The Popes Get Involved (You Knew They Would)

One of the modern complaints about the Templars, and the basis for many of the conspiracy theories about them, is that they were solely under the direction of the pope, owing allegiance to no local bishop or lord. They’ve been made out to be a sort of papal mafia, free to carry out secret missions to further some dark Vatican agenda.

It is true that the Templars were free of control by the local bishops. However, this is also true of the Hospitallers. Also, many of the great monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, the Franciscans, and the Cluniacs, were under the sole authority of the pope. All of these orders had houses in many territories and this liberation from local bishops was an attempt to keep the monks from becoming involved in local politics. It didn’t always work but that was the plan.

Let’s look at the privileges that various popes gave to the Templars and other orders.

The first papal bull, or confirmation of privileges, for the Templars was issued by Pope Innocent II on March 29, 1139, ten years after the Council of Troyes approved the Templar Rule. The delay in doing this was entirely due to lack of interest. Innocent had spent most of his papacy wandering through France because the Romans had elected another man, Anacletus II, as pope and they refused to let Innocent into Rome. He didn’t get back there until Anacletus died.1 The Templars weren’t all that high on his agenda.

By tradition, papal bulls are known by the first few words in them. The bull of 1139 was titled Omne Datum Optimum or “every good gift.” The gift in question is the Templars themselves, whom God had turned from lives of secular violence to the protection of Christianity.2

Normally such pronouncements from popes for monastic orders covered topics such as freedom from paying tithes to local bishops, the right of the monks to elect their own abbots, and other matters that freed the monastic orders from local domination. This liberty was extremely important as many monasteries and convents had become little more than outposts for the noble families of the region and their property was all too often used for the good of the clan, not the Church.

Omne Datum Optimum had somewhat different wording from the usual monastic grant. Most monks were not told, “You labor without fear in fighting the enemies of Christ. . . . Those things that you take from their spoils you may in all confidence convert for your own uses, and we forbid that you should be forced to give a part of them to anyone against your will.”3 Basically, this meant that the Templars could keep whatever they could grab from the Saracens. The average European monastery rarely, if ever, raised an army or plundered towns.

Booty was certainly a great motivator for soldiers and a handy way of getting operating funds, but this was to cause resentment later. The Templars were sometimes accused of letting their desire for plunder overcome common sense. A classic example is when William of Tyre accused Grand Master Bernard of Tremelay of charging into the city of Ascalon first and not letting anyone but Templars follow him because he didn’t want to share. We don’t know Bernard’s side of this because he and all his men were killed in the charge.4

Other privileges were more conventional. The Templars were put under the protection of the Holy See. Any crimes they might be accused of were to be judged by the pope alone.5 The men were to live a monastic life, “in chastity, without personal goods,” and obedient to the master of the order. Only the master had the right to change anything in the Rule. No brother was to be allowed to leave the Templars for another religious order.6 These privileges were shared by other monastic orders.

Innocent added his personal support for the order by donating an annual gift of one mark of gold.7

One thing that the Templars were not allowed to do was preach. This must have been comforting to the local priests and bishops.8 Templars could have their own chapels but the implication is that Mass would be said by a local priest. However, an exception was when they went on their recruiting tours. At least there are many records indicating that they did preach in their efforts to gain new members.

The Hospitallers already had a similar charter, minus the booty, as early as 1113. In it they were given papal protection, freedom from local tithes, and the right to elect their own master.9

The right to choose the masters of the commanderies was an important one. The popes and the lay rulers of Europe had been fighting over this for many years. Princes wished to nominate their own candidates as abbots or bishops. Often these were relatives or men to whom they owed favors. The popes and many of the local churchmen were opposed to this for many reasons, the least of which was that the character and intelligence of the upper clergy went down when kings chose them. Bishops were supposed to be elected by the people and clergy of their communities, as was the pope. In practice, this was rarely the case and the popes were never able to completely free the election of bishops from the control of the lay rulers. But with multinational monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, Franciscans, Hospitallers, and Templars, they had much more success.10

All of these orders were resented at one time or another because of these privileges. But in 1144 the Templars received one more that really had local bishops and priests seeing red.

This bull is known as Milites Templi (Knights of the Temple). It acknowledges that keeping a monk in horses and armor costs a lot more than robes and sandals. Therefore the pope, Celestine II, encouraged all the faithful to donate as much as they could. Even more, to those who were willing to donate an annual amount, the pope would allow them to reduce by one-seventh the amount of any penance imposed on them.11

This part was acceptable to the bishops and priests, who could always just up the penance by a seventh if they felt like it. The serious problem came next:

When the brothers of that Temple who have been sent to receive the contributions enter a city, castle or village, if any place should be under an interdict, churches should be opened once a year to greet them in a friendly manner in honour of the Temple and in respect for these knights, and divine offices should be celebrated without the presence of excommunicants.12

Popes and bishops had two weapons to convince Christians to obey Church law. The first was excommunication. That meant that the individual offender could not enter a church or receive the sacraments. It also meant that no other Christians could associate with him. It was hoped that the social problems this would cause would bring the person around.

The second was interdict. This was particularly useful against kings and other important people who found excommunication no more than an annoyance. The idea was to punish the people of the land for the sins of the ruler. So in a country under interdict, no masses could be said and no one married. People could not go to confession or receive communion. All that was permitted was baptism and, for those not personally excommunicated, last rites.13

What Pope Celestine was allowing meant that the people in a town under interdict could rush in once a year and take care of their sacramental needs. It also meant that the Templars received the little thank-you donations for this that would normally have gone to the local priests and which they hadn’t been able to collect with the churches all closed.

One can see how this might cause bad feeling between the Templars and the local clergy. This only increased when the Templars acquired churches of their own, in direct competition with the native priests.

The right to build their own churches came the next year with the next pope, Eugenius III. In 1145, he issued the bull Militia Dei (Knighthood of God). Eugenius knew that this wouldn’t go over well with the regular clergy, so he tried to sugarcoat the message to them:

We believe that it does not escape the notice of your fraternity how useful to the eastern church, . . . how pleasing to God is the knighthood of God, which is called of the Temple. . . . And since they live in a religious manner and strive lovingly to attend divine services, we concede to them the right to recruit anywhere priests suitable for their service who are properly ordained and who have been granted permission by their bishop. To these brothers wishing to provide for this more fully and not in any way wishing to diminish your parochial rights or remove tithes or offerings of burials we grant them permission to build oratories in place adjacent to it [the Temple], where the household lives, in which to hear the divine services and indeed it is almost fatal to the souls of religious brothers to mingle with crowds of men and to meet women on the occasion of going to church.14 (italics mine)

These three bulls are the main grants given to the Templars by the popes. For the most part, they contain nothing that other orders hadn’t received. Especially in the twelfth century, the main focus of the popes in regard to the Latin kingdoms was to get men and money enough to keep the lands won by the first crusaders. The popes clearly state that the work of the Templars is for the preservation of the Christian states in the Holy Land.

However, it seems that both the Templars and the Hospitallers took advantage of their privileges. At the Third Lateran Council in 1179, at which Pope Alexander III presided, the complaints of the clergy were addressed. Both military orders were accused of accepting churches from laymen and of allowing people who had been excommunicated to receive the sacraments in their churches and to be buried in their cemeteries. Both orders had also hired and fired priests without the consent of the local bishop. In short they were sapping the authority of the regular clergy.15

The council decreed that the Templars and Hospitallers were to stop this at once or they would find themselves under interdict.16

This was not the last time that the military orders would be criticized for taking advantage of papal exemptions. The complaints in 1179 were against both the Hospitallers and the Templars but in 1207, Pope Innocent III felt the need to write to the Templars, specifically that they “are so unbridled in their pride that they do not hesitate to disfigure their mother, the church of Rome, which by its favours has not ceased to cherish the brethren of the knighthood of the Temple.”17

One of the statements made about the Templars in some fiction and even in supposed nonfiction and documentaries, is that they had some sort of hold over the papacy that allowed them to get away with a great deal. There is nothing in the records that indicates this at all. The Templars were only one of several monastic orders that answered directly to the pope. And, as the council decrees and the letter from Pope Innocent show, if they abused their privileges, they would be slapped down.

It’s quite possible that some, even many, of the Templars were arrogant and took advantage of the grant of opening their churches to those under interdict. They certainly did all they could to get funds.18 Pride and greed were the two sins most often attributed to both the Templars and the Hospitallers. This problem grew directly from the gifts that the popes had bestowed on them in order to ensure the safety of pilgrims to Jerusalem.

But as to some dark and secret alliance between the papacy and the Templars, that is never even hinted at, not during their two hundred years of existence, not at their trial, not even after the trial.

Once again, twentieth-century writers seem to be the source of this myth.


This happened all the time. For a history of the medieval papacy see I. S. Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198, Continuity and Innovation (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Walter Ullmann, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2003). Anacletus came from a Jewish family but that wasn’t the reason he wasn’t accepted by northern Europe. It was politics.


Omne Datum Optimum” in The Templars, tr. and annotated Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate (Manchester University Press, 2002) pp. 59-64. A very handy book for the most important Templar documents in translation.


Ibid., p. 60.


William of Tyre, 17, 27, pp. 797-99.


This was a large bone of contention when Philip the Fair ordered the arrest and trial of the Templars without the permission of Pope Clement V.


Barber and Bate, p. 61. This last was not followed when Master Everard de Barres left the Templars to join the Cistercians in 1153.


Charles-Joseph Hefele and Dom H. Leclercq, Histoire de Conciles Vol. V (Paris, 1912) p. 713.


Barber and Bate, p. 63.


Cartulaire General de l’Ordre des Hospitaliers de S. Jean de Jerusalem 1100-1310, Vol 1, ed. J. Delaville Le Roulx (Paris, 1894).


Although several of the Grand Masters of the Temple seem to have been elected because of their connections to rulers. See the two chapters on the Grand Masters.


I suppose this was rather like getting a tax break for charitable donations today.


Barber and Bate, p. 65.


I am grateful to Prof. James Brundage for clarifying interdict for me. His books Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader (University of Wisconsin, 1969) are both tremendously useful and interesting.


Barber and Bate, p. 66.


Hefele-Leclercq, p. 1095, “robur episcopalis authoritatis enervant.”


Ibid., “Si vero Templarii sive Hospitalarii as ecclesiasticum interdictum venerint.”


Quoted in Alan Forey, The Military Orders (London, 1992) p. 203.


Please see chapter 24, Templars and Money, for more on this.

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