Anyone familiar with the history of Christianity knows that the symbol of the cross has been used in a variety of different ways. Even prior to the time of Crusades there were stories about crosses miraculously showing up on the garments of particularly worthy individuals. There could have been nothing more suitable for crusading armies than to implement crosses as a visual distinction. Abbot Guibert in his History of Jerusalem (1.5) says that Pope Urban II instituted this sign both as an indicator of military distinction and a symbol that would help Christian knights fight with greater valor for God’s cause. The abbot clarifies that the pope ordered the figure of the cross to be cut out of any material (ex cujuslibet materia) and sown onto tunics and cloaks of the members of the expedition.
Fulcher of Chartres wrote: “O, how fitting and how pleasing it was for us all to see those crosses, stitched in silk or in gold, or made out of any kind of material, which the Pilgrims, following the order of the Pope, fashioned on their shoulders after pledging to set out on this march”.
It is quite evident that there was no specific color or design required of the Crusaders. If any of the original nine members of the Knights Templar Order came to Palestine during the First crusade they would have worn crosses on their garments, but there is nothing to be said about how exactly those crosses looked.
In 1128 Pope Honorius II granted the Knights Templar the right to use white cloaks for distinction and as a symbol of innocence, but without any crosses (“absque aliqua cruce”, says Jacques de Vitry). Only Eugene III (1145-1153) instituted that the Templars should wear red crosses as a sign of martyrdom. With time, this symbol took on another meaning: the red cross became synonymous wit the order itself. It is known that the Knights Templar were very proud of their organization and its uniform (click here for the proof).
It would seem that the specific shape of the early Templar cross was not that crucial (sorry for the pun). Considering the Knights Templar’s humility and their desire to avoid ostentation, a simple cross of two equal intersecting beams (i.e. Greek cross) would have been the most likely to be used at the time. Even a cross with a longer vertical line (Latin cross )requires additional measuring in order “to make it look good”, right?
I believe that only later the cross that is typically seen as the Templar cross (cross pattee) became widely used by the Knights:
The Maltese cross is visually very similar to the splayed cross of the Knights Templar. It is possible that the Templars did not at all feel that this design is all that different. (By the way, he eight points of the Maltese cross have their own special significance as the eight beatitudes of Christianity proclaimed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount – Mathew 5-7). It is important to remember, however, that the Maltese cross, the way we are used to seeing it, was firmly established as the Knights Hospitaller symbol only in the 16th century, although prior use of similar crosses is well documented.
The main reason why it is advisable for modern Templar enthusiasts, writers etc. to use the second design (i.e. the Knights Templar cross proper, the cross pattee) is that the Maltese cross is too recognizable and has a history as a distinct symbol of the Knights Hospitaller, the order which still exists today under a different name. The Greek cross is also perfectly fine, especially for earlier periods of the Knights Templar history. It is more important to use (if possible) color red, which symbolizes the idea of martyrdom. I firmly believe that if you met a Knight Templar sometime in the 13th century you would have recognized him by the color of the cross, rather than by its shape.