The epic of the Templar Knights in France.

The epic of the Templar Knights in France.

This religious and military order was very important in the Middle Ages and went on to inspire many mysteries and sagas of knights and chivalry. Commanderies (monasteries built as fortresses) and chapels or secret crypts are some of the vestiges that bear witness to the grandeur and then the decline of these soldier monks, who wore the characteristic red cross on their white robe.

The Order of Knights Templar was founded very early in the 12th century, in the Holy Land, during the first Crusade, and was recognised at the Council of Troyes. It was formed by French knights and monks who took on the mission of protecting the access to the "Holy Places of the Orient" for pilgrims; hence the original name of Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem. These valiant, pious companions-in-arms thus gained great renown. On their return to the country, they received gifts and honours, which enabled them to build fortified priories surrounded by farmland: these were the Commanderies. As well as being charitable, the Knights Templar also played an important role in economy. They were the first bankers and were appointed guardians of the Royal Treasury. At its height, the order had as many as 15,000 members, and it prospered for two centuries, building "houses" everywhere in Europe, and eventually became (too) rich and powerful in the kingdom of France!The aura of the Knights Templar eventually frightened the King and the Pope. It was King Philippe Le Bel who took the decision to dissolve the Order and banish it in 1307. Pope Clement V began a trial for heresy and the property of the Knights Templar was confiscated or destroyed; and the "grand master" was burned at the stake. There are few remaining historic buildings to remind us of the Order but its tragic destiny inspired many romantic stories and legends. Some places are clearly identified in the Occitan region, in particular in the Causses du Perigord, du Larzac and in Aveyron; between Aquitaine, Auvergne, Burgundy and Languedoc. But other, more hidden, sites also tell the story of the Templars.A related Order, known as the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, or the Hospitallers (who towards the end of the 16th century became the Order of the Knights of Malta), grew in part out of the "ruins" of the Knights Templar. This charitable Order also took over several of the confiscated Templar houses, and wore a similar symbol, known as the Maltese Cross.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the "lantern of the dead".

In LarzacLa Cavalerie, the Viala Tower and especially the two villages of la Couvertoirade and Sainte-Eulalie make up a unique series of neighbouring Templar sites, in the heart of the wild landscapes of the Larzac.

La Couvertoirade, fortified village in Larzac (near Millau)The perfectly preserved wall around this village was in fact build by the "close cousin" Order of Knights Hospitaller, in the 12th century. The site was situated in the rough, solitary landscape of the Plateau du Larzac. But in modern times it is located right next to the A75 motorway (linking Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier) and the famous Millau Viaduct, so very easily accessible.La Commanderie de Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon (near Millau)Located in the Aveyron department, at the foot of the plateau du Larzac, 20 km southeast of Millau, this Templar house has conserved some architectural elements intact. This Commandery is one of the best preserved in France.

And elsewhere...Château de Poët-Laval, in Drôme provençale (near Montelimar)On the northern edge of inland Provence, this village perched on the hillsides, boasts the ruins of a castle. This 12th century Commandery was founded by the Hospitallers. Part of the site has been reconverted into a hotel de charme. Here the decor emphasises the charm of the old stones of the keep: and it is surrounded by vines, orchards and lavender fields!

Commanderie d’Arville, near Orleans (Centre region) This 12th century Templar stronghold is one of the best-preserved sites, and has a themed museum. It tells how a Commander (or Grand Master) ran a community of brothers Templar.

Troyes and its cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul The site was originally occupied by an oratory in the 4th century, then a cathedral was built in the 9th century, and immediately destroyed by the Normans (or Vikings). A Romanesque style building was constructed in around 940, and was the seat of the Council of Troyes.This Council confirmed the important role played by the Order of the Knights Templar in about 1129, and its application of the Saint Benedict rule. The building was destroyed yet again 160 years later. A gothic cathedral was finally built in around 1200 but building continued up to the 17th century, and was never fully completed! Paris and its rue du TempleSeveral significant street names remind us that the Templars had a house in the historic Marais district (3rd arrondissement). This is obviously not a reference to a Protestant place of worship.Today, the rue du Temple has many shops.Villages in BurgundySeveral villages in this beautiful wine-growing region have evocative names, but there are in fact only a few actual sites to visit. Bure-les-Templiers had an important commandery, where you can still see the "square courtyard", and the church "treasure" with a tombstone.Voulaines-les-Templiers keeps alive the memory of another important commandery, which still has a massive tower and a tomb in the church.

And more...Almost everywhere in France, you can see Chapels of the Knights Templar, such as the one in Saint-Cado (in Morbihan) and at Cressac (in Charente) and Paulhac (in Creuse). These sites are often listed monuments.

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