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Issue 76 - Soldiers of Christendom

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014

 

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Soldiers of Christendom

James Irvine Robertson goes in search of The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of

Fought on 22nd July 1298, the Battle of Falkirk was a disaster for the cause of independence for Scotland. On the flat, marshy land near the River Forth, the Welsh archers of Edward I decimated the Scots schiltrons. They broke and fled. Sir Wallace Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland and became a fugitive.

On the English side there were only two notable casualties: Sir Brian de Jay and Sir John de Sautre. Sir Brian was said to have been too enthusiastic in the pursuit, hacking down the virtually defenceless Scots foot soldiers as they fled the field. He became detached from his companions; his horse became bogged down; he was hauled from the saddle and dispatched.

Sir Brian was Master of the Temple in London, one of the eleven Provinces of the Knights Templars in Western Europe beneath the Grand Master. Sir John, too, had been a Templar and Preceptor of the Order in Scotland, reporting to Sir Brian.

Such participation in battles against fellow Christians was one of the factors that brought about the downfall of the brotherhood nine years later.

In 1118, Hugues (or Hugh) de Payens, who originated from Champagne in France, gathered together a group of fellow knights to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. This was after its capture by the Crusaders from the Fatimid Caliphate in 1099 and the slaughter of 40,000 inhabitants.

Ten years later, the Pope endorsed this group and gave it a series of rules. They became militant monks with their headquarters on the Temple Mount in jerusalem. Only those who had already earned knighthoods could join the Order, and they were obliged to pass all of their personal wealth to the Order, take vows of celibacy and live a life of poverty.

Along with the Knights Hospitaller the Templars would become the shock troops of the Crusades, in continual conflict with the Muslims in the Holy Land for nearly two centuries.

Sir Hugh de Payens had promptly set about touring Europe to solicit support for his newly founded organisation, and the monarchs of Christendom vied with each other to demonstrate their zeal for the Lord by showering the brotherhood with wealth. In Scotland, the devout King David I granted them lands on the South Esk in Midlothian and before long, gifts and bequests from the pious led to the Order owning estates throughout Scotland - and the rest of Europe.

Becoming enormously wealthy, they were exempt from taxation, tithes and above the law. They were responsible to the Grand Master on matters temporal and directly to the Pope on matters clerical and spiritual.

At the height of the order, the Templars controlled 9,000 estates across the European Continent. They had their own ships, ferrying knights to the Holy Land and a staff of some 20,000 people running their affairs and supplying perhaps 1,500 fighting brothers. Furthermore, they became the first bankers.

It was the practice for crusaders and pilgrims to hand over management of their affairs when they were abroad. Letters of credit could be redeemed across Europe and in Palestine, thus saving travellers from the risk of carrying their wealth.

Monarchs used their vaults as treasuries and, as in the case of King John of England, lived on their premises. No king, only the Grand Master, had authority over the Templar knights and their dominions. Their heroism was legendary, as was their brutality in a brutal war in a brutal age, and a war that the Crusaders lost.

In 1187, Jerusalem was taken by Saladin, first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, and subsequent crusades failed to recapture it. The Templars therefore moved their headquarters to Acre at the northern extremity of Haifa Bay and when that city was lost, to Cyprus.

On the Iberian Peninsula, the Templars could still fight the Moors but elsewhere in Europe their purpose had disappeared. When they began to fight their fellow Christians in national armies, their unique status as God's warriors was lost, along with much of their popularity.

But their enormous wealth was to be their downfall. Philip IV of France was greatly indebted to them and had a compliant Pope Clement V living in France. Together they began to plot the Order's downfall.

On Friday 13th of October 1307, all of the Templar Knights in France were arrested. Charged with an outlandish array of bizarre crimes, such as worshiping a cat and crushing babies with their bare hands in strange rites, many of them confessed under appalling torture.

Under pressure from King Philip, the Pope ordered rulers throughout Europe to seize the Templars and their assets. Most were only too happy to acquire the Order's treasure chests but, unlike Philip, reluctant to burn anyone for heresy on such absurd evidence. The agents of Edward I used torture to try to obtain confessions but none were forthcoming and no English Templars were executed. The Pope finally disbanded the Order in 1312.

The Scots Templars, under the authority of the Master in London, had contributed a fifth of the revenues of the Province. The bulk of their possessions were in the Lothians although they had land in every Sheriffdom of Scotland, save Argyll, on terms that exempted them from all feudal dues and taxes.

At the time of the dissolution of the Order, it has been estimated that 40 or 50 Templars were stationed in Scotland, most of them probably English although the international character of the Order meant that any nationality could have been posted there. Scots Templars were certainly active in other Provinces.

Only two Templars were put on trial in Scotland, both found innocent and one of them known to have retired to a monastery on a pension.

The modern connection with Freemasonry is an invention of the 19th century; the legends are largely a product of writers of fiction going back to the 18th century.