Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Knights Templar

When it comes to knighthood, probably none are so iconic as the Knights Templar. Officially the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the Knights Templar were formed around 1119 in the Holy Land after the First Crusade to protect Christian pilgrims. The founder and first Grand Master was Hugues de Payens who received approval from King Baldwin II of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to organize a specifically religious order of knights. Because the king gave them a wing of the royal palace for their headquarters that was situated above the former Temple of Solomon (over which had been built the Al-Aqsa Mosque) they took the name of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon or Knights Templar for short. Their colors were a red cross on a white field and their symbol was two knights on one horse, illustrative of their poverty by sharing one mount. They were from the start an elite force, one of the first permanent military corps dedicated to the defense of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Christian pilgrims. They took monastic vows but were soldiers rather than monks. Sworn to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, they were governed by religious discipline but devoted themselves to a military calling rather than a life of prayer.

St Bernard of Clairvaux praised the knights, and those like them that came later, as a new breed of warrior dedicated to the protection of the weak and innocent and the defense of the Holy Land. A Cistercian abbot, St Bernard had been an inspiration to the knights himself and Hugues de Payens and his chief lieutenants such as Godfrey de Saint-Omer (a relative of de Payens) and Andre de Montbard adopted the religious discipline of the rule of St Benedict. In 1129 the Catholic Church officially endorsed the Knights Templar at the Council of Troyes and in 1139 HH Pope Innocent II issued a papal bull which granted special favors to the knights such as being able to pass through all borders, exempted them from taxation and placed them solely under the authority of the Roman Pontiff. It is to be expected that some would paint this grant in a negative light but all of these were necessary favors. The Knights Templar were made of soldiers from various countries in Christendom and had to have freedom of movement, if they had not been exempted from taxation they would have been forced to abandon their vow of poverty to at least some degree to raise the money to pay the taxes and as far as being under the authority of the Pope alone, one need look no farther than the later sacking of Constantinople to see what crusaders were capable of when they went their own way rather than following the orders of the Roman Pontiff.

These men, whom St Bernard referred to as “Christ’s militia” quickly gained a very noble reputation for their austerity, discipline, care for the defenseless and unmatched tenacity in battle. Their service was also very much in need. Even after the First Crusade had restored the Holy Land to Christian rule (following the Muslim conquest of the region from the East Roman Empire) the Kingdom of Jerusalem was under almost constant threat and pilgrims were frequently harassed and murdered by marauding bandits (who were not solely Muslims). A permanent religious military corps to defend these pilgrims and to defend the wild frontiers of Christendom was very necessary and soon came to be seen as the special elite guard of Christendom. Among the Knights Templar were several ranks. First were the ordinary knights, effectively heavy cavalry, wearing chain mail and armor, armed with swords and lances; then there were the sergeants who were armed and equipped as light cavalry and served as what we would today call the enlisted men as opposed to the knights who held the position similar to what would be commissioned officers today. They were to assist the knights, often in “mopping up” operations after the heavily armed knights made their charge which invariably smashed enemy armies. Then there were non-combatant members such as the ‘serving brothers’ who often did things such as taking care of the paper work of the order, looked after their properties and so on. These men were often under the direction of a retired knight or sergeant who was no longer fit for combat and, finally, there were the chaplains who attended to the spiritual needs of the knights.

This administrative aspect grew rapidly in importance as the prestige of the Knights Templar rose. Because the Holy Land was constantly under threat and pilgrims constantly needed protection, military operations were almost always ongoing and funds were needed to maintain them. So, as lands were donated to the knights and as bases were set up for recruitment and logistical support across Christendom, in time the knights had extensive properties that had to be looked after. Also, because of their reputation for honesty and nobility, their strength and their vow of poverty, wealthy individuals increasingly handed over their money to the knights to keep safe for them. In time, the Knights Templar became, inadvertently, one of the largest banking networks Europe had ever known. Part of this was also encouraged by the knights to protect pilgrims. It took money, then as now, to go on pilgrimage and a pilgrim carrying large numbers of sacks of very heavy coins was a very tempting target for bandits. Therefore, to prevent this, pilgrims could take their money to a Templar office in their home country, hand over a certain amount of money and be given a note to take with them which would then be redeemed for the same amount once the pilgrim reached the Holy Land.

First and foremost, of course, the Knights Templar were a small, elite military force. So small and so elite that at their height there were only four hundred in Jerusalem, though they, of course, also had auxiliary forces that fought with them. However, they were still subject to the divisiveness and infighting that was problematic for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem as it was at various times for every power, Christian and Muslim alike. They suffered a terrible blow at the disastrous battle at the Horns of Hattin at the hands of the Sultan Saladin, one of the most gifted and successful Muslim leaders of the period. In the aftermath, Jerusalem fell, which the Christians later retook but it fell again not long after and remained in Muslim hands until the First World War. The Knights Templar were forced to relocate to the city of Acre but, after a heroically fought siege, it was taken by the Muslims in 1291 at which time the knights relocated again to Syria. This too was, in due course, conquered by Islam and the Knights Templar were forced to leave the Holy Land for the island of Cyprus. However, the larger Islamic counter-offensive continued over the years but, it is important to note, the reputation of the Knights Templar always remained pristine.

Illustrative of the fact that the Knights Templar were very much an elite force was the fact that their most rigid rule was that they could never surrender unless the Templar banner went down and even then they were required to regroup and fight on with another of the military orders such as the Knights Hospitaller (later better known as the Knights of Malta). They could only leave the field of battle after all military banners had fallen. The Knights Templar were invariably the best equipped and most heavily armed of all the Christian knights. They were so effective that there was no group of Christian knights more feared amongst their enemies than the Knights Templar who were invariably massacred if any were ever taken alive. However, their prowess on the battlefield and great reputation for honesty and integrity helped, in a way, to bring about their ultimate downfall. It was because of these very excellent qualities that the Knights Templar became more and more trusted and so became more and more wealthy as the elites of Christendom entrusted their financial security to the knights. As tends to happen (and we can certainly see it now) this brought about a growing jealousy against the Knights Templar on the part of those who were less successful and had, perhaps, mismanaged their own finances.

The situation became worse when they fell to the mercy of local rulers after being forced out of the Holy Land after losing their last foothold after 1300 when they had tried to make a comeback in alliance with the Mongol Empire that was crushing Muslim forces from the east. Forced to relocate across Europe, the Knights Templar continued in isolated groups, becoming ever more prosperous and incurring more and more envy from people like King Philip IV of France (aka “Philip the Fair” or handsome) the same monarch who famously clashed with Pope Boniface VIII, after whom a Frenchman was elected to the See of Rome and the papacy removed to Avignon in France. It did not help that King Philip IV had borrowed a great deal of money from the Knights Templar during his war with England and was not looking forward to paying it back. Getting rid of the Knights Templar would, therefore, erase his considerable debt and enrich him immensely from the seizure of their properties. Sadly, this is exactly what he set out to do. However, to suppress so powerful and prestigious a group as the Knights Templar, it was first necessary to smear them and sully their reputation by inventing and spreading all sorts of lies about the knights. This is where the fantastic stories about bizarre sexual rituals and even satanic practices came from.

Most of it was simply made up out of thin air but others were exaggerations (gross exaggerations) of a small kernel of truth. An example of this was the accusation of idolatry which, far from being sinister, may have been an exaggerated perversion of the deep veneration the Knights Templar had for the holy Shroud of Turin, which they had recovered and carefully preserved. In any event, just as he had previously done to the Jews in another cash-grab, Philip IV ordered the mass arrests of the Knights Templar on Friday the thirteenth of October 1307. Under horrific torture many of these men confessed to every horrible crime their captors dreamed up, recanting all of it later. However, that made no difference as Philip was more than willing to spread the stories of the horrible “confessions” of the Knights Templar and to begin pressing the Pope to dissolve the order. He also had as many as possible burned alive, including the last Grand Master of the order, the elderly Jacques de Molay. The Pope did finally dissolve the Knights Templar, their reputation having been falsely and maliciously but irretrievably ruined, but it is important to note that he found them “not guilty” of heresy and the many crimes they had been unjustly accused of prior to doing so.

That is something that is almost never talked about but Pope Clement V, seen by many as a creature of the French monarch, totally exonerated the Knights Templar. Some certainly had done wrong, just as with the membership of any organization, and some made mistakes at time, however, on the whole, there should be no doubt about the Knights Templar being honest, upright and fantastically effective soldiers for Christendom. Their downfall came about solely because of jealously on the part of those who always envy the successful and seek to tear down those who have achieved something. It is also often forgotten that in other countries where the Knights Templar had been put on trial (again by envious little men) they were found completely innocent. Most wanted to continue their work and after the suppression joined other military orders of knighthood. Their downfall was one of the great betrayals of history, and their name has been sullied in all the years since with disreputable groups appropriating their names and symbols or by simply being the stars in every sort of bizarre fiction and conspiracy theories. However, none of that should sully the reputation of the Knights Templar who were the elite shock troops of Christendom, models of chivalry and who exemplified the spiritual and military virtues of the true Christian soldier.


  1. I have a fondness for anything on the Knights Templar, so I thank you for writing about it!

  2. I'm going to have to strongly disagree with MM on this. The Crusades were a disaster. All nine of the crusades were fueled by hatred for Muslims, all 10 of them cost the lives of men that didn't need to die, and let's remember, during the medieval ages, the middle east was prosperous. Baghdad had some of the first public schools in history, the Arabs made great progress in mathematics and medicine, and Jerusalem being owned by only 1 faith makes me choke: its holy to Christians, yes, but also Jews and Muslims. This city should be a place of peace and brotherhood, not war. I know its lofty to think of knights and of conquering crusaders, but let's be realistic: they killed thousands of people. There was nothing glorious about them: Crusaders were filled with a deep hatred, and that fueled their war. I usually agree with MM, to the point that I've even suggested this site to some of my pro-republic friends, but I think he's completely wrong here. The crusaders were not chivalrous, and much less just, and were the opposite of the ideal Christian, and the ideal monarchist.

    1. Bull cookies! If you were honest and just hated war and suffering you would condemn the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 634 rather than the Christian campaigns to retake lands that were Christian to begin with -and which became Christian peacefully. There would have been no Crusades if the Arabs had not not invaded and conquered lands that were not their own.

  3. I do condemn the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. I oppose ALL conflict over that city. It shouldn't be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, but simply Abrahamic. Also, I don't condemn all war, much less all suffering. I simply oppose violence to this city: its Holy to 3.5 Billion people, give or take. I don't have a problem with the Swedish crusade against the heathens, or the Muslim conquest of Mecca, etc. I simply oppose attempts by anyone to make this city theirs. It doesn't belong to Christians, or Jews, or Muslims: it belongs to all of us.
    Also, what are "Bull Cookies"?

    1. I'm not buying it. You pour out vitriol on the Crusaders and praise the Muslims all around only to then mildly criticize the fact that the world isn't a perfect place. The Muslims were the first to attack and conquer Jerusalem for religious reasons. Jerusalem had been conquered by the Romans before Christianity even existed and the Jews were given special dispensation to practice their religion by the Romans. It became Christian by conversion and remained Christian until the Arabs invaded and took it. If you really meant what you say, *that* would be the crime you should first mention, not the effort by the Christians to take back what had first been taken from them.

      I could not say it better than G.K. Chesterton:
      “When people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded.”


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