How the Templars Made and Lost a Fortune

In 1220 it was exactly a century since Hugh of Payns had established the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. During those 100 years, the Templars had transformed from indigent shepherds of the pilgrim roads, dependent on the charity of fellow pilgrims for their food and clothes, into a borderless, self-sustaining paramilitary group funded by large-scale estate management.

By the early 13th century they were political players with contacts at royal courts across Europe and property magnates whose estates stretched from Scotland to Sicily. They had also become crack soldiers who could afford to build gigantic amphibious bases in war zones and financial experts co-opted into the bureaucratic machinery of Christendom’s leading kingdoms.

The Templars were respected and valued throughout the Christian world, but they plainly could no longer be thought of as radical, uncompromising ascetics. Their grand master, who in 1220 was Peter of Montaigu, was entitled, under the Rule of the Templars, to an impressive entourage, including four warhorses, up to four pack animals and a personal retinue including a chaplain, clerk, valet, sergeant, farrier, Saracen translator, a cook, a three-man bodyguard team and a Syrian mercenary known as a turcopole. In addition, he had a strongbox for keeping all his valuables and could access a private room for his own use within whichever Templar palace he was visiting.

Portrait of Pope Honorius III. Credit: DEA / VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Templars’ role in the crusading movement was as strong as it had ever been. In 1220, several hundred Templars could be found camped on the outskirts of the Nile Delta city of Damietta, where they had been for more than two years. They were taking part in the Fifth Crusade, which had been preached by Pope Innocent III with the aim of forcing concessions in the Holy Land from the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, al-Kamil.

Ever since Innocent III had proclaimed the Fifth Crusade, Templar brothers had helped to collect the papal tax known as a twentieth. They sat on commissions alongside Hospitallers (members of another military order founded in Jerusalem around the same time as the Templars) to account for the money collected throughout the realms of Christendom. That money was distributed on a regional basis to enable as many people as possible to join the crusade.

A letter written by Innocent’s successor, Pope Honorius, illustrates just how deeply involved the Templars and Hospitallers had become in the basic infrastructure of financial transfers. Honorius was concerned that none of the crusade tax required for the front line of the war effort should reach Egypt via Rome, so that there could be no suggestion of papal corruption or misappropriation of funds.

Map showing Templar properties in Western Europe, c. 1147. Credit: Map courtesy Jeffrey Ward

This was a noble aim, but one that required a decentralized means of moving money, as well as trustworthy and godly men with a presence in every realm involved in the crusade and the practical ability to move large amounts of coin and treasure securely.

The Templars and Hospitallers were the ideal agents. Honorius acknowledged in his letter that the military orders were indeed able to move impressive sums. He then listed some of the recent Templar transfers from Europe to Damietta:

  • 5,000 gold marks, paid directly from the papal chamber;
  • 13,000 marks collected in England and conveyed by four Templars named as Hugh of Saint-George, John of Novill, Gerald of Soturririo and “Roger the Englishman from the village of Angles;”
  • 1,711 marks raised in Hungary and delivered jointly with the Hungarian Hospitallers;
  • another 5,000 marks raised in England and moved through the Templar treasurer in Paris, Brother Haimard;
  • 6,000 ounces of gold collected in France and also routed via Haimard’s office in Paris;
  • a huge weight of coin from Spain and Portugal, which amounted to more than 25,000 pieces of gold and more than 5,000 pounds in assorted silver currencies.

16th-century painting of King Louis IX of France, following his canonization as a saint. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

These were significant transfers and a testament to the pope’s faith in the Templars’ integrity and expertise. “Because we have been accustomed to send the tax and other money more frequently by means of the brothers of the Temple and the Hospital, we do not have other intermediaries in whom it might seem we could have greater trust,” wrote Honorius.

In letters sent elsewhere during the Fifth Crusade, Honorius maintained a similar position, warning his correspondents that they should disregard rumors of corruption or impropriety leveled against the orders, since “if the Templars and Hospitallers did not daily spend money for their sergeants, their crossbowmen and other necessary combatants…the army would be totally incapable of remaining at Damietta.”

Paradoxically, although they were one of the medieval world’s richest organizations, Templar brothers were in theory banned from carrying any money of their own or buying anything they were not specifically ordered to. Rule-breakers would be thrown out of the order. And if after a brother died, any money was found on his person, he would be considered to have stolen it and denied a Christian burial—sending his soul straight to hell.

As a result of their financial acumen, the Templars were soon assuming ever more responsibility for the security of the crusader states, bringing them into contact with some of the 13th century’s most memorable characters. That included the sainted French king, Louis IX, with whom they got on famously, and Frederick II Hohenstaufen, the bombastic and freethinking Holy Roman Emperor who claimed to be the king of Jerusalem, but promptly started a war against the men who were tasked with defending it.

Yet the end was also approaching, and on Friday October 13, 1307, the Templars were suddenly and violently brought down in one of the most shocking political assaults of the whole middle ages…

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