Who Were the Real Knights Templar?

The Knights Templar are best known for the legends of their lost treasure, but who were these warrior monks? Read on to discover more.

Oct 7, 2021By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
knights templar execution Jacques de Molay
Details from Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, by Picture Alliance / Mary Evans Pi, via Welt.de; and The Execution of the Knights Templar, in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Giovanni Boccaccio, via Biblissima


The Knights Templar who protected pilgrims traveling to the crusader states of Outremer immediately evoke images of famous medieval knights and their lost treasure. Surprisingly, there are only a few written documents that cover their story, and all of them were written after the dissolution of the order in 1312. Who were the real Knights Templar, and what happened to their legendary lost treasure?


The Knights Templar: The First Christian Military Order

pope urban II preaching first crusade illumination
Pope Urban II Preaching the First Crusade, in Grandes Chroniques de France illuminated by Jean Fouquet, ca. 1455-60, via Biblissima


The 11th and 12th centuries in Western Europe were a time of evolution for Christianity. Christian monasticism had spread, with the creation of new religious orders, and numerous pilgrims traveled on the dangerous road toward Jerusalem and the Holy Land, one of the most important pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. This trip lasted several years, with pilgrims walking more than 12,000 kilometers (7500 miles), including the return journey. Many pilgrims did not survive the entire trip.


In this context, Pope Urban II urged western leaders to take up arms, to defend pilgrims, and liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Islamic rule. As a result, the First Crusade began, and Godfrey of Bouillon and his men took the city of Jerusalem in 1099. In 1120, around the time of the Council of Nablus (north of Jerusalem), a small group of laymen founded a new order: the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, today best known as the Knights Templar, or Templars. The few written documents about the groups’ creation mention nine knights, with Hugues de Payens as their leader.


guillaume de tyr first crusade
Departure for the First Crusade, in Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum by Guillaume de Tyr, 13th century, via Biblissima


Hugues de Payens and the others were probably linked to the Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulcher, the most powerful Christian order in Jerusalem, created by Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Hugues himself lived among other secular knights who stayed in Jerusalem and other parts of Outremer, after the First Crusade.

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The Templars chose to serve and defend their newly acquired possession, the Holy Sepulcher. Although part of the lay community, these men were deeply religious and served the Church. Other knights and lords soon joined the small community.


Templars: A New Form of Religious Life

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Soldier of the Order of Solomon’s Temple, Hulton Archive, via Radio Canada


Similarities existed between other forms of religious life and the Order of Solomon’s Temple. The Knights Templar followed a rule and were under the orders of a master. On top of that, they took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.


However, when creating this Militia Christi, the knights wanted to be completely independent of the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher and any other religious orders. Unlike the Canons, their first mission was military. They created this autonomous order to protect western pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and Outremer; the four states created after the First Crusade in the Levant. The combination of a pious existence with knighthood constituted a new form of religious life. The Order of Solomon’s Temple was the first society to welcome laymen and offer them the possibility to serve God without withdrawing from the world.


Outremer: The Order of Solomon’s Temple

emile signol jerusalem outremer
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099, Emile Signol, 1847, via Wikimedia Commons


To survive, the newly created Order of Solomon’s Temple had to seek the support of eminent personalities. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, backed the order and granted the knights part of his palace in Jerusalem. The palace was located on the Temple Mount and coincided or was next to (sources disagree) the Al-Aqsa Mosque. After the First Crusade, the mosque was turned into a royal palace named “Solomon’s Temple” after the destroyed First Temple of King Solomon. As the knights were staying in Solomon’s Temple, people named them “Templars.”


Still, as an order, they also needed to be recognized by the pope. The first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Hugues de Payens, left Jerusalem during the Summer of 1127 with five other knights to go to Europe and seek Pope Honorius II’s support. The group of six knights also traveled across several regions of France and crossed the Channel to reach first England, then Scotland. Their goal was to be acknowledged, raise funds, and recruit members. Likewise, new members of the order went to the Iberian Peninsula.


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Bernard of Clairvaux, in Horae ad usum Romanum illuminated by Jean Hey and Jean Pichore, ca. 1510, via Biblissima


Hugues de Payens also sought the help of Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot, reformer of religious life, and leader of the Order of Cistercians. Bernard of Clairvaux agreed to support the Templars and wrote a short treaty, Book to the Knights of the Temple, in praise of the new knighthood. Bernard of Clairvaux called the Templars “moine-soldat,” meaning “warrior monks,” highlighting the two key aspects of the order — praying and fighting.


Following Bernard of Clairvaux’s backing, the legate of Pope Honorius II acknowledged the Knights Templar as a religious order following a rule during the 1129 Council of Troyes. In 1139, ten years after the first papal recognition, Pope Innocent II issued a papal bull which established the Templars’ privileges. The papal bull stated that the Knights Templar were under the pope’s orders only. It also granted them papal protection and the right to have their own priests and choose their own Grand Master while remaining laypersons.


The Life of the Knights Templar

jacques de molay knights armor illumination
Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Picture Alliance / Mary Evans Pi, via Welt.de; with Drawing of a Knight in Armor, probably a Templar, in the Code of Justinian, ca. 1290-1310, via Biblissima


Gradually, the Order of Solomon’s Temple became a potent and popular order. Wherever they went, the local population gave them a warm welcome. Whether rich or poor, everyone was welcome to join the order, contributing to its growing popularity.


As they were soldiers, the knights did not follow a rule as strict as other orders. They needed to be strong to fight, and they fasted less often than other monks. They also spent less time praying. Instead, they practiced their fighting skills and conducted missions to defend critical passages on the road to Jerusalem. As the order received many donations and the possessions and land of their new members, they also handled other tasks such as managing land and trade.


knights templar commandery avalleur photograph
Commandery of the Knights Templar of Avalleur, photograph by Bastien Blanchard, via Outdooractive


Although both noblemen and peasants joined the order, they had different positions following their rank. The knights, noblemen, dressed in the famous white coat, while peasants wore black or colored cloaks. Still, they all wore a red cross, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice.


The Knights Templar were divided into two groups; one in Western Europe and the other in the Middle East. Over time, the order developed an administration to ease the movement of knights and goods between Europe and Outremer. The Grand Master of the order chose masters and commanders to lead the commanderies, monasteries where the Templars lived, which were scattered all over Europe. They were mainly found in England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Hungary. In the Middle East, on the other hand, the Templars lived in fortresses. The Grand Master was elected for life and supervised the military campaigns in the East and the order’s possessions in the West.


Templars: Bankers for Pilgrims 

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Map of Top Templar Sites in Western Europe, Barbara Maranzani, via History.com; with Knights Templar Hot Spots in the Holy Land, Barbara Maranzani, via History.com


As an order conducting military campaigns, the Templars had to finance their activities. Thanks to donations and bequests, the order managed lands and possessions that yielded profits. They had large sums of money that could be loaned to individuals or institutions, yet their faith prevented them from demanding interest over a loan. The Church regarded both interest and usury as a sin.


The real innovation was in the financial service they offered to pilgrims. Pilgrims needed funds for their long journey to the Holy Land. Yet, traveling with large amounts of money was unsafe. The Knights Templar offered them the possibility to leave their possessions in their care, receiving a depository receipt which could be exchanged for money in the local currency upon arrival in Jerusalem.


Friday the 13th: The Unlucky Day of the Templars’ Demise 

boccaccio execution of knights templar illumination
The Execution of the Knights Templar, in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Giovanni Boccaccio, 15th century, via Biblissima


The tragic end of the Knights Templar was the consequence of multiple factors. First, the crusaders lost the city of Acre to the Mamluks, after the siege of 1291. Crusaders and Templars alike had to leave Outremer and return to Europe. This event led to a questioning of the Templars’ usefulness since they could no longer protect the pilgrims’ road. At the time, the Knights Templars had already lost their luster in the eyes of the public. They had a reputation for being greedy and proud chevaliers.


Templars also lost the support of kings. For decades, the Knights Templar had had the blessing of European kings. For instance, King Louis VII of France was greatly indebted because the Templars helped him during a battle of the Second Crusade in 1147. The knights backed the King of England, Richard the Lionheart, and his army during the Third Crusade, and helped again during the Fifth. The Templars put their swords to the service of these leaders. Moreover, the order helped them financially. Penniless kings sought the help of the Templars to fund their crusades or pay a ransom to deliver them when imprisoned by the enemy.


boccaccio execution knights templar illumination
The Execution of the Knights Templar, in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Giovanni Boccaccio, 15th century, via Biblissima


However, the order got caught in the middle of a quarrel between Philip IV, King of France, and Pope Boniface VIII, and after him, Pope Clement V. The king and the pope were arguing about the supremacy of papal power over the temporal power of the king. The Templars were an extremely rich, powerful, and well-trained army at the pope’s service, and Philip IV looked for a way to make them disappear.


Philip ultimately found a solution to his problem: Esquieu de Floyran, a prior imprisoned for murder sharing a cell with an ex-Templar, reported the words of his cell-mate. The Templar supposedly told Esquieu about the obscene activities that occurred in the commanderies; denial of Christ, blasphemous rites of passage, and sodomy. Esquieu de Floyran spread the rumor amongst the general population. Even with an ongoing papal investigation, Philip IV did not wait for a verdict and decided to take the Order by surprise. On Friday 13 October 1307, in a single day, all Templars across France were arrested. Today, Friday the 13th is still a day of bad luck.


boccaccio knights templar burning
The Execution of the Knights Templar, in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Giovanni Boccaccio, 15th century, via Biblissima


Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the order, and his knights were taken prisoner and judged during the unfair trials of the Knights Templar. The inquisitor William of Paris ran the interrogation during which 38 knights were tortured to death. Others surrendered and confessed to heresy and idolatry. Jacques de Molay and the other leaders of the order always claimed their innocence. They were sentenced on Notre-Dame de Paris’ forecourt to be burned at the stake, along with 54 other Knights Templar.


In 2001, historian Barbara Frale found the Chinon Parchment Vatican Apostolic Archive, proof that Pope Clement V had absolved Jacques de Molay and the other leaders from all the charges against them.


The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Real or Not? 

national treasure knights templar movie
Benjamin Gates looking for the treasure found by the Knights Templar, in National Treasure by Jon Turteltaub, 2004, via Gamergen


Today, the Knights Templar are mostly known for their supposedly lost treasure. It has never been found and it still fascinates many today. Many treasure hunters are still looking for the Templars’ money, gold, and jewels. Each commandery did indeed have a chest containing their treasury.


At the time of the Templars’ arrest, only one chest containing a large amount of money was found. Philip IV seized the money, which went to the king’s treasury. Following the dissolution of the order in 1312, during the Council of Vienne, the possessions of the Knights Templars were bequeathed to another order, the Knights Hospitaller.


The real treasure of the Knights Templar consisted of well-managed land and, above all,  archives and relics. Over the years, the order accumulated numerous relics from the Holy Land and Europe. Among the most notable were fragments of the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.


The legend of the lost treasure mainly spread several centuries later, especially during the 18th century, with the expansion of Freemasonry in Europe. Their legend was sometimes mixed up with the Arthurian hunt for the Holy Grail. Since then, popular culture has actively contributed to the survival of the myth surrounding the Knights Templar.

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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.