After the first crusade, when Jerusalem was captured by Christians, many pilgrims began to travel to the Holy Land. The order of the Knights Templar was founded to protect the many pilgrims that were attacked and killed on the road to Jerusalem.
Beginning with only nine people, the order soon became the strongest and most cosmopolitan institution, feared even by the Pope himself.
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Initially named the Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon, the knights Templar were founded in 1118 by a French knight, Hugues de Payens. He founded the order along with only eight relatives and acquaintances as a military order to protect Christian pilgrims along the road in the Muslim countries. With the help of king Baldwin II of Jerusalem, the order set its headquarters on the sacred Temple Mount.
Only in 1129 had the order received support of the church and formal endorsement of the Catholic Church. At this time, they adopted a strict code of conduct and the well-known style of dressing: white habit with a red cross, as well as their motto: “IN HOC SIGNO VINCES”.
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They also began to receive new noble-born recruits and donations, such as money, land or businesses.. Despite of their vow of poverty, the order could still acquire land and wealth. Their numbers soon grew to thousands, so the Templars established new chapters across Western Europe. Through the papal bull Omne Datum Optimum, given by Pope Innocent II, the order was exempted from obedience to local laws and taxes when passing borders. Their only obedience was to the Pope himself.
The knights Templar “invented” the banking system. They set up banks along the road to the Holy Land, where travelers could leave their money in exchange for a receipt. With that receipt, they could withdraw their money at any other bank along the road, thus avoiding the risk of traveling with a lot of money and being attacked.
The order’s wealth and power boosted and in a few years, and they became the primary lender to European leaders. They managed a wide range of businesses like farms, vineyards, manufacturing, import, export, and they built churches and castles.
The knights Templar were known to be fierce warriors. They were given strict orders not to leave the battlefield unless greatly outnumbered. Besides, they were spending all their time in prayer and training, unlike their laic counterparts, who used to drink, feast and party.
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Decline and dissolution of the Knights Templar
At the end of the 12th century, Jerusalem came again in the hands of Muslims, who forced the Templars to relocate their headquarters several times. European’s military support in the Holy Land began to decrease, as well as the Templars’ popularity, as they began to lose a series of battles. They were sometimes at odds with other Christian orders: The Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights. By the first years of the 14th century, after their last Muslim outpost in Acre fell, the order lost control in the Muslim world, so they moved their base of operations to Paris.
Because of their immense economical power, the knights Templar granted king Philip IV of France some loans, but when they denied him another loan because he was in great debt, the king resolved to bring the order down. By that time, the knights also wanted to form their own state in southeastern France.
On October 13th 1307, the Templars’ grand master Jacques de Molay was arrested, along with other knights, and accused of a wide range of crimes and sins. They were charged with apostasy, devil worship, heresy, spitting on the cross, homosexuality, obscene rituals, secrecy, financial corruption and fraud. Many of these offenses were confessed under cruel torture. King Philip IV convinced Pope Clement V of these accusations and thus he began his own inquiry. He was concerned about their secret initiation practices. In 1310, thousands of them were burnt at the stake, and grand master Jacques de Molay met the same fate in 1314.
Jacques de Molay was tranquil until the end, asking to be tied in such a way that he would face the Notre Dame Cathedral, and to have his hands together in prayer. According to the legend, he stated from the flames that both king Philip and pope Clement will soon meet him before God. It is interesting that pope Clement died only a month later, and king Philip lost his life in a hunting accident by the end of the year.
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The order was dissolved by the pope in 1312 under pressure from king Philip. Members who escaped torture and execution were either absorbed by other orders, such as the knights Hospitaller, or pensioned. The Templars’ wealth was transferred to the Hospitallers, and the remaining non-absorbed members fled to regions outside papal control. The Templar organizations in Portugal changed their name to the Knights of Christ.