To Kill an Order, I

by northernbeholder

Alright. Time to really dive into this Templars thing.  You already know the basics from Death of the Templars, so let’s get straight to the nitty-gritty.  First, we shall cover in greater detail the opposition to the Templars that had been slowly growing over the course of their existence.

At its founding, the Templar Order had considerable support amongst medieval nobility. The Templars were also well received by significant parts of the ecclesiastical establishment, receiving a letter of encouragement and advice from the prior of La Grande Chartreuse, a charter of privilege from Pope Innocent II, and a written defence of their way of life from Bernard of Clairvaux. The Grand Master of the Temple wrote many a letter to European men of power, soliciting assistance for the struggles in Outremer, and the Templars were in a strong position to rely on Louis VII of France, who was indebted to them for their aid during the Second Crusade. Westerners supported the establishment of the Military Orders to protect Outremer out of a fear of the East surging westwards and destroying Christendom.

The Templars quickly gained powerful benefactors, and the gifts given to their order during the 12th century rapidly exceeded those given to the older and less militant Hospitaller order. Templars in the West held high positions in the courts of England, France, and Iberia. They acted as royal treasurers, bankers, and trustees for the nobility in England and France. People from all walks of life who wanted treasure protected took it to the Knights Templar for what is today called safe-deposit. This included royalty; King James of England used the New Temple in London to store the Crown Jewels, and they were often employed in the collection and transportation of revenue. In France, the royal treasurer was in fact the treasurer of the Temple. They were also in charge of collecting both royal and papal taxes in many areas.

The sight of cartloads of tax money entering their strongholds – combined with the fact that they themselves were tax-exempt – helped contribute to the popular conception of their vast wealth, and thus their unpopularity.  By 1160, Pope Alexander III had to issue a papal bull against maltreating and abusing Templars; this suggests that this shows the early support from the Templars was no longer universal or definitive. However, the bulk of 12th century literature shows broad support for the Templars, with the Grail knighthood of the Cistercian Queste using them as inspiration, which indicates that the ecclesiastical establishment (which contained most literate members of society) still supported the Templars, who at that time were still militarily active in the Holy Land.

In addition, and contrary to usual monastic practice, the Templar chapter houses actually had regular contact with the local communities around them, suggesting that their relationship was much closer than usually assumed. Merchants, nobles, and kings, who stored their valuables in Temple treasuries, would also need free access to their own belongings. King Edward III once commented on how the New Temple (a large Templar chapter house) in London kept an open public thoroughfare through its courtyard and maintained the important bridge which linked to it. When the compound was later tended by the Hospitallers, repeated royal injunctions were needed to have them maintain the bridge and thoroughfare, which was not the case with the Templars. It was also not uncommon for noble travellers to be given free lodgings or refreshments, and chapter houses in urban areas often invited the laity into their chapel for mass.  As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt, and the openness of the Templars seems to have worked against them.

As we’ve already discussed, the loss of the Holy Land triggered widespread soul-searching about the role of the Military Orders and the use of their extensive wealth, which contributed directly to the persecution and suppression of the Templars. William of Tyre’s history of the Templar order is a profoundly negative narrative, attributing the later problems faced by the Order to overbearing pride on their part. William’s text was translated into French only after Jerusalem was lost and the Third Crusade failed to retake it, giving a background of Christian failure and weakness in the Levant to the release of the text to a lay audience. It can be argued that the translator’s alterations to William’s text were not meant to play down the Templars’ wealth and power, but that instead there are distinct if subtle signs of hostility to the Templars within the text – some translations include the knighthood (chevalerie) of the Templars becoming the “fraternitie”, and the vow to renounce “propriete” becoming “prosperite”. It is only the translator that links other churchmen with the patriarch whose generosity to the Templars is ill repaid; only the translator who records how the Templars turned to the Pope to gain their exemptions from patriarchal jurisdiction; and only the translator who concludes the chapter by noting that the Templars continued in their assertive and litigious behaviour. Based upon this, it can be asserted that the lay nobility, the audience for this French translation, were disenchanted with the Templars in the 13th century when this translation and adaptation was made.