Saturday, 27 October 2007

What are the Knights Templar up to now?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Later image of Templars

Psst, wanna know a secret?

The Vatican's recent decision to release documents on the persecution of the Knights Templar in the 14th Century has piqued interest in the mysterious order. But what are the latter-day Templars up to?

This is a story. In the Middle Ages there was a secretive organisation called the Knights Templar. They were disbanded with many killed on the orders of the Pope because they knew the secret that Jesus had had a child with Mary Magdalene. Despite the killing of the order's members, societies carry on its legacy of hidden knowledge today.

There's a problem with this version of events, part-inspired by Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and other earlier authors.

It's cobblers.

There are lots of organisations today that bear the Templar name, but for the most part they are in the business of charitable works inspired by the original order. Secret documents about Mary Magdalene are not the order of the day.

1099: Jerusalem captured by Crusaders
1118: Order formed
1129: Endorsed by church
1307: Members arrested in France
1312: Pope dissolves order
1314: Last Grand Master burned at stake

The original Templars were founded in the 12th Century to guard pilgrims on their way along the dangerous roads that led to Jerusalem. Its members were effectively armed monk-like knights who were granted certain legal privileges and whose status was backed by the church. They were reputed to be the possessors of great wealth and power.

But the latter-day Templars are rather like a version of the Rotary Club, with a vague religious tinge, author and broadcaster on religious history Martin Palmer says.

"It's a sort of version of the Rotarians with long cloaks and swords." The overall effect is "clubby with a slight mystical element".

View of St Peter's Basilica from a church in Rome

The Vatican's move has excited Templar history enthusiasts

The major non-Masonic, non-Catholic affiliated, ecumenical Templar organisation is the Ordo Supremus Militaris Templi Hierosolymitani. Tracing its ancestry back to 1804, the group stresses that "it reclaims the spirit of, but does not assert any direct descent from the ancient Order". Full members are Christians, but non-Christians are welcomed as "friends and supporters".

Chivalric side

Its branch in England and Wales, the Grand Priory of Knights Templar, has about 140 members. Geoff Beck has the rather non-12th Century title of Webmaster of the Grand Priory and explains that it is far from a secret cult.

"We have taken the chivalric side of it. It is a good standard to live up to. We get one or two cranks trying to join particularly after the Da Vinci Code.

"Put it this way, the keys of some vault containing the wealth of Jerusalem have never been given to me. We don't have any secret ceremonies, our initiation ceremonies are in public church services. Any member of the public is free to walk in."

Perhaps the strongest link to the 12th Century Templars is the modern version's interest in the Middle East. The Grand Priory of England and Wales sponsors Medical Aid for Iraqi Children and the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East.

The Middle Ages Templars had a reputation, used occasionally to their detriment, for being prepared to negotiate with Muslims and Jews, and the modern Templars like to see themselves in the same vein.

The other major strand of latter-day Templarism in the UK is within the Freemason fraternity. The organisation says it has 30,000 Knights Templar members among its 250,000 Freemasons in England and Wales. The Knights Templar, dating back to the 18th Century, are very much like other Freemasons but with a Christian ethic. Again, the (Dan) Brownites are going to be disappointed.

"We don't claim any descent. They originated as a means of commemorating the original Templars and of exemplifying certain Masonic principles," says John Hamill, communications director of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Again charity work is the order of the day, with an eye hospital in Jerusalem being the recipient of much of the fundraising.

The third main strand of modern Templars is the lay organisation of the Catholic Church, the Militia Templi, formed in 1979. Again, it claims no descent.

There are various other esoteric or semi-esoteric organisations that claim some kind of link, including a man in Hertford who says he is a direct descendant of a Templar.

All of them will be pleased at the Vatican's recent revelation that it plans to release documents from the 14th Century which will confirm that commonly held view that the Templars were not guilty of heresy and in fact succumbed to the predations of a heavily-indebted king of France who was able to bully the pope.

Their modern legacy in England, where the 14th Century persecution was relatively light, includes the Inner and Middle Temple of the legal profession, once the English Templars' HQ, and their part, along with other religious organisations in the birth of Europe's banking system.

But the conspiracy theorists will continue looking for those elusive secret descendants, and a smattering of ambiguity will always fuel them.

"We have our own archive that will prove our own heritage but we don't need to put that in the public arena," Mr Beck mysteriously explains.

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