Deep in a forest in the Aube department in France, people still search for the mythical treasure attributed to the Knights Templar. When the local theme park, Nigloland, stipulates “No rituals” on its list of visiting rules, it’s easy to wonder whether there was more to these knights than meets the eye.
But in their home county in the heart of the Champagne-Ardennes region in the north east of France, the Knights Templar had humbler origins. While many of the rumours shrouding the order and their association with the occult, the Holy Grail and Freemasonry went on to inspire writers like Umberto Eco and Dan Brown, in the Templar homeland they were simply a catholic military order whose mission was to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land.
The Early Days of the Knights Templar
It all started with Hugues de Payns, the First Grand Master and founder of the Order of the Knights Templar, who came from a village located just outside Troyes. In a bid to protect the pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, he gathered a band of monastic knights together under the name the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. But many know this order by its more familiar name, the Knights Templar, named for the legendary location of their headquarters, which was said to be constructed upon the ruins of Solomon’s Temple on Temple Mount in the Holy Land.
Back in France, the impoverished knights found a powerful advocate in Cistercian abbot St. Bernard de Clairvaux, who helped compose the Latin Rule of the Order and wrote persuasively about the knights in his letter “In Praise of the New Knighthood,” written as a reply to his friend Hugues de Payns. St. Bernard de Clairvaux also went on to endorse the Order on behalf of the Church at the Council of Troyes in 1129, which officially recognised and confirmed the Knights Templar as a religious order.
The City of Troyes
While Troyes can trace its history back to the Romans, most of old town dates back to the 16th century, rebuilt after a fire ravaged the inner city. These timbered houses still stand on the labyrinthine streets of Troyes, many leaning to one side in an eclectic palette of colours and designs. Some have conical staircases posted onto the exterior of the building, others spiral up inside an intricate timber-lined courtyard.
Today’s Troyes maybe the perfect example of a renaissance city that once flourished with trade and abundant riches due to its textiles and stained glass crafts. However, echoes of its connection with the Templars linger round the corners, hidden in street names heralding back to the guilds of craftsmen and even the banking heritage of the Templars in la rue de la Montée des Changes. The Order issued some of the first letters of credit to pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, where they could present the letter to other Templars to withdraw funds and keep their valuables safe on the journey. Over time, the Templars became bankers in their own right, offering a new way of handling money, and nobles would also turn to them for banking needs.
The old town is shaped like a “Champagne Cork” and towards the tip you’ll find the Cathedral of Troyes, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Troyes, adorned with incredible stained glass, for which the province of Aube is famed. While today’s cathedral showcases an architectural timeline starting with its 13th-century apse and chapels and ending with 17th-century details on its façade, the cathedral itself also lies on the foundations of an older Romanesque church, where only a few stones from the ruin can be found built into the walls inside. But the Council of Troyes took place inside the cathedral’s predecessor, which burned down in the 1180s, in the early 12th century.
And it was at this council that the Order of the Knights Templar was confirmed and its rule established. Today, it also houses the relics of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, one of the figures behind its theological justification.
Troyes also became home to one of the very first Templar Commanderies, monasteries built as fortresses, at the heart of the old town, located on today’s rue de Général Saussier. However, the original structure burned down in 1524.
While not technically the same order, it’s nearly impossible to come across the story of the Templars in the heart of Champagne without encountering St. Bernard de Clairvaux and the Cistercian order. Close to the town of Bar-Sur-Aube, the curious Clairvaux Abbey was once home to the abbot who established the Templar code. Today it’s a high-security prison. Exchanging your passport for a badge and a “no photos” rule, it’s clear from the first moment you step inside this drafty place that this is no ordinary abbey.
While inside medieval arches from the original 12th-century abbey can still be found, much of the stone from this heart of the Cistercian order were used to build the prison on the grounds. The abbey remains became home to a women’s and children’s prison. The cold stone walls make the temperature drop a few degrees compared to the outdoors even in January but when compared with the former men’s prison, becomes a house of luxury. The men’s prison lies partly abandoned, with only the 18th-century chapel capturing its former grandeur. Upstairs under the crumbling roof and broken windows, the old “hen coups”, some with pictures of scantily clad women still adorning the drafty cells, still housed inmates as late as 1971. In the wing next door, behind high walls and barbed wire, you’ll find a high-security prison that’s still in use today.
The abbey itself did not belong to the Knights Templar but rather the Cistercian order with St. Bernard de Clairvaux at its head. But the abbot still played a key figure in the foundation of the order by giving theological justification to allow these monastic knights to kill, threading this abbey-turned-prison into the origins of the Order.
The Commandery of Avelleur
Set in the heart of the Champagne countryside, the recently renovated Commandery of Avelleur is about to open its gates again for visitors interested in history. The commandery shows a different side of the Knights Templar, a modest one that’s far from the sensationalism you’ll find in novels and popular culture concerning the Templars. It’s often forgotten that the Order of the Templars also had members who helped the cause through farming and agriculture.
The “Black Knights” were those who stayed behind at home and farmed the fields and cultivated the land to support those out in the Holy Land. While St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s rules dictate poverty, and the individual knights themselves were poor, the order itself had an abundance of land and property. Many donated to the cause and the Knights Templar and as a collective they were rich. The old commandery at Avelleur served an agricultural purpose, whose simple chapel and adjoining buildings offered the resident black knights a place to live and pray, and sometimes gave pilgrims a place to sleep.
As we alighted from the bus for a preview of the restored sight, two locals passionate about history greeted us dressed as Templars, wearing knitwear made to look like chainmail along with the white robes with the iconic red cross. Our Templar guides led us around the commandery and the chapel, which revealed a sight that was modest as the order itself. But taking a closer look at the details, a story is there, laid out in the stones. At the heart of the chapel, a keystone stone stands partially buried in the gravel. It wasn’t there originally but rescued from the land nearby. On one side you’ll see the Templar cross, on the other the Fleur de Lis, denoting the boundary between the Templars’ land and the land belonging to the King.
Eventually, the Templars had too much land and the French King was said to owe them too much money. The power of the impoverished knights grew great and threatening, coupled with rumours that circulated about their ceremonies, laced up with a dark mythology of the Occult, spitting on the cross, and leaked accounts about homosexual practices. On Friday 13th October 1307, King Philippe VI had all the Templars arrested in their commanderies scattered around France with the charge of heresy and idol worship, as well as financial corruption and fraud.
Their trial lasted 7 years and in 1310, 54 Templars confessed their sins, and then denied them, before being burned at the stake.
After the fall of the Templars, the commanderies and properties, like the one at Avelleur, were handed over to the Knights Hospitaller.
Today, the old commandery is almost restored, and in the summer will open its gates to curious visitors looking to see the real daily life of the Knights Templar.
Legends Left Behind
The Order of the Templars may have disbanded in the 14th century, but the legend certainly didn’t go away. Since the 18th century, elements and symbols of the Templars became integrated into Freemasonry. Some believe that Freemasonry comes from the order itself, through the Templars who escaped France and took refuge in Scotland, although there is little historical evidence to back up those claims. The myth of the treasure also came about in the 19th century, as well as stories about the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and the Turin Shroud.
In the end, the legacy of the Templars became an iconic mystery, but the origins of these knights have a more humble story to tell in the Cistercian cellars and ruined commanderies in the county of Champagne.
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