Greed and Decline: The Treasure of the Knights Templar and Their Downfall
The ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon,’ more commonly known as the Knights Templar, or the Templars, was one of the most renowned military orders during the Middle Ages. The source of their fame came not only from their prowess on the battlefield, but also from the wealth they amassed during the Crusades. These riches eventually led to their downfall, and became the so-called ‘Treasure of the Templars’ in the popular imagination. What exactly is the ’Treasure of the Templars’?
The Finances of the Templars
The Templars were not only great warriors, but formidable financiers as well. One of the two ranks of non-fighting men, for instance, was known as the farmers, who were responsible for the administration of the Order’s worldly possessions. The other rank was the chaplains, which tended to the spiritual needs of the Order.
As they had the official endorsement of the Church, the wealthy of Europe provided the Templars with a great amount of donations in the form of money, land, and fighting men. Additionally, they were exempted from all taxation, including the ecclesiastical tithes that were due to the clergy. Thus, the Templars became one of the most affluent institutions during the Middle Ages.
Members of the Knights Templar in discussion. ( Public Domain )
The Downfall of the Templars
It was during the early 14th century that the Knights Templar officially came to an end, with the execution of its last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. The dissolution of the Order was related to its vast treasury.
Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. ( Public Domain )
The man responsible for the downfall of the Templars was the king of France, Philip IV, called the Fair. The French king, it has been claimed, was heavily in debt to the Templars due to his war with the English, and was also eyeing the wealth of the Templars for himself.
In 1305, Pope Clement V sent letters to de Molay and the Grand Master of the Hospitallers, requesting them to come to France to discuss the possible merger of the two Orders. de Molay arrived in early 1307, though the meeting was delayed for some time.
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Nevertheless, the Grand Master was able to discuss other matters with the Pope, one of which concerned some charges made a few years earlier by an ousted Templar, regarding impropriety in the Templars’ initiation ceremony. Some believe that the Pope was in collusion with the French king, though others claim that the Pope was a weak character who served as a pawn of Philip.
A royal enquiry was set up to look into the matter of the Templars, and Philip saw this as an opportunity to get rid of the Templars. On the 18th of March 1314, almost seven years after the Templars were first arrested throughout France, de Molay and three other top-ranking Templars were burned to death as heretics in Paris.
Execution of Templars in front of Philip the Fair. (Circa 1415-1420) ( Public Domain )
Philip freed himself from his monetary debts to the Templars, and seized their treasury as well. The king, however, would not enjoy his new-found wealth for long, as he died on the 29th of November 1314, less than a year after de Molay’s execution. Some believe that the Templars managed to hide some of their wealth from the French king. This became the foundation for the legend of the Templar’s treasure, and many have since speculated on the location of their richness.
Contents of the Templars’ Treasure
It has been claimed that the Templar’s treasure contained more than common material wealth. It is believed that the Templars had collected a number of sacred relics during their time in the Holy Land as well. For example, one of the charges levelled against the Templars was that they were idolaters, and worshipped the image of a ‘bearded man.’
An unpublished account of the initiation of a young Frenchman, Arnaut Sabbatier, into the Order, which was found by a historian doing research in the Vatican Secret Archives, has helped to shed light on this claim. It is reported that Sabbatier was “shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times”. It has been suggested that this was one of the relics in the possession of the Templars, the Turin Shroud.