Not so long ago, casually throwing the Knights Templar into polite conversation was a litmus test of mental health. One of Umberto Eco’s characters in Foucault’s Pendulum summed it up perfectly. He declared that you could recognise a lunatic “by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars”.
But all good things come to an end. The enigmatic medieval monk-knights are no longer a fringe interest for obsessives. They are now squarely mainstream. And as the 18th of March 2014 draws closer, Templarmania is going to be ratcheted up several more notches.
Everyone loves an anniversary, and this is going to be a big one. It will be exactly 700 years since the legendary Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Templars, was strapped to a stake in Paris and bonfired alive. For centuries after de Molay’s execution in 1314, everyone wanted to sweep the ashes of the whole dreadful affair under the carpet. The official line was that the Templars, the former darlings of Christendom, had fallen from grace. Power had gone to their heads, and they had degenerated into something unspeakable (for a medieval order of monks, at any rate): spitting and urinating on crucifixes, worshiping idols, and finding sexual release with each other.
King Philip IV “the Fair” of France had personally overseen seven years of inquiry into the order’s suspicious practices. Based on the information it unearthed, he was convinced that he had exposed something rotten in society. The world, he was sure, would be better off without their sort — so he moved to have the Order stamped out. In the end, faced with Philip’s sustained pious outrage, the yellow-bellied pope of the day (a stooge who owed everything to Philip) had little alternative except to close the Templars down on the basis their reputation was irreparably shot. Philip then spent the next few years getting his hands on the Templars’ vast wealth, which he justified as compensation for having financed the enquiry to expose their dreadful sins.
For the following centuries, no one really spoke of the Templars. They were an embarrassment, and the less said about them the better. It was as if they had never been.
An attempt to rehabilitate them came first from a Scottish Freemason in the early 1700s, but his views did not spread wider than the royal Jacobite court where he presented them. A century later, the Order’s traditional reputation as depraved deviants re-emerged, but this time as the arch-villains in books – most famously in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. But fast-forward to 2013, and for some reason the Templars are everywhere. Promotional stands in bookshops buckle under the weight of credulity-busting Templar plots. Bug-eyed computer gamers, cloaked in the Templars’ iconic white robes and blood red crosses, slash and parry through historical adventures of derring-do. Cruise-ships of sightseers descend on original Templar buildings. And in central London, you can now even unwind with a pint in The Knights Templar pub.
Yet the increasing popularity of the Templars is something of a mystery, because it is hard to see how or why the modern world identifies with the Order at all. The Templars were medieval monk-knights, the crack troops of the Crusades – so effective and feared on the battlefield that Saladin once famously executed all captured Templars for fear of ever having to face them again. As a sideline to fund their wars, the knights experimented with international finance. They proved so talented at it that they were soon richer than Europe’s leading kings, whom they dutifully bankrolled.
They were, by anybody’s standards, then or now, a startling bunch: one only the medieval world could have conceived of. It is difficult to imagine what a modern equivalent would be. Perhaps a massive international army of chaste militant Christian zealots who also happened to own most of the world’s investment banks? It is hard to see how such a modern group would be remotely popular with the public. So what do people see in the Templars?
Darker interests focus on the Templars as the rallying point of a network of violent European white supremacism – a lodestar of racial hatred around which extremism can gravitate. The appeal of the Templars to extremists is probably inevitable. The Templars were founded during the Crusades, which can hardly be described as a time of religious and cultural tolerance. But the Templars are always full of surprises, and the historical record shows that even in that climate, the Templars’ sworn mission was in fact to protect pilgrims and the vulnerable. Nowhere in the over 600 provisions of their medieval Rule does it ever refer to anything approaching a mandate for ideological murder of people holding a different faith.
The extremists’ vision of the Templars as a kind of proto-SS ethnic extermination squad is simply ahistorical. The evidence does not bear it out. For instance, take Usamah ibn Munqidh, an adventurous 12th-century Syrian nobleman, diplomat, and poet. He recorded that when he used to visit Jerusalem, the Templars, who were his friends, would let him into their headquarters in the Temple of Solomon (the al-Aqsa mosque), where they would clear a space for him to pray. On one occasion, a nameless European knight repeatedly seized him, and spun him so he was facing East, ordering him to pray as a Christian. The Templars quickly intervened and ejected the knight, before explaining apologetically to Usamah that the knight was fresh off the boat from Europe and new to the ways of the Orient.
Accounts like this have spawned a growing camp of people who look to the Templars’ spiritual side, and see in the Order a fascinating enigma. The idea that the Templars had an alternate spirituality, perhaps even a slightly mystical one, is, interestingly, not a New Age invention. People were saying it before the Templars were closed down. The poet-knight Wolfram von Eschenbach, writing sometime between 1200 and 1225, gave the German people their first Holy Grail epic: Parzival. In it, he described how the Grail was kept at the castle of Munsalvaesche, guarded by a company of chaste knights called Templeise. This is the earliest association between the Templars and the magical supernatural, and predates The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail crowd by at least seven-and-a-half centuries.
The other ancient association of the Templars with the supernatural is perhaps better known, but sadly more garbled. It was reported by medieval chroniclers that as the flames of the funeral pyre began to lick at Jacques de Molay, he prophesied that within a year the king and pope (who had together effectively destroyed the Templars and condemned him to a heretic’s death) would meet him before God’s celestial tribunal, where they would be judged for their corruption. Although both men died within the year, the story of Jacques de Molay’s “curse” seems to have been embellished from his actual words, which may have been a simpler threat that God would avenge his unjust death.
Nevertheless, versions of this legend are widespread, and have long added to the Templars’ mystique. Although all King Philip’s public statements on the Templars were steeped in a viscous piety and an endlessly-repeated desire to act as the Church’s protector, the reality was the magnetic opposite. His “inquiry” was, in fact, a brutal persecution, which involved seven years of barbarous incarcerations, horrific tortures, and multiple burnings at the stake. Philip was not remotely motivated by religion, despite his sanctimonious flannel. His coffers were filled with nothing but dust and air, and he urgently needed eye-watering sums of money to fuel his appetite for European wars. At the same time, pope-baiting was high on his list of hobbies, and he clearly felt that destroying the Vatican’s invincible army would be a distinct milestone in his effort to position France as the dominant power in Europe.
Unsurprisingly, it was fashionable for many years to see the Templars as the wholly innocent victims of Philip’s squalid politics. Philip was indeed shameless in the way he hurled as many charges at the Templars as he thought were necessary to whip up public outrage and disgust. He was an experienced master at the all-important game of spin, having garnered support against the previous pope using the identical charges of heresy and homosexuality. It had worked magnificently on that occasion – his men even kidnapped the elderly pope, and when the old cleric died of shock, Philip insisted on a posthumous trial to prove the trumped-up charges against the dead pope. So there is no doubt that Philip was a gifted bully – a spectacularly unscrupulous manipulator with no concern at how much blood needed spilling for him to get his way.
However, there are always twists in the tail when it comes to the Templars, and it seems Philip may have found a tiny ember of genuine Templar heresy, which he deftly fanned into a fire big enough to consume the Order. A detailed reading of the complicated sequence of confessions and retractions made by both the rank-and-file knights and the leaders of the Order leaves little doubt that the Templars were up to something. King Philip’s allegations of them worshipping a head that could make trees flower and the land germinate were plainly fabricated, and no evidence of anything remotely related was ever unearthed. Likewise, his accusations of institutionalised homosexuality proved to be invented. But many knights, including Jacques de Molay and some of his most senior lieutenants, did openly admit, at times with no torture, that new members of the Order were pulled aside in private after their monastic reception ceremonies and asked to deny Christ and spit on a crucifix. None of the knights could give an explanation why this was done. They said it had simply always been a tradition, and that the new brother usually complied ore sed non corde, with words but not the heart.
After so many centuries, we can only guess at the bizarre ritual’s significance. It may originally have been a character test to get some idea of how the new recruit might react if captured and subjected to religious pressure. But no one can say for sure. Nevertheless, it does clearly demonstrate that the Templars were subversive when they wanted. In fact, the clearest evidence that the Templars were not all they seemed is largely unknown, even among Templar experts. But it is potentially extraordinarily important. It takes the form of an original Templar building, still standing, nestled in a quiet corner of green countryside. Inside, it contains an enigma that may yet cause experts to revisit the entire question of the Templars’ religious beliefs.
It is not Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, which has no Templar connections at all, having been built a century and a half after the Order was suppressed. Instead, it is a small mid-12th-century chapel in the village of Montsaunès, set in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, on one of the principal medieval highways leading from France into Spain. It was in a critical location. The fight to wrest Spain back from Islam was in full flow, and Montsaunès was on a strategic defensive line. Surviving medieval charters prove beyond doubt that the chapel was unquestionably built by the Templars, then occupied and maintained by the Order for 150 years. It was the heart of one the Order’s great European commanderies (fortified monasteries), although nothing else of it survives.
The reason for its importance to the question of Templar spirituality is immediately apparent the moment you enter the ancient building. The whole interior is painted, as most medieval churches and cathedrals were. But the Templars’ chosen decorations for this particular chapel were not saints, bible scenes, and the usual range of religious imagery. The surviving frescoes are a bizarre collection of stars and wheels, rolling around the walls and ceiling in some mysterious, unfathomable pattern. Interspersed among them are also grids and chequer-boards, painted with equal precision – but also with no apparent sense or meaning. There is nothing remotely Christian about it. The overall effect is calendrical and astrological, with a whiff of the Qabbalistic. It is like some strange hermetic temple, whose meaning is obscured to all except initiates.
The conclusion of the few experts in medieval art who have looked at the frescoes is that they are unlike anything else they have ever seen. They are “unknown esoteric decoration”. Anyone studying the startling paintings quickly realises that they transcend the small French commune where they remain unnoticed, 850 years on. They demand answers. What did they mean to the Knights Templar? Why did they paint them so meticulously? And what prompted them to put them in their chapel, the building at the heart of their spiritual life, which they entered to pray in nine times a day?
We simply do not know the answers. But the chapel at Montsaunès is proof, in its own enigmatic way that the religious life of the Templars was not as straightforward as we have perhaps come to believe. As Umberto Eco’s lunatics, and a growing swathe of more ordinary people, prepare to mark the anniversary of Jacques de Molay’s death, there will be discussions about individual freedom and the abuse of power, about political show trials and miscarriages of justice, and about Europe’s transition from theocracy to autocracy. But there will also be time to think again about what knowledge went up in flames with Jacques de Molay, and to the grave with the other knights.
The little-known chapel at Montsaunès reminds us that there is much we still do not know about the Templars, who increasingly baffle us the more we discover about them.
(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 19 December 2013)