excavations that took place beneath the Temple platform, in what are known as Solomon’s Stables. There had long been rumours that the treasure of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the conflagration of 70 AD, was hidden beneath the Temple Mount, and it is possible that Hugues de Payen, the Count of Champagne and others knew of this and undertook to find it. Alternatively, the Order could have stumbled across something in the stables while carrying out alterations, as they were known to have done a great deal of building work around the al-Aqsa mosque, starting from the 1120s.
If the Order did indeed find something beneath the Temple Mount, what could it have been? Speculation has been rife (indeed, where the Templars are concerned, speculation is always rife) that they found one or more priceless relics, such as the embalmed head of John the Baptist, documents pertaining to the true origins of Christianity, and the Ark of the Covenant. Then again, maybe the treasure of the Second Temple was unearthed, which was known to have been comprised of gold and other precious metals and stones. That a major find of this sort could have occurred is not beyond the realms of possibility; after all, the scrolls discovered at Nag Hammadi and Qumran in the mid 1940s had lain untouched and well preserved for almost 2,000 years.
The Temple and the Grail
If there is one priceless relic with which the Templars are most closely associated, it is the Holy Grail.42 In popular chivalric epics of the period, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the Templars are portrayed as its guardians. (Another grail romance, the thirteenth-century French romance Perlesvaus, may have actually been written by a Templar, such is its attention to detail in regard to military matters.) But the most interesting connection between the Templars and the Grail is that the city in which they were officially launched, Troyes, is also the city in which the first grail romance was written, that of Chrétien de Troyes, who composed his Conte del Graal around 1180.
The strong connection between the Templars and the Grail does not, of course, bring us any closer to understanding what the Grail actually is. Traditionally seen as the cup used at the Last Supper, which also caught the blood of Christ at Calvary, the Grail can also be seen as a Christianisation of the Celtic myths of the Cauldron of Plenty, which is said to have granted fertility to the land and to have been an endless source of renewal. But in the hands of Chrétien, the Celtic story is merely the foundation to which he grafts new material. That he was writing in Troyes suggests that whatever new information he was privy to, it was quite possibly brought back to the city by Templars or those associated with the Order. A slightly later version of the Grail story, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (composed c.1220) makes this more explicit by setting some of his poem in the East (he personally visited Outremer around 1200), and by peppering his text with esoteric references that can only have come about through contact with the more mystically inclined elements in the Muslim world.
The Temple and the Arab World
It was after the failure of the Second Crusade that rumours began to circulate that the Templars had deliberately sabotaged the Crusade through their treacherous alliances with the infidel. The anonymous Würzburg annalist believed that the Templars had accepted a massive bribe from Unur, the ruler of Damascus at the time of the campaign, to engineer the retreat which led to the failure of the crusade. Although accusations like these betray the usual inability of Western chroniclers to grasp the complexities of the situation in the East, where some form of accommodation between the Franks and Islam was a practical necessity, the Templars’ reputation does seem to have been tarnished from this time on (at least in the eyes of their critics in the West).
As has been noted, the Templars often employed Muslim secretaries, and a number of the Order learnt Arabic. Similarly, they had an unpredictable, but sometimes close, relationship with the Assassins, who are often seen as the Islamic equivalent of the Templars. The Order also came into contact with the Sufis. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, therefore, that ideas from the Islamic world found their way back to Europe via the Order. Twelfth-century Moorish Spain, for instance, also acted in this way, with a vast amount of learning coming into Europe via places like the University of Toledo, which had a school entirely devoted to translating works from the Arabic. This influx of knowledge had an incalculable effect on the West; indeed, it would not be too much of an overstatement to suggest that one of the most important things in the intellectual development of the West was the discovery of the East, Arabic culture and science being far in advance of the West at this time. It is this close contact with the Arab world that may have contributed to the alleged religious heterodoxy of the Templars.
The Temple and Heresy
Religious heterodoxy nearer home may also have been tainting Templar thought. The Order has long been associated with the Cathars, the heretical dualist sect which flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, mainly in southern France and parts of northern Italy. Alarmed at the spread of the heresy, Pope Innocent proclaimed a crusade against it, which got under way in 1208 under Simon de Montfort. This was the so-called Albigensian Crusade, named after the French town of Albi. It was to last on and off until 1244, when the last Cathar stronghold at Montségur fell to the forces of Louis IX and its occupants were burnt to death on the Field of the Cremated. While the majority of Templars would have been simple, unlettered men who adhered to the Catholic Church, there were elements within the Order who would have certainly been sympathetic to Catharism. Bertrand de Blancfort, the sixth Grand Master of the Temple, was from a Cathar family, and the Order welcomed Cathars into its ranks once the Albigensian Crusade was under way. So great was the number of Cathar Templars in the Languedoc that, in many preceptories, Cathars outnumbered Catholics. The Order had always accepted excommunicates into its ranks – the reason for this being usually cited as the constant manpower shortage in the East – but the same cannot be said for the Order’s sheltering of Cathars in the West, where the manpower situation was nowhere near as dire. This apparent friendliness towards the Cathars could be a legacy of Bertrand de Blancfort, and it could have also led to the Order’s consideration of the Languedoc – where the Templar presence was particularly strong – as the most likely site for the creation of their own Ordensland.
Catharism was not the only heresy with which the Order has been associated. The other most prominent is the Johannite heresy, the belief that John the Baptist is the real Messiah, with Christ being seen as a usurper and a false prophet. It has been suggested that Hugues de Payen himself was a Johannite, and the Order are known to have held John the Baptist in particularly high regard. The origins for this are obscure, but one possible source could be the Templars’ putative original base in the Hospital: around 1100, the Hospitallers, originally known as the Hospital of Jerusalem of John the Almoner, became – for reasons unknown – the Hospital of Jerusalem of John the Baptist.
Closely associated with the Johannite movement is the cult of Mary Magdalene. The cult of the Virgin Mary was also at its height in the twelfth century, and the two women are traditionally seen as the feminine face of God. St Bernard himself was obsessed with the Divine Feminine, and, given his close relationship with the Templars, may have either transmitted a reverence for the Feminine to the Order, or developed his fascination at the same time as certain other members of the Templars. One must not forget also that Europe at this time was undergoing rapid changes (the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century), and it is a curious fact that explosions of interest in the Goddess tend to recur at times of great change and enquiry. So, this begs the question: were the Templars secret Goddess worshippers?
Pope Innocent III certainly thought that they were worshipping something other than the God of the New Testament and his only Son, when he admonished the Order in his letter of 1208. He accused them of the usual sins of pride and arrogance – accusations that date back at least as far as the Second Crusade, when rumours of the Order’s alliance with Islam were also beginning to circulate – but also branded them as necromancers who were in danger of doing the Devil’s work unless they got their house in order. That the Pope himself should be moved to admit that there was something altogether not quite right about the Templars suggests that rumours of the Templars being tainted with heresy may well have had some basis in fact.
The Head of the Templars
Charges of Devil worship notoriously resurfaced a century later, during the Order’s trial at the hands of Philip IV. This seven-year period is possibly the best documented in the Order’s history, and it is also the one period in which their alleged unorthodox beliefs were at the centre of interest. The French prosecutors homed in on two areas of Templar practice: the initiation ceremony; and the fact that they were supposed to worship an idol named Baphomet.
At the initiation ceremony, it was alleged, the new brothers had to show their loyalty to the Order by spitting, trampling or urinating on the Cross, and by denying Christ. These have traditionally been seen as another example of Philip’s trumped-up charges. But the recent discovery in the Vatican Library of what is known as the Chinon Parchment suggests that the Templars did indeed spit on the Cross and deny Christ. Under questioning at Chinon in the summer of 1308, Jacques de Molay explained that these apparently sacrilegious practices were designed to get a Templar to experience the sort of torture he would likely receive at the hands of the Saracens, and thereby enable them to deny their religion ‘with the mind only and not with the heart’.43 When one recalls that some of the evidence against the Templars was collected by 12 of Philip’s spies, who joined the Order in 1306 to substantiate the allegations made the year before by the expelled knight Esquin de Floyran, it suggests that the charges against the Order were in fact true, but the purpose of these ceremonies had been misunderstood by Philip’s men.
Misunderstanding is almost certainly at the root of the allegation that the Templars worshipped an idol called Baphomet. Descriptions of it varied, but it was usually described as being a life-sized head, which was said to make the land fertile (as is said of the Grail). That the Templars did possess heads is without doubt. They possessed the head of St Euphemia of Chalcedon at their preceptory in Nicosia on Cyprus, and, more curiously, a silver headshaped reliquary was found after the arrests at the Paris Temple. This bore the inscription CAPUT LVIII, and inside it were parts of a woman’s skull (who was believed to have been one of the 11,000 virgins martyred at Cologne with St Ursula). The heads may have indeed been worshipped, in the way that the Celts revered the head. The Assassins, during their initiation ceremonies, buried the initiate up to his neck in sand, leaving only the head visible, before disinterring him. Given their simulation of Saracen torture, the Templars may also have carried out this practice. A further possibility is that Baphomet, long thought to be a mistranslation of ‘Mahomet’ (the Prophet Muhammad), could well be a corruption of the Arabic word abufihamat, which means ‘Father of Understanding’, a reference to a spiritual seeker after realisation or enlightenment has taken place: ‘The Baphomet is none other than the symbol of the completed man.’44 It is therefore possible that the supposed head the Templars worshipped was actually a metaphorical head. That Hugues de Payen’s shield carried three black heads suggests that certain elements within the Order – the upper echelons perhaps – were involved with esoteric disciplines learned from the Sufis from the very beginning of the Temple’s existence.