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In 1118 a French vassal named Hugh de Payen established an order of monks whose purpose was protecting travelling pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Once these men received official recognition from the Pope in 1128, membership within the Order sky-rocketed. Men from leading families from all over Europe joined. They swore poverty, humility and obedience, and called themselves “Soldiers of Christ”.

Their goals grew rapidly from their humble beginnings. They trained and became experts in the art of war and soon became known as the Order of the Knights Templars. They built castles and defensive posts all over Europe and the Holy Land and became a significant and disciplined fighting force in three crusades. They owned estates in many countries throughout the then civilized world. They manned a fleet of the sleekest and swiftest war galleys of the day. Majorca was the seat of the Templars' naval power, the strategic location giving them control over much of the Mediterranean. Within a few decades the Order had interests in all commercial activities within the continent of Europe.

The Templars developed a coded communication system and used it to share new knowledge and technological discoveries. They financed and implemented the latest architectural advances and used them in construction of their castles, military strongholds and cathedrals.

The Knights Templars proved themselves very adept financiers, not only making loans to merchants and property owners, but kings as well. They also invented the first credit or “chit” system.

But as their power and wealth grew the Knights became more arrogant. Once they were defeated by Saladin’s forces at Acre, the Order retreated to Cyprus. With no wars forthcoming the Templars decided to establish a kingdom of their own. France was their first choice.

King Philippe IV proposed to destroy the powerful knights before they established a stronghold in his country. His reasoning? He was heavily in debt to the Templar bankers. He’d also been refused application into the Order while a young man.

The Order’s secretive and “cult-like” leanings only aided Philippe in initiating and securing the Templars downfall. He approached certain knights who’d been expelled from the Order and bribed or blackmailed them to charge their brothers with heresy. Some of the accusations levelled against the Order included worshipping the “Baphomet”, an idol, performing obscene initiation rights, and maintaining a secret affiliation with the infidel “Assassin” cult.

In the year 1307, on Friday the 13th, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templars, Jacques de Molay, and a large number of his senior knights, were arrested. Thousands of other Templars throughout France were also arrested the same day. Over the course of several years de Molay and his knights were tortured. Finally on March 14, 1314, he and Geoffroi de Charney, Preceptor of Normandy, were burned at the stake. Before de Molay perished, he prophesied the death of Philippe and the current Pope, Benedict XI. Both met their end within a year of the Templars gruesome torture.

Oddly enough, when Philippe’s forces raided the Templar treasury to reap the “spoils of war”, they found it empty. The vast Templar wealth had vanished, along with most of their fleet.

What happened to the ships, the Templar Treasure, and the knights who’d evaded capture? Some, it’s been said, fled to Scotland, where Robert the Bruce put the money and the fugitive warriors to good use fighting Edward I’s suppression. Other Templars scattered across Europe, founding bands of warrior mercenaries. Evidence suggests that others sailed with the Venetians and explored the North Atlantic coast. There are even stories that much of Templar’s great treasure has yet to be found.

In later years the Jesuits and Scots Guard adopted some of the Templar principles. In this century, connections to the Order’s beliefs and ideologies are linked to the Nazi party and the rise of Aryanism.

From a small band of less than a dozen to a vast brotherhood of elite fighting men, builders and financiers, these warrior monks remain the stuff of romantic and mystical legend.