After Christian fighters captured Jerusalem during the First Crusade, groups of pilgrims from across Western Europe began visiting the Holy Land. Around 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens founded a military order devoted to protecting these pilgrims, calling it the Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon—later the Knights Templar.
In 1129, the knights received the formal endorsement of the Catholic Church, and new recruits and lavish donations began pouring in from across Europe. Known for their austere code of conduct and signature style of dress (white habits emblazoned with a red cross), the Templars established new chapters throughout Western Europe. They developed a reputation as fierce warriors during the Crusades and set up a network of banks, gaining enormous financial sway. At the height of their influence, they boasted a sizable fleet of ships, owned the island of Cyprus and served as a primary lender to European monarchs and nobles.
Muslim soldiers retook Jerusalem and turned the tide of the Crusades in the late 12th century, forcing the Templars to relocate their base of operations to Paris. There, King Philip IV resolved to bring down the order, perhaps because the Templars had denied the indebted ruler additional loans.
On October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars were arrested and brutally tortured until many confessed to false charges. Three years later, dozens were burned at the stake in Paris. Under pressure from King Philip, Pope Clement V reluctantly dissolved the Knights Templar in 1312.
While most historians agree that the Knights Templar fully disbanded 700 years ago, some people believe the order went underground and remains in existence to this day. In the 18th century, certain organizations, most notably the Freemasons, revived some of the medieval knights’ symbols and traditions.
More recently, stories about the legendary Templars—that they dug up the Holy Grail while occupying the Temple Mount, for instance, or harbored a secret capable of destroying the Catholic Church—have found their way into popular books and films.