A Brief History of the Knights Templar

The time of the Crusader Knights was a period of great upheaval and strife throughout the Holy Land. There was considerable conflict between Christian and Muslim factions in the region, especially once Jerusalem was formally overtaken by Christian forces in 1099.

The fact that Jerusalem was no longer Muslim was of especially great interest to European pilgrims, many of whom resolved to travel to the Holy Land to see the birthplace of their faith and its greatest, most significant tenets and stories. 

The Formation of the Knights Templar 

It probably goes without saying that travelling to sites like Jerusalem at this time was far from straightforward, especially for pilgrims who found themselves far from home and in something of a vulnerable position as they attempted to reach their destinations. During this period, it had become fairly common for European pilgrims to be attacked and even killed while they were on the road. 

The main purpose of the Templar was to protect those who travelled to the Holy Land of Jerusalem.

Naturally, this was a source of great consternation for their fellow Christians, who saw these pilgrims as martyrs of sorts. As more and more of these pilgrims were attacked or killed in the Holy Land, people began to take notice. In 1118, a French knight by the name of Hugues de Payens resolved to take action to protect these travellers wherever and whenever possible.

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Together with eight of his family members and friends, Payens founded the ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon.’

Protect and Preserve

Payens founded this group as a sort of military order. Indeed, he and the group’s other founding members took pity on the Christian pilgrims who had been attacked or killed whilst simply trying to uphold their faith, and they resolved to do what they could in order to protect and preserve the lives of as many pilgrims in the Holy Land as possible. 

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The group would later to go on to become what we know today as the Knights Templar. And, while Payens’ order was initially small and, in many ways, quite insignificant, it certainly didn’t remain so. 

Not long after its foundation, the organisation was granted the use of a wing of the royal palace of Jerusalem by Baldwin II, then king of the city, to use as a headquarters of sorts. This tacit endorsement led to the order gaining a sort of legitimacy as its members promised to protect and fight for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. 

The Structure of the Order 

When it was first established, members of the Knights Templar belonged to two separate ranks. These classes gave the order a sense of structure and purpose and contributed, no doubt, to the aura of prestige that the Templars seemed to command (especially as time went on). 

The Knights Templars also offered safe places for pilgrims to eat and rest during their travels.

Members of the Knights Templar who came from an aristocratic background would generally be made into knights or so-called knight-brothers under the banner of the order. These were men who were familiar with the art of war, so to speak, and had received martial training. They were skilled in combat and had an understanding of how to serve in leadership roles.

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The knights of the Templars would typically be present in the most prestigious or influential positions within the order, often being found in royal courts and similar settings. They were also the ones to wear the iconic Templar regalia, and form the archetype that most of us likely have in mind when we think about the Knights Templar. 


However, most members of the order were not actually knights at all. Indeed, sergeants, who came from humbler socioeconomic backgrounds than knights of the Templars, made up the vast majority of its membership. Also known as serving-brothers, sergeants of the Knights Templar fulfilled a diverse array of roles and responsibilities. 

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For instance, sergeants might be tasked with simple service work, though many of them were employed largely as warriors. And, as time went by, the Templars saw the need for a third class, known as chaplains, to be formed. The role of the chaplains of the Knights Templar was, unsurprisingly, largely spiritual in nature; they were responsible for holding religious ceremonies and ensuring that other members of the order had what they needed from a spiritual standpoint. 

The seal of the original Knights Templars.

It’s worth noting here that women were generally disallowed from joining the Templars. However, at least one nunnery has been linked to the organisation, which calls this long-held belief into question. 

The Rise of the Templars 

When the Templars were first formed, their existence was, to put it lightly, controversial among some members of the religious establishment. That a military order could exist whilst claiming to serve a spiritual community was a contentious notion among many. With that being said, the Knights Templars found plenty of support among secular rulers throughout Europe in particular. And, as the group’s legitimacy grew, so too did their support among certain Christian factions.

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Indeed, not too long after their foundation, Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot of considerable renown, penned a treatise that expressed explicit support for the Templars. The work, entitled ‘In Praise of the New Knighthood,’ extolled the virtues of what Clairvaux considered to be the brave, pious Templars, and this text would go on to play a major role in securing greater public support for the order. 

This would prove crucial for the group, in fact. While they were headquartered in Jerusalem’s royal palace, the Templars were, at this time, far from being wealthy. They referred to themselves as ‘the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ’ for a reason; relying on donations to arm and feed themselves, the Knights Templar were, in effect, a charity. 

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But Clairvaux’s text would change all of this. He used his influence and oratorial skills at the Council of Troyes to convince a group of elite clergymen to formally endorse the Templars with the church’s blessing. 


In one fell swoop, the fate of the Templars would change completely. Clairvaux’s support transformed the order from little more than a ramshackle group of impoverished warriors to a prestigious, well-regarded military society for much of Christendom. The Templars became favoured as a charity for European Christians in particular, and, as the organisation’s wealth grew, so too did its mystique and allure. 

Knights Templar
Two knights sharing one horse as depicted in this statue show the thinking behind the Templars.

And, not long after this, Pope Innocent II would send out a Papal Bull that exempted the Templars from paying taxes. The organisation was also granted permission to construct their own chapels, and it was also decreed that they would be held to the Pope’s authority alone. This gave the Templars significant privileges and freedom in how they operated, allowing them to grow both in size and authority throughout the Holy Land. 

How the Knights Templars Amassed their Wealth and Power

Today, part of the renown that the Templars acquired themselves stems from the enormous wealth that the order commanded at the height of its powers. One of the key mechanisms that made this possible was the extensive network of banks that the Knights Templar founded. These institutions made it possible for pilgrims travelling to the Middle East to store any assets that they may have had in their home countries and withdraw funds while they were on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 

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As the order’s prestige grew, it became increasingly commonplace for families, both aristocratic and working-class, to send their sons to join the Templars. Initiates were expected to follow a complex code of conduct, commit themselves to a life of celibacy, and refrain from gambling, drinking, and swearing. 

Eventually, the Templars had headquarters across both the Middle East and Western Europe. The order became a major bank and financial institution, lending funds to European royalty and nobility, and even owned the island of Cyprus at one stage. It had also amassed an intimidating fleet of ships and its members were renowned for their impressive fighting skills, as well as the profound religious devotion that defined their personal and private lives otherwise. 

The Collapse of the Knights Templar 

By the end of the 12th century, the trajectory of the Crusades had changed significantly, placing real strain on the Templars and their legitimacy throughout Christendom. The order experienced major losses against Muslim forces across the Middle East and, over time, support for the Templars declined majorly. 

The Siege of Damas. The Crusades continued long after the Knights Templars had finished.

This, combined with the enormous power and riches that the Knights Templar had acquired, was cause for real criticism in Christian Europe.

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Eventually, the Templars were more or less driven from the Middle East and left for France, where they set up a new base of operations in Paris. This turn of events attracted the ire of King Philip IV of France, who was, by this stage, somewhat unimpressed with the way the organisation had been run (the fact that the Templars had refused to loan him money didn’t help matters, either). 

The End Cometh

Just a few years later, in 1307, wholesale persecution of the Knights Templar began. Masses of Templars were placed under arrest, including Jacques de Molay, who was the leader of the organisation. These men were tortured and, in many cases, false confessions were extracted out of them for crimes like homosexuality and fraud. Not long after, scores of them were burnt at the stake for their alleged sins. 

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Following on from this, Pope Clement V was essentially forced by King Philip IV to dissolve the order completely. He did this with some reluctance, but had little choice given the pressure the king placed him under. The funds that the Templars had amassed were subsequently distributed to the Knights Hospitallers and other groups. 

The days of the Knights Templars was over. For now!