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The Knights Templar - A Christian military force crushed by a French king

The Knights Templar were a formidable order, combining religious authority with wealth and military force but they were destroyed by King Philip IV of France, who accused them of religious and sexual crimes. Nick Inman looks at their beginning, their end and their legacy

On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI of France was taken from the Temple prison in Paris to be guillotined in front of an excited crowd in the place de la Concorde. As soon as the blade had fallen, an anonymous Freemason is said to have leapt onto the scaffold, plunged his hand into the king’s blood and cried: “Jacques de Molay, you have been avenged!”

He was referring to another execution four centuries earlier, as if it was still living memory: not far away, on an island in the Seine, when the last grand master of the Knights Templar was burned to death in 1314, charged with crimes he denied. His death was the culmination of a sordid chain of events that is still argued over today.

If it was the end of the history of the Templars, it was only the beginning of their legend – one that is filled with paradox, mystery and tragic irony and today provides a living for novelists, mystery hunters and conspiracy theorists.

It is worth pointing out that, although some people confuse the Templars with the Cathars there is no connection. The Cathars were also persecuted by the French crown in league with the papacy on the grounds of heresy and massacred in a concerted campaign against them; but some years after the demise of the Templars and only in southern France.

So who were the Templars? The order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon came into being in the Holy Land, most likely in 1119 or 1120. It had close associations with France, having been created by two French knights, Hugues de Payens (from a village near Troyes) and Godfrey de Saint-Omer (from Flanders). Its first eight grand masters were from France – the only exception being Philippe de Milly, who was born in the Kingdom of Jerusalem but was nonetheless ethnically French. And yet it was under the orders of the king of France that the order met its end.

The initial purpose of the Knights Templar was to protect pilgrims making their way to the city of Jerusalem that had been captured for Christendom in 1099 by the First Crusade. The name of the order came from the knights’ headquarters in the Al-Aqsa mosque, believed to be the site of the temple of Solomon.

In Europe, their champion was St Bernard of Clairvaux, great promoter of the Cistercian monastic order, and he was instrumental in getting the Templars an endorsement from the Pope at the Council of Troyes in 1129.

From the start, the Knights Templar were a paradox. They purported to be both monastic and military at the same time: warrior monks dressed in white mantles adorned with a red pattée – a type of cross where the arms are narrow at the centre and broad at the ends. As monks, they took a vow of chastity and obedience to their grand master. They also swore themselves to poverty.

Because they were a fighting force that continually sustained casualties, the Templars were constantly in need of new recruits and resources to keep them in the field. They proved to be extremely able at fundraising, and while individual knights lived lives of self-denial the order itself grew rich.

 An international logistics organisation grew in Europe to sustain the warriors in the Holy Land. This was based on the commandery or preceptory, a semi-autonomous communal Templar domain. It is estimated that at its peak the order had 9,000 estates from Syria to Scotland; it also controlled ports and had a vast fort that served as its financial centre just outside the walls of Paris. Its knights earned a reputation as brave fighters, even though they lost many battles.

But at the end of the 13th century they were faced with a crisis, after the Christians were driven out of the Holy Land in 1291 – Jerusalem having already been lost at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Templars became desperate to persuade the political and religious rulers of Europe to launch a new crusade, so that they could regain their raison d’être – but by this time there was little appetite for distant military campaigns.

And so the Templars entered the 14th century as a wealthy organisation in limbo. But no one expected the resolution of their situation to be so violent and complete. 

The mass arrest of the Templars was worthy of a modern police sting operation. A month before the appointed time, King Philip IV of France consulted Pope Clement V and the Papal inquisitor in Paris, sending out secret instructions to agents all over the country along with a summary of the charges to be brought.

On the morning of Friday 13, October 1307, Europe was taken by surprise as all members of the order in France were arrested simultaneously – 1,000 Templars of whom 100 were knights, although almost all were past fighting age. Among them was Jacques de Molay, 23rd and last grand master, who was in Paris for a state funeral. It is thought that a dozen Templars escaped and tried to flee to England or another country – most were apprehended.

The captured Templars were imprisoned and interrogated, sometimes using torture. Only four resisted the pressure to confess to crimes, although some of those who did later retracted their statements.

The charge sheet consisted of 127 articles, including:

  • Denying Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the sacraments
  • Worshipping idols – including one called Baphomet
  • Treating their grand master, a lay man, as if he were a priest
  • Lewd kissing during initiation ceremonies and engaging in homosexuality
  • Enriching themselves in whatever ways they could
  • Keeping secrets from the outside world on pain of death

The show trials got under way and the first Templars were burned to death in May 1310. The pope felt obliged to officially suppress the order in 1312 but there is some evidence that he had by this time absolved the Templar leaders of their supposed crimes.

Last to face the flames were De Molay and Geoffrey de Charney, preceptor of Normandy, who were burnt on the Ile aux Juifs in front of Notre Dame. It is said, almost certainly unreliably, that as he died De Molay cursed the king and the pope, telling them that they would soon have to answer for their own crimes before God. Within a year of his execution, both his persecutors were also dead.

That may have been the end of the Templars but many questions were left behind and they still have not been answered fully. Why was Philip so determined to destroy the Templars? Did he really believe the charges against them? Was he jealous of their economic power over him or was he simply after their wealth?

The answer is that the fate of the Templars was probably due to a variety of factors, including misunderstanding and the difficulty of stopping a process once momentum had got going.

Were any of the charges true? The Templars were a secret society, and they would in all probability have carried out initiation ceremonies. As with any large organisation, there must have been weak and corrupt members; some might, by the law of averages, have been homosexual. But it is unlikely that the Templars were institutionally riddled with vice or that they were in any way anti-religious.

Their property was confiscated and mostly handed over to the Knights Hospitaller. Their castle headquarters in Paris passed into the hands of 18th-century revolutionaries and, with supreme irony, served as a prison just long enough to incarcerate the king of France before his execution. By then, the true story of the monastic knights had been all but forgotten but the myth of the Templars had only just begun.

Legacy of order that died...

“A lunatic is easily recognised…The lunatic … doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else.
  “The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy.
  “You can tell him 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…”

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum


No one would be talking about the Templars today if their myth had not been invented in the 18th century. Until then, everyone had assumed that King Philip IV of France had pursued the order out of greed for its wealth.

Around the 1730s the theory was spread that the Templars had possessed some ancient secret that had been suppressed by the Establishment. In 1736 Chevalier Ramsay, a Scottish baronet and Freemason living in France, tried to link masonry with the Crusades and the Knights Hospitaller. Others drew the conclusion that the Freemasons had inherited the secret of the Templars. From then on it became de rigueur for secret societies to cite the Templars in the story of their origins.

During the French Revolution, the Templars were invoked in the first modern conspiracy theories to explain the downfall of the monarchy.

Shortly afterwards, Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat launched his Order of the Temple, claiming that the grand mastership of the Templars had been kept up by shadowy members in a line of succession.

Another neo-Templar organisation, the Ordo Templi Orientis, had the controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley as its most famous member. In recent years several bestselling books have purported to reveal the secrets of the Knights Templar: there must, they insist, be something more going on than the known facts.

It was almost inevitable that the Templars should find their way into Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a fictional compendium of all things denied, hidden and conspiratorial.  

...and one that still survives

The KNIGHTS Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and the Knights of Malta, were founded sometime in the eleventh century – before the Templars and even the First Crusade of 1096–99.

The order has avoided the controversy and mystery that befell the Templars, and continues to function in the present day.

The Hospitallers inherited much of the wealth and property of the Templars after 1314. Many Templar sites are also the work of the Hospitallers, who took them over and adapted them to their own use.

 Although they had a strong presence in France in the late Middle Ages, the Hospitallers’ main operations were in the eastern Mediterranean. When the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was lost in 1291 they moved their headquarters to Cyprus, then Rhodes and finally Malta in 1530, which they governed until Napoleon took the island in 1798.

The order survived as a charitable institution and in 1961 became known formally as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, with its headquarters in Rome. The current organisation has 13,500 “professed friars” and other knights and dames active in 120 countries. It describes itself as a “lay religious Order, traditionally of military, chivalrous, noble nature” dedicated to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity. Its inspiring principles are summarised in the motto Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum, which it defines on its multi-lingual website as meaning: Nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick representing the Lord.” Elsewhere it says: “The Order of Malta is neutral, impartial and non-political, which is why it can successfully act as a mediator between states.”

If you want to learn more about the legacy of the Templars, be warned that the internet is awash with websites peddling misinformation and you have to tread carefully if you are interested in the facts. One of the better ones is run by a Belgian policeman, Christophe Staf. He said: “The aim of it is to demystify the subject, to focus on the history, not the legends that are circulating.”

As for books, The New Knighthood: a History of the Order of the Temple and The Trial of the Templars by Malcolm Barber are both definitive.

Visit Templar sites in France

Many of the Templars’ properties in France were handed over to the Hospitallers and it can be difficult to distinguish between the work of the two.

Arville: Commanderie d’Arville (Loir-et-Cher)

The best preserved commandery in France, now a museum of Templar history

Chinon: Forteresse Royale (Loire Valley) Templar dignitaries were held here in 1308 before being moved to Paris for trial and execution. The graffiti on the walls is said to have been made by them.

Coulommiers (Seine-et-Marne)

Well-preserved and picturesque commandery in a small town near Paris.

La Couvertoirade (Aveyron)

The chateau in this well preserved fortified complex was built by the Templars around 1200.

Cressac-Saint-Genis (Charente)

Chapelle de la Commanderie Templière Du Dogon. This small chapel contains authentic 12th century frescoes showing the knights travelling to the Holy Land by ship to fight the Saracens.

Laon: Chapelle des Templiers (Aisne)

The Templars established themselves here in 1123 and built this octagonal chapel in 1130. It is now in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum.

Metz: Chapelle des Templiers (Moselle)

A 12th-century octagonal Romanesque-cum-Gothic chapel decorated with murals.

Montsaunès (Haute Garonne)

The only Templar church in France still intact. Collect the key from the town hall to look inside. Around the doorway are carved 52 human heads. Inside are damaged frescoes including red crosses.

Paris: Square du Temple

There is nothing to see in Paris relating to the Templars except a plaque marking the site of the execution of Jacques de Molay (Place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité).

Payns (Aube)

The birthplace of Hugues de Payens, one of the founders of the Knights Templar.

Richerenches (Vaucluse)

The restored Templar house is now the tourist office.

Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon (Aveyron)

This village at foot of the Larzac plateau was the Templar headquarters for the region from the 12th century until the order’s demise.

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