Watching “The Last Templar,” a TV movie based on a novel that Publishers Weekly called a “ponderous Da Vinci Code knockoff,” I fell asleep — this despite that fact that I find star Mira Sorvino very appealing. (I was awake to see her on horseback chasing down a thief dressed like a Knight Templar and unhorsing him with a golden crosier.)
Ah, the Templars! How they inspire lore and legend. As one movie character says, they excite people: like “Roswell, UFOs — that sort of thing.” A remarkable statement about an ancient order of Catholic knights — remarkable because it’s true. Not only were they were born in mystery, they lived in mystery, died in mystery, and remain mysterious. They were the original secret society, and there are people today who genuinely believe they live among us still.
Maybe. But I doubt it.
The Templar myth begins in the aftermath of the First Crusade, which is when the order was established. Their original mission was to protect pilgrims who traveled to and from Europe to Jerusalem — pilgrims who probably brought back enough pieces of the True Cross to build a cathedral. The founder, Hughes de Payens, dubbed his brethren Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon.
Originally they lived on alms begged from pilgrims and crusaders. What they lacked in funds they made up for in zeal, and with the aid of the era’s most powerful man, Bernard of Clairvaux (the future saint), they began an ascent that seems like that of a modern multinational, especially given the Templars’ evolution into the era’s most powerful financial force and their later break-up by the powers-that-were. They adapted the rule of the new Cistercian order, which meant extreme austerity and a white habit, although on theirs the Templars wore a red cross. From a vow of poverty — and an actual condition of pauperism — they became within a century the wealthiest and most powerful institution in Europe, save for the Vatican itself.
In war they were the first into battle and the last to retreat. In business they were both scrupulous and honorable. The heroism of the Templars (they refused to be ransomed when captured, and they never apostasized) fulfilled St. Bernard’s exhortation to them as warriors battling for Christ against the “infidel” Saracens to remember how “blessed [it is] to die there as a martyr! . . . If they are blessed who die in the Lord, how much more are they who die for the Lord!” (In Praise of the New Knighthood)
They were exactly, perhaps perfectly, suited to their times. Piety and prowess were a powerful combination, and the Templars began to receive benefices from both temporal and ecclesiastical authorities — including exemption from all taxes — with the result that they became almost too prosperous and began to alienate local church officials and lesser political leaders. They may have accumulated some treasures that were priceless, including relics more valuable than mere splinters of wood. They had important things to protect, and their keenness to guard them led to measures of secrecy that to this day fire the imaginations of both scholars and kooks. With the powerful Cistercians and successive popes on their side they were immune from attack (though not from envy) for the better part of two centuries, during which time they exemplified the religious version of chivalry.
But towards the end of the thirteenth century, the jealousy of the order’s enemies influenced both popes and kings, and the Templars became victims of a legal system that was a mirror of our own, meaning things were in reverse. They were accused of sodomy, blasphemy, apostasy, and thievery, and instead of the presumption of innocence, they were assumed guilty, most especially because they were initially silent in the face of the allegations. The silence didn’t last, though, because the prisoners were tortured without mercy. Torture was justified under the law, since it was the only way the accused could be made to give evidence. This all came after the entire Templar order resident in France was seized on a single day, Friday, October 13, 1307, and it has been suggested that this was the beginning of triskaidekaphobia.
According to some sources, on the eve of the arrests (or on the eve of later executions) a wagon loaded with Templar treasure left France; that the treasure was not merely worldly, but included the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or both; that the Templar remnant took this mysterious treasure by ship to Canada (nearly two centuries before other European explorers); and that the Templars walk among us today (rather like the Grail guardians in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), still protecting their secrets and awaiting a final vindication in God’s good time.
Maybe. But I doubt it.