10 Illuminating Facts About the Knights Templar

After Christian Europeans successfully seized Jerusalem from Islamic infidels during the Crusades of the Middle Ages, various entities originated in the Holy Land to exert influence over this contested region. One of these was the Order of the Knights Templar, initially a group of only nine knights who were intent on protecting pilgrims making their way along the dangerous roads that led to Jerusalem.

At first one of the most prestigious orders officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, the Knights Templar amassed great wealth and prominence, a development that ultimately led to their official undoing. After only two centuries, the order was persecuted, its vast assets coveted by various royal entities. The Knights Templar would be forced to go underground and transform into a secret society. "What is the Knights Templar?" is a question with an answer that changes depending on what time period you're talking about. These Knights Templar facts yield intriguing information about a cryptic and enigmatic organization.

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  • The Knights Templar Were Respected Because of the Vows They Took

    The Knights Templar Were Respected Because of the Vows They Took
    Photo: Francois Marius Granet / wikimedia commons

    The Knights Templar were essentially monks who vowed perpetual chastity, obedience, and poverty. Although frequently members of the nobility, they gave up any personal wealth to join the order. Their fearlessness in battle and their devotion to Christianity quickly brought them prestige throughout Europe, as well as massive bequests of land and wealth that went to the order, not to the individual Knights. Joining the Knights Templar was difficult; even prestigious nobles were rejected if they had wronged individuals or any member of the Church. The Knights Templar were so respected that important individuals frequently took the order's vows on their deathbed to allow them to be buried in the distinctive habit of white with a red cross.

  • Their Own Code of Battle Made Them the World's Most Feared Warriors

    Their Own Code of Battle Made Them the World's Most Feared Warriors
    Photo: Jean Colombe / wikimedia commons

    Even though they took a vow of poverty, the Knights Templar were still equipped with the finest armor and weaponry available in the Middle Ages. Their rules of engagement called for them to never retreat if their battle standard was upright and visible. They could only leave the battlefield if their flag had fallen and they were outnumbered by at least three to one. 

    The Knights Templar were the medieval equivalent of a modern "shock troop" armored attack, with hundreds of sword-wielding knights, mounted on horseback, attacking rapidly in an organized line. Because they believed they were fighting on behalf of almighty God, the Knights Templar were also convinced that they would be immediately transported to eternal heaven if they were killed in battle. The red cross emblazoned on their shield and tunic was a symbol of martyrdom.

  • The Cross of the Knights Templar Was Designated by the Pope

    The Cross of the Knights Templar Was Designated by the Pope
    Photo: Unknown / wikimedia commons

    Only ten years after the Knights Templar came into existence, they were officially designated as an order of the Catholic Church at the Council of Troyes in 1129. Initially, members of the order were granted the use of white cloaks to be worn over their armor to distinguish their membership. Eventually, Pope Eugene III allowed the use of a simple red cross to symbolize the martyrdom of members who would die defending the faith. There was no single design of the cross, instead, variations of the design would be worn by different chapters of the Knights Templar. These crosses appeared on cloth and were also worn over the armor of a member of the order as well as on flags carried into battle. They were also not to be removed while the owner was awake.

  • The Knights Templar Provided the First Commercial Financial Services in Europe

    The Knights Templar started as a monastic order that took a vow of personal poverty. However, the order itself acquired the wealth and assets of its members as well as the spoils of war seized from its Islamic opponents. In its heyday, the Knights Templar had control of over 800 castles that actually served as regional financial institutions.

    Starting in Jerusalem, pilgrims making a journey to the Holy Land would register gold or valuables with their local order and receive a crude form of a modern day "letter of credit." Upon arrival in Jerusalem, the pilgrim would take this letter to the Knights Templar and receive money in the form of gold coins, minus a healthy commission. As the Knights Templar's influence spread throughout Europe, this practice became widespread across the continent. The order also eventually established a system that functioned much like a modern day checking account.   

  • Did the Knights Templar Discover Something Remarkable at the Temple Mount?

    Did the Knights Templar Discover Something Remarkable at the Temple Mount?
    Photo: Andrew Shiva / wikimedia commons

    Upon its formation, the Knights Templar was given headquarters by Christian rulers in the most prominent religious site associated with the city of Jerusalem: the Temple Mount. In fact their name is derived from this designation, literally the "Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon," which was believed to have stood on the Temple Mount before its eventual destruction. This would eventually be shortened to "Knights Templar." Members of the order allegedly spent its first decade excavating the ruins of the Temple Mount for any number of theoretical objects including the Holy Grail, the Holy Lance,  and the Ark of the Covenant. Whether they found anything remains a point of historical conjecture and a major plot point in at least one literary phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code.

  • The Knights Templar Were Ultimately Declared Heretics and Condemned

    The Knights Templar Were Ultimately Declared Heretics and Condemned
    Photo: PHGCOM / wikimedia commons

    In the late twelfth century, Islamic forces eventually retook Jerusalem and expelled any Christian influence. This forced the Knights Templar to return to Europe and reestablish themselves in France. After two centuries of successful financial practices and the acquisition of property bestowed by the Catholic Church and secular European rulers, the order had amassed great wealth. Ultimately, this wealth led to the Knights Templar's undoing.

    Because of their prominence in French society, the Knights Templar lent great sums of money to the French King, Philip IV, who squandered it on ineffectual wars against the English. Eventually, the order refused to lend the king additional sums. In response, Philip devised a plot to destroy the Knights Templar and, in 1307, he declared its members to be heretical and guilty of sorcery and forced the Pope, Clement V, (housed in Avignon, France) to join in the condemnation.

    The Templars' most elite leadership, including "Grandmaster" Jacques DeMolay, were imprisoned, given sham trials, and in the case of DeMolay, burned publicly at the stake in Paris. The Catholic Church ultimately withdrew its recognition of the order and the Knights Templar ceased to exist officially. However, many members fled to various parts of Europe and the allocation of the Knights Templars' vast financial wealth has been a subject of debate for centuries.