By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
The Vatican's recent decision to release documents on the persecution of the Knights Templar in the 14th Century has piqued interest in the mysterious order. But what are the latter-day Templars up to?
Pssst. Wanna know a secret?
This is a story. In the Middle Ages there was a secretive organisation called the Knights Templar. They were disbanded with many killed on the orders of the Pope because they knew the secret that Jesus had had a child with Mary Magdalene. Despite the killing of the order's members, societies carry on its legacy of hidden knowledge today.
There's a problem with this version of events, part-inspired by Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and other earlier authors.
There are lots of organisations today that bear the Templar name, but for the most part they are in the business of charitable works inspired by the original order. Secret documents about Mary Magdalene are not the order of the day.
1099: Jerusalem captured by Crusaders
1118: Order formed
1129: Endorsed by church
1307: Members arrested in France
1312: Pope dissolves order
1314: Last Grand Master burned at stake
The original Templars were founded in the 12th Century to guard pilgrims on their way along the dangerous roads that led to Jerusalem. Its members were effectively armed monk-like knights who were granted certain legal privileges and whose status was backed by the church. They were reputed to be the possessors of great wealth and power.
But the latter-day Templars are rather like a version of the Rotary Club, with a vague religious tinge, author and broadcaster on religious history Martin Palmer says.
"It's a sort of version of the Rotarians with long cloaks and swords." The overall effect is "clubby with a slight mystical element".
The major non-Masonic, non-Catholic affiliated, ecumenical Templar organisation is the Ordo Supremus Militaris Templi Hierosolymitani. Tracing its ancestry back to 1804, the group stresses that "it reclaims the spirit of, but does not assert any direct descent from the ancient Order". Full members are Christians, but non-Christians are welcomed as "friends and supporters".
Its branch in England and Wales, the Grand Priory of Knights Templar, has about 140 members. Geoff Beck has the rather non-12th Century title of Webmaster of the Grand Priory and explains that it is far from a secret cult.
"We have taken the chivalric side of it. It is a good standard to live up to. We get one or two cranks trying to join particularly after the Da Vinci Code.
"Put it this way, the keys of some vault containing the wealth of Jerusalem have never been given to me. We don't have any secret ceremonies, our initiation ceremonies are in public church services. Any member of the public is free to walk in."
The Vatican's move has excited Templar history enthusiasts
Perhaps the strongest link to the 12th Century Templars is the modern version's interest in the Middle East. The Grand Priory of England and Wales sponsors Medical Aid for Iraqi Children and the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East.
The Middle Ages Templars had a reputation, used occasionally to their detriment, for being prepared to negotiate with Muslims and Jews, and the modern Templars like to see themselves in the same vein.
The other major strand of latter-day Templarism in the UK is within the Freemason fraternity. The organisation says it has 30,000 Knights Templar members among its 250,000 Freemasons in England and Wales. The Knights Templar, dating back to the 18th Century, are very much like other Freemasons but with a Christian ethic. Again, the (Dan) Brownites are going to be disappointed.
"We don't claim any descent. They originated as a means of commemorating the original Templars and of exemplifying certain Masonic principles," says John Hamill, communications director of the United Grand Lodge of England.
Again charity work is the order of the day, with an eye hospital in Jerusalem being the recipient of much of the fundraising.
The third main strand of modern Templars is the lay organisation of the Catholic Church, the Militia Templi, formed in 1979. Again, it claims no descent.
There are various other esoteric or semi-esoteric organisations that claim some kind of link, including a man in Hertford who says he is a direct descendant of a Templar.
All of them will be pleased at the Vatican's recent revelation that it plans to release documents from the 14th Century which will confirm that commonly held view that the Templars were not guilty of heresy and in fact succumbed to the predations of a heavily-indebted king of France who was able to bully the pope.
Their modern legacy in England, where the 14th Century persecution was relatively light, includes the Inner and Middle Temple of the legal profession, once the English Templars' HQ, and their part, along with other religious organisations in the birth of Europe's banking system.
But the conspiracy theorists will continue looking for those elusive secret descendants, and a smattering of ambiguity will always fuel them.
"We have our own archive that will prove our own heritage but we don't need to put that in the public arena," Mr Beck mysteriously explains.
Here is a selection of your comments.
"But the latter-day Templars are rather like a version of the Rotary Club, with a vague religious tinge."
Sure. Or maybe that's just what they'd like people to believe...
Mr. E. Mann, Dublin Ireland
Miki - St John's Ambulance were founded by the Knights of St John, an altogether different organisation from the Knights Templar!
By a quirk of history, the place where the Templars appear to have survived in their original form for the longest was Scotland, not Enlgand - the Papal Bull excommunicating them was never read in Scotland, as the border was closed due to war with England. In a cross-border battle during the 16th Century a dead nobleman was found to have original Templar insignia and artefacts on his somewhat outdated armour, suggesting that the order survived in some form for several centuries after their main dissolution.
So who built and maintained the park and priory near my house in Aberdeen, the graveyard of which bears the inscription Knights of the Priory of Sion 1207-1927?
Surely claiming direct descent from a Templar is self evidently rubbish? They were a celibate order after all!
My grandfather once told me that there is still a 'proper' Templar order in existence which he knew of by virtue of almost continuous family records dating back to the time before the Order was originally destroyed. He was not inducted into the order as it was incompatible with his own slightly unusual religious beliefs.
It's unclear whether the Templars were a chaste order or a celibate order. Chastity is the avoidance of sex outside of marriage, and abstinence for the unmarried. It is quite possible for a chaste person to be married and have children. Celibacy means to remain unmarried. If you are celibate without being chaste it means you may have sex but not marry. You can of course still have children in this way.
The early church did not require celibacy for its priesthood. This came later as a political concession because the nobility were concerned that powerful dynastic families might arise within the church. Even if Templars were both chaste and celibate (i.e. no sex under any circumstances), then it's quite possible, being human, that some broke their vows and sired children.
Graham, Oxford, UK
How can you say that it is cobblers? Presumably you can adduce evidence to prove that fact. Absent any evidence all theories (whether conspiracy or otherwise) are equally valid.
What most critics of conspiracy theories, e.g. regarding 911, fail to address is that the official version of 911 or 7/7 is in itself a conspiracy theory. It is a theory (backed with some limited evidence released by the authorities) of a conspiracy - in 911 it is that Osama acted in conspiracy with others to commit a criminal offence - the atrocity of 911. The theory that he did it is only a conspiracy theory (or a theory of a conspiracy), and as no-one has ever been tried in a court of law - and you can have trials in absentia - so we don't actually need a defendant - absent proof, it is itself just a conspiracy theory. So, with respect, let's see your proof regarding the Knights Templar and its load of cobblers!
The Templar name also lives on in Aberdeen where the Scout campsite on the banks of the River Dee is known as Templar's Park. It is the site of a former Knight's Templar community and its graveyard can still be visited in the grounds of the Maryculter House Hotel. It is rumoured to be haunted by the Green Lady, the ghost of a Saracen woman who followed a knight back from the Crusades.
Malcolm Pye, Aberdeen
The heritage of the Templar Knights should not be dismissed by revisionist historians or fiction writers , a glorious tradition of unselfishness and a willingness to help others, the forebears of diplomatic relations in the middle east , all with a healthy Christian ethos.
paul owens, london
Why refer to Dan Brown continuously? There have been many works of fiction based around these stories, some a lot better than Da Vinci Code!
Colin Watts, Poole UK
These people were nothing but thugs and criminals. Even in Britain during the 12th and 13th century they abused there position and treated the native British with contempt. Their actions in the 'East' during this time -("protecting pilgrims" - don't make me laugh) marks the start of a dreadful conflict that still plagues the world today. There is no romance or chivalry associated with them or their order in any way. They are a product of the Norman period of our history that is best forgotten.
So the article says that at least two modern day Knights Templar groups claim no descent and do not hold any treasures. Well, they WOULD say that, wouldn't they...
James Paterson, Manchester, UK
Most of my friends believe in the conspiracy that the Masons and Templars control or influence UK companies and government institutions. Why do they believe all that stuff? It is getting out of control. That book should be held accountable.
St John Ambulance - another organisation descended from the Knights Templar.
The friendly and caring face of the templars?
Links between early Freemasonry and the Templar¿s may not be as sceptical as historians like to suggest. In Scotland, the earliest Masonic lodges appear to go back to within 100 years of the dissolution of the Order in 1309. On going research by Sheffield University, in to the origins of Freemasonry, continues to reveal earlier and earlier connections; it may only be a matter of time before a full link is made. However, mystical speculation (Dan Brown, Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh et al) still represents an 'enemy of reason' when it comes to interpreting actual historical evidence. Keepers of sacred knowledge they are not! (sadly!)
Carl Jones, York
FYI there is only one true strand of the templars left in the world. This is the portugeuse Order of Christ - which is a state order. When the templars were suppressed, the king of portugal got an exemption and all lands etc were kept safe for the order. The name reverted to the original name of the order, the Order of Christ and the gift was in the hands of the king. The pope only allowed this however, if he also was able to confer the Order of Christ. Thus there are two branches today of the templars - the Order of Christ. The portuguese order and also the hiughest order of the Vatican state - also called the order of Christ. Only these two branches of the same order can claim to have any decent from the templars
All the released documents (which have been known about for several years) do is show that the Pope granted absolution for the confessions made by the Grand Master and some other prominent Templars. The Church is not making much of the fact that the Grand Master later retracted his confession, because it had been made under duress (torture or threat of torture): for this he was burned as a relapsed heretic. Other Templars were tortured into confessing to "worshipping idols" (in reality, nothing more sinister than venerating relics of saints). It seems to me that the Church is hyping the Chinon Parchment to distract attention from the fact that Clement V and the Inquisition were complicit in the brutal destruction of a religious order which had served the Church loyally for some 2 centuries. The suppression was not confined to France, although the worst torture was carried out there and in the Papal States.
Dr M M Gilchrist, Glasgow, Scotland
What about the Priory of Sion? Their leader admitted lineage to Knights Templar.
Besian Bicurri, Chicago USA