On the ground of Temple House, you will find the ruins of a thousand-year-old fortress order belonging to the warrior monks who once presided over the green, abundant fields of County Sligo. The Knights Templar’s name is still a synonym for mystery centuries after their abrupt and violent end a millennia ago. The order began in the 1100s when a French knight, awash in the heady idealism of the recent Christian victory in the Holy Land, recruited seven of his relatives to swear that they would protect the pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem after the Christian victory in the first Crusades. They took monastic vows committing themselves to total poverty and the protection of all Christians.
Within a few short decades, the Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon—or the Knights Templar—left poverty behind and established themselves as the proprietors of an international conglomerate of vast estates and seats of political influence in Europe’s capitals of power. Their white mantles emblazoned with blood-red crosses became a symbol of power and holy war. After they were officially recognized by Rome, the Pope gave them more than the usual privileges accorded to a monastic order. They had no obligation to listen to any bishop or local parish. They owed no tithes, but rather had the honor of collecting them on behalf of the pope (and as their enemies saw it, enriching themselves in the process).
By the time that the Knights Templar arrived in Ireland, they were the proprietors of what some historians argue was the first international company. Their fortune grew out of Christians’ donations and their own knack for turning wealth into ever greater wealth. Their donors included many from the upper echelons of Europe’s nobility, but also lesser-off families who were willing to pay more than they could afford for a chance at a softer sentence in the afterlife. The ruling families of France, Aragon, and England gave the Knights Templar huge swaths of land which they turned into profitable farms. They exploited their unique status as an international order with papal protection to build a financial network, loaning the kings of Europe the funds to join the crusades.
The Knights Templar arrived in Ireland amid the chaos of England’s first attempt at colonization. Henry II of England had claimed the Irish crown, and he had the pope’s permission to absorb Ireland into his dominion. While the Knights Templar were not conquerors, they stood side by side with the conquerors and they were willing and ready to exploit the lush island’s untapped resources. The king granted them vast territories across Ireland, including an estate in Sligo where Temple House now stands. The long, rectangular enclosure on the lake likely once hosted the abundant feasts of the Knights Templar who presided over the surrounding manor. They forced the local tenants to give up their pastoral customs and plow up their cattle’s pastures to make way for wheat. With fields across Ireland, the Knights Templar soon had such a sizeable surplus that the king gave them permission to sell across Ireland.
The Knights Templar were never secure in Ireland. The hostile local population spoke a foreign language and saw little distinction between the Knights Templar and the Anglo-Norman conquerors. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Norman elite resented the Knights Templar who paid no tithes, amassed great wealth, and seemed to give only a passing thought to their mandate to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. When the Church launched yet another crusade in 1188 to attempt a stand against Saladdin as he claimed victory after victory, it needed gold and it needed men. Rome demanded one tenth of all revenue and movables, excluding a knight’s or cleric’s arms and horses, from all Christians of Europe. Anyone who didn’t pay would be excommunicated. The Knights Templar didn’t have to pay, but they executed the pope’s demands, tallying up the vast sums forced out of the lay population. The records from the period in Ireland are scarce, but just across the sea in Wales towns were bled dry of young men because they were conscripted into a hopeless cause. The Irish of County Sligo may well have seen the same fate.
Vicious rumors accusing the Knights Templar of everything from heresy to corruption to idolatry to homosexuality spread across Europe. Losses in the Holy Land only confirmed the Knights Templar’s unpopularity. Saladdin swept aside the Christian forces and claimed Jerusalem, the most holy of holy cities. What had all the lives and wealth collected for the crusades gone to? The Knights Templar had failed to protect the Holy Land. Yet, despite their supposed vows of poverty, they had amassed such great wealth that kings envied their palaces. Even in Ireland, far from their centers of power in France and Spain, they amassed finely wrought silver, spacious castles, and manor homes. Their wealth implied their corruption, and their neighbors’ resentment smoldered.
It was the resentment of Philip IV of France that spelled the undoing of the Knights Templar from Dublin to Gaza. Once, the story goes, as he fled an angry mob, the king took refuge in the palace of the Knights Templar in Paris. Their wealth, embodied in the gilded splendor of their palace, made his own castle seem humble. Years later, he found himself deep in debt to the Knights Templar. Rather than pay, he stirred up rumors of heresy and bullied a weak pope into acquiescing to his attacks on the Knights Templar. The screams of the Knights Templar rang through torture chambers as they confessed to the crimes for which they would burn. In Ireland, the Knights faced a more mild fate than in the torture chambers of Paris. They were hunted down and imprisoned in Dublin. Perhaps, the English king’s men had to ride all the way to Sligo to drag them out of the old fortress on the lake by Temple House. Five out of the 19 Templar Knights in Ireland appear to have died in chains before they saw trial. The authorities in Ireland abstained from torture, and so no confessions of heresy or theft could be wrested from them. They escaped burning at the stake and lived out their days in house arrest. The vast holdings—including the estate where Temple House now stands—passed to the Knights Hospital, another order of warrior knights who had long competed with the Knights Templar.