I don’t know about you, but I am a sucker for knight lore! One of my favorite (and most well known) groups of knights were the Knights Templar, and not just because they got a major shout out in National Treasure. When thinking of the Knights Templar, your mind probably goes straight to the Crusades and hoarding treasure. What you probably don’t know, though, is that the Knights Templar was an important part of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage Catholics would take to Saint James the Greater’s tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims walking the Camino today spend a lot of time in towns that exist because of the Knights Templar without often knowing it! One of the more obvious Knights Templar sites along the Way is the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, Spain.
Y’all. I almost skipped visiting the Castillo de los Templarios to take a nap and I am SO. GLAD. I. VISITED! Seriously, this castle was one of the most impressive sites I have ever been to. The preservation and restoration is incredible, museum displays are highly informative, and the library – OOOOH that library! But more on that in a bit. First, a little history on the Knights Templar and the Castillo de los Templarios itself.
Who Were the Knights Templar?
The Knights Templar have quite the origin story (Marvel, y’all taking notes?). It all started with Hugues de Payens, a French nobleman from Champagne. Now, the First Crusade had just ended and there were oodles and boodles of Christens headed to the newly claimed Holy Land. One problem: many of these Christians were killed when crossing through the Muslim controlled territories (gotta love war!). Cue Hugues de Payens! Good ole Hugues figured someone should be protecting these Christians on their journey, so he recruited some of his buddies, they took monastic vows, and did just that. The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (later just Knights Templar) was officially born in 1119CE.
The Knights Templar became hella popular hella fast, even though some religious figures were totally against them! Baldwin II, the King of Jerusalem, was so impressed that he gave the Templar a palace at Temple Mount (where they get their name!) to serve as their headquarters in 1120. Other leaders started following Baldwin II’s lead, with French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux officially endorsing the group in his 1129CE text In Praise of the New Knighthood, presented at the churches new Council of Troyes. They started getting some pretty major donations and spent time growing their ranks.
All these fancy endorsements and perks were nice, but the Templar still didn’t have the official backing of the most important man in the Catholic world: the Pope. The Knights Templar finally got this recognition in 1139 when Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull. This meant that the Knights Templar were exempt from taxes, could freely cross any border, and didn’t have to take orders from anyone but the Pope. They had essentially become an army for the church.
Like any loyal soldier, the Templar were in need of a uniform. The church granted the Knights permission to wear the white hooded-mantle of Cistercian monks in 1145. They went with it, only adding a red cross on the white background. This uniform came just in time! The Templar had their first official battle during the Second Crusade in 1147. By the mid-12th century, the Templar were helping Spanish and Portuguese kings reconquer the Iberian peninsula in western Europe.
Expanding their Influence
Surprise! The Templar weren’t just soldiers, they were some serious businessmen. While the whole Crusades thing was going on, the Templar sat up a network of banks. Basically, pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land could put money in their bank at home and withdraw those funds in the Holy Land through Templar Banks. Genius, right?
They built up a huge fleet of ships, ended up owning the entire island of Cyprus, and grew their personal funds and land holdings through winning battles. Their influence grew so much that they ended up building/being gifted/taking over some major strongholds in Europe! These European centers were extra important, as they literally brought in boatloads of money and new recruits.
All Good Things Must End
Muslim forces recaptured Jerusalem in the late 12th century, causing the Knights Templar to start a long pattern of relocating around remaining strongholds in the Holy Land. The Templar kept losing holdings in the Holy Land one by one. Eventually, the Templar were forced to leave the Holy Land and moved their headquarters to Paris in 1303.
Rumors and Some Trouble
While the Knights Templar were losing their holdings in the Holy Land, they were losing their good reputation in Europe. Rumors started circulating. The Templar were accused of misusing resources, focusing on killing Muslims instead of converting them to Christianity, renouncing God, and even a bizarre initiation ritual that required stamping on, spitting on, and peeing on a crucifix. Needless to say, people were not happy with the Templar. Religious and political leaders started planning ways to bring the Templar down.
King Phillip IV of France saw an opportunity to do just this. He ordered the arrest of all Knights Templar on October 13, 1307. The Templar were charged with indecent kissing, promoting homosexuality, and worshiping idols on top of all of the things they’d been rumored to do. Y’all. It was a doozy. Pope Clement V wasn’t too pleased with King Phillip IV and defended the Templars, until King Phillip IV managed to get confessions from some Templar higher-ups. The Pope responded by ordering the arrest of all Templar in western Europe. Some Templar castles managed to hold out for around a year, but all had fallen by 1308.
Two big trials took place in Paris. The first went down in 1310 and resulted in burning 54 Templars at the stake. A second trial focused on Grand Master of the Order (James of Molay) and the Preceptor of Normandy (Geoffrey of Charney) in 1314. Like the first, it ended in flames. James of Molay is said to have protested his innocence while being burned alive – it wasn’t pretty.
The Pope sealed the Templar’s fate in 1312 when he officially ordered the Knights Templar to disband. The former Templar were pensioned off and banned from joining any military order. Many of the Templars assets were given to the Knights Hospitaller, but a lot ended up in the hands of noblemen – especially in Spain.
The Knights Templar Today
While the group officially disbanded around 700 years ago, many people believe the group went underground and still exist today. In fact, the Freemasons use many of the Templars symbols and traditions in their practices. There are many conspiracy theories surrounding the Knights Templar (check them out!), but many revolve around the group finding and hiding religious items like Christ’s burial shroud, the Ark of the Covenant, and, of course, the Holy Grail.
The Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada
Whew! That was a lot, but now that you know a bit about who the Knights Templar were, let’s talk about their stronghold in Ponferrada in the Castile and León region of Spain. Castillo de los Templarios literally means Templar Castle, and wow is Ponferrada proud of it and their Templarian heritage. BUT! The sites history goes back much farther than the Templar.
Ponferrada lies on the Sil River in a valley between mountain ridges, so the hill that houses the now castle is an incredibly strategic point. In fact, the space has been utilized since at least the Roman era! We’re going to focus on just the Middle Ages, though, as that’s when the structure we see today was built.
A Tale of Two Alfonsos
The Templar established a commission in Ponferrada in 1178 and started fortifying a castle in 1187. Their goal was to provide safety for pilgrims walking through the mountainous area on the Camino de Santiago. Remember, the Templar were pledged to guard Christians on pilgrimages everywhere, not just to the Holy Land.
Things changed in 1196. Alfonso VIII of Castile had just attacked nearby El Bierzo and Alfonso IX of León was desperate to strengthen his hold of the region. He saw the strategic importance of Ponferrada and went to work building up a town. Now, Alfonso VIII was the older cousin of Alfonso IX and wanted the crown, even though it was Alfonso IX’s birthright (and you thought your family dynamics were complicated). Alfonso VIII was making some major ground, so Alfonso IX decided to partner with the Muslim Moorish to invade Castile. His new partnership meant taking control of Templar held Ponferrada away from the Christian Templars. Alfonso IX won the battle, but made the wrong people mad.
The Pope (and, therefore, the Templars) excommunicated Alfonso IX for his partnership with the Moorish. Alfonso IX and his kingdom were put under interdict by representatives of the Pope and his marriage to his first cousin was annulled by the Church in 1198. This led Alfonso VIII to attack Alfonso IX again and war raged on. Several treaties were signed over the decade-ish long war that gave and took territories in the Castile and León region. The war finally ended in 1209, but the Pope was still less than impressed with Alfonso IX. Alfonso IX finally caved to the pressures of the Pope in 1211 and gave the castle back to the Templars.
Growing Castillo de los Templarios
The Knights Templar immediately went to work expanding and fortifying the Castillo de los Templarios. They grew the polygonal structure to 8,000 square meters holding double and triple defense forming barbacanas, towers, rooms, and a massive courtyard. By 1226, they’d fortified the entire town! They went to back to work protecting pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This all changed in 1312 when the Knights Templar were dismantled. Now, the Templar were smart folk who realized the castle would likely be taken by the church. Master of the Temple, Rodrigo Yánez, handed the castle over to Alfonso IXs brother, Don Felipe, to avoid confiscation.
Castillo de los Templarios was passed around the royal family for decades, then passed to the Count of Lemos, Pedro Álvarez Osorio, in 1440. He added the “Old Castle” to the space, which was essentially a walled enclosure with a Renaissance palace. Pedro Álvarez Osorio died and his heirs started some messy lawsuits over inheritance. The Catholic monarchs didn’t handle things in the best way, so a rebellion began in 1485. Castillo de los Templarios was taken under siege in 1486 and suffered some major damages.
Repairs to Today
The Crown took hold of the space and began immediate repairs. They positioned a corregidor to manage the castle and Ponferrada, and the position was served by various individuals during the 17th and 18th century.
The City Council of Ponferrada sold the castle walls and used their stones to build public blocks and a market attached to the walls in 1850. They added stables to the Castillo de los Templarios, the last major addition to the site. The courtyard was leased as a pasture and was even used as a soccer field at one point! The Castillo de los Templarios had essentially fallen into disarray. Thankfully, it received National Monument status in 1924 and was repaired and refurbished! Now, the space functions as a museum, archaeological site, and dedication to the Templars. There are event spaces for Templar functions, a Templar library with many gorgeous books and rare art, and even sleeping spaces for Templars!
Visiting the Castillo de los Templarios
The Castillo de los Templarios is a super special place, but many people pass visiting it up. Don’t be one of those people! Most visitors come to Ponferrada while walking the Camino de Santiago, but the city has both a bus and train station that makes it accessible for those not walking. It can take some time to reach, though, depending on what part of Spain you’re in. Luckily, Ponferrada is full of great places to sleep and eat.
The Castillo de los Templarios is hard to miss, as it’s the large structure rising over the historic city center. The site opens at 11AM daily and closes at either 8PM or 10PM, depending on the month. Remember, this is Spain, so the site will be closed for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta. Entry costs 3€, which covers the castle, museum, and library. Speaking of – it’s worth visiting just to see the library, which is full of all sorts of rare books and art. There’s even a cool Templar Festival that takes place on the grounds each year.
I seriously cannot stress how impressed I was by the castle enough. The site is kept up so well, the museum is presented fantastically, and the library is a book lovers dream! The space is a can’t miss for anyone walking the Camino or visiting the Castile and León region.