When you think of the Crusades - the trip to the Middle East that Richard the Lionheart did "way back when" - the one group you probably think of are the Knights Templar, or the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. These were the guardians of the pilgrims to the Holy Land. These are the guys who wore the white tabards with the big red cross on it. These are the guys upon who Dante (to the right) in Dante's Inferno were based (more on that in a later post).
The Knights Templar were formed when Hugh de Payens and his relative Godfrey presented themselves to King Baldwin of Jerusalem (didn't know there was a European king of Jerusalem, did you?) and offered to help protect the pilgrims streaming in from Europe to the Holy Land who were getting beaten up left and right by the locals. Baldwin agreed and gave them the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built upon the supposed site of the famed Temple of Solomon. This becomes the basis for almost every "esoteric" conspiracy theory on the planet.
The order was relatively small to begin with - only nine knights - and they were pretty poor. Even their sigil (seal - left) showed their commitment to remaining destitute - it showed two knights on a single horse (this later became the source of some pretty salacious rumors, but more on that later). The one thing that the Templars had in spades - besides braggadocio - was military skill. They were absolutely feared by the forces who fought them. The other thing they had was one major propagandist working for them in Europe - (future) Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was very skilled at soliciting support for the burgeoning group and soon they became more popular and young knights with little to do in Europe decided to join the order. Well, and those who had to expurgate some sin they'd committed.
The order grew and, for the conspiracy theorists, it was due to what they had uncovered beneath the mosque in the old Temple of Solomon. This was actually the basis for much of the plot behind Foucault's Pendulum, one of the most amazing books written about Templar conspiracy theories. Back to the story at hand... What the order began to do was brilliant for the time as nothing like it had existed - they created international banking. Pilgrims could deposit money at one of the commanderies in Europe, receive a receipt, and then in the Holy Land convert it back into cash. For a small transaction fee, I'm sure. And if someone happened to die on the way and never come claim his money, well, all the better for the order. Regardless, it actually made the order very wealthy and powerful in Europe. When the Christian Holy Land collapsed in the 13th century, the Templars were forced back to their strongholds in Europe.
Unfortunately for the Templars, they were a state unto themselves in the middle of feudal Europe. Philip IV (the Fair) of France, who had some gambling debts or had written too many bad checks or something, saw the potential of grabbing money from the Templars if only they could be dissolved somehow and their assets reverted to the French crown. (The situation was a lot more complicated than that, but in general Philip needed money, the Templars had it and had been dealing with some bad publicity about their rituals, and Philip saw an opportunity to make out like the proverbial bandit). He convinced the Pope, Clement, to declare them persona non grata and the Pope ordered all monarchs in Europe to seize Templar assets. Not every monarch acted and some didn't act immediately; Philip, though, acted very quickly. On Friday, October 13th, 1307 (perhaps the reason for the "Friday the 13th" myth), French army units all across France raided the commanderies and seized the knights. Amazingly, the Templars gave up without a fight (also a source of a lot of conspiracy theory). Some confessed quickly to all kinds of heresies, including spitting on the cross, engaging in homosexual sex (the sigil's two knights on the horse being the source of this one), and worshipping an idol of Baal. Nearly all confessed in the end. Admittedly, if someone were coming at me with pincers to rip off my nipples or putting a cage of rats on my head, I might say pretty much anything to avoid it. Then again, I'm not a Templar. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay (pictured right), and the commander in Normandy later recanted those confessions before their executions. Both were then burned at the stake for relapsing.
The order was dissolved, Philip got his money, and the leaders and some members of the order were executed. The rest were either absorbed into the Knights Hospitaller (another medieval military order that managed to avoid the issues that engulfed the Templars) or allowed to live in obscurity. The order was officially removed from the Church rolls and the order disappeared. Except it didn't.
The main group claiming some kind of Templar heritage are the Freemasons (disclosure: I am a past master of my lodge). The theory was that some Templars fled France and landed in Scotland where they created the basis for Freemasonry. The group expanded its influence and eventually codified its rituals in 1717 with the creation of the Grand Lodge of England. Additionally, the boys' Masonic group is called the Order of De Molay (only 18 and older are allowed to join Freemasonry, but this is the male equivalent of Job's Daughters).
On the other side, there are people who have re-established the order (although I don't think they're doing the whole "warrior monk" thing). They're even suing the Vatican to try to regain the "stolen" assets of the order. Not to be Mr Negativity, but yeah, good luck with that. Given that the order was officially disbanded by the Pope and that nothing short of a Papal reinstatement can recreate the order, these guys seem like a bunch of glory hounds looking for their litigious "payday".
And then there are those on the "other other side". The order was never destroyed but lived on with the great treasures secreted from the Temple of Solomon. It's these people that Foucault's Pendulum so delightfully eviscerates and I leave it to you to learn about it. It's also these people who wrote the book The Knights Templar Revealed. I'm in the midst of reading my way through it and when complete will write a review. Then you can decide for yourself whether to spend the $1.99 (used) for a copy (here's a hint - don't).
Hope this little discourse has been educational and enjoyable. And why I find the Templars such an interesting point of Crusades history. More later!