The Templars and other Monastic Military Orders:

The Parchment of Chinon and the massive forthcoming book Processus Contra Templarios--Papal Inquiry into the Trial of the Templars prove that the Knights Templar were known to be innocent of the charges for which they were persecuted and destroyed.

Nearly seven centuries after the Knights Templar were eliminated, they remain the subject of a vast body of speculation about modern conspiracies and secrets. Here's a short introduction to their real history, and that of their fellow warrior monks.

In 1119, Hugh de Payns created a group of fighting monks who patrolled the roads outside Jerusalem, and defended pilgrims from highway robbers. The impetus for the formation of the group may have been a massacre of 300 pilgrims near Jerusalem, just before Easter, by the coalition of Muslim forces known as the Saracens.

The knights' headquarters was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (site of the former Second Jewish Temple), where the Muslims had built the al-Aqsa Mosque. Hence, the group took the name of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon--or "Templars" for short. The Templars may have been created in imitation of similar orders in the Moslem world.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the leader of the Cistercian Order, strongly supported the Templars. His Liber Ad Milites Templi De Laude Novae Militiae extolled the knights, and made a word play on the contrast between malitia (evil) and militia. He wrote, "a new kind of militia is reported to have arisen in the world..." The killing of evildoers was "not homicide but malicide." Bernard argued that killing non-Christians was permissible as a last resort if there was no other way to stop them from oppressing Christians.

The Templars also received enthusiastic support from the Papacy. Pope Innocent II in 1139 issued the bull Omne Datum Optimum (Every Good Gift) making the Templars responsible only to the Pope directly. In 1144, Pope Celestine II published Milites Templi to encourage monetary donations to the Templars. The next year, Pope Eugenius III issued Militia Dei to give the Templars the right to own churches and cemeteries, and to collect the associated fees.

While vernacular translations of the Bible were disfavored, the Templars were given vernacular texts of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Maccabees, so they could learn the military strategy and tactics of the Holy Land.

Templar castles were used as secure store-houses for wealth. Because the Templars had a powerful and orderly international organization, the Templars played a role in the creation of Europe's early system of banks.

The Templars grew extremely wealthy. They were subject to no-one's control, and in their wars in the Holy Land, they made their own decisions about concluding truces or starting wars, without deferring to the wishes of the local Christian kings. With good cause, they were widely regarded as arrogant.

The unpopularity of the Templars provided an opportunity for France's King Philip II (known as "the Fair" because of his good looks, not his judgement) to destroy them in order to seize their vast wealth. In 1306, Philip expelled all the Jews from France, and confiscated their assets. He then aimed at the Templars. Templars were arrested and tortured, and made to admit to various infamous crimes, such as sodomy, profaning Catholic ritual, and so on. The actual evidence against the Templars was slight, but Phillip was able to force the Pope to support his plot against the Templars, for the Papacy was under the control of France. Other monarchs, such as Edward in England, followed Philip's example, and helped themselves to Templar property.

The Knights Templar were abolished by the Pope in 1312. In essence, they were victims of forfeiture laws. The rule that the government can seize the property of a criminal proved irresistibly tempting for Philip the Fair and his brother kings. Indeed, forfeiture was sometimes a major revenue source for monarchs, and the Templar persecution was not the last time that innocent people were convicted on phony charges so that the government could enrich itself.

Next to the Templars, the most famous Catholic military order was the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. They built a hospital in Jerusalem, but also branched into military affairs, and fought in defense of the Crusader kingdoms. Like the Templars, they warred bravely, but failed to coordinate with other Christian forces. After being driven out of Asia, they headquartered in Cyprus, Rhodes, and Malta, ruling the latter island until being defeated by Napoleon in 1798. Today, they still operate hospitals and ambulances.

The warrior monks of Prussia were the avaricious and oppressive Teutonic Knights, who expanded the realm of Christianity to the north and east of Germany.

The Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem ran hospitals, and was also charged by Pope Pius II with defending the island of Lemnos from the Turks in 1459. (The Turks prevailed.) The Order of St. Stephen was founded in 1561, as a naval force, and participated in the great Christian naval victory at Lepanto.

In Spain, there were many orders of warrior monks. These included the Order of Alcántara, the Order of Calatrava, and the Order of Santiago. The Spanish Orders may have provided the decisive force which helped the Catholic monarchs push back Muslim rule in Iberia. Ironically, the original military orders had arisen as a result of the Crusades in the east, but the most significant long-term effect of the military orders was a victory, that would endure for centuries, against the Muslim invasion of the west.

The Order of Our Lady of Mercy for the Redemption of Captives (the Mercedarians) was founded in 1218 to rescue Christian slaves held by Muslims. Originally a military order, the Mercedarians became a mainly clerical order in the next century; the order still exists today.

Sources: Edward Burman, The Templars: Knights of God (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1986); Roberta L. Harris, The World of the Bible (N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, 1995); Michael Walsh, Warriors of the Lord: The Military Orders of Christendom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2003).