These men, whom St Bernard referred to as “Christ’s militia” quickly gained a very noble reputation for their austerity, discipline, care for the defenseless and unmatched tenacity in battle. Their service was also very much in need. Even after the First Crusade had restored the Holy Land to Christian rule (following the Muslim conquest of the region from the East Roman Empire) the Kingdom of Jerusalem was under almost constant threat and pilgrims were frequently harassed and murdered by marauding bandits (who were not solely Muslims). A permanent religious military corps to defend these pilgrims and to defend the wild frontiers of Christendom was very necessary and soon came to be seen as the special elite guard of Christendom. Among the Knights Templar were several ranks. First were the ordinary knights, effectively heavy cavalry, wearing chain mail and armor, armed with swords and lances; then there were the sergeants who were armed and equipped as light cavalry and served as what we would today call the enlisted men as opposed to the knights who held the position similar to what would be commissioned officers today. They were to assist the knights, often in “mopping up” operations after the heavily armed knights made their charge which invariably smashed enemy armies. Then there were non-combatant members such as the ‘serving brothers’ who often did things such as taking care of the paper work of the order, looked after their properties and so on. These men were often under the direction of a retired knight or sergeant who was no longer fit for combat and, finally, there were the chaplains who attended to the spiritual needs of the knights.
This administrative aspect grew rapidly in importance as the prestige of the Knights Templar rose. Because the Holy Land was constantly under threat and pilgrims constantly needed protection, military operations were almost always ongoing and funds were needed to maintain them. So, as lands were donated to the knights and as bases were set up for recruitment and logistical support across Christendom, in time the knights had extensive properties that had to be looked after. Also, because of their reputation for honesty and nobility, their strength and their vow of poverty, wealthy individuals increasingly handed over their money to the knights to keep safe for them. In time, the Knights Templar became, inadvertently, one of the largest banking networks Europe had ever known. Part of this was also encouraged by the knights to protect pilgrims. It took money, then as now, to go on pilgrimage and a pilgrim carrying large numbers of sacks of very heavy coins was a very tempting target for bandits. Therefore, to prevent this, pilgrims could take their money to a Templar office in their home country, hand over a certain amount of money and be given a note to take with them which would then be redeemed for the same amount once the pilgrim reached the Holy Land.
Illustrative of the fact that the Knights Templar were very much an elite force was the fact that their most rigid rule was that they could never surrender unless the Templar banner went down and even then they were required to regroup and fight on with another of the military orders such as the Knights Hospitaller (later better known as the Knights of Malta). They could only leave the field of battle after all military banners had fallen. The Knights Templar were invariably the best equipped and most heavily armed of all the Christian knights. They were so effective that there was no group of Christian knights more feared amongst their enemies than the Knights Templar who were invariably massacred if any were ever taken alive. However, their prowess on the battlefield and great reputation for honesty and integrity helped, in a way, to bring about their ultimate downfall. It was because of these very excellent qualities that the Knights Templar became more and more trusted and so became more and more wealthy as the elites of Christendom entrusted their financial security to the knights. As tends to happen (and we can certainly see it now) this brought about a growing jealousy against the Knights Templar on the part of those who were less successful and had, perhaps, mismanaged their own finances.
Most of it was simply made up out of thin air but others were exaggerations (gross exaggerations) of a small kernel of truth. An example of this was the accusation of idolatry which, far from being sinister, may have been an exaggerated perversion of the deep veneration the Knights Templar had for the holy Shroud of Turin, which they had recovered and carefully preserved. In any event, just as he had previously done to the Jews in another cash-grab, Philip IV ordered the mass arrests of the Knights Templar on Friday the thirteenth of October 1307. Under horrific torture many of these men confessed to every horrible crime their captors dreamed up, recanting all of it later. However, that made no difference as Philip was more than willing to spread the stories of the horrible “confessions” of the Knights Templar and to begin pressing the Pope to dissolve the order. He also had as many as possible burned alive, including the last Grand Master of the order, the elderly Jacques de Molay. The Pope did finally dissolve the Knights Templar, their reputation having been falsely and maliciously but irretrievably ruined, but it is important to note that he found them “not guilty” of heresy and the many crimes they had been unjustly accused of prior to doing so.