In many a conspiracy Templar tale the Templar fleet plays an important role in saving the "Templar Treasure" at the time of the demise of the Templar Order. But how important was this fleet, and did it play a major role in history?
The importance of the maritime activity of the Templars as well as the Hospitallers is difficult to define, even though it emerges progressively from reliable documents from the 1150s onwards.
The Hospitallers used boats which they rent from the Italian maritime republics. But, from 1160 on, it seems certain that they had their own ships, to transport either pilgrims to the Holy Land (treaty of 1166 between Narbonne and Genoa), or cardinals from Rome to Messina. In 1197 Queen Constance of Sicily granted the Order of the Hospital exemption of any tax for the transport of pilgrims and crusaders.
The Templars had a fleet at least from the beginning of the 13th century. They used it for the transport of troops and mechandise during the 5th Crusade (1217-1221). When, in 1233, the five viscounts of Marseille granted to the Temple and the Hospital the right to load two ships per year for the Orient, it seems that such a privilege existed already before 1213, as proven by the confirmations made Pope Honorius III and Frederic II in 1216.
During the 7th Crusade (1248-1254), brothers of both Orders served as intermediaries between the envoys of King Louis IX (1215-1270) preparing the royal expedition, and Genoese shipowners. The Temple dealt with Alphonse de Poitiers for the transport of the contingent of the Count for the 8th Crusade (1270). Both Orders obtained from Charles 1st of Anjou export licenses for food to the Orient on its own boats: 77 licences in 20 years for the Temple, but only seventeen for the Hospital.
Despite everything, at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th Century, the fleets of the military orders remained modest. The Hospital had only naves, and no galleys before 1291. They did not participate in the evacuation of Acre (May 18. 1291). In 1306, the Hospital was forced to call on the Genoese corsair Vignolo de Vignoli, but the two galleys which he then held were insufficient for ensuring the brothers' journey to Rhodes and the conquest of that island.
The Temple, which had organized transports from southern Italy to Cyprus and had assisted in the evacuation of survivors of Acre, does not seem to have had more than about 10 ships. In 1312 these were attributed to the Hospital when the order was dissolved. Therefore a major role for a substantial, self owned "Templar fleet" at the time of the Order's collapse is improbable at most.
source: Michel Balard (2009) Introduction to "The Military Orders at Sea" (translation from French by TN). illustration templar ship, fresque in trhe Templar Chappel, Cressac, Charente, France, source