Who were the Knights Templar and what might have driven them to cower in a Shropshire cave?
In a 700-year-old underground labyrinth of rough-hewn sandstone known as Caynton Caves, it is claimed that a persecuted rump of warrior monks, the Knights Templar, engaged in covert religious practices. Pictured is actor James Purefoy as one of the Knights in 2011 film Ironclad
Conspiracy theorists love a cave — but they love a cult even more. Hidden in woodland in Shropshire, they have both.
It was here, in a 700-year-old underground labyrinth of rough-hewn sandstone known as Caynton Caves, it is claimed, that a persecuted rump of warrior monks, the Knights Templar, engaged in covert religious practices.
In eerie photographs published by the Mail yesterday, candlelight flickers on a row of arches and pillars cut into the rock. There is a stone-carved font, narrow passages and graffiti of strange symbols.
It is as chilling as the catacombs and a lot more mysterious. Of all the possible refugees who might have holed up here, the Knights — long a part of history, but most recently popularised by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code and other works of ‘religious mystery’ — are prime contenders.
But who were these men and what might have driven them to cower in a Shropshire cave instead of doing what they were best at — protecting Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and making money?
The Knights Templar were a unique combination of knight and monk, a holy militia that sprang up in the 12th century.
Their founder was a nobleman from the Champagne region, Hugh de Payens, who, in Jerusalem in 1119 nominated eight of his companions to safeguard pilgrims visiting the Holy Land from attacks by brigands and Saracen pirates.
In eerie photographs published by the Mail yesterday, candlelight flickers on a row of arches and pillars cut into the rock
It is as chilling as the catacombs and a lot more mysterious. Of all the possible refugees who might have holed up here, the Knights are prime contenders
Once used as a ceremonial spot for the followers of a secretive religious sect, the underground caves offered safe haven after leaders of the free world brutally dismantled the group’s power base
The order’s full name was the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in recognition of their quarters next to the Temple in Jerusalem — hence the name by which they became famous.
In 1129, the Knights were officially recognised by the Pope. They then followed religious rules, with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — and each man pledged himself ready to die for his faith. They also adopted their distinctive uniform, a white mantle with a red cross.
Together with the Knights Hospitallers, who looked after sick pilgrims, the Knights Templar became the permanent defenders of the Latin settlements in the Middle East, increasingly endowed with castles and fiefs.
By 1180, there were some 600 knights in Jerusalem, Tripoli and Antioch.
Over time, they turned into a chivalric order of warrior monks who fought with distinction in the Crusades.
They became widely respected for their bravery in battle against Muslims, but even more for their astonishing ability to accumulate wealth as, in effect, a private bank.
The caves in Shropshire were once a place of pilgrimage and worship for followers of the Knights Templar, a feared fighting force during the Crusades who built an international power base on their reputation and spoils
A pilgrim, afraid of being robbed on his hazardous trip to the Middle East, would leave a cash deposit at Temple Church in the City of London — the English headquarters of the Knights Templar, which was consecrated in 1185 and still stands today.
He would then carry a letter of credit, like travellers’ cheques, and in Jerusalem he would be able to withdraw his funds.
‘Their influence on modern banking is perhaps their best legacy,’ says James Jackson, author of Perdition: The Crusaders’ Last Stand.
‘My word is my bond is, in fact, a phrase borrowed from the Templars. Their probity was highly regarded.’
By the end of the 12th century there were thousands of Knights Templar, who accumulated considerable land, castles and spoils taken in battle.
This wealth was ostensibly for financing the Holy War, but it made them richer than the kings and princes who borrowed from them. They even bankrolled Henry II on his crusades.
The untouched caverns date back to a time when the Knights were prominent before King Philip IV of France, fearful of their power and deeply in their debt, attempted to dismantle the renowned group
In recent times they have been used by numerous groups including druids and pagans wishing to find a safe place to worship, as the Templar’s followers had used it for centuries ago
‘If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France — as Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux — it was the Templars who could broker the deal,’ says financial historian Tim Harford.
Henry paid £200 a year — about £500,000 today — for five years to the Temple in London.
In the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, with the Templars operating as a high-end pawnbroker. At one time, there were 4,000 civil servants managing their estates from their Paris HQ.
They were trusted, incorruptible — and dangerously powerful. But it was their challenge to Church and state that sowed the seeds of their downfall.
In 1307, with debts to the Templars from which they would not release him, Philip IV of France lured Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order, to Paris, where he was seized and thrown into prison. What followed was the persecution of the Order, with thousands of Knights imprisoned, tortured or slaughtered.
Some were burned at the stake, accused of sexually deviant practices and obscene ceremonies of initiation that included denying Christ and spitting or trampling on the Cross.
Many of these lurid accusations — made by two Templars of dubious character against the Order in their trial depositions — were never substantiated. But it’s this rumour mill that had turned against the Knights for years.
‘It was a classic case of trumped up charges,’ says James Jackson. ‘Every closed order has strange rituals. They were probably not much different from church services today.’
By the time the Templars were suppressed, Jackson argues they had had their day anyway. The Christians had lost control of Jerusalem in 1244. There were no more Crusades to fight.
The Order’s properties were transferred to their rivals, the Knights Hospitallers, an Order that survives as the Knights of St John, based in Malta.
And what of the Knights Templar in England after the collapse of the Order in Europe?
Pictured left, sunlight rushes in through the small openings in the caves, just metres under the surface of the ground in Shropshire, once used by followers of the Knights Templar
If they were driven into caves, such as those in Shropshire, it can only have been for a short time, says Jackson. Far from being persecuted, they were allowed to join other religious orders.
In recent times, interest in the Templars has been fuelled by Michael Baigent’s co-written book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, and later, to Baigent’s fury and disbelief, by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. (Baigent accused Brown of plagiarism, but lost the court case).
Both books were international bestsellers and covered the same controversial claim: Jesus had a relationship with Mary Magdalene and they had children.
Baigent, who died in 2013, claimed these children grew up in exile in France and their descendants intermarried with the French Merovingian royal house.
The existence of this ‘Christ bloodline’, argued Baigent, had been covered up by the Catholic Church and their secret protected by the shadowy Priory of Sion sect — the real power behind the Knights Templar, who were its military and administrative arm.
‘Because of The Da Vinci Code, people want to see the Templars in everything,’ says Jackson.
‘They want to fill a vacuum with a theory.’
The truth is that there’s an awful lot we don’t know about what happened to the Templars.
But it’s tantalising for conspiracy theorists and romantics to imagine a banished sect who carved that secret shelter out of the Shropshire sandstone so they might continue to worship and perform their strange rituals without the danger of betrayal.