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The Knights Templar and the Birth of Portugal

Updated: 20 hours ago

The Order of the Temple was founded following the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade (1099) and the beginning of mass Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. After their establishment on the Temple Mount, they took on the mission of protecting pilgrims and the holy places. Semi-legendary accounts describe the creation of a brotherhood of nine warrior-monks, headed by the Frenchman Hugo de Payns, the first Grand Master of the order.

After initial opposition from those who rejected the idea of a freire bearing arms, the Knights Templar were recognised at the Council of Troyes (1129) and by the Pope with the bull Omne datum optimum (1139). Their greatest patron and supporter was the French abbot, St Bernard of Clairvaux, the reformer of the Cistercian Order, who took it upon himself to draw up a code for the new religious order. The Templar code of Saint Bernard and Hugo of Payns was strict and orthodox, imposing the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience on all the initiated. Adapted from the Benedictine rule, it diverged from its predecessor by refusing the idea that a monk could not defend himself or commit violence, laying the foundations for an order that was both religious and military. This new form of Chivalry would be the inspiration behind the action of other religious chivalric orders, such as the Knights Hospitallers or the Teutonic Order.

Knights Templar
Knights Templar

The Order of the Temple quickly supplanted its role of protecting pilgrims to take on military importance as the elite body of the Crusades. Their bravery in battle is legendary: they were forbidden to withdraw from battle, except when outnumbered three to one, and even then only when ordered to do so by their commander or when the standard fell. This fearless way of fighting ensured the Knights Templar glorious victories, often against a numerically superior enemy, but it also inflicted heavy casualties on their numbers (20,000 losses in the course of two centuries).

The need to defend the pilgrim routes led to the Knights Templar establishing an extensive network of fortifications between Europe and the Holy Land. As well as being military positions, these warehouses became a kind of banking agency where it was possible to make monetary deposits, which could be reimbursed in another part of the world by issuing a bank cheque (the first in history). Banking activity made the Order disproportionately prosperous. At the height of their power, they owned the island of Cyprus and a vast fleet that moved between secret ports all over the Mediterranean. Wealth made them powerful, but it also attracted powerful enemies.

In 1187, the Crusades reached a turning point with the reconquest of Jerusalem by Saladin's Islamic forces. The Knights Templar were gradually expelled from the Levant, regrouping several times until their final defeat with the fall of Acre in 1291. The last bastion of Christendom in the Holy Land was lost forever and support for the Knights Templar began to wane.

In the 14th century, Templar intervention became minimal or non-existent. With the loss of their primary identity as holy warriors and guardians of the pilgrims, it was increasingly difficult to justify their special status before the Holy See, as well as tax exemptions and privileges.

The Templars' operational base left the Holy Land to settle in the French capital Paris, in the Temple district, which still bears their name today. France was ruled by the Capet dynasty: its king Philip IV the Fair resented the Order, where he was denied initiation and to whose coffers he was greatly indebted. With a weak pope in Avignon, there was little to stand between the French king and the Knights Templar, who took the first opportunity to take revenge and balance the kingdom's finances at the expense of the Temple's treasures.

Philip IV (r. 1285-1314) and the pope Clemente V
Philip IV (r. 1285-1314) and the pope Clemente V

On Friday 13 October 1307, Philip IV launched a mega-police operation that captured all the Knights Templar in France at dawn on charges of heresy. Over the next seven years, the people of France would witness the greatest trial in their history: a total of 15,000 Templars would be accused. The scroll on which the interrogations were transcribed now exists and measures 22.20 metres. All over France, Templars are being tried and their property seized by the crown. The case sent shock waves through Christianity and few sovereigns believed the accusations levelled against them: renouncing Christ and worshipping the pagan idol Baphomet, discrediting Christian symbols in initiation rituals and homosexuality among their members.

The Templars held out to the very end the hope of papal intervention, which never came. Under pressure from the King of France, Pope Clement V decreed the suppression of the Order on 22 March 1312, leaving its members at the mercy of secular justice and relegating its treasures and property to the Knights Hospitallers.

Jacques de Molay, last gran-master of the Templar Order Ordem do Templo
Jacques de Molay, last gran-master of the Templar Order Ordem do Templo

The abjuration of a previously made confession placed Jacques de Molay in the condition of a heretic. Jacques de Molay, an old septuagenarian who had devoted 40 years of his life to the Templar cause, was sentenced to death by burning. The sentence was carried out in March 1314 on one of the islands in the Seine River and in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. According to legend, the last Grand Master asked to be placed facing the cathedral, with his hands tied together as a sign of prayer. In the face of the horror of those present, the grandmaster's voice emerges from the midst of the flames beseeching a curse on his accusers: less than a year after his death, they would stand before God to answer for their crimes. King Guillaume de Nogaret's saddle-keeper and Pope Clement would die the following month. With the death of Philip IV in a hunting accident in November of the same year, the curse was fulfilled.

Even after its destruction, the Order of the Temple remained an object of veneration and myth. The responses of European monarchs to the papal directives of dissolution were uneven, with the Templars and their property being protected by some nations, notably Robert the Bruce's Scotland and Dom Dinis' Portugal. In the Portuguese case, their property and privileges were assimilated by a new religious chivalric order created for the purpose: the Order of Christ. Portugal's connection with the Order of the Temple predates the founding of the kingdom itself. It was one of the first Christian nations to welcome the Knights Templar into its territory when Henry, Count of Portucale and father of the first king, granted them a charter for Soure in 1111. In their reincarnation as the Order of Christ, they would have been closely related to the Discoveries movement, were it not for their great promoter, Prince Henry the Navigator, the Grand Master of this order.

Convent of the Order of Christ and the Knights Templar

The theory that the Order of the Temple survived as an international secret society, intervening at crucial moments in history is sometimes echoed. One legendary account describes the appearance of a Knight Templar at the execution of the French King Louis XVI, who soaked a cloth in the guillotine's blood and shouted, "Jacques de Molay, your death has been avenged! Some initiatic orders, notably the Freemasons, claimed to have received esoteric knowledge and a line of succession from the Knights Templar, and their grand masters are known in this register until the 18th century.

Are you curious to visit Tomar? You can book a tour on our website to take this trip back in time, maybe you will find where these knights keep their treasure!

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