In discussing Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett’s The Templar Revelation (1997) yesterday, I noted that the two authors had no real interest in primary sources, and I mentioned that they gained all they knew about the “lost” Templar fleet from The Temple and the Lodge, a 1989 book by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982). I wondered what they had based their claim upon, and, to be honest, I had expected to find actual references to the only testimony of a surviving Templar to allege that any knights of the Order had escaped France by ship with the Order’s treasure. Instead, I found a giant wall of speculation, based on little to nothing.
As most of my readers know, in June 1308, a Templar by the name of Jean de Châlons gave testimony under torture to the Papal inquiry into the Templars at Poitiers. He alleged that “the leaders of the Order fled, and he himself met Brother Gerard de Villiers leading fifty horses; and he heard it said that he set out to sea with eighteen galleys and that Brother Hugues de Châlons fled with the whole treasure of Brother Hugues de Pairaud” (Registra Avenionensia 48, f450r; my trans.). This is the only record of any lost Templar fleet.
But Baigent and Leigh don’t use primary sources except in extremis, and therefore they are entirely unfamiliar with the story. Their allegation about the lost Templar fleet is derived instead from a mountain of speculation, lacking any discernible factual foundation. They speculate, for example, about how many boats the Templars must have had to run a tourism company shuttling pilgrims to the Holy Land, and they note that Templars seem to have arrived in Scotland after the persecution of the Order. They also note that no records of the strength of the Templar armada survive, so they conclude that the secretive knights loaded up their ships with treasure to hightail it to Scotland in 1307. Their speculation is not original to them but derives, often without credit, from speculation published in Masonic newsletters and journals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That speculation, however, was also not based on verifiable fact but rather on the tenuous effort to connect Freemasonry to the Knights Templar via Scotland.
Now here is the interesting thing. Baigent and Leigh, ignorant of Jean de Châlons, cast about for another text that could show that the Templars took to the sea. They hit upon the testimony of Walter de Clifton and William de Middleton, two Scottish Templars, who confessed to the Inquisition in 1308, and which text is given in the Consilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae (vol. 2, pp. 380-381). The relevant lines come from Middleton, who said that upon receipt of the papal bull condemning the Order, many of the knights “cast off their habits and fled at once beyond the sea (ultra mare) when they heard about the capture of their brothers” (my trans.). But this was happening in Scotland, not France, and was not confirmed by de Clifton, who said that he had no idea where the knights had gone or how. Some of the knights named by Middleton were interrogated later on, suggesting they didn’t get far. None of that is relevant, of course, since the argument was supposed to be that French Templars fled to Scotland, not that Scottish Templars fled from that country, too.
That’s all well and good, but this means that we have a problem. The “lost Templar fleet” myth emerges from a stew of speculation and seems then to have retroactively attracted facts to fit it. Baigent and Leigh offer no discussion of specifics; indeed, they actively reject the idea that the Templar treasure left France via the port of La Rochelle. Instead, they think boats carried it up the Seine and on to Scotland.
So, if neither Picknett and Prince nor Baigent and Leigh actually did the primary source research tying Jean de Châlons to the emerging “Templar fleet” myth, who did?
As best I can tell, the only fringe historian to have actually done the primary source research in the past thirty years was Andrew Sinclair, who mentions Jean de Châlons in his 1992 book The Sword and the Grail, correctly cited to the 1907 published edition of the Templar confessions. Sinclair Anglicizes the name to “John de Châlons,” which I guess is OK since the original is in Latin anyway and Anglicizing Latin names has long been an Anglo-American affectation. Sinclair later plagiarized his own work for his books Rosslyn and The Secret Scroll, where the same discussion appears almost word-for-word. He does not, however, give a full translation of the passage, likely because to do so would make obvious that Jean was merely repeating hearsay (“he heard it said…”) rather than speaking from knowledge.
It would seem, therefore, that the order of events involves Baigent and Leigh developing a lost Templar fleet myth and Sinclair then ransacking primary sources to try to bolster a story that emerged from speculation.
If only it were that simple!
Prior to Baigent and Leigh there were already fringe speculations about a lost Templar fleet leaving from La Rochelle. Michael Anderson Bradley speaks of it in his 1985 book Crisis of Clarity, as does Pierre de Sermoise in his 1973 book Joan of Arc and Her Secret Missions, a book that suggested that Joan of Arc had male secondary sex characteristics. The story can also be found in Peter Partner’s 1982 Oxford University Press volume on The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth, where he says that mystery-mongering writers had used the story to speculate on the lost Templar treasure. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that book to find out which authors he cites to support the idea that there was already active speculation about Templar voyages to or from America prior to the 1980s.
Having run into a wall with Partner, I tried Pierre de Sermoise, whose source I was able to find: Jean de la Varende, a French fiction writer whom de Sermoise quotes as saying that the “Templars regularly went to America whence, from the mines they were exploiting there, they brought back silver, rather than gold. Because of this the people said that they had money.” This matches the part of Partner’s text I can see through Google Books and must be the source. Apparently French authors had long been speculating about Templar connections to America, not just de la Varende but also Louis Charpentier in Les Mysteres Templiers (1967). Charpentier, unread by me, is said to have speculated that the Templars mined gold in Mexico. The bottom line is the idea that the “white gods” of (made up) Mexican mythology were the Knights Templar.
I admit to being baffled, though, that the references to Varende, identifying him as the first source of the claim, all say that he made the suggestion in his 1948 book Les Gentilshommes, which as best I can tell (not having read the book in full) is a collection of fictional short stories. There, the text is a little different. It says (in my translation):
“Les biens du Temple étaient d’Argent. Les Templiers avaient découvert l'Amérique, le Mexique et ses mines d’Argent.”
So it seems that the story of the lost Templar fleet and Templars in America originated in the speculation of a fiction writer who had read of the white gods of Mexico (themselves the creation of Spanish propaganda) and tried to turn them into Frenchmen for the glory of France, in a fictional short story no less. Fringe historians then spent the next seven decades back-forming a myth to support a fictional story that originated in racist Spanish propaganda about white people ruling over ancient America. That’s just about perfect.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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