What did the original Knights Templar actually look like and what did they wear ?
I suspect most people have a clear idea, bright white mantles emblazoned with large red crosses, shiny armour and elaborately decorated swords and bright silver suits of armour.
It’s a well known clichéd image but far from the historic truth
The key to understanding the Knights Templar and their possessions is their vow of poverty. Once joining the order the new member would be required to hand over all his worldly goods to the order. This would not only include personal items but also land, assets and money.
To the left you’ll see a rare 17th century engraving from Monasticon Anglicanum of one of the The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon to give the order its original name.
I suspect this is a little bit nearer the reality than the chivalrous knights of folklore, film and literature.
As no Templar records really survive and they were formed in the early 12th century there isn’t as much to go on as one would expect. To that end I’ve pieced together snippets of recorded historical fact which when pieced together will give an idea of what a Templar Knight would have worn and looked like - equally what he would not have looked like !
The order followed strict religious rules, The Rule of Benedict, and as such conducted their daily lives much as monks would have done, hence being known as Warrior Monks.
The wore a hauberk or chain mail over a leather jerkin and a white vestment which was a symbol of religious purity and the fact they had entered a life of celibacy.
The white was only worn by full knights, their sergeants, squires etc wore black or brown
The Red Cross
It was not until that 1147 Pope Eugenius III officially granted them the right to wear the famous red cross now synonymous with the order.
It was worn on the mantle on the left side above the heart - it was not a huge red cross on the front as so often depicted !
They would not have had white shields with red crosses on them as shield decorations were expressly forbidden.
Decorated shields, weapons and saddles etc were all the trappings of wealth during that period - consequently the warrior monks would have had nothing ostentatious whatsoever.
Hair and Beards
All knights were strictly obliged to grow beards - no Templar Knight would have been clean shaven.
Hair on the other hand was to be kept short and tidy, possibly even tonsured.
The well known Templar seal which features 2 knights on one horse is yet another symbol of poverty. I personally think it also has the meaning of brotherhood in adversity as well.
In actual fact each knight Templar was allowed 3 horses and a squire - 3 horses would have been a real expense at the time but as they were used solely for military purposes it was not deemed an extravagance. As previously mentioned though, they could have no gold, silver or ornamental trappings
Despite the fact that many of the order came from wealthy aristocratic noble backgrounds the majority were completely illiterate.
This problem highlighted itself during the trials after their suppression by the King of France and the Pope who was being corralled by Philip IV.
It is a matter of court record that many of the brethren declared themselves unable to defend themselves in court due to illiteracy and indeed many had signed confessions that they had been unable to read or understand.
Incidentally, in 2002 a document called The Chinon Parchment was found in the Vatican Archives stating that Pope Clement V exonerated the Order completely finding them innocent of all charges. This document was suppressed and the church went along with Philip IV who was effectively pulling all the strings at the time.
I suspect as the Order became less involved in the Holy Land and more involved in managing their burgeoning empire that for many the pious traditions must surely have lapsed somewhat. Given the huge numbers involved it is surely likely that an element amongst them preferred the trappings and comfort that huge estates and wealth brought to the order. This would primarily have been at the time they all but ceased to be an actual fighting force in practice.
So I think it’s fair to say the Warrior Monk in times of war would have been much as I describe rather than modern convention seems to suggest
Hopefully then that sheds a little light on the historical reality of the Knights Templar, their dress, possessions and way of life.
They did not look like the archetypal Richard the Lionheart or Chivalrous Arthurian knights usually depicted, indeed, ‘King Arthur’s knights’ were ‘around’ some 600 odd years before the Templars even existed.
It is also worth noting the Crusader Knights fighting in the Holy Land were not necessarily Templars.
I hope, if you’ve got this far, you found it of some interest / use and if you have anything you’d like to add, any opinions or questions please do feel free to leave a comment