Irish Historical Mysteries: The Knights Templar


We are supposed to be living in an age of reason, where old myths and legends, and even religion itself, have been consigned to the scrap-heap. Ireland in particular is a society with many archaic features, including a charming attachment to myth, yet as economic development races ahead old ways are dying out. Of course one should not overestimate the advance of rationalism in the western world as a whole, for ancient beliefs have not altogether disappeared even in the most advanced countries, and new myths such as flying saucers and alien abductions have arisen to join them. As the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of a new Millennium approaches, there has been an explosion of 'New Age' beliefs, which can be seen by inspecting the shelves of bookstores, where works on Astrology, Tarot, I-Ching, Prophecy, Druidism, Gnosticism, Extra-terrestrials and various other esoteric cults outnumber publications relating to established religions.

While the Internet is perceived to be at the cutting edge of progress and technological development, it has perhaps unexpectedly also come to be a powerful agent for the transmission of mythical ideas, and there are hundreds of websites devoted to the Knights Templar. Many New Age publications and websites contain mandatory references to the alleged occult powers of the Knights Templar, their supposed undergound survival in Scotland and other remote places after their dramatic dissolution in the fourteenth century, and the re-emergence of their secret tradition in Freemasonry and other clandestine movements. All this requires some explanation, but before we examine the evolution of these legends, it would be best to look at the known historical facts concerning the Knights Templar.

Against the background of the Crusades, 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. (1)

Promoted by Hugh de Payens and supported by the authority of St Bernard, the order spread with remarkable rapidity, and was showered with gifts of land, money and privileges. Among these privileges the most important were freedom from tithes and many taxes and tolls, as well as immunity from excommunication by bishop or priest, and their dwellings as well as churches were considered to be sanctuaries. In addition, the Templarss used their unrivalled shipping and international networks to further augment their wealth through trade, and they became with the Jews pioneers of banking. Meanwhile, the Templars pursued their main purpose of carrying on war against the Islamic world and defending Christian enclaves in the Holy Land, but problems soon arose. In the first place, rivalry developed between the Templars and the Knights Hospitaller, occasionally leading to armed conflict, which gradually reduced the efficiency of their operations. In the second place, with the passing of time, the edge of their enmity towards Islam was blunted, and it was even alleged that the Templars engaged in secret pacts with the infidels and adopted some of their practices and customs.

The Knights Templar do not appear to have arrived in Ireland until after the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169, and sometime between 1172-7 Henry II granted them various properties, incluing 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 Cos Carlow, Kildare, Louth, Kilkenny, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford (Kilclogan and Ballyhack/Templetown). 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. We do not have a full list of masters or heads of the order in Ireland, but of these, Walter le Bachelor, was found guilty of financial malpractice and died in the penitential cell in the Temple Church in London in 1301. (2) The extensive privileges of the Templars were limited in cities, where they were strictly forbidden to hold more than one guest-house free from local taxes. One member of the order, a certain Ingelbrictus, tried to get around this rule in Dublin by constantly moving from house to house, and claiming freedom from taxes in respect of each one! (3)

Several European cities had quarters under Templar control, and the memory has survived in street and district names. Temple Bar and the Temple Church in London are survivals of the order's presence there, while in Bristol there was the Temple Fee and in Paris is found the Rue du Temple. There was a definite Templar presence in St Andrew's parish in Dublin, as the Order is recorded as owning property there in 1239 and 1308. It would be tempting to assume that Dublin's Temple Bar, which is located mainly in St Andrew's Parish, marked a substantial Templar precinct in the city, but the balance of evidence indicates that this was not the case. The street name Temple Bar appeared only in the late seventeenth century, and was both an imitation of the 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. (4)

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 these came to nothing. Increasingly, the Templars' wealth, power and arrogance were resented, and in France King Philip the Fair cast envious eyes on their possessions. In 1307 Philip had members of the order in his domininion arrested in a series of surprise raids, and persuaded the Pope to have the Templars throughout Europe arrested on charges of impiety, heresy, denying Christ and various sexual and other vices. Under torture, many French knights confessed, though it it highly unlikely that they were guilty of all the crimes of which they were accused. 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 dissolved here also, and its possessions once again transferred to the Hospitallers. (5)

That should have been the end of the matter, and the Templars should have become just an historical memory. However, because of the shocking and dramatic nature of their fall from power and privilege, the destruction of the Templars gained a powerful hold on the popular imagination. 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, which in the later eighteenth century was particularly noted as a conduit of radical politics and subversion. Thus many eighteenth-century political radicals in Britain, Ireland and Europe were also Freemasons, and it was alleged that when Louis XVI of France was guillotined, a Freemason cried out, 'Jacque du Molay, thou art avenged!'.

The best recent exposition of the Templar legend is Baigent and Leigh's The Temple and the Lodge, which like most of these authors' work, including The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, should be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. For example, adding an Irish angle to the legend, Baigent and Leigh claim that fleeing Templars had landed in Donegal on their way to Scotland, purely on the basis that there are places in that county with 'Temple' in their name, such as Templecrone and Templecavan. (6) It is true that that several places with the 'Temple' prefix denote Templar holdings, such as Templetown, Co Wexford, and Templehouse, Co Sligo. Yet a closer acquaintance with Irish history would have shown Baigent and Leigh that the Gaelic word teampal is also a common prefix in Irish place-names, meaning simply 'church', and this usage rather than a Templar presence is the explanation for the Donegal placenames.

Nevertheless, despite its flights of fancy, Baigent and Leigh's work is much more level-headed in its account of the origins of Freemasonry, the role of Templar legends therein and the spread of the movement internationally. Following the Scottish scholar David Stevenson (7), Baigent and Leigh showed that modern Freemasonry was in fact a Scottish creation, arising in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and not as the received account has it, an English invention. Baigent and Leigh's further demonstration of the prevalence of Templar legends in Scotland is convincing, as is their account of the role of prominent Scottish families in the transmission of Masonic-Templar legends, such as the Hamiltons, Montgomerys and especially the Sinclairs of Roslin near Edinburgh. (8) The origin myth of the Irish Masonic Templars claims a connection with the Sinclairs through a branch which settled in Ireland. Eighteenth-century Dublin Masonic Templars congregated in the Temple Bar area, perhaps attracted by the resonances of the name, and indeed to this day a chapter of Irish Knights Templars meets in a mock-medieval chapel in the Freemasons' Hall in Molesworth Street, Dublin.

The mania for Templarism and belief in occult conspiracies has been satirised in a novel by Umberto Eco, although at 641 pages the joke is perhaps too long drawn out. (9) Eco's apparent lack of awareness of the Scottish origins of Freemasonry means that his parody is historically flawed, but his super-smartness nevertheless appeals to hyper-sceptics who prefer to dismiss without analysis. While the legends concerning the underground survival of the Order of the Temple are clearly fanciful, belief in Templar myths is real and their power to exert influence even after a lapse of nearly seven centuries is undoubted, and these phenomena are perfectly legitimate subjects for study and attempted explanation.

We are supposed to be living in an age of reason, where old myths and legends, and even religion itself, have been consigned to the scrap-heap . . .



(1) Herbert Wood, 'The Templars in Ireland', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 26, C, 1906-7, pages 328-29.

(2) Wood, 'Templars in Ireland', pages 330-34.

(3) Clarence Perkins, 'The Knights Templar in the British Isles', English Historical Review, 25, 1910, page 215.

(4) Sean Murphy, A Short History of Dublin's Temple Bar, Dublin 1995.

(5) Wood, 'Templars in Ireland', pages 352-60.

(6) Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge, London 1990, pages 108-10.

(7) David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry, Cambridge 1990; Stevenson does not specifically address the question of Masonic Templarism, and would not necessarily follow many of Baigent and Leigh's speculations.

(8) Baigent and Leigh, Temple and Lodge, pages 166-67 and passim.

(9) Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, London 1990.

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