Paladins are a popular Fantasy RPG gaming archetype, but what are their historic roots? Where do we get this idea of a holy warrior?

In the world of gaming, paladins are a character class that seem to have seeped into every RPG universe without anyone quite explaining how they got there. Just a quick list of popular games with a paladin archetype include:

    • Dungeons & Dragons
    • World of Warcraft
    • Hearthstone
    • Diablo II+
    • various Final Fantasy series
    • Everquest
    • Ultima
    • South Park : The Stick of Truth (Butters is a hammerdin with cleric powers)
    • Battle for Wesnoth
    • some Dragon Quest installments
    • early Elder Scrolls
    • the classic ASCII-graphics Roguelike Angband
    • a whole game called Tales of the Drunken Paladin

New rule: From now on, all RPG game trailers have to use this genre of bootie-shaking funk music. I’m on a quest to beat that dragon and my feet are on the path of the groovealicious beat! Witness my boogie jive, George Clinton!

Paladins tend to be treated like a dual-class falling into some mixture of “warrior,” “priest,” or “cleric.” They are almost always portrayed as a lawful-good knight in shining armor, with religiously-aligned powers. Sometimes they’ll have more of a party-support role with healing and buff powers. Other times they’ll be like a light-aligned mage flinging ranged holy missiles. Typically they’ll get a bonus against undead, demons, or general dark-aligned forces.

Hearthstone_Pally

The one aspect that unites all paladins is that they’re a tough tank with a big sword (sometimes a blunt weapon due to religious oaths), a polished shield, a bossy attitude, and zero tolerance for chaos and evil. Other melee classes just hit you; paladins favor smiting you. “Well met!”

Paladin Origins: The Boring Version

If you ask those killjoys over at Wikipedia where the idea of a paladin came from, they’ll tell you that paladins were knights of Charlemagne’s court, a crossover from British Arthurian legend. The word itself dates to 1592 in the works of English historian Samuel Daniel. The name is said to derive all the way from the Latin “palatinus,” a high level official, by extension from Palatine Hill, site of imperial Roman palaces during the Holy Empire of same.

Since then, the term “paladin” has come to be applied to any general chivalrous hero. Oh, and here’s the Renaissance Faire version:

Right, but did you come here to have Wikipedia read to you? Are you happy with the dry explanations provided by windy scholars surrounded by leftover SCA props?

Scrap all that noise, we have a much juicier origin story for you. Which, if you’re rolling up a character for a campaign or getting ready for cosplay at the next con, you’ll prefer to use for background flavor.

Paladin Origins From the Knights Templar

Paladin fans, you may want to strap on your helmet now so you don’t make a mess when we blow your mind: There were real-life paladins, or at least as close as you get to one in real life!

Barely touched on at the end of that video back there, the Knight Templar were a military order formed in the year 1119 and instated by the Catholic church, via decree of Pope Innocent II in the year 1139. Originally deemed “Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” they were given wide-ranging powers such as building their own churches and collecting taxes on properties. Looking back, we could suspect that they were given too much power…

paladin_Templar

Bear in mind that the Catholic church and European monarchies of the Middle Ages ruled side by side. The Knights Templar’s initial duties were to be stewards of the Crusades and the Holy Land (Jerusalem), recently recaptured from the Muslims in the year 1099. In between that, they were the stereotypical “knights in shining armor” whenever the church or state needed a few chivalrous knights in battle. In a highly organized religious order, they served as a combination of monk and warrior, guided by a strict code of conduct.

And then… remember those far-reaching powers? They took advantage of that, setting up a system of banks out of their tax coffer and franchising new chapters all over Europe. They gained a fleet of ships and established a naval base on the isle of Cyprus. They built their own castles and became something close to an early European Union, being one unified military and bank combined that crossed borders where few other forces could do so diplomatically.

templar_banking

That bank was no joke; they were allowed to lend money on terms of the (then) highly controversial practice of usury, which we know today as “charging interest.” Usury was outlawed for everyone else at this time. The Knights Templar at their peak might have been the single most powerful economic force in the world. We’ll never know because there was no authority auditing their books.

Kings throughout Europe came to the Templars to borrow money in order to finance wars, sometimes between two countries which had each borrowed from the Templars’ bank. Oh, and speaking of war, the Knights Templar worked as mercenaries too, in case you needed to hire some. With the money they just lent you. With interest.

About now you might be saying, “Hold up! Sure, it’s nice to have an armed escort for people making a pilgrimage to visit Jesus’ house, but an international bank with its own army sounds like you’re asking for trouble, especially when it was instated by the church.”

Oh ho ho, you don’t know the half of it!

The Inquisition of the Knights Templar

Just about 1.8 centuries after their gig started, the Knights Templar officially became too big for their britches when they turned down King Philip IV of France for a loan, because he was already too deeply in debt to them. Known as the “Iron King,” Philip was not a man to take “no” for an answer.

King Philip had already previously arrested merchants, bishops, and eventually the Pope himself whenever they got in his way. With the new Pope Clement V instated, Philip had the Knights Templar taken down, big time, in an Inquisition decreed by Pope Clement at Philip’s behest. On Friday, October 13th, 1307, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and 60 of his senior knights were arrested in Paris, France and charged with heresy, blasphemy, and the whole book.

knights-templar-execution

After torture wrung confessions out of the arrested knights, they hastily confessed as heretics and their Grand Master was sentenced to being burned at the stake, with the rest to follow. By the way, that date again is Friday the 13th, and yes, that’s where the tradition of bad luck on that day comes from.

The Knights Templar were said to have used the last of their holy powers to issue a curse upon the heads of King Philip and Pope Clement. Given that both King Philip and Pope Clement died of mysterious illnesses less than a year later, you are free to draw your own conclusions about paladins’ powers.

About now you might be saying, “What an interesting story! Were there any other urban legends surrounding the Knights Templar?”

Oh ho ho, you don’t know the half of it yet!

Further Conspiracy Theories About the Knights Templar

From here on down, we’re not swearing to the truth or fiction of any of the below stories. We’re just passing along some interesting allegations before wrapping this up.

  • Author Dan Jones’ 2017 book The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors credits the Knights Templar with inventing the very concept of international financial services.

  • Abbe Augustin Barruel, a Jesuit priest, wrote in his 1797 book Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism that the Knights Templar were alive and well under the new name Illuminati, and had masterminded the French revolution.

  • Author John J. Robinson’s 1990 book Born in Blood contends that the Freemasons had their origin in the Knights Templar too.

  • An allegoric story within Freemasonry tells of Hiram Abiff, architect of King Solomon’s temple, who is said to represent Jacques de Molay – recall the original title of the Knights Templar.

  • Author Robert Morning Sky has a doozy in his 2003 book Guardians of the Grail, claiming the real reason the Knights Templar were killed off is because, while handling Jerusalem artifacts, they discovered that the original Christian religion was based on a goddess instead of a god, and that Jesus married a priestess, Mary Magdalene, to carry on the goddess tradition.

  • Don’t think the Knights Templar ran the whole show; there were also the Knights of Malta AKA Knights Hospitaller, serving under their own charter from Pope Paschal II in 1113. Rivalry between the two Catholic knight charters is said to be responsible for the Templars’ purge.

  • Author James Wasserman claims the Ordo Templi Orientis originates in the Knights Templar, and we’ll let him explain the rest.

  • One more video game to namedrop, the Assassin’s Creed series, features the Templars prominently in its universe and weaves some of their lore into the game.

In quite a bit of the above literature, the Templars are believed to have had access to the holy relics, including the Shroud of Turin, Holy Grail, Arc of the Covenant, and other artifacts that Indiana Jones would typically be scampering after. Come to think of it, here’s a “paladin” type of guy in this scene:

Beyond any legends of Christian artifacts, though, there is the resoundingly practical question of what happened to all the Knights’ Templars’ money? Their assets were supposed to have been given to the Knights Hospitaller order, but King Philip is also said to have pocketed some himself. The actual trace of their wealth and treasure has a galaxy of theories and legends today. Not the least of all is the recent discovery of the tunnel system they built under Jerusalem.

Both the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller have home websites existing today, maintained by people who have a claim to the line of succession.

It’s time for us to drop the mike and let you go back to your paladin build.

History, man! Just one pile of skulls after another!

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.