A Brief History of the Knights Templar

The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ of the Temple of Solomon were known throughout the medieval world as the Knights Templar.  The Knights Templar were a devout military and religious Order that combined the roles of knight and monk in a way the Western world had never seen.  The Templars originated in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1118 A.D., 19 years after the city was conquered by the European armies of the 1st Crusade. Nine, primarily French, knights, vowed to protect pilgrims on the dangerous roads leading to Jerusalem.

King Baldwin II of Jerusalem took favor on that mission and granted them part of his palace for their headquarters in what had been a stable area of the Temple Mount, called "Solomon's Temple".  It was not actually the Temple of Solomon, which was built c: 950 BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 when the Hebrews were taken off in to captivity in what is now Iraq. A rebuilt Temple was begun in 520 B.C. and greatly improved 500 years later by Herod the Great of New Testament infamy. This is the temple that would have been known to Jesus. That Temple and the city were destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 as they crushed a revolt by the Jews.  Roman Emperor Hadrian re-founded the city in AD 135. It was captured by the Muslims in 638 where they built one of their holiest sites, the Al Aqsa Mosque on the old foundation known as the Temple Mount.

The warriors of the First Crusade captured the city in 1099 and kept it until 1187. It was in this period that the Knights Templar would have made their first humble abode in the ruins of a stable.  The site is sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It is believed by many to be the site of Mount Moriah where Abraham, father of the Jews and the Arabs, came to sacrifice his son as he was tested by God. Many believe that the original Temple of Solomon was the storage place of the Ark of the Covenant and other Biblical treasures.  It was in the rebuilt Temple that Jesus threw out the money changers from his Father’s House. It was here in the 7th Century that the conquering Muslims erected the Dome of the Rock around the large rock from which they believe the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven and returned with the inspiration to write the Koran.  The Crusaders built a church on the site called the Templum Domini, from which many believe the Knights Templars derived their name.

Almost twenty years after the Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem, the noble French knight, Hughes de Payens, collected eight knights, several of them relatives, and began the Order. Their stated mission was to protect the pilgrims to the Holy Land as they went thither and thence.  They gained the favor of King Baldwin II and there they stayed, just the nine of them, for 10 years.  The poor Templars relied on alms to survive and their emblem displayed two knights riding on a single horse as a sign of their poverty.

They were generally seen as complementary to the Knights Hospitallers who cared for sick and weary pilgrims in their convent in Jerusalem while the Templars guarded those pilgrims approaching and leaving the city.  Most of the original nine traveled back to France in 1128 and met with Hugh de Payens’ cousin, the renowned Bernard of Clairvaux, the dominant churchman of the era.  In a famous letter titled, “In Praise of the New Knighthood,” Bernard elevated the Templar Order above all others of the day, establishing the image of the Templars as a fierce spiritual militia for Christ. He regarded them as a "new species of knighthood, previously unknown in the secular world..." It was shortly after St. Bernard’s blessing that the Templars became the rock stars of the 1130s.

With the official blessing of the church at the Council of Troyes the status of the Templars grew dramatically and the order was showered with donations. They received money, land and hundreds of noble-born sons from families across Europe eager to help fight in the Holy Land. The Order grew exponentially and became immensely powerful. From 1139 through 1145 a series of three Papal bulls greatly enhanced their power, making them:  Immune from taxation, allowed them to keep any spoils of war and declared that the Templars would not be subject to local laws, allowing them to pass freely through all borders, and were exempt from all authority except that of the pope.  No kings or princes, dukes of bishops could command them, nor exact taxes from them.

By the 1170s, scholars estimate there were about 300 knights based in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, more in other areas of the East and many more in support roles throughout Europe. By the 1180s, there were at least 600 knights in Jerusalem, Tripoli and Antioch, and perhaps three times that number of sergeants.   The Templars began to accumulate substantial landholding in France, England and throughout Iberia, and other in Italy, Germany, Dalmatia, Southern Greece and Cyprus. By the late 13th century they may have had as many as 870 castles, and houses spread across Latin Christendom. During the 12th and 13th centuries these properties were meshed into an efficient network of support providing men, horses, money and supplies for the Templars in the East.

The Knights Templar became the permanent defenders of Christian settlements of the East, increasingly entrusted with key castles and fiefs. No major battle took place without their participation and the order was the only institution capable of building great castles in the East.   The development of a role as bankers arose out of these circumstances. With this huge support system of castles, houses and intermediaries, they were well placed to offer credit and redeem coins of other realms. They soon expanded their services into more general finance, unconnected with crusading. The Templars protection of pilgrims grew to the inventions travelers’ checks and lines of credit.  It was now possible to deposit an amount of money in a Templar house anywhere from London to Jerusalem and receive a note written to the Templars at your destination. Upon arrival the second house would present you with your cash – minus a small fee I’m sure.

By the 1290s their house in Paris offered a deposit bank with a cash desk open on a daily basis and specialist accountancy services for individuals, groups and even governments. The Templars became the bankers to nobles, trading firms, kings, and Popes.  This wealth and power was cemented by effective communications, including the Order’s own fleet of ships. They took part in naval warfare and in 1301 commission their own Admiral.  But things began going sour in the Middle East.  Jerusalem was lost to Saladin’s armies in 1187 and the critical city of Acre fell in 1291.  Followed by the Mamluk conquest of Palestine and Syria the losses in the Holy Land were a turning-point in Templar history, leaving the Order without its primary role in society to protect the pilgrims.  With the Holy Land lost and the failure of the military orders to prevent the advance of Islam attracted criticism, and without their mission their power began to slip in Europe. Many called for a reassessment of their activities, but there were no suggestions that the order be abolished. In fact, the Templars kept on crusading from their base in Cyprus.

They were still subject to no local government and paid no taxes, which grated on many of the royals who had taken loans from the Templars and now were deeply in their debt. At this same time, perhaps out of jealousy and indebtedness, wild rumors swirled about their secret rituals. And it’s easy to imagine that a huge standing, professional army that was extremely rich and had virtually no authority over them, might have become a tad arrogant.

One of those royals in debt to the Templars was King Philippe IV of France. Since the winners write the history books – just ask any Confederate – the king is known today as Philippe the Fair. Already deep in debt and mired in papal politics, Philip asked the Templars for more money to continue his wars with England, and was refused.  In collusion with his boyhood friend Pope Clement V, whom he had helped put on the Holy See, the King plotted against the Templars, preparing charges of heresy, blasphemy and other capital crimes. 

At the break of day on Friday the 13th of October 1307, the King’s soldiers attacked Templar houses across France, capturing many leading Templars, including almost all of the senior officers in Paris.   What treasure was found was seized. In many areas outside of France some princes took over the properties and in others the Templars simply changed the name of their Order. Although the Order itself was suppressed, many of the knights fled and went underground, or joined other Orders.  A few weeks after the surprise attack the Pope ordered every knight of the realm to take Templars into custody.  Eventually several hundred knights were rounded up in France. Under torture, many of them confessed to blasphemy and dozens were burned at the stake. Philip pressured other monarchs to arrest their Templars, but few did and almost none of them were convicted in other countries.

In 1312, with Philip’s army encircling the city, Pope Clement V officially disbanded the Order at the Council of Vienne, although his decree specifically stated that neither the individuals nor the order had been found guilty of the charges.

In 1314 the elderly Grand Master Jacques de Molay and his top deputy Geoffrey de Charney recounted their previous confessions and were burned at the stake in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Their ashes were then ground up and dumped into the Seine, so as to leave no relics behind that could inspire devotion and rebellion.  Some Templars fled to territories outside Papal control, such as Scotland where the already-excommunicated Robert the Bruce was happy to have them join his cause for independence from England. But that doesn’t account for many of them. By most estimates Philip rounded up only about 300 knights in France, about ten percent of the estimated total in France alone. A much smaller percentage was arrested around the rest of Europe.  What became of most of them has become one of the great mysteries of history.

The day before Phillip struck, on Thursday the 12th of October, a Templar fleet of 18 ships was reported at harbor in La Rochelle, France. By morning the fleet was gone, never to be reliably reported again. An extensive archive of Templar histories and records of their business holdings and financial transactions – and most of the money – were never found.

A recent book, The Warriors and the Bankers: A History of the Knights Templar from 1307 to the Present by Alan Butler and Stephen Dafoe, makes the case that many of the French knights fled to what is now Switzerland, helping its rural farmers throw off their powerful Austrian overlords and form an independent country. Today, the national flag of Switzerland and several of its cantons bear Templar crosses.  Those who pursue this theory say the Templar treasure is not lost at all.  They point to the great wealth and secrecy of the Swiss banks as the likely repository – not buried in the ground somewhere, but having been the working capital of Europe for the past 700 years.

In Portugal and Spain the rulers merely changed the name of the order and the organization remained in place. As for the fleet, it is known that the famed Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal was the grand prior of the Order of Christ, the new name for the Portuguese Templars. It is widely thought that the Templars were instrumental in the great voyages of discovery commissioned by Henry.   Other Templar captains are hypothesized to have sailed to North America.

Now, after all these centuries, good news was found just six years ago.  In 2002, Dr. Barbara Frale, a researcher working in the Secret Archives of the Vatican – yes there is such a place named the Secret Archives of the Vatican - found a copy of a long lost document now called the Chinon Parchment.  The document recorded a trial ordered by Clement V of the six leading French Templars, including de Molay and de Charney, and carried out by three leading cardinals of the day, in 1308, six years before their execution.  The parchment shows that the cardinals, after taking four days of testimony in front of many witnesses and recorded by four scribes, found the Templars to be innocent of the charges against them. Based upon their findings, the Chinon Parchment declares that Clement V absolved the leaders of the order. But sadly, the parchment was never published.

Having grown up as an altar boy in Catholic school, I was at first a little reticent about joining an organization that had suffered excommunication by the pope. But, in case anybody else here was so concerned, the Chinon Parchment declares that the Templars were not removed from grace. Based partly on the parchment, the position of the Catholic Church today is that the persecution of the Templars was unjust and that they were not guilty of the charges brought against them. - Compiled by Steve Hale

A History of the St. Vincent Priory

The Bible teaches us in Acts 2:17 that “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The Priory of St. Vincent is a dream and a vision come true and its history is full of more of the same.

Several members of the Priory of St. Andrew first dreamed of a South Carolina priory in 1993, largely because they wanted an alternative to the twice-a-year 300- to 500-mile drive to Nashville. They shared their dream in January, 1994 with Grand Prior VIII, Chev. Donald Robert Weber, GCTJ, GMTJ (1991-1993) and Grand Prior IX, COL Chev Donald Roderick Perkins, GCTJ, GMTJ (1994-1996), both of whom heartily supported the dream of a South Carolina priory.

Chev. Gene Boyer Fee, Sr., GOTJ of the Priory of St. Andrew wrote letters about establishing an organization in the Carolinas to about twenty knights and dames, asking for their responses and comments. Members of the Priory of St. Andrew discussed the idea at their next two convents and agreed to support a Carolina commandery. “Approximately twenty knights were invited to attend a meeting at the Fort Jackson Officer's Club [in Columbia, South Carolina],” Fee says. “The first meeting on l8 December 1994 was inconclusive. They liked the name St. Columba, but balked at only being a Commandery.” Fee remembers:

 “The second meeting on January 11, l996 was more successful. Chev. Chester Fairbanks Cotter, GCTJ, GMTJ, of New York and Beaufort, South Carolina stepped up to the plate and assumed the leadership as commander. The Grand Prior made an exception for Chev. Cotter to start the Commandery of St. Vincent (the patron saint of wine makers and viticulturists) with only six officers. Cotter and his wife, Pat (also a member), hosted the first officers meeting and convent in Beaufort on February 23, l996. St. Vincent became a priory at its Vernal Convent on April 19, 1997 at St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Beaufort.”

Cotter became the first Prior. St. Vincent grew slowly at first, but the deep commitment to service of its members and its strong leaders made up for quantity. The ensuing years saw growth in membership and program. Prior II, LTC Chev. C. Lockhart McLendon, GCTJ helped the priory increase its membership. Prior IV, Chev. George Louis Custodi, GOTJ, opened the officer meetings to all members, emphasized the spiritual side of being a knight or dame and encouraged the refashioning of the postulants vigil and surrounding activities to foster more spirituality. Prior V, Dr. Chev. Robert Earl Alexander, GOTJ continued his predecessor’s work with diplomacy and grace. Prior VI, Chev. Joseph Albert Sadowski, Sr., GOTJ focused on retaining members by involving as many knights and dames as he could. Prior VII, Chev. Duncan Cairnes Ely, GOTJ, moved St. Vincent’s flag from the priory’s birthplace in  Beaufort to the geographical center at Columbia. “One of my goals is to encourage members to gather locally in preceptories for hands-on service, for mutual support and good times,” Ely says. “Making our small part of the world a better place is what we are all about and preceptories are one way we can do that.” The Grand Priory has recognized two preceptories within the past year.

The vision of a reconceived postulants vigil and surrounding events, reflecting a deeper commitment and spirituality by postulants and members alike, is part of every convent and investiture weekend. The dream of sponsoring a Holy Land Christian student, Michael Lorenzo of Ramleh at $1,300 a year, is now part of the priory’s budget. The dream of initiating a priory medal and a creating the priory coat of arms came true.

Four priory members have had visions of making a difference on a national level. Chevaliers Alexander (Acting Grand Aumonier), Custodi (Assistant Deputy Grand Prior for Region III), Fee (Grand Photographeur) and Ely (Chaplain Domicilary to the late Grand Chaplain) are serving or have served the Grand Priory in various capacities.

“Our lives are a part of history,” Fee says. “We each have a personal story and a life full of events. We can explore our own individual lives for the traces of God’s presence and action.” Members of the priory are exploring and dreaming and visioning, and the next fifty years will bear witness to those new and exciting realities.

Priors of the Priory of St. Vincent

Six priors from 2000 to 2010 gather at the 2010 Vernal Convent and Investiture on March 20 in front of old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Augusta, Georgia: Their Excellencies Prior I COL Chev. Chester Fairbanks Cotter, GOTJ, GMTJ (2000-2001), Prior II LTC Chev. C. Lockhart McLendon, GCTJ (2001-2003), Prior IV CPT Chev. George Lewis Custodi, GCTJ (2005-2007), Prior VI Chev. Joseph Albert Sadowski, Sr. (2009-2011), Dr. Chev. Robert Earl Alexander, GOTJ (2007-2009) and Prior III Chev. M. George T. Sheftall, GOTJ (2003-2005)

Prior I
Chev. Chester Fairbanks Cotter, GCTJ, GMTJ (1997-2001)
Prior II Chev. C. Lockhart McLendon, GCTJ (2001-2003)
Prior III Chev. George T. Sheftall, GOTJ (2003-2005)
Prior IV Chev. George Louis Custodi, GOTJ (2005-2007)
Prior V Chev. Robert Earl Alexander, Ed.D., GOTJ (2007-2009)
Prior VI Chev. Albert Joseph Sadowski, GOTJ (2009-2011)
Prior VII
Chev. Duncan Cairnes Ely, GOTJ (2011-2013)

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