The Rite of Strict Observance: Part One

by Burton E. Bennett

The Strict Observance: An Overview

The system of the Strict Observance grew out of what is known as Templarism. Templar Masonry commenced to grow up in France soon after true Freemasonry was introduced. This was about 1725. However, no Grand Lodge was established till 1752. It is not till then that we are on sure footing. What went before can only be approximated. The Strict Observance as a separate system was formed Germany and dates from about 1748. It was produced by a process of evolution. The Strict Observance, and our present Knights Templar Masonry, as well, cannot, even, be reliably understood without knowing something out the Crusades, and with the three great orders that they produced, the Teutonic Knights, the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar.

The Crusades were a series of wars carried on Western Europe to recover the Holy Land from the Moslems. They began in the 11th century and extended over a period of some five hundred years. The Christian Crusades utterly broke down in 1449, and in 1453 Constantinople fell before the Mohammedans. It has ever since remained under Moslem rule, as has the Holy Land, and all of Asia Minor, till the end of the Great War. During all of the time of the Crusades the Church of Rome largely governed the Western World. The Crusades mightily changed European History.

In one sense of the word the Crusades were a continuation of the age-old fight of the East against the West, and while, apparently, the West started it, and it was carried on offensively, still it was really defensive–the Christian world trying to stem the onrush of the Moslem hordes. It was a religious war–a war between the Christian and the Infidel. It was an attempt of the Roman Church, as a temporal power, to conquer the world with the sword, just as the Moslems were trying to do. It failed. The Moslems nearly succeeded in their aim. They took all of Asia Minor, all of civilized Africa, Sicily and other Mediterranean islands and even Spain in the West. They took a great part of Eastern Europe and reached as far West as Vienna. Here in 1683 they were finally stopped. But for the Crusades it is possible that they might have entirely overrun the Western World and suppressed the Christian religion, or, at least, absorbed it entirely within their system. The impartial student of history, comparing the civilization of the Moors in Spain with that of the Church and its Inquisition, which replaced it, must decide that the former was, by far, the preferable. The civilization of Medieval Europe certainly had little to commend it. However, taking a broad survey there can be no question that it is a mighty blessing that the West prevailed over the East, as it always had before, and that the beneficent religion of Christ was not replaced by the religion of Mahomet. No handicap, however great, can permanently stand before the onward progress of the Western division of the Aryan people, their intellect has become too great for this; too many brains stand at the perpendicular.

The Hejira took place in 622. Omar took Jerusalem in 637, and in Moslem hands it remained till the end of the first Crusade. The Church of the Sepulchre was fanatically destroyed in 1010. In 1071 the Seljukian Turks captured Jerusalem. Till then pilgrimages to the Holy Land were fairly easy and especially so up to the final separation of the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Now not only were the native Christians persecuted, but the Pilgrim Christians as well.

The Causes of the Crusades
It has been stated that the purpose of the Crusades was to recover the sepulchre of Christ from the Infidel. The underlying causes, however, were deeper and far greater. They were:

• the desire of the Papacy for conquest,
• the desire of the mercantile classes to open up trade routes to the East,
• the desire of the Byzantine emperors to recover their lost territories and
• the desire of princes to carve new kingdoms out of the East

The barbarians who overran the Roman Empire had hardly become settled among the ruins they had caused, and commenced to repair them, when Scandinavian pirates sailed up their rivers and sacked and plundered their towns just as they had sacked and plundered the mighty cities of the Empire. Some of these pirates finally settled down in Northern France and established the Dukedom of Normandy. In 1066 the Norman Duke, William the Bastard, conquered England and established his kingdom of England. In 1090 the Norman Duke Roger conquered Sicily from the Moslems and established his kingdom there. The Norman Duke Godfrey was one of the commanders in the first Crusade. On July 15, 1099, Godfrey took Jerusalem, and while the shrieks of the dying were heard and the rivers of blood still gurgled and eddied, he founded his Norman kingdom of Jerusalem. The traders, the princes, the Emperor and the Pope devoutly thanked God for the successful termination of so glorious a cause. But the Crusades for the purpose of conquering the world for Christianity, and extirpating the Infidel, was a complete failure. However, good came out of them–incalculable good. They helped to dissolve feudalism, to develop trade, to build up cities and to increase knowledge. It would be foolish to say that they were the cause of all this, but they certainly contributed toward it.

But above all, by far, they show the strivings of man for an ideal, for the infinite, for immortality, as nothing on this earth has ever done before or since; they attempted to answer the age-old question as it has never been done before nor since–can mortality be shaken off for immortality, can the finite be merged in the infinite?

Military Orders of the Crusades

The Crusades produced the Teutonic Knights, the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar, and thus Templar Masonry, and so, in one sense of the word, they are the cause of the Strict Observance.

The Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital of Jerusalem was one of the three great religious and military orders produced by the Crusades. It was founded during the third Crusade, and was the last one formed. Its hospital was founded by Germans. Very early in the history of the Order its members were all ennobled, and they have remained so ever since. It was never a universal Order, like the Templars and the Hospitallers. It was strictly national in character. Like the other two Orders it began as a charitable society, passed into a military one and finally reached sovereign power. In 1291 it was expelled by the Moslems from the Holy Land. In 1309 it established itself in what is now Marienburg, West Prussia. It had begun its work, however in Eastern Germany a hundred years before for the purpose of subduing and converting the heathens. The Knightly Order of Dobrzin, founded for the purpose of conquering the heathen Prussians, was merged in the Teutonic Knight 1235, just as an older organized for the same pose, was merged in it years before. The Order finally became a governing aristocracy, holding its lands in Eastern Germany as a fief of the Pope of Rome. The Grand Master became in reality a king with the Pope as Emperor. However, the monarch, if such it may be called, a limited one as a council of brethren had to be consulted in all affairs. The state was really the church, and the government was ecclesiastical in character. The country was governed somewhat as the States of the Church in Italy were governed before 1871, when the temporal power of the Pope was abolished. The greater part of their subjects were the conquered Prussian heathens from whom the present peasants are descended. They were serfs bound to the soil. 0f course their souls were now safe, but the only earthly right, if right it could be called, that they obtained through their conversion, was the right to work for the Knights, their masters, and fight for them in time of war.

The Order reached its height in the latter part of the 14th century. Its very rights weighted it down. Its neighbors envied its wealth, and wanted its territories. The Hundred Years War weakened it. Poland finally got West Prussia, and while East Prussia was left to the Knights, Poland became its overlord. Lutherism gave it its final blow. When the Hohenzollern Albert, Grand Master of the Order, turned Protestant, he secularized its territories into a Duchy under Poland. Later on all of the country East of Germany was secularized and the Order confined wholly to Germany. The German Grand Master became a Prince of the Empire.

The Order still continued on in its conservatism, always claiming its old rights. It maintained itself from its still large revenues from its estates in different parts of Germany. During the French Revolution, however, it was deprived of all of its estates, which went to the different principalities in which they were situated. It was suppressed in 1809, but in 1840 it was revived in Austria under the patronage of the Emperor of Austria, and so continued down to the ending of the Great War.

The Knights of Malta

The Hospitallers, known officially as “Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem,” was founded at Jerusalem during the first Crusade. It has been known also as “Knights of Rhodes”, and as the “Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta.” It was at first a charitable Order, while the Templars was from the first a military one. With the fall of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Knights retired to the island of Rhodes. In 1522 the Turks finally took Rhodes, and the Hospitallers removed to Malta. Here they remained till 1793, when Napoleon took Malta, and added it to the French Republic. This ended it as a sovereign power. While the Knights had to leave Malta, shorn of their old power and great wealth, they still continued on in different countries. The Knights took with them from Malta their precious relics–chief among them being the hand of St. John the Baptist, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Pherlemon, and a fragment of the true cross.

Some of the Knights went to Russia and elected the Emperor Paul I Grand Master, and the then Grand Master, Hompesch, resigned in his favor. A chapter of the Knights granted the Pope of Rome authority to name a Grand Master, which he did. When this Grand Master died the head of the Order was called a Lieutenant Grand Master till 1879, when Leo XIII restored the ancient title of Grand Master. The Order of St. Anthony and St. Lazarus were united to the Hospitalers in 1782.

The oldest house of the Order was in France. It is still occupied by the Order. In Italy and Germany it is now called the “Sovereign Order of Malta.” Applicants for knighthood must have sixteen quarterings of nobility and in Austria, before the Great War, also, the consent of the Emperor. The Grand Cross of the Order is a gold white enameled Maltese cross surmounted by a crown. There are two Protestant Orders of St. John of Jerusalem, branches of the parent Order –one in Germany and the other in England. These chapters joined in the Reformation, but for a long time continued their contributions to the head of the Order.

In Prussia members of the Order must be Protestants of noble birth and belong to the Evangelical Church. The Grand Cross there is a Mallese cross of white enameled gold with four black eagles between the arms. Since the Great War the Order has worked for the restoration of the monarchy. In 1924 von Hindenburg officiated at the knighting ceremonies of the Knights of St. John, but after he was elected president of the German Republic he told the Knights that he “resigned his functions.” In 1925 as president of the republic he forbade the former kaiser s son, Eitel Frederick, to officiate at the knighting ceremonies and ordered that they be held in a small chapel at Sonnenberg, instead of in the monarchist church at Potsdam, as usual.

In England the Order was never formally suppressed, and in 1888 Queen Victoria granted it a charter. In 1889 King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales was made Grand Prior. In Great Britain, as in Prussia, the sovereign is the head of the Order, and the heir to the throne Grand Prior. In England it is an aristocratic Order, but not to the extent that it is in Prussia. While members do not have to be Protestants they must believe in Christianity. The Grand Cross in Great Britain is, of course, the gold white enameled Maltese cross, but between the arms are placed two lions and two unicorns.

The first photograph ever taken of a chapter in session appeared in the London Graphic of Sept. 13, 1924. It was one of a meeting of the Priory of Wales at Powis Castle, Welshpool. It shows Knights and Esquires on the steps of the castle in full regalia, including the Right Honorable Lord Kylsant, Sub-Prior for Wales, who deputized for the Prince of Wales, who is Grand Prior.

The Knights Templar

The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or, as it is otherwise called, Knights Templar, was founded in Palestine in the 12th century by the Crusaders. The Order was a purely military one. It was made for the purpose of guarding the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It order got the latter part of its name, “Temple of Solomon,” from the fact that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, gave a part of his palace known as the “Temple of Solomon” for its use.

At the head of the Order was a Master of the Temple, afterwards known as a Grand Master. His authority was very great, and generally this word was law; but in extremely large matters- as declaring war, etc.-he had to consult the chapter. and the members decided by a majority vote. The celibate life members wore a white mantle with a red cross on it; the others a black or brown one, also with a red cross on it. Within fifty years after it was founded it was established in nearly all of the countries of Europe. Lands and manors and castles were given to the Knights by different kings in their kingdoms and the Pope allowed them to have their own churches and even churchyards in which the excommunicated could be buried.

They were even free from tithes and all local jurisdictions, and finally became a separate ecclesiastical society under the Pope. The result was “war” between them and the secular clergy, but as long as the Crusades continued they remained all powerful with the Papacy. Their object was to carry on the Crusades and wrest the Holy Land from the Infidel, and for this purpose they gathered money and recruits from all parts of Europe. It is now seen that when the Crusades were over it was the inevitable fate of the Knights Templar to fall. Until nearly the end of the 13th century, when the Moslems expelled the Christians from the East, the history of the Crusades is a history of the Templars.

In 1291 the Templars retired from the Holy Land to Cyprus, and ten years later the curtain was rung down on their vast theatre of action-Asia Minor.

The Knights who in the 12th century came together to protect the pilgrims going to and returning from Jerusalem, and took an oath to live in chastity, obedience and poverty, two hundred years later were the most influential, rich and powerful body of men in the world. When their last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, came to Paris he brought with him 150,000 gold florins, and ten horse loads of silver. But this was a very small part of their immense wealth. They had castles and strongholds and estates in all parts of Europe, and they had a strict military organization connecting them together. They were the international bankers of the then known world. They were trusted with money and with its transmission to all parts of Europe, and the East on account of their great wealth, great protective power and their pious life. While they never exercised governmental power like the Knights in Prussia and in Rhodes, still they were really far more powerful-an ecclesiastical power that covered the entire civilized world. They never, apparently, were so high as just before they fell.

The Conspiracy Against The Templars

For a long time the princes of Europe had been plotting to wreck the Templars and seize and divide up their great wealth. They got the Hospitallers with them by holding out the bait of the Templars’ wealth. The Crusades being over they pretended that it was best to have all of the military Orders united. But they could not achieve their object. Finally trumped up charges of blasphemy were made against the Templars, and through them the acquiescence of the Church obtained. Their Grand Master and most of the Knights were arrested and the Order suppressed.

Jacques de Molay and many others were put to the most excruciating tortures, and in their agony confessed to everything that their tormentors desired. Under trial by torture, if on the trial one repudiated his confession he was forthwith put to death. But if he stood by his confession it was a plea of guilty, no matter how innocent he might be, and his tormentors did with his as they wished. Jacques de Molay, at his trial, rose to sublime heights (as did many other Knights) and as befitted a great man at the head of the mightiest Order in the world, repudiated his confession, declared his own and his Order’s innocence and offering up his prayers to God was burned alive amid the chants of priests of the Romish religion, with the acquiescence of the Pope of Rome, at the behest of greedy, soulless princes headed by the King of France.

The charges against the Templars were false as history has since abundantly shown. It was a dark day for Europe and Christian civilization when the Templars were destroyed. It established criminal procedure by torture, which continued down to the French Revolution; it established in the feudal mind the idea of witchcraft, and intercourse with the devil, which has only been overcome in comparatively recent times, and which curse we have had our part to bear as is witnessed in our Salemism; and, finally, it enabled the Turks to ravage Eastern Europe and oppress it continuously down to our own times-the end of the Great War.

Continue to Part Two

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