Most of us will have heard something over the years about an ancient order known as the Knights Templar, especially if you’ve ever watched Indiana Jones or read a Dan Brown novel. These medieval knights have enjoyed an odd staying-power in popular culture despite the relative shortness of their existence, even though few of us know exactly who they were or what they might have gotten up to here on our own doorstep. So, read on to learn about the origins in Ireland, their activities around the county, and the conspiracy that led to their downfall.
So, first things first, who exactly were the Knights Templar? A military order first founded in 1119, their full title was the ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’, though they were also known as the much less of a mouthful ‘Order of Solomon’s Temple‘, the ‘Knights Templar‘ or simply the ‘Templars‘. Known by their distinctive symbol of a red cross on a white background, the group grew in power and influence fairly rapidly when they were officially recognised by the Pope and became the group most closely associated with the Crusades to the Holy Land. They were however, much more than crusading soldiers and in fact the majority of their vast membership remained in Europe where they set up charities, organised an early form of banking and maintained farms and forts across the continent in a massive interconnected network.
There is no way to know exactly when they arrived in Ireland, but it was at some point between 1172 and 1177. We know that it is highly unlikely that they arrived as part of Strongbow’s 1170 invasion, or the subsequent invasion of 1171 because under their charter they were forbidden from doing harm to their fellow Christians and so could not have participated in the fighting. The first definite reference to their settlement in the country comes in 1177, when ‘Matthew the Templar’ is listed among the witnesses to the signing of an Irish charter. Using this information we can narrow down their arrival to within this five-year period.
Due to Ireland being a Christian country, they saw no action here and could fight only in self-defence if necessary, so Ireland was used primarily for one of three reasons:
1) As a sort of retirement home for knights who had seen action in Jerusalem but were now too elderly to fight.
2) For feudal farming/ tenancy, in order to support the knights who lived there and raise money for the cause
3) For recruiting young soldiers for action in the holy land (the Irish were involved in the third crusade).
The First Irish Master of the Temple of Solomon is known to us only as ‘Walter the Templar’ and it seems he spent most of his time travelling around the country to all of their holdings. Among these holdings were the Waterford estates, which were extensive. In 1172 they were granted their very first lands in Ireland these included two water-mills on the River Suir at Waterford, the 1200 acre estate of Crook, a small townland with a church dedicated to ‘St. Barri’ which would go on to be called Kilbarry, a small marsh in the city and total access to the sea around the county. Waterford is not only the first but one of the most extensive areas granted to the Templars so it is reasonable to assume they left a major mark on the foundations of the city.
a map from Dr. Niall Byrne’s ‘The Irish Crusade showing Templar holdings in green
In Waterford their position at Crook granted them access to a number of industries and in particular, they probably participated in Waterford’s famed wine trade using part of the two fleets the order maintained. They also operated a ferry service at Crook, giving access to Kilcloggan across the river for a small fee and transported bullion to fund the crusades to the Holy Land from this point.
As Kilbarry is close to the city (certainly closer than Crook) it would have been perfect for recruitment of soldiers to Jerusalem. Generally they did not just take normal citizens but rather landed members of the population as the trip east was not cheap. Any Waterford man who joined as a soldier would have been asked to temporarily hand over his land so that it could be mortgaged or rented in order to fund his armour, weapons, transport and upkeep as he fought for the Church in a far-off land. and so while the knights may have begun as Norman, over time it would have become an increasingly Irish chapter of the organisation. It was almost certainly a larger centre of operation than its neighbour at Crook because of this proximity. The Irish holdings made for very profitable farmland for the knights, making them up to £400 per year.
The other major activity of the Knights in Ireland was banking. They were a very wealthy organisation, and Waterford in the medieval era was heavily supported by Italian merchant bankers already and the Templars probably heavily contributed. As the Templars were so trusted by the English crown, they often occupied high offices and carried out important functions. Waterford was the only royal town in the South-East, so it is known that the fee they owed the crown was collected and dealt with by the knights before the first recorded Mayor took office over a century later. They were also involved in early attempts to sell indulgences to the people of Waterford and Nearby Ossory. Due to their place at Crook, guarding the entrance to the three sister rivers, they also probably had some involvement in the shipping and wine trade in the South East.
The holdings in Kilbarry would have consisted of some estates for farming, the church of St. Finbarr which they took possession of on their arrival, a small collection of houses big enough to be termed a ‘vill’ by the charter of Henry II, a possible moated farmstead, and a substantial building known as ‘the monastery’ which would have acted as a dormitory for the substantial Templar community living at Kilbarry. It is here that the elderly soldiers would have been housed and as the building was fifty-eight feet long it is reasonable to assume that quite a population of Templars lived here. Even today if you head out to Kilbarry you could stumble across a slightly overgrown Templar graveyard.
A Templar gravestone in County Wexford
So where does the dramatic and mystical perception that most of us have of the Templars come from? This idea, of secrecy, legend and conspiracy, springs largely from their rapid and violent downfall which began in France in 1307. As the Templars were pushed out of the Holy Land in the latter years of the thirteenth century, they gradually relocated back into Europe and support for the organisation became less enthusiastic. Despite this lessened support, the Templars still had numbers on their side. Across Europe their Templar Houses were dotted throughout towns, cities and the countryside, giving them not only a wide-reaching influence, but an observable local presence throughout several kingdoms. The powers that had been granted to them meant that they answered to no local or national authorities and their (admittedly lessened) standing army combined with the fact that they acted as bankers in many communities meant that they were looked upon as leaders in many communities. There was mounting evidence that they intended to establish a state of their own, as the Teutonic Knights and the Knights Hospitaller had done. The problem was simple, the Templars had grown too wealthy and too powerful and for the King of France, King Philip IV, there was the added trouble of thousands in debt that he had owed to them from his war with the English.
King Philip IV of France
In 1305, Pope Clement V made an attempt to merge the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, though both sides objected to the move. While he and the Grand Master of the Templars (Jacques de Molay) were waiting for the arrival of the leader of the Hospitallers, the Pope and de Molay got to talking about some accusations which had lately been flung at the Templars by a disgruntled ex-member. Keen to get ahead of the problem, the Pope decided to write to King Philip of France and ask him for his assistance in clearing up the matter. Well, Philip got the letter alright, and he spied an opportunity – because after all, you didn’t have to pay back all of your debt if the people you owed it to were dead….
Pope Clement V
Later that year, on the 13th of October (a date many believe to be the origin of the myth of unlucky Friday the 13th) as dawn broke across France the King gave the order for Grand Jacques de Molay and other high-ranking members of the Templars to be arrested. This is where our well-known conspiracies come in: the Templars were accused of denying Christ, ritually spitting on the cross, and engaging in ‘most indecent kissing’ during admission ceremonies. They were also accused of worshipping false idols – including Baphomet, a figure which has since become a regular feature of the occult – worshipping the severed mummified head of John the Baptist and of engaging in homosexuality.
The trials caused a sensation and through torture and intimidation Philip I had several confessions drawn from members of the order, admitting to everything they had been accused of and more. The Pope reluctantly issues a Papal Bull named Pastoralis praeeminentiae to order the arrest of Templars across Europe as well as the seizure of their assets, though he also called for papal hearings following the inquisition that was going on in France. However the damage had been done and Philip IV used the confessions he had already obtained to have dozens of Templars burned at the stake in Paris and the ensuing scandal across Europe left the Pope with no choice but to disband the order.
Here in Ireland thankfully there was no torture and no executions, though the order was dissolved. After the order was suppressed in 1308, all Irish holdings were transferred to their rivals, the Knights Hospitaller, including the Waterford estates.