The Templars were formed in 1118, when nine knights took holy vows to defend Jerusalem. In 1128, their founder received a blessing from the pope to formally form a new order of warrior knights. They adopted the order of St. Benedict and the white robes of the Cistercians and began recruiting. Men flocked to join, and were accepted in a hierarchical system of knights, sergeants (who wore black robes), farmers, and chaplains.
Within fifty years, the order became one of the largest landowners not only in the Holy Land but in France and England. They became money lenders in the major cities, and were one of the finest fighting forces in the world.
On the way to accumulating land, wealth, and the power that came with it, they established monasteries throughout Europe, called commanderies. We visited five such commanderies on our recent visit to France: Richerenches, Saint Eulalie de Cernon, La Couvertoirade, La Cavalerie, and Saint Jean d’Alcas.
All five were rural farming commanderies—fortified monasteries—and were established, like monasteries, to be self-sufficient. Richerenches, founded in 1136, was one of the most important commanderies in Provence, in that others looked to it for authority. It was known for raising and training horses—a stud farm, in other words—for knights to take to war in the Holy Land. It also produced wine, wool, and wheat.
The first commanderie in the Larzac region of France was Saint Eulalie de Cernon, which was founded in 1153, when an abbot donated a church to the Templars. In 1159, the Count of Barcelona/King of Aragon gave the Templars a vast grant of land, and over the next decades, the Templars became the largest landowner in the region.
La Couvertoirade, La Cavalerie, and Saint Jean d’Alcas were all daughter houses to Saint Eulalie de Cernon. Though remote today, in the Middle Ages these commanderies all sat near major roads, and were important breeding centers for horses, cattle, and sheep.
The decline of the Templars began in the 13th century, as various possessions in the Holy Land were lost to Muslim forces. In 1291, the last stronghold in the Holy Land, Acre, fell, and many in Europe began to question why the Templars continued to exist. Taking advantage of this resentment, in 1307, King Philippe of France ordered the arrest of Templars, in every commandery throughout France, all on the same day. This included the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. That first day, 625 knights were arrested.
45 of those Templars were held prisoner in Philippe’s fortress of Aigues Mortes on the Mediterranean. Ironically, it was from Aigues Mortes that Philippe’s grandfather, King Louis, had set sail for the Holy Land on Crusade in the previous century. In fact, when Louis was captured while on Crusade in 1250, it was the Knights Templar who literally paid a king’s ransom for his return.
With this coordinated action, Philippe was able to confiscate all Templar wealth, land, and possessions, including their fortress in Paris, known as The Paris Temple.
To give an example of the wealth involved, royal reports show that the Saint Eulalie commandery owned 35 horses, 22 oxen for plowing, 120 cattle, 24 pigs, 180 goats, and 1,725 sheep.
Once he took their wealth, Philippe was less interested in their commanderies in more rural areas, many of which he ended up giving to another order of warrior knights, The Hospitalers. This order took over the five commanderies we visited, though they were later either given to the Church and/or abandoned outright. Once that happened, the local people moved in, seeking the protection of the commanderies’ walls. All five towns probably exist to this day as a result.