By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
One of Earth’s best-known secret societies rose to prominence in 1122 CE. The Knights Templar remains shrouded in mystery, rumor, and conspiracy theory. At its peak, 20,000 members were counted in its ranks.
Secret societies have been said to hide in plain sight in civilization for centuries. Groups like the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Skull and Bones, and others allegedly pull the strings of politics and religion from time to time in order to shape world events. The Knights Templar, one of the most popular, dates back nearly to the First Crusade.
With so much speculation, gossip, and fantasy surrounding the Knights Templar, what can we really know about the secret society? In his video series The Real History of Secret Societies, Dr. Richard B. Spence, Professor of History at the University of Idaho, dispels fact from fiction.
In God’s Name
“The Templars originally appeared in Jerusalem after the First Crusade, as a small group of knights who protected Christian pilgrims,” Dr. Spence said. “And by small, I mean nine men, including their leader—and the order’s first grand master—Hugues de Payens.”
They were officially known as the Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. They earned the sponsorship of the Temple of Solomon when Crusader King of Jerusalem Baldwin II allowed them to keep quarters on the Temple Mount. In the immediately following years, the Templars dug around the Mount, extensively. No one knows what they were looking for, but according to Dr. Spence, they quickly acquired patronage, wealth, and influence.
“By 1122, the order had the means to start buying properties in the Holy Land,” he said. “Five years later, they expanded to Europe. Things really took off in 1129 when the church granted the order official recognition.”
One big name of monasticism supporting the Templars was Bernard of Clairvaux, who drafted their original rules. In another decade, Pope Innocent II issued a decree declaring that the Templars were answerable to the pope alone. An uptick in recruits led the order from nine knights to 300. Eventually, it grew to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 members.
Out of the 20,000 members of the Knights Templar, only a few thousand were “Knight brothers,” who were the Templars who took monastic vows and wore the trademark white cloaks of the order.
“The Knight brothers were the order’s inner society; their special status was enhanced by the fact they were all ordained knights before taking holy vows,” Dr. Spence said. “Most were noblemen, often from important families. Below them was a larger body of sergeant brothers—mostly commoners—who wore black cloaks, and didn’t take full vows.”
The sergeant brothers handled most of the order’s business. Though some still fought, most were bureaucrats or estate managers. Then, there were associate brothers, or confrères, who were noble laymen who volunteered to fight with the Templars temporarily. Squires, who mostly served as valets, grooms, and cooks for the knights, were also present.
“In addition, there was a small army of craftsmen, servants, and dependents,” Dr. Spence said. “Among them were mason brothers; that is, laymen organized to build and maintain the Templars’ buildings, castles, and cathedrals. Some claim the mason brothers were the nucleus of a future fraternal order: the Freemasons.”
Until the 14th century, the Templars served as shock troops of Crusader armies, but they also came to own some 9,000 properties from England to Syria. Their power began to wane over time, and an eventual falling out with a papacy appointed by King Philip IV of France devastated the Templars. They were publicly ordered to disband in 1312; however, in the seven centuries since, many have claimed to be members of a continued Knights Templar.
The Real History of Secret Societies is now available to stream on Wondrium.