On the trail of the Knights Templar in Portugal

Daniel Stables

written by
Daniel Stables

updated 04.10.2021

The Knights Templar are shrouded in mystery. Were they keepers of the Holy Grail? Or were they devil-worshipping heretics? Track them to Portugal. And discover 400 years of power and influence. The information below is based The Rough Guide to Portugal, your travel guide for Portugal.

The Knights Templar tale starts in Jerusalem

The Knights Templar first appeared in 12th century Jerusalem. Originally a military monastic order. Their role was to protect the Holy Land's Christian pilgrims.

For 70 years they were sequestered at both Temple Mount and the Temple of Solomon. Hence the classic conspiracy theory. Knights find lost documents in Jerusalem. Then discover the Ark of the Covenant and Holy Grail. And even today their descendants still guard the secret locations.

quinta de regaleira initiation well 2

The Knights Templar initiation well at Quinta da Regaleira © Dan Stables

Fact is almost as strange as fiction

But there are some truths woven in with the mythology.

  • The Knights Templar were one of the Crusades' elite fighting units.
  • They were known for religious zeal and fearlessness.
  • They famously defeated several armies which significantly outnumbered them.
  • Individual knights took a vow of poverty.
  • The early Templar emblem shows two knights on a single horse.
  • The order attracted powerful patronage and amassed enormous wealth.

Key Knights Templar sites in Portugal

At the height of their power, the Knights Templar had strongholds across Europe. But in Portugal their influence was strongest and most enduring.

  • They were instrumental in the 13th-century Reconquista.
  • Their helped usher in the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
  • They played a role in creating the Portuguese Empire.
  • They also had a part in evolving new world trade and colonisation.

Want to delve deeper into the mystery? Take a Knights Templar day tour from Lisbon.

Castelo de Almourol in the River Tagus

Castelo de Almourol is probably Portugal's most photogenic fort. It rises from an islet on the River Tagus. And can only be reached by boat.

  • A military outpost for at least 2,000 years.
  • Occupied and rebuilt by Romans, Visigoths, Berbers and famously, the Knights Templar.
  • The Knights Templar occupied Castelo de Almourol in 1171.
  • It was one of the most valuable strongholds during the Reconquista.
  • Castelo de Almourol is rich with gory tales.
  • Apparently the castle is also cursed until Judgement Day.

For full immersion take a Templar, Tomar and Almourol day tour from Lisbon

view of the tagus from almourol

View of the Tagus river from Castelo de Almourol © Dan Stables

Tomar, seat of the Grand Master of the Knights Templar

Sleepy Tomar is 12 miles north of Almourol. It's an unlikely seat of power. A medieval town nestled on the River Nabão, surrounded by Ribatejo countryside.

Yet, in the town square stands a statue of Gualdim Pais. The 12th century Christian Reconquista who became Grand Master of the Templars.

And behind him looms Convento de Cristo. Pais's mighty castle and Templar headquarters in Portugal for 400 years.

Stay right at the heart of Templar country in Residencial Avenida Hostel in Tomar.

Convento de Cristo, monument to wealth and fervour

Convento de Cristo captures the dual religious/military nature of the Knights Templar.

Outside it looks more fort than convent. Inside, you'll find a Charola modelled on Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Legend says the 16-sided Charola is circular so Knights could attend Mass on horseback.

Don't miss the 16th-century Manueline Window. Its elaborate motifs represent Portugal’s maritime dominance during the reign of Manuel I.

Prefer to leave planning and booking to experts? Have a look at some sample itineraries. Both Complete Portugal or Portugal Itineraries offer inspiration. All Tailor Made Trips can be modified together with your local expert, then booked for a stress-free holiday. Click 'Modify this itinerary' to contact a local Portugal expert.


The Charola at the Convento de Cristo © RibeiroAntonio/Shutterstock

Decline of the Knights Templar in Europe

By the 14th century, European royalty began to resent the Knights Templar.

Their wealth and influence was vast. And they were financially astute. As rich noblemen joined the Crusades, the Templars safeguarded their wealth. In return the would be Crusaders were given letters of credit. These could be used to withdraw funds from other Templar outposts on their travels.

This system amassed a fortune for the Knights Templar. Which was then used to buy vineyards, businesses and land. In the late 12th century they owned the entire island of Cyprus.

Something had to be done to curb their influence. On Friday 13th October 1307 hundreds of Templars were arrested in France, on the orders of King Philip IV.

Various charges of heresy were levelled at the them. Including the claim that their initiation involved spitting on a cross and worshipping a demon known as Baphomet.

convento de cristo 4

Convento de Cristo, headquarter of the Knights Templar for centuries © Dan Stables

Influence on the Portuguese Empire

The French accusations proved fatal across Europe. Except in Portugal. Here the Knights Templar lived on as the Order of Christ.

They retained members and resources. Convento de Cristo remained their headquarters. And they wielded influence in the birth of the Portuguese Empire.

Portuguese Grand Masters of the Order of Christ included:

  • Prince Henry the Navigator. The driving force behind Portugal’s Age of Exploration.
  • Manuel I. King of Portugal during Brazil's colonisation and Vasco de Gama's discovery of India's trade routes.

Intrigued by Convento de Cristo? Stay at Thomar Boutique Hotel within walking distance of the legendary castle.

Templar Emblems found across Portugal

Emblems of the Knights Templar can be seen on some of Portugal’s most famous buildings.

  • The armillary sphere and square Templar Cross adorns the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery.
  • Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra incorporates symbolism from the Templars, Freemasons and other secret orders.
  • Sintra's grottos and underground tunnels lead to an Initiation Well. Supposedly it was once used for Masonic rituals.

Discover the secrets of Sintra on a day tour from Lisbon with local guides.

quinta de regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra is rich with Templar imagery © Dan Stables

The Knights Templar legacy

The Knights Templar continue to fascinate. They inspire artists, conspiracy theorists and overactive imaginations.

George Lucas wrote of “Jedi-Templar” in early Star Wars' drafts. Indiana Jones found a Knight Templar guarding the Holy Grail in the Last Crusade.

Conspiracy theories conflate historic Knights Templar with modern Freemasonry. There are warnings a of shadowy globalist elite establishing a New World Order.

What's certain is the monuments left behind in Portugal by the Knights Templar are among the country's finest.

Ready for a trip to Portugal? Check out the snapshot Rough Guide to Portugal. Read more about the best time to go to Portugal, the best places to visit and best things to do in Portugal. For inspiration use the Portugal Itineraries from The Rough Guide to Portugal and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there. And don't forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Daniel Stables

written by
Daniel Stables

updated 04.10.2021

Daniel has authored, co-authored or contributed to more than 30 travel books for Rough Guides, Insight Guides, DK Eyewitness and Berlitz, on destinations as far afield as Indonesia, Nepal, Oman, Mexico, Tokyo, Thailand and Spain. He regularly writes articles for a variety of travel publications, online and in print, including BBC Travel, The Independent, Lonely Planet, and National Geographic Traveller. Read more of his work at danielstables.co.uk.

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