When we think of the Knights Templar, we picture the Middle Eastern Crusades or Dan Browne’s fantasy novel the The Da Vinci code. However this fascinating organisation were very much part of European society in the 12th and 13th century with houses, called preceptories, in most kingdoms in Medieval Europe. After the Norman Invasion of Ireland the Templars became a part of Norman society here for nearly 150 years. However like their counterparts across Europe the Templars in Ireland were ruthlessly suppressed amidst bizarre allegations between 1308 and 1310.
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomonbetter known as the Knights Templar are one of the most controversial organisations in medieval European history. Formed in the early 12th century in obscure circumstances they were shrouded in secrecy for their 190 year history. Their initial aim was to break with traditional non violent ethos of religious orders and take up arms to protect the recently captured city of Jerusalem. They also vowed to protect Pilgrims visiting holy sites in the Middle East. They became famous initially due to their military exploits but during the crusades but in 13th century they gained more fame and in some cases notoriety for creating a medieval Banking empire.
Although the most well known, the Templars were just one several similar Christian Military Orders operating in Europe and the Middle East. Orders like the Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights and the Iberian Order of Calatrava fulfilled similar military functions to the Templars while sometimes specialising in a certain activities. The Knights Hospitaller for example as their name suggests specialised in looking after the sick and wounded. These organisations were however at their core Military orders who rose to fame fighting wars of reconquest in Spain (like the Order of Calatrava) or in the case of the Templars or Hospitallers leading invasions of the Middle East.
While Hospitallers still exist (in a very different form!) the Templars were destroyed in 1308 by the pope at the behest of the king of France, Philip the Fair. After being savagely tortured, bizarre confessions were extracted which lead to widespread fame and notoriety in medieval Europe and a multi-million pound conspiracy industry today. This purge in the 14th century caused scandal across Europe including Ireland where the Templars had a significant operation.
The Knights Templar in Ireland.
The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169-71 lead to the arrival of military orders including the Knights Templar in the following decades. The Templars were already established in England so it was little surprise they followed the Norman armies to Ireland.
Medieval Ireland was clearly situated far from the hotspots of the Templar military activity in the Middle East but none the less they developed a substancial presence in Ireland but due to the secretative nature of the organisation little is known of their activities here. They owned extensive estates of land and had numerous perceptories focused on the east coast and Munster.Their activities were limited to the Norman colony in Ireland which by 1250 covered nearly 75% of the island.
Although clearly supportive of the Norman conquest the Templars were forbidden from killing other Christians except in self defence so their military activities in Ireland were very limited. Indeed the fact they are not mentioned in any of the major Gaelic Irish annals illustrates they probably had very little interaction with Gaelic Ireland outside the colony. While their military activities were curtailed they did recruit Knights to go to the Holy land while also pursuing their increasingly vast commercial interest. Along with Knights Hospitallar they were responsible for ensuring that the taxes from Ireland arrived at the royal court safely. They also had quite profitable farming enterprises– by 1308 the year of their suppression their lands were worth £400 per year.
Banking & Problems Arise
As part of their commercial enterprises the Templars formed an institution many regard as the origins of modern banking. With Templar preceptories all across Europe they created a facility where it was possible to deposit money in one preceptory in return for a letter of receipt. This letter could be produced in any other preceptory where the money would be reimbursed. In the world of Medieval Europe where travel was dangerous this was very attractive to the rich. This early banking system soon grew to enormous proportions with 4000 Templars working in the Paris preceptory which was their main financial centre. As their wealth increased they began to loan money to monarchs all across Europe something that would lead to their downfall.
Decline and fall.
In 1291 the last vestiges of the Crusader states fell when the Mameluk Sultanate of Egypt captured the city of Acre. With the collapse of the Crusaders states known as Outremer, (from the French meaning overseas) the Templars to an extent were at a loss given their original goals was to defending the city of Jerusalem and Pilgrims. In the immediate years after the fall of Acre they tried to reorganise another crusade but this failed.
It was during this period that Knights Templar loaned vast sums of money to the King of France Philip the Fair. In 1307 Philip, unable or unwilling to repay his debts, was presented with a chance of cancelling his debt by destroying the Templars. Two years previously a Templar who had been expelled made wild and almost certainly false accusations against the Order. These included denying god, spitting on the cross and worshipping idols. In 1307 Philip decided he would use these to destroy his debtors by accusing them of heresy. Philip who had total control over the pope Clement V then living in Avignon, succeed in gaining papal support for his endeavour.
On Friday 13th of October 1307 Philip ordered the arrest of Templars across France and had their property to be seized. These Templars were subsequently tortured and admitted to numerous charges including idolatry and homosexuality which shocked contemporary Europe. Philip then forced the pope to order the arrest and suppression of the Templars all across Europe and the Templars everywhere were doomed.
Suppression in Ireland
On February 2nd 1308 the Templars in Ireland were arrested and placed in Dublin castle. Meanwhile their estates were seized by King Edward II after which he leased them to close allies and associates. The Templars languished in Dublin Castle for over a year until September 1309 five inquisitors arrived in Ireland to oversee the case. This inquisition comprised of 3 Dominicans, Richard Balyban, Philip de Slane and Hugh Saint Leger accompanied by two Franciscans Roger de Heton and Walter Prendergast.1 The Dominicans and Franciscans were selected as papal loyalists due to the generous grants these orders had received over the previous decades.
The Trial got under way on February 6th and and last lasted 4 months concluding on June 6th 1310. Taking Place at St Patrick’s Cathedral just outside the walls of the city of Dublin it must have caused great excitement around medieval Dublin. However inside St Patrick’s the case presented was almost non existent. The Templars were charged on several counts including: denying Christ, spitting on the cross, homosexuality and worshipping idols. The evidence provided by the witnesses the majority of whom were Franciscans or Augustinians was almost as ludicrous as the charges. The strongest evidence was presented by a certain Hugo Illuminator who claimed he he saw the Templar William de Warecome “turn his face to the ground at the elevation of the sacrament not caring to look at the host” at the Templar preceptory in Clontarf. It wasn’t not exactly a case clincher.
The cases in France had been marked by extreme torture that saw even the Grand Master of the Templar Jacques de Molay admit to similar charges. Torture does not seem to have been used because no Templar admitted guilt and it appears that none were found guilty.
Regardless, the Templars had no future what so ever as an organisation. Under the threat of war from Philip the Fair the pope dissolved the Knights Templar in 1312 while lands owned by the Order were passed to the The Knights Hospitaller and individuals members of the order became members of other church institutions. This all had come into affect in Ireland by 1320. To ensure total annihilation Philip then had the Grand Master Jacques de Molay along with dozens of Templars burned at the stake in 1314.
The trials in Ireland were nothing akin to those in France. Indeed the lack of convictions probably reflected the fact that the the suppression of the Templars had little to do with events in Ireland and made little sense. Indeed the Franciscan Friar John Clyn who wrote a history of Ireland a few decades later and lived through the trials only notes the initial arrest of the Templars across Europe in 1308 and the disbandment in 1312. He does not mention the trial in Dublin at all.
While Ireland escaped the worst excesses of torture and execution, the ideas and methodologies that shaped the trials of the Templars in France eventually found their way to Ireland. In 1324 the Bishop of Ossory oversaw the trial of Alice Kyteler and several associates for witchcraft in Kilkenny. This bishop Richard Ledrede levelled three of the charges very similar to those which the Templars were accused of, while he also used torture eventually burning one woman, Petronella di Midia, to death2. The similarity is not coincidence, Ledrede spent years at the papal court in France before his appointment to Ireland in13173 and no doubt was deeply influenced by what he heard and possibly saw.
The 14th century is the subject of an upcoming book I am writing on the societal crisis Ireland faced in the 14th century when famine war and plague brought Ireland to the brink. You can read more about this here. The book will be released in 2013.
1 M.J, Carroll (2006) The Knights Templar and Ireland pge 180
2 Anne Neary(1983)The Origins and Character of the Kilkenny Witchcraft Case of 1324 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies,History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 83C,Pge 336.
3 Ibid pge 337
Neary, A.(1983) The Origins and Character of the Kilkenny Witchcraft Case of 1324 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies,History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 83C,
M.J, Carroll (2006) The Knights Templar and Ireland Dublin
Cotter F.J. (1994) The Friars Minor in Ireland from their arrival to 1400 St. Bonaventure University