By Paula R. Stiles
The Knights Templar have found themselves at the centre of some really crazy myth-making. Let’s take a quick (and, hopefully, not too brain-bruising) tour through the biggies:
The Templars found the Holy Grail: This is one of the oldest myths about the Order. It’s not true, but that hasn’t stopped anyone writing about it. Stories about Arthur and his knights searching for the Holy Grail (described variously as a stone, a plate or the Cup of Christ from the Last Supper that brought the searcher into the presence of God) started to pop up in the 12th and 13th centuries and became very popular. It’s generally accepted (though not without some ongoing debate) that a guy named Wolfram von Eschenbach used the Templars as models for the knights guarding the Grail (Eschenbach even called them “Templeisen“) in his early 13th century epic Parzival. These Grail knights were fiction. The Templars were real. They owned real relics, but no evidence has ever been found that they owned the Grail (though some who believe that the Shroud of Turin is really Christ’s burial shroud also believe the Templars stole it from Constantinople in 1204).
According to a fairly recent article by Helen Nicholson, the Templars most often appear in other Arthurian romances as helpers of star-crossed lovers.
The Templars traveled to the New World: This myth, on the other hand, is very new (20th century) and is related to the collection of urban legends connected to a possible site of pirate treasure on Oak Island off the northeastern coast of Canada. According to the myth, the Templars came to the New World in the form of the Scottish Earl of Orkney, Henry St Clair (called, by the supporters of this myth, “Sinclair”). This myth is based on three erronious assumptions.
First, the idea that Henry St Clair went on a voyage to the New World is based on a questionable identification of a mysterious figure called “Prince Zichnmi” as St. Clair in something called the “Zeno Manuscript”, written by a pair of Italian brothers. Second, the Zeno Manuscript claims to have documented a voyage to the New World in 1398 that predated that of Columbus. Unfortunately for those making this claim now, the earliest copy only dates to the mid-16th century. As you can imagine, the Zeno brothers had every reason to lie. Third, the assumption that Henry St Clair was a Templar is based on the idea that the St. Clairs were secret Templars after the fall of the Order. The connection of the Oak Island site (which is its own can of worms) to the Templars wasn’t made until the 20th century.
Ironically, someone did get to the New World before Columbus and they did land on Canadian soil. But those were the Vikings from Greenland circa 1000 C.E. Not the Templars.
The Templars escaped to Scotland after their Trial: One theory made by some popular Templar “historians” is that a few Templars escaped prosecution and fled to Scotland. There is evidence that individual Templars did escape. Nostalgia for the Order (mainly in the Iberian Peninsula) persisted into the 16th century. Also, many Hospitaller properties, even in Scotland, are reputed to have originally been inherited by the Templars.
But the main theory about the Templars fleeing to Scotland and remaining there as a coherent order (which is quite a different thing) doesn’t appear to predate the 19th century. It’s based on the idea that the Templars appeared at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and were welcomed by the excommunicated Scottish King Robert the Bruce. Only problem is that the source cited (a poet and cleric named John Barbour) wasn’t even born at the time. Barbour also only mentions a group of “men and young boys” coming to Bruce’s aid, not the big, honking charge of armed Templar knights in full regalia later claimed.
In truth, Scotland was a very small Templar region with two (maybe three) preceptories. Plus, it was far away from the heart of Templar territory in the early 14th century – namely, France and Spain. It would have logistically awkward, to put it kindly, for any renegade Templars to choose that place to regroup.
The Templars built Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland: The Templars were real. Rosslyn Chapel is real (and quite beautiful). And the Chapel was founded by a grandson of Henry St Clair (remember him?), starting in 1446. However, the medieval St Clairs were not connected with the Templars (something they made a point of emphasizing at the Scottish Templars’ trial). Also, the Chapel was started nearly a century and a half after the suppression of the Order. So, you do the math.
The Templars were Devil-(or idol)-worshippers: This is one of the charges that were leveled against the Templars at the Trial and it is technically the oldest (you’ll see why in a minute). The only “evidence” ever found of the Templars’ having any idols of any type was a relic containing part of the skull of a woman, found during the ransacking of one of the commanderies. Some brethren did confess to worshipping a head. Still, as this was one of the things they were being tortured into confessing (and most people will say anything you want them to after you hold their feet over a fire), that doesn’t prove much.
In a very influential book from 1975, Europe’s Inner Demons, historian Norman Cohn traced the nasty history of the charges made against the Templars (and other groups) back to similar charges made against early Christians over a thousand years before. These charges were also popularly made against Jews and Muslims in the 15th and 16th centuries and remained equally popular against witches into the 18th century. In fact, you see them still echoed in the satanic child abuse and recovered memory scandals of the 1980s in the U.S. and Canada.
So, you can believe that there have been baby-eating devil-worshippers lurking through European society for the past two thousand years, or you can take a page from Dean Winchester of Supernatural: “Demons I get. People are crazy.”
In other words, it’s all bunk. The charges themselves, and the societal insanity they represent, are far more dangerous than the many innocents accused that they destroyed.
The Templars were racist, misogynistic, intolerant crusaders: Ironically, this one is not as old as you might think, and gosh, did Ridley Scott have fun with it in Kingdom of Heaven. I’m not sure which was funnier – copying this two-hundred-year-old piece of cant about the Templars and calling it “new” or portraying the Hospitallers as supertolerant Friar Tucks in contrast. Or maybe it was just the hootworthy idea of Orlando Bloom playing a 12th-century knight. A few Mike’s Hard Ciders about twenty minutes in helped me stop caring.
Some of the oldest specific charges against the Templars date to around the 12th century, where they were, in fact, accused of being pro-Muslim. The intolerance charge actually appeared long after the Order’s suppression among some anti-Catholic writers in the 17th and 18th centuries as a way of slurring the Catholic Church. It was Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who “established” in the 18th century that the Templars were crusading fanatics. Gibbon’s polemical theory was that the Roman Empire (Good Guys) was destroyed by the rise of Christianity (Bad Guys). The Templar part of it was ground in by Walter Scott in his classic novel Ivanhoe. Scott added to that the idea that the Templars were also antisemitic and misogynistic devotés of some weird cult that wanted to take over the Christian world.
In reality, there are literally hundreds of surviving documents detailing stories of Templars interacting positively with Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even female associates, including taking in the widows and families of those associates. There were even non-Christians on “confratres lists” and a female Preceptrix (Templar officer) in Northeastern Spain. The Templars definitely had their flaws, but, with all due respect to Scott’s attempt to create a politically-correct fantasy about the Crusades era, Kingdom of Heaven got it all wrong.
The Templars founded the Freemasons: The first known Masonic lodge “went public” in England in 1717. Some Freemasons later in the century decided that they needed a noble pedigree and hit on the Templars as being suitably rebellious victims of the Catholic Church. The fact that the Templars didn’t rebel against the Church somehow escaped them. Since then, most sensible Masonic historians have refuted the wilder theories that have the Freemasons descended from the Templars, or even their mythical founder, Hiram, builder of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. The theory that the Freemasons are descended from medieval masons is still a possibility. The problem is that there’s little reliable evidence of any Freemasonry before 1717.
You know that claim from National Treasure that a bunch of America’s Founding Fathers were Freemasons? Probably true. Though the commitment to and involvement in Freemasonry of various members remains quite open to debate.
As you can see, the myths surrounding the Templars have ranged over the centuries from flattering to silly to pernicious. One thing you can say about them, though – like the Templars themselves, the stories are never boring. And that’s the real reason why they’re still so popular.
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out the others from our Templar Week. And please consider making a small donation to Innsmouth Free Press.