They found the world’s greatest treasure under the Temple of Solomon. Or they discovered America and built the Newport Tower. They were “murdered magicians” with occult knowledge that could undermine the Catholic Church. Or they established the first pirate brotherhood. The Jolly Roger flag was named after Norman King Roger II of Sicily, one of their patrons. John Paul Jones was a descendant.
Obviously, they only pretended to be what they claimed—Crusader monks, “the poor fellow soldiers of Jesus Christ” who lived ascetic lives while protecting Christian pilgrims, fighting battles against the Moslem Saracens, and guarding castles throughout the Levant—which they called “Outremer” (Over-the-Sea)—from about 1119 to1307 AD.
No—in reality, they controlled the destiny of the world, having learned unimaginable secrets from ancient Hebrew manuscripts, Arab philosophers, or, perhaps, extraterrestrials. And with the boldness they always displayed in battle, they sailed their treasure fleet across the Atlantic and to the New World, where their secret hoard (including the Ark of the Covenant) still resides under New York City . . . or on Oak Island . . . or in the hands of a cabal of billionaires.
As far as conspiracy theories go, the story of the Knights Templar is almost the prototype, dating back to 1307, when King Phillip IV of France arrested them as heretics in order to steal their money and lands. Torturing them, he gained confessions to a host of offenses, many of them absurd. Few outside of France believed them. Phillip accused them of routinely spitting on the Crucifix, practicing gross indecency, and revering the preserved and talking head of Baphomet (probably a corruption of the name of Mohammed). Another charge was that they worshipped a cat. Strangely, it was a white cat rather than a black one.
Some of those who were tortured and confessed were given penance and released to go end their days in other monasteries. Others escaped. At least one did turn pirate. The last Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in 1314, proclaiming the Templars’ innocence as he perished. But by then, rumors already were spreading that the Knights—forewarned of the arrests—had smuggled much of their treasure on Templar ships sailing out of the French port of La Rochelle. Where it went , no one was sure. Supposedly, two remaining Templar knights fought under Scottish King Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and there are even theories that the Templars sailed to Scotland and then to (and back from) America.
Those are the conspiracy theories. To make a little sense of what appears widely believed nonsense, one needs to examine three questions. Who in reality were the Knights Templar? Did they have treasure? And, critical to the supposed events, did they actually have a fleet?
What We Know That Is True
In its day, the Knights Templar—formally the Order of the Temple of Solomon—was hardly a secret society. Along with the rival Knights Hospitaller—who, as per their name, ran hospitals for pilgrims, later became the Knights of Malta, and most definitely had a fleet—the Templars received papal sanction to raise donations to send knights and men-at-arms to the Holy Land in order to preserve the Crusader states carved out in the successful First Crusade.
The most reliable account states that the order was founded in 1118 or 1119 by Hugh de Payns, a French knight who, having served on crusade, decided not to return to Europe but to stay in the Holy Land as a monk. However, Crusader leaders persuaded him that he and his small number of companions were more valuable to Christendom on the battlefield or safeguarding pilgrims than retiring to a monastery.
His group was originally given quarters on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the al-Asqa Mosque, which the Crusaders mistakenly thought to be remnants of the Temple of Solomon. Hence, the name Knights Templar. Hugh eventually traveled back to Europe to meet with the Pope, abbots, and secular rulers, and to recruit more pious knights and raise money for supplies.
The Templars’ reputation in battle was one of fanatical bravery and fighting to the death. If captured by the Moslems they usually were executed for their refusal to convert to Islam, and because they generally were too poor to pay ransom since they held all property in common.
Their symbol was two knights riding on one horse, to emphasize their monastic rule that required poverty (they could own but a personal sword), chastity, and obedience. When not on campaign, the knights spent half their days at mass or in prayer and half in combat training and caring for their horses. They fought as voluntary divisions in the armies of the king and princes of Outremer, not as an independent body. As one historian notes, “although the Templars had considerable political influence, they were never in control of military policy” in Outremer.
Magicians they most certainly were not. Alchemy and magic were the obsessions of the intellectual class, the medieval forerunners of college professors and think-tank scholars. At his trial, Jean de Molay admitted that most of the knights were barely literate. The Knights Templar were exactly what they claimed to be.
The Templars as Charitable NGO
Yet, understanding their history also begins with recognizing that the overall Templar organization functioned openly in the same manner as modern global charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to supporting (spiritual) health and human rights (in pilgrimages)—at least, spiritual health and human rights as medieval Christians would understand them. Admittedly, they were more violent than the Red Cross, less impartial than Amnesty International, and (perhaps) better armed than Greenpeace. The Templars received money and, primarily, land from pious patrons to provide the means to train and send warriors—equipped with horses, weapons, and supplies—to the Crusader states, as well as to build and maintain castles and churches, transport pilgrims by sea, hire local warriors known as Turcopoles, and to always provide military assistance to the rulers of Outremer. They also did give money to the poor.
Since these activities were complex and needed solid accounting and management, commanderies and preceptories—the equivalent of large and small branch offices—were established throughout Europe. They also built churches at the commanderies, where they employed priests to say masses for the souls of the contributors. (Although monks, the Templars were not ordained clergy.)
The “Temple” buildings in London, now the city’s legal district and traditional offices of law firms, were originally one of these commanderies. At the center of the district is an extant Templar Church with the two knights/one horse symbol.
Tremendous amounts of money traveled to and through the commanderies to pay for all the warfighting requirements. The knights themselves may have been ascetics, but their revolving accounts were huge. Taking note of this working capital, European kings and nobles often requested loans—often at no interest. It seemed prudent not to refuse these requests. The Templars also provided the equivalent of safe deposit boxes for outside wealth.
Unfortunately, their last banking client, King Phillip IV of France, could not repay what he owed and wanted more. So he chose to imprison or kill his bankers.
What about the many legends of a Templar treasure? The consensus of historians of the medieval period is that, yes, the Templars had treasure if one counts the money flowing through their accounts. But, no, the Templars never discovered any hidden treasure under the Temple of Solomon or anywhere else. How much cash treasure remained after King Phillip’s seizure is just too hard to ascertain.
A Templar Fleet?
Did the Templars conduct naval operations? Sometimes. When they needed ships, they generally rented them. This was a common medieval practice used by such kings as Richard I (the Lionhearted). Merchant ships of the period—which doubled as warships—were privately owned, often by their captains. Rent included the captain and crew. One might recall that this practice extended to later eras; many of the British ships that fought the Spanish Armada were owned by their captains or venture capitalists (who paid the crews), not by Elizabeth I.
Templar ships were rented on an as-needed basis, generally to transport new knights, pilgrims, and supplies—including horses—to Outremer. Most were “caravels,” similar to the cogs of northern Europe, but built with flush hull planks and rigged with lateen sails. The ports most often used were Marseilles and Barcelona. The primary port of debarkation was the fortified Crusader port of Acre, now Akko in Israel. La Rochelle was used primarily for shipping wine and products to customers (wine transport was a particularly lucrative Templar enterprise). These rented ships would fight the Moslems under way only when it could not be avoided.
The records that still exist indicate the Templars did own a handful of oared warfighting galleys and at least four merchant/fighting caravels or cogs. A remaining Templar church in San Bevignate, Italy, has a fresco that depicts the stern and mast of a Templar caravel, but unfortunately, much of the painting is worn away, and the complete ship cannot be seen.
Templar warfighting galleys and caravels were part of the fleet that besieged the sea tower and city of Damietta on the Nile in 1217 (see “‘Navies of God’: The Siege of Damietta,” June 2022, pp. 46–53). The chaplain Oliver of Paderborn records three engagements by Templar ships and implies that there were more. The first was during an early unsuccessful assault on the tower, when one Templar galley managed to moor on the tower’s small island but was driven off after enduring “no slight damage.” A second was when a Templar galley approached the shore-edge walls of the city but was destroyed by Greek fire.
The third engagement—more dramatic and heroic than the first two—occurred after the tower had fallen, as the Crusaders attempted to land beside the city. Oliver writes that the Saracens defending the city “eagerly climbed up the ship, and throwing themselves headlong into it, descended upon the Templars. When they fought there for a long time, the ship at last was pierced (whether by the enemy or our own men we do not know) and sought the depths, drowning Egyptians with Christians, so that the top of the mast scarcely appeared above the water.” Alluding to the biblical Samson destroying the Philistine temple, Oliver praises “those martyrs [who] dragged into the abyss of the waters along with themselves more than they could have killed with swords.”
An additional account written later states definitively that “the Saracens boarded, until there were a good two thousand men there. The Templars were belowdecks, and seeing that there was no escape, resolved to destroy their enemies and die in the Service of our Lord. Therefore, they took up hatchets and chopped through the hull of the ship.” Not an atypical choice in a Templar battle.
The Unholy Career of Roger de Flor
The Templar’s own caravels operated primarily as commerce raiders along North Africa throughout the 1200s and into the 1300s, but there are few available details. We know the name of a particularly successful vessel—the Falcon—primarily because of her captain, Roger de Flor, who was notorious even in his lifetime and attracted bad press. The Templars bought the Falcon from the Genoese, and one overly enthusiastic chronicler, Ramon Muntaner, called it “the greatest that had been built at that time.”
Roger de Flor originally was the protégé and first mate to a Templar lay-brother sergeant called Brother Vassayll, one of the few ship’s captains permanently employed by the Templars to transport goods to Outremer. Roger was the son of a falconer (probably the source of the ship’s name) who had been killed in battle. Vassayll agreed to take Roger as a boy apprentice. Brilliant at seamanship, leadership, and fighting, Roger rose to captain the Falcon, becoming highly successful at transporting, trading, and, especially, raiding. According to Muntaner, “the Templars did so well with this ship that they liked none so well as this one.”
However, as Muntaner relates, Roger de Flor gave a large part of the profits to the order, but “envious people told the Master [of the Templars] that he had cheated the Templars, since he had still more.” He also extorted money from Christians he rescued during the fall of Acre. The Master ordered Roger seized, but he escaped from the ship at Marseilles and went on to found the notorious mercenary “Catalan Company,” which fought for (and sometimes against) the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople for pay and booty, and recovered a significant part of Anatolia from the Turks.
Making no pretence at being Crusaders, the Catalan Company (so named because many of the warriors were from Catalonia) left a trail of pillage, extortion, and rape—even among their supposed allies—that was notable even in that desperate age. Roger was assassinated in 1305, so he never saw the fall of the Templars. But he probably would have cheered it.
The Verdict of History and Last Voyages
All historical evidence is that the Templars were indeed Christian warrior monks supported by an NGO-style network that was the envy of powerful secular rulers. Medieval banking existed before the Templars, and the Templars cycled their immense cash for the battles in the Holy Land and all the accompanying requirements: arms, war horses, castles, churches, victualing—and renting or purchasing a handful of ships. There was no secret treasure. Loans were a contingent service. Once Outremer fell, the Templars’ existence became tenuous, and Phillip IV took advantage of the envy.
Conspiracy theories started with their arrests, and those most prevalent today can be traced to an obscure French novel written in the mid-20th century, as well as fraudulent documents. The theories continued to be fueled by the huge royalties received by authors of books with ludicrous speculations that the publishers pretend to be nonfiction. It seems that everyone—both readers and movie-goers—loves a mystery.
Few Templars became pirates. John Paul Jones was not a descendant. The term “Jolly Roger” probably came from the English term “rogering,” slang for scandalous sexual activity.
However, there is actually a real, albeit tenuous, connection of the Templar legacy to the great age of exploration and ocean navigation. One of the knightly orders that received the property of the disbanded Templars—and a few of their last knights—was the Portuguese Order of Christ. These new orders were largely controlled by regional rulers.
One of the later masters of the Order of Christ was none other than Prince Henry the Navigator, who helped launch the European age of discovery and at whose school of seamanship and navigation Columbus supposedly studied.
Perhaps the last of the Templars told him that there was land to the West.
Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Malcolm Barber and Keith Bates, eds., The Templars: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002).
Karl Borchardt et al., eds., The Templars and Their Sources (New York: Routledge, 2017).
Stephen Howarth, The Knights Templar (New York: Dorset Press, 1982).
Christopher Marshall, Warfare in the Latin East, 1192–1291 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Sharan Newman, The Real History Behind the Templars (New York: Berkley Books, 2007).
Helen Nicolson, The Knights Templar: A Brief History of the Warrior Order (London: Robinson, 2001; Philadelphia: Running Press, 2010).
Helen Nicolson, Knight Templar 1120–1312 (Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004).
Oliver of Paderborn, “The Siege of Damietta” in Edward Peters, ed., Christian Society and the Crusades, 1198–1229 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 48–139.
Peter Partner, The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1987).
Piers Paul Read, The Templars (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999).
Dominic Selwood, Knights of the Cloister (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1999).