Tomar, Portugal was founded by a Templar Knight and the castle he built in 1160 dominates the view from the main square today. As a kid I had little interest in knights and castles. I preferred stories about Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and the Voyageurs, those Canadians who explored the Great Lakes by foot and canoe. But walking in the footsteps of Templar Knights, sleeping in the cities they defended and looking through the castle windows they built sparked an interest. And the blood knot that ties the Templars, Pope and French King together pulled me into their world.
The order of Templar Knights began in 1129 with nine monks. They were endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church to take up swords for a just war. Their mission was to drive the muslims from the Holy Lands and secure safe passage for pilgrims traveling from Europe to Jerusalem. Pilgrims in those days died by the hundreds at the hands of bandits and others.
The Templar Knights are also known for introducing international banking and travelers checks. Noblemen joining the crusades needed money as they traveled and carrying gold and silver made them targets. So they deposited assets with the Templars and were given a receipt. They presented that receipt at Templar castles along the way and received local currency in return.
Over the next two hundred years the Templar ranks swelled. Thousands of noblemen took vows of poverty and chastity and died for the Pope and Roman Catholic Church. The people of Christendom loved and respected the knights and many noblemen donated land and money to the warrior-monks. Others left their estates to them. As the Templar’s assets grew they began to grant loans and the King of France, Phillip IV, became their client. King Phillip IV was also known as Phillip the Fair because of his good looks.
Phillip considered himself the most Christian King on earth. He also lived a decadent lifestyle and borrowed a fortune from the Templars. In fact if he had paid his debts he would have emptied the French treasury. But the king didn’t let debts or religion get in the way of his ambitions. When the Jewish bankers tried to collect on his debts he simply deported them and claimed their assets. When a pope declared he could not tax the church, King Phillip IV had him kidnapped and beaten savagely. The pope escaped but died within a few weeks. The next Pope died from poisoning. By that time the Fair King had maneuvered a spineless French Cardinal into the position, Pope Clement V. Once he had his chosen pope, he persuaded him to move the papacy from unhealthy Rome to Avignon, France.
By 1307 the Templars had lost control of the Holy Lands. But they were still respected monks devoted to the Catholic Church and rich. They controlled fleets of ships, massive tracks of land and scores of businesses and banks. Today we would call the Knights Templar one of the richest conglomerates in the world. The French king got a glimpse of their riches when the knights hid him from an angry crowd. Shortly after that he began his attempt to gain control of their fortune. He started by spreading rumors that the Templars were pagans and homosexuals. Then on the morning of Friday October 13, 1307 his troops arrested hundreds of Templar Knights throughout France. Within two weeks he had signed confessions that the Templar Knights had committed the worse crime imaginable, heresy against the Catholic Church. To obtain one of those confessions a Templar priest had his feet held in a fire until his flesh, muscles and tendons turned to smoke and the bones of his feet tumbled into the glowing coals.
Most Monarchs did not believe the French King’s accusations. Reluctantly the English King arrested the Templars and presented them to the ‘inquisitors’ the Pope had sent from France. None of the monks confessed to heresy. Not satisfied, Pope Clement V ordered the king to let the church inquisitors use their ‘methods’. After the methods were applied all the monks claimed to be heretics and were executed or imprisoned for life.
The Portuguese King, like the English, believed that the Templars were innocent, but was more successful in protecting them. He convinced the Pope, by some means, that none of the Templars in Portugal were heretics and that just a name change was needed. The Pope agreed and renamed the Portuguese order of Knights Templar, The Order of Christ.
Finally in 1314, after six years of prison and torture, the French Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was shackled to the stake for refusing to confess to heresy. As the flames climbed his flesh de Molay promised that the king and pope would soon be in front of God to receive their punishment. Within eight months both Phillip the Fair and Pope Clement V were dead.
However, before the French King died he did gain access to the vault that held the Templar fortune. On that day Phillip the Fair strutted into the vault shameless and wide eyed, but saw much less than expected. Most of the fortune was gone, as was the Templar fleet that once filled the French harbor. To this day no one is sure what happened to that fleet or fortune.
A century later Prince “Henry the Navigator” became the Grand Master of the Order of Christ and from the Tomar castle he helped to expand the Portuguese empire from Africa to Brazil. During that ‘Age of Discovery’ some of the most famous explorers in history walked the streets of Tomar.
Five hundred years have past since then and the knights, grand masters and royalty are gone. Today Tomar is a small town of twenty-thousand people and the streets are walked by friends sharing chips, boys chasing soccer balls and a kid who never cared much for stories about knights and castles.