The Knights Templar
Serving God with the Sword

by Heikki Hietala

Few medieval organizations have aroused such lasting interest as the Knights Templar. Even today, the Order that existed between 1118 and 1314 intrigues history researchers and medieval enthusiasts alike. What was the driving force behind the Order that rose from humble beginnings into a huge fighting force employed by kings and monarchs? How is it possible that such an institution could spring from the medieval world, which by any standard was not well organized? And most interestingly, why was this magnificent body of warriors brought to an ignominious end at the hands of inquisitors and henchmen? The tale is a complex web of conflicting interests, politics, religious zeal, valor, stupidity, and sheer legend.

Any treatise on the Order must necessarily start with background on the First Crusade. In 1094, Emperor Alexius Comnenus of Byzantium sent a letter to Pope Urban II asking for help to repel the Turks from the eastern parts of his empire. Urban saw this as an opportunity to seize the Holy Land from the Moslems, get hold of Byzantium, and stop the internecine strife plaguing Christendom. He responded to Alexius' request by preaching for a Crusade

After the Pope's sermons in 1095 at Clermont-Ferrand, France, a religious fervor swept through Europe and thousands vowed to take the Cross and embark upon a pilgrimage to free Jerusalem.

After three years of extreme hardships, the Crusaders finally reached Jerusalem and gained control of the city. Their entry resulted in massive carnage in which nearly all the inhabitants perished. Although the Crusaders elected Godfroi de Bouillon as their King of Jerusalem, he died within a year, and was replaced by Baldwin I.

The Plight of the Pilgrims
Even with the Holy City in Christian hands, a pilgrimage was by no means safe. The land route through Constantinople, Nicaea, and Antioch was frequented by roving bands of highway robbers. The sea route was also dangerous, filled with pirates eager to plunder ships and sell the passengers off as slaves.
The Order, initially a band of nine knights, formed the Pauperes Commilitones Christi (Poor Knights of Christ) to provide safety for Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. In return for their life-long service, the knights expected immediate entry into heaven if they died in battle

In 1118, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem assigned the Temple of Solomon to the knights as their abode. This resulted in a change of the Order's name: Militia Templi Solomonis (Knights of the Temple of Solomon). Soon other military orders followed, such as Knights Hospitallers who maintained hospitals and used their funds for pilgrims and the Teutonic Knights who cared for German pilgrims. Each order had monastic features and the same pro bono requirements as any monastic order

For the first ten years, the Knights Templar patroled the route leading from the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem. It was an arduous task, and within the Order there was confusion as to its function; to kill was against Christian beliefs, yet the Moslems were slaughtering infidel pilgrims. To pair up the knightly profession of arms and the saintly life of a monk was by no means easy, but somehow they managed to help pilgrims reach Jerusalem safely and fulfill their pilgrimage.

The First Signs of Success
The new Order was about to strike it rich; in 1128 the church councils at Troyes in France, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux offered their support to the Templars because of their bravery, considerateness and chivalry, unlike the traditional knights of the day. St. Bernard wrote in In Praise of the New Chivalry the following description or the ordinary knight: let your hair grow long like women, so that it obstructs your sight; you hamper your movements because of the long, floating tunics; you bury your delicate and tender hands in over-ample sleeves, which float around you.

Whereas he praises the Knights Templar:
First of all, there is discipline and unqualified obedience... They live in a community, soberly and in joy, without wife and children. And to reach evangelical perfection, they live in the same house, in the same manner, without calling anything their own... They have a horror of chess and dice; they hate hunting; they don't even enjoy the flight of the falcon. They despise mimes, jugglers, story-tellers, dirty songs, performances by buffoonsall these they regard as vanities and inane follies. They cut their hair short because they know that it is shameful for a man to wear it long. Never overdressed, they bathe rarely and are dirty and hirsute, tanned by the coat of mail and the sun.

Such praise, of course, increased the Order's prestige and power. New recruits flocked in, bringing with them much wealth, as the new recruits were sworn to poverty and bound to sign over their earthly goods to the Order. Donations also started to trickle in, only to soon turn into a downpour. St. Bernard's encouraging words also helped the spirit of the Order; they could now see themselves clearly in the service of Christ, wielding His sword to bring down the infidels.

In 1139, the Pope showed his support in Omne Datum Optimum, in which the Rule of the Order was officially approved, papal protection was given, spoils from Moslems promised, and the Order made exempt from tithes and taxes. In 1144, the reigning Pope Celestine II issued Milites Templi, which awarded indulgences to the benefactors of the Order. Perhaps the most influential, though, was Militia Dei of 1145, issued by Lucius II, in which the Holy See awarded the Order the right to build their own churches and bury their dead on church grounds. This freedom eventually raised the false assumption that the Order's high officials were allowed to hear confessions and give absolution, which caused real trouble later on.

The Road to Glory
The years 1128 to 1165 were a period of vigorous growth, when the younger sons of the nobility flocked to join the Order, as they had no inheritance.
All brothers were to be of age, and therefore the Templars had no oblates as with most Catholic Orders. And unlike other brothers who dressed in ordinary black or brown robes, the knights wore a white mantle emblazoned with a red cross.
As the Order grew, ten provinces were created, each headed by a master and a commander, with the Grand Master of the Order and his Seneschal (deputy) over all. Although the total number of members in the Order reached 15-20,000, by far not all of them were knights. On the contrary, some researchers believe that there was a 1 to 10 ratio between knights and members. One Templar house in France is on record as supporting one knight with a total staff of the house numbering over 80

By 1165, the Order was firmly established in the Holy Land. The military and political situation in Palestine was complex. There never was a single Crusader state but rather four distinct ones which were constantly at odds with each other. Due to the discord, the Crusader states were never able to stop Moslem armies from passing through their land, and so, often resorted to uneasy truces with the Moslems to keep their areas intact

Even the first recorded military action of the Templars was an offensive, with Emperor John of Constantinople against the interests of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Templars had to bend their rules to participate in such action, carefully shifting between warring factions so as not to appear as traitors.

International Bankers
Although both the Templars and the Hospitallers often cried poverty and sent out alms collectors on a regular basis, the financial status of the Order was excellent. The wealth accumulated through trusts and interest paid by monarchs and other dignitaries who availed themselves to the money of the Order.

The Order owned much land as well, gaining it by conquest, donations, purchase, and reclamation. In fact, in 1307, Yorkshire was purchased for 1,300 poundsa bargain, considering that a modest castle which would have cost 500 pounds. Templars owned a large part of London, including a wharf on the Thames. In Paris and Jerusalem, they owned lavishly decorated temples. Even given the medieval gift for exaggeration, the possessions of the Order overwhelmed contemporaries. The Order even owned the island of Cyprus from 1191-1192

The military strength of the Order enabled them to run an extensive network of commerce both between Europe and the Holy Land, as well as with the Moslems. In fact, the Templar network was about the only safe passage to or from Jerusalem, with an elaborate system of chits for transferring funds to the Near East. Just as with modern-day money orders, one could deposit money at any Preceptory and receive chits to change for real money at the other end of the journey

The Templars were strict with the funds in their care: honesty was their trademark. All kinds of fraud were punishable by death. On one occasion, the Preceptor of an Irish Preceptory was found guilty of embezzling Order funds. He was taken to the London Preceptory and locked up in a dungeon so small, he had no place to stand or even lie down. He was fed only bread and water and is said to have taken eight weeks to die.

Problems in Palestine
The main opponents of the Crusader states were the great Moslem leaders Zengi, Nur ed-Din, Saladin, and Baybars. It was during Saladin's reign that the Crusader states suffered heavy losses and eventually lost Jerusalem.

The tactics of the Moslems differed significantly from those of the Europeans. Able to shoot arrows from a galloping horse,the light Moslem horseman did much damage to the heavily armed knight, whose main attack mode was to ride headlong into enemy infantry

The chain of events leading to the loss of Jerusalem began in 1179. Saladin started to prepare for a large-scale attack on the Crusader states, and as his first target he chose the Templar outpost of Jacob's Ford. A bitter fight ensued in which most of the defenders of the fortress fell. After that, Saladin had much more space to move his forces in the outskirts of the Latin Kingdom.

In 1187, the Crusaders lost some 60 knights at Nazareth. Raymond, Count of Tripoli, had made a delicate and hard-to-maintain truce with Saladin, which the other Crusader leaders thought traitorous. Still, King Guy of Jerusalem needed Raymond's help against the Moslems and therefore he sought reconciliation. He chose Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Order and the most outspoken enemy of Raymond, to head the negotiating party.

At the same time, Al-Afdal, one of Saladin's sons, asked to cross Raymond's land. According to the rules of the truce, he stopped to request Raymond's permission. When the Grand Master learned that Al-Afdal's forces had made camp just outside Nazareth, he collected a team of 90 Templars and prepared for attack. Both the Master of the Hospitallers and the Marshal of the Templars thought this maneuver unwise and tried to restrain Gerard, but he would not listen

The Grand Master led his troops in a headlong attack against the numerically superior Moslem contingency. In the process of attack, he managed to get all but himself and three other knights killed. Al-Afdal, on the other hand, had only been attempting a transfer of troops, but by sheer luck managed to wipe out a large group of knights.

Then, on July 4, 1187, Christians fought and lost the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, a decisive event in the decline of the Latin Kingdom in Palestine.
Saladin was at Tiberias with 12,000 knights and an army on regular provisions. King Guy of Jerusalem and his army camped at the Springs of Al-Quastad. The Christians left the camp to relieve Tiberias. Saladin's forces stopped their progress at a site where there was no water, shelter or pasturage.

As night fell, the Moslems set the brushes afire. By morning, the knights were half-crazed from the smoke, lack of water and rest. When Saladin attacked, the Templars fought as best they could but were struck down by the well-rested and strong Moslem forces.

All remaining Christians were massed together except for the Templars and Hospitallers who were herded into separate groups and beheaded one by one.
After Hattin, Saladin had no trouble taking Acre, Nablus, Jaffa, Toron, Sidon, Beirut, and Ascalon. Jerusalem fell to him on 20 September 1187. The Christians in the city were ransomed

With Jerusalem lost and their fighting force decimated, all that remained for the Templars was their function as bankers and advocates to kings. The Templars gradually gained a new army and more importance in Palestine. But in 1291, most of them died defending the fortress of Acre against vastly superior Moslem forces. The Templars left Palestine, never to return.

The Decline
Having lost their primary purpose, the downfall of the Order was a question of time. Its membership had degenerated, most of the knights were illiterate and, as such, not well-equipped to navigate in the confusing political situation of the time, and the rotation of leaders prevented them from gaining deep knowledge of problems that needed action. Military failures brought infamy to the Order, and their close relations with Moslems gained them a reputation as traitors

When the Church saw the lowered state of the Order, it suggested a union between the Knights Hospitallers and the Templars. But the Hospitallers were wary of the plan, and the Templars were vehemently against it.

Philip "The Fair" IV of France oversaw the end of the Order after his ascent to the throne in 1285. When his permanent cash flow problem verged on the critical, he put his top man, Guillaume de Nogaret, to the task of smearing the Templars with enough vices to warrant a trial to terminate the Order. Nogaret charged them with, among other things:
Denying the saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ as Savior.
Renouncing the holy sacraments and omitting words of consecration in mass.
Believing that the Grand Master and other high officials of the Order can hear confession and offer absolution, even though they were laymen.
Giving obscene kisses homosexual acts, and misbehaving sexually.
Seeking funds unlawfully and misusing donated funds.
Holding heavily guarded meetings in secret.

To assure public support of the trial, Nogaret published the list so the peasants could understand. Posing as the guardian of the Faith, Philip also forced the Pope to refrain from defending the Order.

In 1307, Philip arrested every Templar in France, but his efforts to have other monarchs do the same for the most part failed. Kings suspected that Philip's reasons were not based on facts, and although some of them actually arrested Templars, most countries did not have the knights tortured to obtain confessions as in France

Philip's trial of the Templars was a lengthy affair because the accusations were fraudulent and therefore hard to prove. Through torture, he managed to get enough testimonies in support of the accusations to get the trial going, but in 1310, he burned 54 Templars at the stake to break a budding Templar defense.

Clement decided to settle the matter in a Church Council at Vienna in 1312, but his decision was heavily influenced by Philip's army camped just outside the city. He declared the Order suppressed but did not formally condemn it, and all Templars who confessed were set free and assigned to other Orders. Those who did not confess were burned to death. Templar possessions were given to the Hospitallers, and Philip got some money for his troubles, but the famous Templar treasure was never found.

The Order was suppressed in France but in Portugal continued under a new name: The Knights of Christ. Single Templars were allowed to live on the premises of the Templar houses until their death, and one such ex-Templar, Berenger dez Coll, was reported still to live at the Preceptory of Mas Deu in France in 1350

The Templar legacy is legendary. The Templar treasure has been the subject of avid inquiry since 1307, but no trace of it has been found. In some accounts, Templars escaped Philip's attack by sailing to Scotland, in other stories they reached Cape Cod, and in still others they went to Ethiopia. But the data presented as proof of these tales is unconvincing

The Templar story is a sad tale of virtue, valor, and effort lost in the sands of Palestine, but its lasting donation to medieval enthusiasts is the wonderful, convoluted, but well-documented saga of knights in the service of both Christ and the temporal kings.

© 1996 Renaissance Magazine
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