In the year 1118 — nineteen years after the first crusade had ended with the defeat of the Moslems — the capture of Antioch and Jerusalem, and the instalment of Godefroi de Bouillon as king of the latter city — a band of nine French gentilshommes, led by Hugues de Payens and Godefroi de Saint-Omer, formed themselves into an Order for the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre. Baldwin II, who at moment succeeded the throne of Jerusalem, presented them with a house near the site of the Temple of Solomon — hence the name of Knights Templar under which they were to become famous. In 1128 the Order was sanctioned by the Council of Troyes and by the Pope, and a rule was drawn up by Saint Bernard under which the Knights Templar were bound by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
But although the Knights Templar distinguished themselves by many deeds of valour, the regulation that they were to live solely on alms led to donations so enormous that, abandoning their vow of poverty, they spread themselves over Europe, and by the end of the twelfth-century had become a rich and powerful body. The motto that the Order had inscribed upon its banner, “Non nobis, Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam,” was likewise forgotten, for, their faith waxing gold, they gave themselves up to pride and ostentation. Thus, as an eighteenth-century masonic writer has expressed it: “The war, which for the greater number of warriors of good faith proved the source of weariness, of losses and misfortunes, became for them (the Knights Templar) only the opportunity for booty and aggrandizement, and if they distinguished themselves by a few brilliant actions, their motive soon ceased to be a matter of doubt when they were seen to enrich themselves even with the spoils of the confederates, to increase their credit by the extent of the new possessions they had acquired, to carry arrogance to the point of rivalling crowned princes in pomp and grandeur, to refuse their aid against the enemies of the faith, as the history of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub testifies, and finally to ally themselves with that horrible and sanguinary prince named the Old Man of the Mountain Prince of the Assassins.”1
The truth of the last accusation is, however, open to question. For a time, at any rate, the Knights Templar had been at war with the Assassins. When in 1152 the Assassins murdered Raymond, Comte de Tripoli, the Knights Templar entered their territory and forced them to sign a treaty by which they were to pay a yearly tribute of 12,000 gold pieces in expiation of the crime. Some years later the Old Man of the Mountain sent an ambassador to Amaury, King of Jerusalem, to tell him privately that if the Knights Templar would forgo the payment of this tribute he and his followers would embrace the Christian faith. Amaury accepted, offering at the same time to compensate the Knights Templar, but some of the Knights Templar assassinated the ambassador before he could return to his master. When asked for reparations the Grand Master threw the blame on an evil one-eyed Knight named Gautier de Maisnil.2
It is evident, therefore, that the relations between the Knights Templar and the Assassins were at first far from amicable; nevertheless, it appears probable that later on an understanding was brought about between them. Both on this charge and on that of treachery towards the Christian armies, Dr F. W. Bussell’s impartial view of the question may be quoted: “When in 1149, Emperor Conrad III failed before Damascus, the Knights Templar were believed to have a secret understanding withe garrison of that city ; “[…] in 1154 they were said to have sold, for 60,000 gold pieces, a prince of Egypt who had wished to become a Christian; he was taken home to suffer certain death at the hands of his fanatical family. In 1166 Amaury, King of Jerusalem, hanged twelve members of the Order for betraying a fortress to Nureddin.”
And Dr F.W. Bussell goes on to say that it cannot be disputed that they had “long and important dealings” with the Assassin “and were therefore suspected (not unfairly) of imbibing their precepts and following their principles.”3
By the end of the thirteenth-century, the Knights Templar had become suspect, not only in the eyes of the clergy, but of the general public. “Amongst the common people,” one of their latest apologists admits, “vague rumours circulated. They talked of the covetousness and want of scruple of the Knights, of their passion for aggrandizement and their capacity. Their haughty insolence was proverbial. Drinking habits were attributed to them; the saying was already in use ‘to drink like a Templar.’ The old German word Tempelhaus indicated house of ill-fame.”4
The same rumours had reached Pope Clement V even before his accession to the papal throne in 1305,5 and in this same year he summoned the Grand Master of the Order,Jacques de Molay, to return to France from the island of Cyprus, where he was assembling fresh forces to avenge the recent reverses of the Christian armies.
Jacques de Molay arrived in France with sixty other Knights Templar and 150,000 gold florins, as well as a large quantity of silver that the Order had amassed in the East.
The Pope now set himself to make enquiries concerning the charges of “unspeakable apostasy against God, detestable idolatry, execrable vice, and many heresies ” that had been “secretly intimated” to him. But, to quote his own words: “Because it did not seem likely nor credible that men of such religion who were believed often to shed their blood and frequently expose their persons to the peril of death for Christ’s name and who showed such great and many signs of devotion both in divine offices as well as in facts, as in other devotional observances, should be so forgetful of their salvation as to do these things, we were unwilling […] to give ear to this kind of insinuation […] (hujusmodi insinuacioni ac delacioni ipsorum […] aurem noluimus inclinare).”6
The King of France, Philippe le Bel, who had hitherto been the friend of the Knights Templar, now became alarmed and urged the Pope to take action against them; but before the Pope was able to find out more about the matter, the King took the law into his own hands and had all the Knights Templar in France arrested on October 13rd, 1307.