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.
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.
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.
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 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.