The Knights Templar, a Christian military order founded about 1120, operated under the approval of the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 200 years. The order was highly respected for both its military prowess and the strict code of discipline observed by its members. Due to special privileges granted by the Catholic Church, the Knights Templar became an extremely wealthy and powerful organization throughout medieval Europe. But the order saw its fortunes suddenly and fatally reversed when the church withdrew its favor, in an event that remains controversial to this day.

The Warrior Knights

In 1099, the First Crusade succeeded in liberating Jerusalem from more than 400 years of Muslim rule. Christian states were set up and European Christians began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land in earnest. Pilgrims often fell prey to thieves and robbers populating the areas around Jerusalem. Several French knights who had settled in Jerusalem after the crusade vowed to devote their lives to keeping the roads safe for Christians traveling to the Holy Land, and the order was born.

Church Recognition

As more knights joined the group, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem allowed them to make their headquarters in his palace on the Temple Mount, came the order's name, the Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon, or simply the Knights Templar. The order was endorsed by prominent French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, and in 1128 was officially recognized by the Catholic Church as a military religious order. The Knights Templar maintained a strong military presence in the Holy Land through the rest of the Crusades.

A Power in Europe

As the order grew, the Vatican granted the Templars generous privileges, such as immunity from the laws or control of any authority except the pope, exemption from all taxes and the freedom to cross any border at will. With such advantages, and although individual Templars took a vow of poverty, the order as a whole amassed a vast fortune. This came through the spoils of war, donations (including land), enrollment of members from wealthy families and various business endeavors, especially an early form of banking services. The order established a widespread network of estates, called preceptories, throughout much of Europe.

Betrayal by French Monarchy

Due to their wealth the Templars served as financiers to the royal courts of Europe. But by the start of the 14th century the Christians had lost control of the Holy Land and with it, the purpose for which the Templars had originally formed. King Philip IV of France was heavily indebted to the order and sought to strike a blow against it, and in 1305 he saw his chance with the election of Pope Clement V, who was of French blood, depended on French royal protection, and chose to reign from France. In 1307 Philip arrested scores of Templars in France, accused them of various of acts of heresy and sacrilege, and obtained their confessions through torture. He then urged other monarchs and Pope Clement to assist in rounding up all other members of the order.

Arrest and Disbanding

While the pope and some European monarchs initially opposed Philip, Clement quickly took over the inquisition, and continued arresting the Templars. A transcript of their trial testimony and Clement's verdict from the official 14th-century report, which the Vatican republished in 2007, reveals that while Clement was convinced of the existence of immoral behavior among members of the order, he was inclined to reform the Templars and that the charges of heresy were unfounded. But the Templars were finished nevertheless. Dozens of members who had recanted their initial confessions during trial were burned at the stake in Paris in 1310. Clement officially abolished the order in 1312, and its last grand master, Jacques de Molay, was burned to death at the age of 70 in 1314.