The Knights Templar were founded about 1118 or shortly before by Hugh de Payens and other noble knights, for the primary purpose of protecting pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. Because their headquarters were located near the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the order became known as Militia Templi Solomonis, or the soldiers of the Temple of Solomon, which was later abbreviated to Knights Templar. In 1128 St Bernard drew up new rules for the order, under which it was to be composed firstly of knights of noble birth, and secondly of fratres servientes or serving brothers, some of whom were gentlemen who bore arms, and the rest engaged in manual occupations. The Knights Templar were bound by the usual conditions of poverty and celibacy, and their seal showed two men riding on one horse, variously interpreted as a symbol of poverty or of the Templars dedication to helping one another.
Whereas it was Strongbow who led the initial Norman invasion of Ireland on the 1 May 1169 at the behest of Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait MacMurchada), the King of Leinster, with the approval of Henry II.
The Templars were already established in England so it was little surprise they followed the Norman armies to Ireland. The Templars were not part of or associated with the invasion having arrived in Ireland between 1172 – 1177. 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.
Henry II granted the Knights Templar various properties, including what was to become their principal house at Clontarf, Co Dublin. In subsequent years nobles followed the royal example and bestowed grants of property on the Templars for the good of their souls. In addition to Clontarf, the main holdings of the order were in Counties Carlow, Kildare, Louth, Kilkenny, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford. The importance of the position of master of the Templars is shown by the fact that he was frequently chosen to be among the auditors of the accounts of Ireland.
Several European cities had quarters under Templar control, and the memory has survived in street and district names. One could assume that Dublin’s Temple Bar, marked a substantial Templar precinct in the city. However, the street name Temple Bar appeared in the late seventeenth century, and was both an imitation of a London name and a reference to the Temple family who were major property owners in the area. Yet it might be rash to rule out completely any Templar resonances in the naming of Dublin’s Temple Bar.
Following the collapse of Christian control of the Holy Land in the 1290s, the main purpose of the Templars was undermined, and indeed they received a good deal of blame for the reverses in the war against Islam. Attempts were made to merge the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, but it was not to be. Increasingly, the Templars’ wealth, power and arrogance were resented, and in France King Philip the Fair cast envious eyes on their possessions. Therefore, his Order, the Church was “forced” to move against the Templars on the 13 October 1307. The Church ordered all Monarchs to move against the Templars. The head of the order in France, Jacques du Molay, was burned at the stake in 1314, and throughout Europe the order was dissolved and its possessions transferred to the Knights Hospitaller. In Ireland, arrested Templars were imprisoned in Dublin Castle and tried in St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1310, and while there were no tortures or executions in Ireland or England, the order was also dissolved, and its possessions once again transferred to the Hospitallers. Formed in the early 12th century in obscure circumstances the Knights Templar were shrouded in secrecy for their 190 year history.
While the Church establishment and the more pious continued to view the Templars as heretics and degenerates who deserved their fate, others preferred to view them as innocent victims of royal power and church corruption, or else as wise mystics martyred for their beliefs. More than that, a legend developed to the effect that surviving Templars had kept the order alive as an underground organisation, waiting the opportunity to rise again and avenge their murdered brothers. Having concealed themselves in the wilderness of Scotland, so the legend goes, the Templars in time reorganised themselves in the movement known as Freemasonry. It was alleged that when Louis XVI of France was guillotined, a Freemason cried out, ‘Jacque du Molay, thou art avenged!’.
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 death. The similarity is not coincidence, Ledrede spent years at the papal court in France before his appointment to Ireland in 1317 and no doubt was deeply influenced by what he had heard and seen.
Photo: Templars Church, Templetown, Co Wexford