The Knights of the Temple 1118 to 1139

‘Wayne Reynolds Artwork’

Hugh De Payens, a knight of the lower nobility of Champagne, approached King Baldwin II with a completely new concept, born of its time and place. He and eight other knights had joined together to dedicate their entire lives to the service of the Holy Land. The extraordinary aspect of this little band was that its members had evidenced their dedication by approaching the patriarch of Jerusalem to take the same triple vow that was common to monastic orders, the perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. All three of those pledges were precisely opposed to the life goals of the secular medieval knight.

The knight fought for a price, usually a piece of land and the people who worked it. In exchange he pledged war service to the man who gave him the land, for a specified number of days each year. He loathed the concept of poverty. He needed money for horses, armor, weapons, and servants. He needed money for his own household. If he fought beyond the contract period, he negotiated for pay. He was always on the lookout for loot. He learned as part of his informal training that common soldiers could be killed freely, but that he must not kill men of obvious rank and wealth unless absolutely necessary to save his own life. Such men were too valuable to die. Their capture and the ransoms they would bring were a major objective of the battlefield. If the captive was a poor knight whose family could not afford to purchase his freedom, there were always his sword, his ax, his shield, his armor, his horse, all items of value that enriched his captor. A defeated knight, on the other hand, might find himself totally destitute. Unable to fulfill his feudal contract with his lord, he could lose his land. It happened too many. Much has been written about the disgrace of the ronin, the Japanese samurai with no lord to serve, but the destitute European knight was no better off. Only if he had armor, weapons and horses could he serve his lord. The very word “knight” derived from knecht, a servant.

As for chastity, the twelfth century was long before the age of chivalry, and even when it arrived the knight’s chivalrous conduct toward women was limited to those of his own class. All others were fair game, from the women on his own lands to those on lands taken from others. Chastity was for children, not for fighting men. That monks gained respect for taking such a vow is a measure of how difficult the state of chastity was known to be. The monk or hermit who tortured his body with hair shirts and whips to drive out evil thoughts was painfully driving out thoughts of sex. If he found himself with an erection he had physical proof that Satan was taking control of his mind and body. The only proper remedy was to inflict pain upon his body until that evil indicator went away. It was part of the mystique of monasticism, and a big part of the mystery was how any man could willingly embrace such a way of life. Chastity was the opposite of what the lusty knight longed for, especially in the great emotional upheaval that occurred at the end of a battle. The knight under accumulated stress often sought the relief of sex, with no importance attached to whether his partner was willing or not.

As for obedience, the medieval knight was obedient only when he had to be, or when he saw some personal advantage. If the feudal world had to be summed up in just three words, they would be strong, stronger, strongest. As the alternative to helplessness, men pledged themselves to a strong man who would shelter and protect them in return for their obedience, a portion of their income, and military service. Those strong men were pledged to men still stronger, until the pyramid came to its point in a sovereign lord, who might be a count, a duke, or a king, depending upon the extent of his independent power. Obedience was extracted not by a pledge, or trust, or loyalty, but as the result of raw fear of the punishment that disobedience could bring. To tell a noble that you were not afraid of him was a personal insult and frequently led to a challenge.

At that time, fear was the fountainhead of government control throughout the world. Off in China the emperor ended his orders with “Hear, and tremblingly obey!” In Japan, it was so important to express fear to ensure personal safety that an entire language style was developed to convince a superior that he generated terror: the fast breathless speech we see in Japanese movies, almost always coming from people on their knees. Rulers wanted to be feared, not loved, and that feudal attitude carried over into the Church, where “Fear God” meant exactly that: Be terrified of the punishments God can bring down on you. The clergy had a difficult time describing the precise joys of heaven, but it had an inexhaustible supply of loathsome details to identify the agonies of hell.

As to secular punishments, except in the special cases to be kept secret, they were very public, so that the lesson learned from watching a whipping, a branding, or a mutilation would be passed on to others. Platforms were erected so that everyone could have a clear view of a man having his bones broken with iron rods, and the bodies of the executed were often left dangling in a marketplace until they fell apart, a display also posted outside city gates to let visitors know that this was a place to stay in line. Obedience was not a virtue, but a safety precaution.

That a group of secular knights took such vows in that age was remarkable, especially since they were not going to disappear behind the walls of a monastic cloister but planned to patrol the roads of Jerusalem fully armed, ready to fight any enemy to protect the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Places of Jesus Christ. Such a service was sorely needed, since the number of pilgrims had grown to the point that they had become a substantial business. They spent money, they brought gifts. They paid tolls to enter city gates or to use the roads. The owners of the ships that brought them paid a tax based on the amount of their fare. Pilgrims bought religious merchandise, some as easy to deliver as bottles of water from the Jordan River. Other items, such as fraudulent holy relics, were more difficult to produce and authenticate, but extraordinarily profitable. The greatest danger to that growing source of revenue was the threat to every pilgrim’s life and property.

Only the Christian cities were guarded, and only the cities were safe. All the deserts, plains, and rocky hills between them were a noman’s- land. Merchants would hire guards to protect their caravans, and the wiser pilgrims would attach themselves to a larger party, but most pilgrims were blithely innocent. Their mere arrival on the actual soil of the kingdom of Jerusalem lit a spark of euphoria. Never had they felt the protection of God more than while traveling in Christ’s own land, and never were they more wrong. Arab and Egyptian marauders were constantly on the search for plunder and for prisoners to sell to the slave traders. Most pilgrims walked, making it easy for bandits to ride ahead to set an ambush, while others were simply ridden down or taken in their sleep. The roads to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the River Jordan were strewn with the bones of the fallen faithful, bleaching in the bright sun.

Not the least of those hurt by the Muslim bandits was the Church. It was expected that Christian pilgrims, especially the increasing number of penitents who had been ordered to make the pilgrimage to earn the remission of their sins, would bring gifts to lay on the altars of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the other shrines memorializing the life of Christ. Only anger and frustration could result from those Christian contributions being diverted to the purchase of jewelry for some Bedouin sheikh’s favorite wife, but there had appeared to be no solution. It could only have been with enthusiasm that the patriarch of Jerusalem received and heard the vows of those nine dedicated knights, who would fight to restore and maintain that flow of silver and gold.

A problem that de Payens’s group had was to find a means of support. They needed a place to live for themselves and their servants, stabling for their horses, and food for all. That is why Hugh de Payens approached Baldwin II, soliciting his royal patronage. The housing and the supplies they were asking was much less than the usual knight’s plea for land and revenues. The king would favor any proposition that would increase his meager standing army, and these were all battle-proven warriors who had been fighting in the Holy Land for years. In answer to their petition he assigned to them a portion of the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, a structure said to have been built on the site of the original Temple of Solomon. It has been rebuilt several times over the centuries and still stands today. (It made headlines in October 1990 when young Muslim worshipers coming out of the al-Aqsa Mosque allegedly threw rocks at the Jews worshiping at the Western Wall immediately below them, an act that led to retaliatory gunfire and death.) It was from this headquarters location that the group ultimately took its name, Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonis, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. The members became known as the Knights of the Temple and later, by the name most popular, the Knights Templar.

Although the Knights of the Temple would have had occasional revenue from the possessions of the bandits they killed or captured, the king must also have given them some kind of subsidy to cover their substantial expenses. A knight required at least two horses: a muscular, heavy war-horse that would carry a man, his armor, and his heavy weapons into battle, and a lighter horse on which to travel. Each knight required at least one attendant who helped him with his armor and carried extra weapons and his master’s heavy shield, which the knight wore in battle secured by a strap around his neck and shoulders. With one hand required to hold his lance, sword, ax, or mace, and one hand needed to control his horse, he had no choice but to hang his thick shield around his neck when actually engaged in fighting. The shield, known in French as the knight’s escu, was thus carried by his shield-bearer, or escuier, a term that entered the English language as “esquire.” Only later would the esquire be an apprentice knight: In the early Templar period, the attendant was a sergeant or man-at-arms, who required at least one horse of his own. Knights also would have needed packhorses to carry supplies on the road and servants to tend the pack animals, care for the spare horses, and cook the food. Although there is no record of the actual numbers, the starting group of nine knights would have meant an establishment of twenty-five to thirty men, with forty to fifty horses.

There is no documentation to show that the Templars took in additional members during their first nine years, but there is also no documentation that they did not. There does exist, however, evidence that their services earned the approval of King Baldwin II. In 1127 Baldwin II wrote a letter to the most influential churchman in Europe, Bernard (later St. Bernard), abbot of Clairvaux, who was generally respected as the “second pope.” The suggestion probably came from Hugh de Payens, who was a cousin of Bernard, and from Andre de Montbard, one of the nine founding Templars, who was Bernard’s uncle. Baldwin asked Bernard of Clairvaux to use his considerable influence to intercede with Pope Honorius II. Hugh de Payens was coming to Rome to ask for official papal sanction of his military order and to ask the pope to provide it with a formal Rule to govern the life and conduct of the Knights Templar. Baldwin was loud in his praise of the Templars, but nowhere near as loud as Bernard was to become in their behalf.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of Bernard of Clairvaux’s role in the establishment of the Templar order. He was a man on fire with zeal, but too physically frail to seek outlets for his talents and obsessions on the battlefields of secular war. He chose instead to fight on the broader spiritual battlefields of the Church. He joined the Cistercian order at the age of twenty-one, and with the persuasive power that would soon make him famous he recruited his own father, four brothers, an uncle, and a number of others to declare for the cloth with him. Backing his powers of oratory with a genius at organization, in a little over five years Bernard had established the abbey of Clairvaux, had become its abbot, and had set up over sixty-five “daughter” houses, whose complements of monks he recruited himself.

Just twenty-eight years old when he got the letter from Baldwin II, Bernard was already the most powerful voice in Christian Europe. He exerted an influence that almost amounted to control over Pope Honorius II, who was his former pupil. At heart, Bernard was a reformer who wanted to purify the Church, to drive it closer to the morality taught by Jesus Christ, and to destroy its enemies.

Bernard leaped with enthusiasm at the concept of an order of knights functioning under monastic vows. His enthusiasm went beyond merely gaining papal approval; it extended to taking a hand in shaping the order. He defined its aims and ideals in a Rule to govern the conduct of the new order, taking the opportunity to put his personal stamp on an army of God. Descended from generations of French knights, Bernard could now experience the vicarious satisfaction of creating and giving direction to a military force that his frail body would not permit him to join on the field of battle.

When Hugh de Payens arrived at the papal court with his companions, he found that his saintly cousin Bernard had paved the way. The papal welcome was warm and complimentary. Honorius called for a special council to be convened during the following year at Troyes, the capital of Champagne, to grant the Templars their wish. Hugh and Andre de Montbard met with Bernard while waiting for the council. It was very much a family reunion, where Bernard could assure his cousin and his uncle that they would have all they dreamed of, and more, for their military order.

The order also had the full support of the count of Champagne, whose vassals made up the order’s leadership. His was the first response to Bernard’s call for gifts of land and money for the Templars, with a grant of land at Troyes. This became the base for a new concept, that of “preceptories” throughout Europe. These establishments in each Christian country acted as provincial supply bases to support Templar operations in the Holy Land. They recruited new members, instructed them in the Rule, and even gave them basic training in fighting together, something of a new idea to the medieval military. The officers in charge, the “preceptors,” were charged with extracting the maximum revenues from the Templar properties, which came to include farms, orchards, and vineyards, and gradually extended to include mills and bakeries, market franchises, and even whole villages. Those revenues, after expenses, were forwarded to Jerusalem. Frequently they were used to fill requisitions for heavy war-horses, weapons, armor, and military supplies such as iron and arrow shafts. They provided tools for masonry and other crafts, and even timbers for siege engines, ships, and buildings, which were not readily available in the scrub-covered plains and hills of the Holy Land.


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