Here come the knights

History can be very confusing. Dangerously so in the case of the small group of people wearing white robes with a big red cross on the front who will arrive today at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, carrying wreaths. For the "See You Jimmy" brigade, a red cross on white clobber means only one thing - especially so during the past month - and the appearance of such a group on this significant anniversary could be seriously misconstrued.

But they can calm down. The Militi Templi Scotia claims descendancy from crusading orders, the Knights Templar, and has nothing to do with St George. The cross that dons their white mantles is Maltese, for a start. What’s more, they claim that the Scots would be robbed of a favourite catchphrase - "Remember Bannockburn!" - had it not been for their timely intervention.

"Yes, we believe that Templar Knights fighting on Robert the Bruce’s side swung the balance," says Paul MacGowan, recently retired Grand Chancellor of Militi Templi Scotia. "We think they deserve recognition for that, but we tread a very thin line here."

Things were probably not quite as noble and patriotic back then as many would like to think, he adds. Scotland’s independence through Bannockburn was gained at a price.

"At the beginning of the 14th century the Order was the most powerful religious and military organisation in the world - its wealth was unbelievable and it was the first truly international financing institution that was able to issue cheques and loans. Kings - even the Pope himself - entrusted the Knights with vast sums of their money, so the Poor Soldiers of Christ - as they originally called themselves - were long gone."

That was a misnomer too. The idea of the crusading knight saving the Holy Land from the "infidel" couldn’t have been further from the truth. The battles for the Holy Land were merciless conflicts, with Christians slaughtering Jews and Moslems alike in the most atrocious and barbarous ways.

The Poor Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon supposedly started up in the early 12th century to protect pilgrims journeying to the newly reclaimed Jerusalem, but instead of helping pilgrims, they concentrated on digging in the ruins of Herod’s Temple, which had been built on top of Solomon’s. What they found under there remains a mystery - libraries can be filled with all the speculative books that still pour out about the subject, but whatever it was, it secured their power base for the next 200 years while they built up their organisation.

"It looks like they set up shop in Scotland about 1130 in the reign of King David I," says the military historian Robert Brydon. "I’ve seen what is thought to be a foundation document, but the Latin is so bad it’s difficult to be certain. It has been academically recognised though, and it’s generally accepted that within 20 years of the Templar foundation in Jerusalem there was one founded in Scotland."

The control centre was in France, where a religious elite calling itself Rex Deus seemed to be masterminding a lot of the action. The group appeared to have started among families of Zadokite priests who escaped from Jerusalem when it was purged by the Romans in AD 70. A millennium later they had become highly influential in their adopted country.

In his book Rex Deus, Templar historian Tim Wallace Murphy says he thinks the name reflected two lines of hereditary power - that of the king - rex in Latin - and that of the priesthood, shown by the Latin for God, Deus. The French aristocracy of the day were affiliated members - the Counts of Champagne, the Dukes of Normandy, the St Clairs, the Hapsburgs and the Lords of Payen.

Funny thing, but in charge of the nine original Knights who were digging in the ruined Temple of Solomon was a certain Hughes de Payen, who was married to a St Clair. The St Clairs were in Roslin at the time of the founding of the Scottish Templar movement in 1130 and the first Knight Templar Preceptory outside the Holy Land was built on St Clair land at a place called Temple, just outside Edinburgh. A kind of early medieval cosa nostra seemed to be spreading its lucrative tentacles right from the word go.

Vast sums of money are not, and never were, controlled by nice guys. By the turn of the 14th century highly organised sub-divisions were dealing with clerical matters, religious matters and military matters. No electronic wiring of funds back then - money had to be personally transferred, and protected during transfer. Warring factions had to be supported or opposed, and the winner’s spoils re-distributed.

"These battle-hardened military knights were the SAS of their day," says MacGowan. "They were finely honed fighting machines who sold their services to the highest bidder. That’s why they were so feared and that’s why they eventually had to be suppressed. Royal households and the Church felt threatened by their financial and military strength and felt their own power base slipping."

What followed next is well documented. In 1307, Pope Clement denounced the Knights Templar as heretics. Hundreds of people were rounded up and tortured by the Paris Inquisition. One of the accusations of heresy centred around them denying the divinity of Christ. Templars believed - to put it simply - in two messiahs; they interpreted the original Hebrew texts to show John the Baptist was the priestly messiah, sharing power with Jesus, the kingly messiah - the Rex Deus philosophy.

That, of course, was not at all acceptable as far as the Holy Roman Church was concerned. It was the perfect excuse to dispose of the knights - and annex all their money and lands.

Meanwhile back in Scotland, Robert the Bruce was having his own problems. The romantic side of history shows him as a people’s warrior like Wallace, but he wasn’t. He was an aristocrat - the 8th Earl of Carrick, and had originally thought his bread was buttered on the side of Edward I. Once he realised Edward wasn’t going to further his ambitions as he wished, he began to investigate other options.

"He was a Rex Deus ‘family’ member’ through the Dukes of Normandy," says Wallace Murphy. "He was quite entitled to call himself Robert de Bruce and call up support from that quarter."

He was also a direct descendant from the MacAlpin line of Scotland, but his only real rival, John Comyn, was making waves, so Bruce lured him to the Franciscan church at Dumfries and killed him under the altar. That didn’t help his cause either, and for carrying out such an act on hallowed ground he was excommunicated by the Pope and hunted by Comyn’s men.

"Pretty good at thinking on his feet, was Bruce," says Brydon. "He turned it to his advantage by turning to the Celtic forces who were left without a champion after the execution of Wallace."

Bruce had himself crowned King of Scotland standing on the Stone of Destiny at Scone in March 1306. What he was standing on, according to popular supposition north of the border, was the real Stone - not the one that Edward I had been allowed to find and take to Westminster six years earlier.

The St Clairs had also been building their Rex Deus connections, which Robert the Bruce (or de Bruce as he no doubt found it useful to call himself at such times) took full advantage of. Both families claimed origins from the Dukes of Normandy, which they linked to a Norse invasion in the tenth century.

In 1309 Templars are said to have landed on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, ready to support Bruce; a skeleton with evidence of peculiarly Templar burial rituals was found there recently.

MacGowan says the military groups who escaped persecution did so because of their survival skills as mercenaries, and they would have been well able to offer their services to Bruce, at a price. They needed Scotland to escape persecution, and Bruce, outnumbered by at least three to one, especially when it came to cavalry, needed their fighting skills to tackle Edward’s armies.

"Academic historians point out that a bunch of local people had made banners and scared the English off by coming over the hill at the last minute," says MacGowan. "No way would that have worked, but the ‘Beausant’ - the Templar war banner - would definitely have struck the fear of God into any soldier.

"The question that needs to be asked though, is not whether the Templars were there at all, but whose side were they all on? Other Templar groups who had landed further south would have been quite prepared to take Edward’s money. They had nothing to lose and no conscience. Research into Templar military history has convinced me that they would have had no qualms about fighting each other - as mercenaries they were looking out for themselves."

It takes one to know one, as the saying goes, and Robert the Bruce was probably quite aware of these facts, so he used his Rex Deus connections to swing the Templar recruitment drive in his favour. He changed the date of the battle to coincide with the Festival of St John the Baptist - which would have enormous symbolic meaning for Templars. The date coincides with the phase of the summer solstice. In 1314, it fell on June 24th.

As an added sweetener he honoured the Templars on the field after the battle was won by creating a new order - the Order of Heredom and the Rosy Cross of Kilwinning - to accommodate fugitive Templars. If that sounds masonic, it’s because it is - though it wasn’t at the time. Templars and freemasons were outlawed until King James VI gave Scottish freemasonry official approval at the turn of the 17th century by joining the Lodge of Scone. After that, Templar knowledge and rituals filtered into the more exclusive branches of the craft, where the ancient rituals, so the uninitiated are assured, are still observed in their original forms.

Militi Templi Scotia is chivalric, as opposed to masonic, though MacGowan says they have no problem with members being both. The chivalric orders admit women, so they won’t have the added hassle of baring chests, rolling up trouser legs and threatening to scatter body parts in exposed places.

"We find Templar history and its influence throughout the ages simply fascinating," says MacGowan. "It crops up in the most unexpected places, like the American Constitution. What we do have problems with is people looking at it from a nationalist point of view, and we don’t associate ourselves with extremist splinter groups who turn up at Bannockburn anniversaries with ulterior motives in mind."

With their insider knowledge of Templar tactics, it shouldn’t be too difficult to show the unwelcome element who’s boss.

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