James Becker is the author of The Lost Treasure of the Templars thriller trilogy featuring the adventures of antiquarian bookseller Robin Jessop and encryption expert David Mallory. The books in the series are The Lost Treasure Of The Templars, The Templar Archive and coming The Brotherhood Of The Skull (coming out early next year).
This guest post will give a brief history of the Knights Templar (also called as Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon and the Order of Solomon’s Temple, or simply the Templars, with all the myths, half truths and facts that are surrounding this medieval Catholic military order.
The story of the Knights Templar is complex and confused, studded in equal measure with myth and misinformation. Even today, even after all the research, nobody knows for certain why the order was formed or exactly what took place in the last days of its existence before the screams of agony echoed in the torture chambers of France as the Dominican inquisitors set to work on the leaders of the order.
The bare bones of the story are clear enough. In 1119 a knight named Hugues de Payens approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and suggested creating an order of monastic knights to protect the pilgrims who were routinely robbed and occasionally slaughtered by bandits as they approached the holy city. Baldwin agreed and allocated one wing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount to accommodate the group, which consisted of just nine knights, all related to each other by either blood or marriage.
The building was believed to stand on the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, and so the new order took the name the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more commonly shortened to the Knights Templar.
Despite their avowed intention to protect pilgrims, for the first nine years of the order’s existence they did no such thing. Instead, they spent their time excavating the Temple Mount below their quarters. A decade after its formation the order was approved by the Catholic Church, and ten years after that the Pope issued a papal bull which exempted the order from all restrictions. They would pay no taxes, could cross any border, were exempt from all laws, and would owe allegiance only to the Pope himself.
No such indulgence was offered to any other group before or after the time of the Templars, and it is probable that they found some relic inside the Temple Mount that so impressed – or so terrified – the Pope that he agreed to do whatever the order wanted.
That is the first mystery associated with the Templars.
The second is what happened when the order was purged in 1307. By then, the Templars were richer than most European states due to their financial acumen. Virtually all modern financial instruments – mortgages, loans, checks, bearer bonds, letters of credit and the like – had been developed and were being used by the Templars.
King Philip IV of France was virtually bankrupt. His biggest creditor was the Templar order, and he conceived a plan to resolve his disastrous financial situation. He would accuse the Templars of heresy – a capital crime in medieval Europe – arrest every one of them and seize the vast reserves of bullion and other treasure that he knew were secured in the buildings the order owned throughout France.
The plan was kept secret, but when it was executed on Friday 13 th October 1307 it quickly became obvious that something had gone wrong. Virtually all the important Templar Knights, apart from the leaders of the order who were almost certainly being watched, had disappeared. More crucially for Philip, so had the contents of the Templar treasuries.
He took his revenge on the order, organizing the torture of almost every knight his men could lay their hands on, and then burning most of them alive at the stake. But what he didn’t find was the Templar treasure. And, in fact, no trace of it has ever been found, either the bullion and other portable assets, or the vast Templar archive containing the deeds which granted prime property throughout Europe to the order.
That enduring mystery was one of the things that sparked my interest in the Templars.
The three novels that comprise The Lost Treasure of the Templars deal with the search for both these lost treasures, and The Templar Archive particularly with the lost land deeds. It was common in the medieval period for knights joining orders to assign their assets, their lands and castles, to the order in perpetuity. Other lands were granted to the Templars by people seeking favours or wanting to fast-track their eventual admittance to heaven by gifting property to the warrior monks. As a result, the order ended up owning substantial tracts of land throughout Europe.
But when the order was purged, these deeds and grants vanished, which means that today a lot of prime European real estate isn't actually owned by the people who occupy it. The lost Archive, if it could be found, would be an explosive discovery.
Another mystery associated with the Templars starts shortly after the order was purged, with a battle in the high passes of Switzerland, when a motley rag-tag group of about a thousand peasants, outnumbered roughly ten to one, managed to utterly defeat the pride of the Austrian Habsburg army. The people of the cantons were apparently assisted by a handful of white knights – armed nobles owing allegiance to no master.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that within a very few years those same peasants had started using a banking system effectively identical to that developed by the Templars, a banking system that formed the basis of the wealth of Switzerland and which is still being operated, largely unchanged, by the Gnomes of Zurich.
So perhaps the Templars are still with us today, wearing suits instead of armour and wielding pens instead of swords, and running the secretive Swiss banking system.