The Last Temptation
of the Templars
The legends surrounding the Knights Templar are many and ever-changing. In the popular imagination (and the Catholic Church’s), they went from Crusader heroes to perverted idolaters. They established banks, only to lose all their money. They are villains in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and mysterious agents in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Did they found Freemasonry? Did they worship a severed head? This map explores some unanswerable questions.
The Knights Templar came from humble beginnings. In 1119, near the start of the Crusades, two French knights fighting in Jerusalem—Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Bouillon—formed the military order of monks, vowing to protect European pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. Lacking both means and numbers, the Templars at first could do little, but their cause was extremely popular. The Christians had only a feeble hold on Jerusalem, and, back in Europe, papal propaganda about the Holy Land’s importance proliferated. It wasn’t long before the Knights Templar became celebrities. They received lands, men and, in 1129, official recognition from the Catholic Church.
For more than 150 years, the Templars grew in prestige and power. The Arabs viewed them as formidable foes, elite troops who were militarily superior to other European soldiers. But in 1291, the Egyptian Mamluk fighters recaptured Acre, the only remaining Western stronghold in the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusades were all but over. The Templar castle was the last structure in Acre to fall. Left with nothing to protect, the Templars returned home. Though they attempted to convince Pope Clement V to order a new expedition, they did not succeed.
During the Crusades, the Knights Templar established the largest and most effective banking system in the world. They offered protection for pilgrims’ funds and possessions—an early form of safe-deposit box. They increased the circulation of money and dealt in different currencies across borders and empires. They also lent vast amounts of credit. The Templars themselves swore an oath of poverty, but the organization amassed astounding wealth, more even than European royalty.
Jealousy soon brewed within European castle walls. In France, King Philip IV (whose nickname, Philip the Fair, seems ironic in this case) was financially indebted to the Templars—and thus out for their blood. On Friday the 13th of October 1307 he arrested hundreds of them on charges of “compulsory sodomy” in their religious rites and, of all things, “indecent kissing.” He tortured confessions from them and by 1312 had convinced Pope Clement V that the Templars were not holy protectors but heretical imposters. The pope issued a decree eradicating the Templars. Philip filled his coffers with Templar money and his coffins with Templar bodies.
No one knows for sure what ultimately happened to the Templar knights after Pope Clement V dissolved the organization in 1312. One popular account claims that, while many were eventually imprisoned or executed (including the Templars’ grand master, Jacques de Molay), the surviving knights fled to the cold refuge of Scotland and were given protection by King Robert the Bruce. During the next three centuries the remnants of a disgraced order may have invented Freemasonry, the codes of a new, secretive fraternal organization. No existing document proves this, but some of the earliest records of Freemasonry date to late-16th-century Scotland. Many modern-day Masonic lodges include a rank of members known as the Knights Templar.
Despite women and nonbelievers being denied membership in the fraternity, there are currently about 6 million Freemasons. Historically, practitioners of Freemasonry have not been without their famous names to drop. The first American president, George Washington, was a Freemason. And the second man to walk on the moon, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, carried a Masonic flag to its cratered face. Aldrin even holds the title of a Masonic Knight Templar.
One of the greatest modern scandals in Italy concerns the death of Roberto Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, whose body was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. In the preceding years Calvi had been the target of a major investigation into embezzlement and illegal money transfers. He was even known as God’s Banker because of his heavy involvement with the Vatican’s finances. But he also had darker connections: to the Mafia and, the weirdest player in the fold, the clandestine Freemason group Propaganda Due, or P2. P2 constituted a kind of shadow government composed of highly ambitious, well-connected Italians (including future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) and had associates in every Italian secret service agency. In 1981, when police raided the P2 offices looking for links to terrorism, they uncovered the evidence needed to propel an investigation into Calvi, himself a P2 member. No one knows who hanged the Masonic banker from the Blackfriars Bridge. The Catholic Church, the Mafia and P2 all had strong motives. Interestingly, though, P2 Freemasons once called themselves frati neri, or “black friars.”
John the Baptist is one of the most respected religious figures of all time. According to Christians, he baptized Jesus as the messiah and then embarked on a highly successful preaching campaign. In Islam John the Baptist is lovingly known as Yahya, a prophet who witnessed the word of God. When the fledgling Freemason fraternity chose its first patron saint in the 1600s, it chose the Baptist. The Freemasons have since become nonsectarian, and John, accepted across many faiths, still seems like a fitting choice.
But it’s not all multiculti harmony for John the Baptist’s reputation. In his wildly popular Da Vinci Code, novelist and, some say, blasphemer Dan Brown spins a yarn about the Leonardo da Vinci painting Virgin of the Rocks. In his book, Brown claims this picture depicting John and Jesus as children caused an outrage among a group of nuns because it showed Jesus “submitting to [John’s] authority.” Da Vinci was forced to paint a new, more anodyne version, but, more important, da Vinci is rumored to have been a grand master of the Templars—by the late 15th century, the time of the painting, a completely underground organization.
Sometime between 28 and 36 A.D., King Herod Antipas of Judaea imprisoned John the Baptist for giving unsolicited advice about Herod’s incestuous marriage; Herod called for John’s beheading at the request of his dancing stepdaughter, Salome. John’s head has since entered the canon of holy body parts, including the tooth of Buddha, the beard of Muhammad, the penis of Rasputin, etc. The only problem: No one really knows where John’s head is. Muslims claim it’s in Umayyad Mosque in Syria. Catholics present John’s blackened caput on a red pillow in the Church of San Silvestro in Rome. Others say the head lies somewhere in the dirt of France or Turkey.
The Knights Templar allegedly possessed a severed human head they called Baphomet. If this is to be believed, they addressed the bearded Baphomet as their savior and kissed it in their initiation rituals. As for whose head it was, a likely candidate is indeed the Baptist. Proponents of John as Baphomet claim the Templars found the head among some treasures when Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. Whether an actual head, a statue or a reliquary, this item and rumors of its heretical worship helped seal the Templars’ fate.
With its sword fights and sieges, its damsels and derring-do, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is one of the great epic romances. Yet Scott depicts a complicated version of chivalry. For much of the novel the eponymous hero is bedridden, and three of the leading knights are lecherous and corrupt. Scott questions the merits of vainglorious swordsmen. When the wounded knight Ivanhoe wants to fight, his benefactor Rebecca wonders why he is so eager to kill or be killed after all “the pain you have endured” and “all the tears which your deeds have caused.” Ivanhoe responds, “Glory, maiden, glory!” Glory, says Rebecca, is the “rusted mail” hanging over a dead knight’s tomb.
Some of the lackluster armor in Ivanhoe relates to the novel’s 1194 setting, when the third wave of Crusaders was straggling home defeated. Most historians now see the Crusades as a hopeless and pointless exercise in violence and prejudice. In Ivanhoe that same bloody bigotry awaits the returning knights in England, where the Saxons and Normans view each other as something less than pond scum and neither group has any respect for the Jews.
Ivanhoe sets the template for the Knights Templar as fictional villains with the character Brian de Bois-Guilbert. A Templar, Bois-Guilbert is an arrogant, murderous kidnapper who forsakes his vow of chastity for a lusty pursuit of Rebecca, a Jewish healer. But Bois-Guilbert’s evil pales in comparison to the sickly ways of another character, Templar grand master Lucas de Beaumanoir. When the grand master discovers his knight has fallen for a Jew, he orders Rebecca’s execution.
Renewed interest in Christian occultism has slightly redeemed the Templars. In some alternate histories, the Templars are protectors of religious relics. Italian writer Umberto Eco started the trend with his novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). And in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), one stoic Templar waits out eternity guarding the Holy Grail. But with more than 80 million copies sold and a film adaptation directed by Ron Howard, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code really put the Templars back on the map. Brown’s conspiracy casts the Templars as clandestine operatives who, at Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, have for centuries guarded the most shocking and sensational secrets of the Catholic Church.