The Knights Templar, a.k.a. the bad guys from the original Assassin’s Creed that you take out with pin-point accurate knife-punches to the back of the neck from horseback, are a popular facet of pop culture. Which has meant that over the years, what exactly they did and who they were has been muddied by Hollywood. So, here are 10 facts you may not know about this not-so-secret ancient order of knights…
10. They Basically Invented Banks
The Knights Templar were founded in 1120 as a security force of sorts to protect the various pilgrims, travelers and merchants roving about the tumultuous area surrounding Jerusalem. To this end, the knights set up a system whereby anyone traveling about the Holy Land could deposit any valuables with a local Templar, who’d issue them a note. This note could then be exchanged at any other Templar office in the Holy Land for the value of the items in gold or an equivalent precious metal or stone.
These notes were essentially an early form of checks, and historians note that the Templars pretty much created what could be recognized as one of the first formal banking systems. This not only made traveling about the Holy Land much safer, since pilgrims could travel without anything valuable on their person, meaning bandits had little incentive to rob anyone, but made the Templars one of the singular most powerful and wealthy commercial entities on Earth. This is because the Templars were…
9. Also Basically a Mega-Corp (That Owned Cyprus)
It’s difficult to emphasize just how rich the Templars were because for a time, they basically owned everything in the Holy Land. Initially much of the Order’s funds came from donations, which the Templars carefully invested in everything from farms to the textile industry. Virtually all profits from these ventures were funneled directly back into the Order’s coffers, where they were once again invested by Templars specially trained in financial dealings. The Order’s business savvy eventually culminated in them owning, amongst other things, the entire freaking island of Cyprus.
Now you’d think that with all this wealth, individual knights were obscenely wealthy. Hell, there are still conspiracy theories today that suggest certain wealthy individuals are only flushed with cash because they’re descendants of the Templars. Which doesn’t really make sense because…
8. Individual Knights Were Dirt Poor
Although collectively the Knights Templar represented one of the singular most powerful forces the ancient world had ever seen, individually, Knights of the order had no material wealth to speak of. This is largely because to become a Knight, one had to make a vow of poverty and donate all of their worldly goods to the Order to be used as it saw fit.
In fact, the Templars were founded on the idea that no single member would ever have more than they needed. Something that becomes all too apparent if you consider the original, less Wu-Tang style name the Templars had when it was founded: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Even the Templar’s logo reflects their humble origins and commitment to a Spartan lifestyle, two knights riding a single horse.
Now, this isn’t to say the Templars didn’t enjoy a number of perks. For example…
7. They Were Above All Laws
As if making fat wedges of cash for much of their existence wasn’t enough, in 1139 the winner of the 12th century’s best named papal figure competition, Pope Innocent II, declared that the Templars were above all authority except his own and that of other, less awesomely named popes.
This was largely done so as to allow the Templars to travel across borders without being molested, but had the agreeable side effect of meaning they no longer had to pay taxes or obey any local laws. This helped the Order’s power and wealth grow exponentially, which inevitably saw them make unthinkably powerful enemies, one of whom…
6. Had the Order Destroyed Because He Owed Them Money
Historians note that the major proponent behind the destruction of the Templars was King Philip IV of France, who decided to raze the order to the ground and torture-murder all of its members because he didn’t want to pay back the money he owed them.
The main problem King Philip had, though, is that with the Templars, as you’d expect for an order of god-lovin’ pauper knights, there wasn’t really any dirt on them that Philip could spin to his advantage. So he decided to just instead make some up, and used his clout as King of France to force the church to investigate a series of cartoonishly absurd rumors that the Templars had been spitting on the cross and engaging in saying that God didn’t exist. You know, the same group of Templars that gave up their entire life in service of God and could quote the bible backwards.
Due to King Philip’s dogged persistence, many Templars admitted to these trumped up charges after being tortured, giving the King all he needed to pounce on the weakened organization and arrest everyone. As fate would have it, the date this happened is probably one you’d recognize because…
5. Hundreds of Templars were Arrested on Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th has long been considered an unlucky date and nobody is really sure why. One popular theory, and the one that’s most pertinent to this article, is that it’s the date King Philip arranged to have every French Templar arrested.
While there are dozens of other theories about the origins of why Friday the 13th is unlucky, it being the day hundreds of (totally innocent) men were arrested, forced to admit to betraying their deepest held beliefs under torture and then summarily executed, is probably as good a theory as any. Speaking of the persecution of the Templars, according to historians a sizeable percentage of Templars were…
4. Caught Because of Their Beards
Like many hipsters and post hardcore bands today, the Templars were fans of gigantic, bushy beards that they wore across countless battlefields with pride and possibly mustard stains on their faces. The beards of Templars were so iconic that when King Philip, and later most of the world, began to arrest them, they could be easily picked out of a crowd (then tortured and executed) simply by the fact they had three feet of fuzz attached to their chin.
It’s recorded that many Templars attempted to avoid detection by simply shaving their faces and taking off their iconic white tunics. Which apparently didn’t go well because we’re talking about it now, 700 years later, meaning they were either caught or bragged about it after the fact. We’d personally prefer to think that it was the latter because by the sounds of it, the Templars had it pretty rough for a while. Then again, they were used to life crapping on them, given that…
3. They Were Never Allowed To Surrender
In their time, Templar Knights were feared and respected across the world for their battlefield prowess, fearlessness and rad as all hell armor. Decked head to toe in heavy plate steel with the best weapons and training money could buy, Templar Knights were near-invincible in combat and considered it their duty to charge into battle first and stay there until everything around them was either dead or currently having its face cleaved in two by a two-handed broadsword.
Templar Knights swore on their honor to never surrender or leave the battlefield as long as a flag bearing their symbol was being flown somewhere in their vicinity, and were similarly bound to protect the Templar flag with their lives if necessary. Because of this, Templar Knights were often the first to enter battle and the last to leave. This gave rise to many legends about Templar Knights’ skill and combat proficiency. Which is weird because…
2. Only about 10% of Templars were Knights
When the word “Templar” is mentioned, the first image that pops into most peoples’ head is that of a towering, armor-clad figure wearing a Colgate white tunic with a blood red cross in the middle of it. While the Templar ranks did indeed contain knights that would be considered legendary hero-level units in any Age of Empires game, they only made up around 10% of the Templars’ numbers. The other 90% largely functioned in a supporting role, either working as squires or in the various holdings the Templars controlled.
Even at the very peak of their power, experts estimate that the Templars only had, at most, 2000 knights within their ranks, which, well doesn’t seem like all that many. However, like the soldiers of House Mormont in Game of Thrones or Lu Bu in any Dynasty Warriors game, Templars were easily worth a dozen men in battle each, and their mere presence on the battlefield would raise morale and give every soldier nearby a +5 stamina boost.
And to ensure that they were easy to recognize on the battlefield, Templars were could always be found wearing a piercingly white tunic with a red cross on it. Oh, and when we say Templars always wore those tunics we mean…
1. That Templars Always Wore Those Tunics
The iconic white tunic of the Templar Knights has become one of the most recognizable aspects of the order, and has been endlessly copied in countless films, TV shows and books set in medieval times. Presumably because during the times of the Templars, individual Knights were forbidden to take it off while they were awake because of what it represented.
In a nutshell, the white of the tunic signified the knight’s purity, whereas the red cross symbolized his commitment to dying in battle (something that was considered a great honor back then). To ensure that they never forgot this or the unbreakable vows they made to God, knights couldn’t eat, drink or talk to one another if they weren’t wearing their tunics.
Because of this, the tunic inevitably came to be the most recognizable symbol of the order, a symbol so powerful it has outlived the Templars themselves.