They began as a poor and pious band of knights sworn to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. They went on to become the most powerful and wealthy religious order of the Middle Ages, playing a crucial role in the military, political and financial life of their times. The era during which the Knights Templar brotherhood rose and fell—spanning the 12th and 13th centuries—was marked by economic growth and cultural flowering, both in Europe and the Near East. But it was also largely defined by ongoing conflict—namely the Crusades, a series of religiously inspired military expeditions by European Christians to the Holy Land. There they fought Muslims for control of sites both groups believed sacred.
Below, some key moments in Templar, crusader and broader medieval history:
An emissary of Pope Leo IX marches to the altar of the church of Hagia Sophia, leaving a letter excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. This dramatic moment is often described as the precipitating event for the so-called Great Schism, when the Christian church breaks into two branches: Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine). In reality, the schism results from long-simmering differences over a much longer period. The Roman Catholic arm of the church would be far more involved than the Byzantines in instigating, funding and fighting the Crusades.
Troops under the leadership of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—better known as El Cíd—defeat the Moors at Valencia, becoming a symbol of the Christian “Reconquista,” which seeks to rid Spain of North African Muslim conquerors who first invaded in the 8th century. The Crusades follow in the wake of these Christian incursions into Muslim-held territory in Spain and Sicily.
1095: Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus requests help from Rome in reconquering territory in Asia Minor and Palestine that had been lost to the Seljuk Turks. Later that year, Pope Urban II issues a rousing call to arms at the Council of Clermont in France, instigating the First Crusade. He preaches that it is God’s will for Christians to band together, march to the Holy Land and recapture the sacred city of Jerusalem. Those who join the effort, he is said to have declared, would have all their sins absolved.
Before the church’s first crusading force departs, a popular preacher named Peter the Hermit rallies a motley mix of commoners and knights for what comes to be known as the People’s (or Peasants’) Crusade. With little food, money or collective military know-how, the expedition becomes a marauding march across Europe to the Holy Land. It ends in disaster, as Turkish forces ambush and slaughter most of the peasants in Anatolia.
After Crusaders retake Jerusalem, ending the First Crusade, European Christian forces divide the newly captured territories into four principalities: the County of Edessa, Principality of Antioch, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli.
A new religious order called the Cistercians emerges just before the turn of the century. Along with the Carthusians, they help usher in a new age of asceticism, spreading the belief that austerity and abstinence beget spiritual transcendance. Abbott Bernard of Clairvaux, who joins the Cistercians around 1113, will become a leader of the order—and a champion of the Knights Templar.
1113: Pope Paschal II grants papal recognition to another band of knights, called the Hospitallers. Originally a monastic community dedicated to serving sick and wounded pilgrims in Jerusalem, they later become a military order.
The Knights Templar, taking vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, are founded to protect pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. It is said that nine of the Templar brothers, led by Hugh of Payns, present themselves to Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem, who gives them quarters in his palace, the former al-Aqsa mosque. Situated on the city’s Temple Mount, the mosque was built atop the site of the ancient Jewish Temple of Solomon, inspiring the Templars’ name, “The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon.”
1127: Hugh of Payns, the Templars’ first Grand Master, launches a recruiting tour to Western Europe, enlisting members, raising money and securing political patronage for the new organization.
Pope Honorius II grants the Knights Templar official church recognition. At the Council of Troyes, the official “Rule of the Templar” is written, with heavy input from Hugh of Payns and Bernard of Clairvaux. It offers a comprehensive code of conduct for the brothers, reflecting their unique combined roles of soldier and monk.
Bernard of Clairvaux completes “De laude novae militae” (“In Praise of the New Knighthood”), voicing support for the fledgling Templar brotherhood and their values of humility, obedience, austerity and religious zeal.
Hugh of Payns dies. Templars complete the first of several castles in the Holy Land.
1139: Pope Innocent II issues a papal bull titled “Omne Datum Optimum” (“Every Good Gift”), officially endorsing and protecting the Knights Templar. It grants the order extraordinary privilege and independence: They don’t have to pay taxes to the church. They aren’t accountable to any king, baron or other authority, except the Holy See. They can appoint their own leaders and priests. And anyone who harasses them will be excommunicated by the church.
1146: Two years after Muslim forces capture the Christian stronghold of Edessa, Pope Eugenius III launches the Second Crusade, asking Bernard of Clairvaux to spread the word and galvanize support by preaching a sermon in Vézelay.
The Second Crusade proves disastrous, as crusader armies (led by Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France) fail to recapture Edessa and suffer a humiliating defeat at Damascus. Some 50 Templar knights fight with Louis VII’s men, their first significant involvement in crusading.
1153: Bernard of Clairvaux dies in August.
Templars adopt their famous seal of two knights on one horse. The Templar Rules expand, including new statutes that make it not just a guide to quasi-monastic life, but a military handbook as well.
Cornerstone laid for Notre Dame cathedral.
Bernard of Clairvaux, spiritual godfather to the Templars, is canonized.
c. 1175: Saladin, a Muslim military leader of Kurdish Sunni descent, becomes the sultan of Egypt and Syria, establishing the Ayyubid dynasty. Charismatic, canny and ambitious—with a deep personal mission to wipe the crusaders off the map—he would become one of Islam’s greatest military and political leaders during the Crusades.
1183: Saladin captures Aleppo, a key conquest in his two-decade effort to consolidate power in Syria and unite Islamic states surrounding the Holy Land.
Saladin’s forces decimate the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin, in Northern Palestine; Saladin himself personally overseeing the beheading of some 200 Templar and Hospitaller captives. Saladin also captures an important Christian relic, the True Cross, usually entrusted to the Templars for protection. Within months of this decisive battle, Jerusalem falls again into Muslim hands.
1189 to 1192: After the calamity at Hattin, growing Muslim victories in the Holy Land galvanize Western resolve to launch a Third Crusade and retake Jerusalem. Three European rulers—Germany’s Frederick Barbarossa, France’s Philip II and England’s Richard the Lionheart—lead the charge. Richard helps restore manpower, leadership and confidence to the Templars, who fought at the heart of his armies.
After a long siege, Richard I and Philip II capture the city of Acre, a major port for the kingdom of Jerusalem. After the victory, Templars move their eastern headquarters to the city.
Templars buy the island of Cyprus from Richard I, but find it politically complex and ungovernable—so they sell it to the Lusignan family.
Richard I agrees to a peace treaty with sultan Saladin, ending the Third Crusade. After leaving the Holy Land (accompanied by a contingent of Templars), Richard is captured by Leopold V of Austria, who ransomed him to Germany’s Henry VI.
Saladin dies in Damascus.
Innocent III is elected Pope. He calls for a Fourth Crusade, but politics delay it. Instead of going to fight Muslims, Crusader armies divert to Constantinople, pillaging and plundering the Byzantine metropolis in 1204.
The Dominican order is founded by St. Dominic of Spain, and authorized by Innocent III. One of its primary goals: the conversion of Muslims and Jews. The order would later become the main administrators of the infamous inquisition of the Templars in 1307.
1217 to 1221: Armies from England, Germany, Hungary and Austria join together for the Fifth Crusade. In 1218, they unsuccessfully attack the Egyptian city of Damietta, and are defeated by sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil, Saladin’s nephew.
1218: Construction begins on Château Pèlerin (Castle Pilgrim), a major Templar fortress in Holy Land.
1220: A century after being founded, the Templars have become richer and more powerful than at any time in their history. No longer are they focused primarily on military endeavors such as fighting, training and leading crusading forces. Long trusted by European kings and popes to collect taxes and courier large sums of money, they have diversified into banking, estate building and management, and international diplomacy.
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, leader of the Sixth Crusade, negotiates a treaty with al-Kamil, leading to Christian control of Jerusalem for 10 years—and a near war between Frederick’s army and the Templars. In 1244, Turks sack the city in a bloodbath, and Christians lose their hard-fought foothold in the city. Templar knights help shepherd refugees away.
In a papal bull, Innocent IV approves the use of torture for heresy, a decision that half a century later would dramatically affect the Templars.
Mongols, pushing west from their homelands, sack Baghdad, killing the Abbasid caliph and presenting a new menace on the fringes of the Holy Land. The Templars will later unsuccessfully explore an alliance with the Mongols.
1271 to 1272: The Ninth Crusade, the last major one to take place in the Holy Land.
The Siege of Acre ends. When this important port city is ceded the Mamluks, it’s a devastating blow to Western crusaders and to the Templars in particular. Their stronghold in Acre was the last place in the city to fall as crusaders fled to Cyprus.
Jacques de Molay, a Burgundian knight, becomes the Templars’ Grand Master. He would be the Order’s last.
Ottoman Empire is founded by Turkish tribal leader Osman I. It will survive for more than 600 years, making it the longest-lasting Islamic empire.
Boniface VIII calls the first papal “jubilee,” recognizing pilgrimages to Rome instead of Jerusalem.
1303 to 1305: In 1303, an army of France’s King Philip IV captures Pope Boniface VIII, physically attacking him. He dies a few months after his release. In 1305, Clement V succeeds Boniface as Pope. After his election, he refuses to move to Rome and, in 1309, establishes the papal court in exile in Avignon, a provincial French town situated on the Rhône river. It would remain there until 1378.
The fall of the Knights Templar begins. On October 13, Philip IV of France calls for the dawn arrests of the Templars in France. On November 22, Clement orders all Christian kings to arrest Templars in their lands.
Clement temporarily suspends the Inquisition of the Templars in France. In August, 60 Templars (including Jacques de Molay) are interrogated at Chinon Castle. They plead guilty, hoping they will be reconciled with the Church.
1309 to 1310: Papal trials of accused Templars. In April 1310, newly installed Archbishop of Sens (brother of King Philip IV’s chief minister) orders 54 Templars to be burned at the stake, as “relapsed heretics.”
1311 to 1312: In a papal bull known as “A Voice on High,” delivered at the Council of Vienne, Clement V formally dissolves the Templar order, accusing its members of sins ranging from idolatry to sodomy to heresy. A second papal bull transfers Templar properties to the Hospitallers.
In March Jacques de Molay and Templar Geoffroi de Charney are burned at the stake, despite retracting their confessions. A month later Pope Clement dies. In September Philip IV dies.