The Armed Might of the Crusaders

We shall not understand the Crusaders until we realize that they were different from us. They were closer to the earth, and the smells of the earth. They were closer to the brute facts of the earth; very often they were near starvation. For the most part they were peasants with a peasant’s knowledge of the seasons and the rituals of the Church. They believed with a firm and intimate faith, with a medieval directness, and a rough-hewn stubbornness, that it was in their power to safeguard forever the Holy Sepulchre, which they regarded as the place of the Resurrection, offering the promise of eternal life. They knew that Christ died and rose again in the flesh; that they belonged to the kingdom of Christ; to him, they owed their ultimate allegiance.

The most enviable Crusaders were the knights, who were often only two generations removed from the peasantry. With their grooms and esquires, and their pompous trappings, they were the elite of the army, always on parade. Their horses were much heavier than those of the Saracens. Well-trained and strictly disciplined, the Crusaders were armored front-line troops with sufficient weight and power to punch holes in the enemy lines and then to wheel back and punch more holes. Their weapons were lances, which sometimes reached the length of ten feet, and a heavy double-edged sword, which they carried in a scabbard on the left side. The sword was used for hand-to-hand fighting; the lance possessed a wider range and flexibility.

From neck to waist, and from thighs to feet, knights were enclosed in chain mail made of iron links on a foundation of leather. They wore very sharp spurs and round shields with iron rims and iron bosses. Their helmets were round, flat-topped boxes of steel covering the whole head, with slits in front of the eyes and perforations in front of the mouth and nose. They were intended to look terrifying.

Once established in the Holy Land, the Crusaders had three main armies. There was the army in the service of the king, and there were the auxiliary armies of the Templars and the Hospitallers. These auxiliary armies, which became enormously powerful, grew up haphazardly, yet there were times when they became the real rulers of the kingdom.

The Order of the Knights of the Temple was a military order founded by Hugh of Payens, a knight from Champagne. He appears to have been sweet-tempered, totally dedicated, and ruthless on behalf of the Faith. The Knights of the Temple were soldiers of Christ, ascetic almost to fanaticism, single-minded to the exclusion of all ideas except the worship of God and the annihilation of the Saracens. In 1118, Hugh of Payens with nine other knights sought the permission of Baldwin I to found the order. The king of Jerusalem was so delighted with the idea that he gave them part of the royal palace believed to be the Temple of Solomon. This became their headquarters and from then on they were known as Templars.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Templars was to safeguard the lives of the pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem and other holy places. But from the beginning, Hugh of Payens appears to have had a larger aim. The Templars quickly became an independent fighting arm of the Church, having allegiance only to the pope and the grand master. They were armed monks, priestly swordbearers, chivalrous only on behalf of God, shock troops to be thrown into every righteous battle. Their courage became legendary.

Safeguarding the comings and goings of pilgrims was difficult. How difficult we learn from the Anglo-Saxon traveler Saewulf who came to Jerusalem in 1102 and left this account of the tortuous road that leads up from the coast to Jerusalem:

. . . the Saracens . . . lie in wait in mountain caves to surprise the Christians, watching both day and night to pounce on those who came in small numbers and were therefore less capable of resistance or those who were worn out with fatigue and therefore lagged behind their companions. At one moment you can see them everywhere, at another moment they are invisible, and everyone who travels in this region has observed this. . . .

Saewulf, with his Anglo-Saxon companions, arrived at a time when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had only just come into existence, when the government was still disorderly and inefficient, and when it was impossible to spare soldiers to police the road. Because the government could not guarantee the safety of the pilgrims, hundreds died even before they saw Jerusalem’s golden gates.

At first, the Templars enjoyed a modest organization. Over the course of two centuries a vast body of rules and regulations would come into existence, legislating for every possible eventuality, but at the beginning they were merely monks on horseback, armed with swords and lances, sometimes so poor that two would ride on a single horse.

Hugh of Payens infused the Templars with the energy of chastity and obedience. No women might enter the Temple; they were not permitted to embrace any woman, not even their sisters or their mothers. A lamp burned in their dormitories all night; their breeches were tightly laced; they were never permitted to see each other naked. They were permitted no privacy, and letters addressed to individual Templars had to be read aloud in the presence of the grand master or a chaplain. They never shaved their beards. Their spartan lives were directed toward the single end of protecting the pilgrims and the Kingdom of Jerusalem by killing the enemy.

Since they were obedient only to the pope, who was far away, they often acted independently of the king of Jerusalem. They became sophisticated soldiers, administrators, builders of castles, and owners of vast estates, not only in the Holy Land but all over Europe, for kings and princes and common people soon recognized that they possessed to an extraordinary degree the military power to secure the safety of the kingdom. They possessed, too, a vast intelligence system, sometimes working in close association with the royal government, but sometimes against it. Their own spies reported regularly from Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, and the other Arab capitals of the Middle East.

The headquarters of the Templars still stands in Jerusalem, for the building then known as the Temple was in fact the al-Aqsa Mosque, believed by Christians to be on the site of the Temple of Solomon. In these spacious quarters with their underground stables lived the grand master, the marshal, and the high command. Reverence was paid to the grand master as the representative of the pope. The master of the Templars was often a man who had entered the order as a youth and had spent his whole life in it. He knew no other world and was interested only in the advancement of the Templars at all costs, and if it was necessary for him to form a temporary alliance with the Saracens, he would do so without a qualm. The Templars always had the best intelligence system in the Holy Land, and very often the Saracens learned what they wanted to know through the Templars. Those hard and silent men, wearing voluminous white cloaks derived from the Cistercian robe, adorned with a large blood-red cross, played dangerous games. They brought the Crusaders some of their greatest triumphs and some of their greatest defeats.

The second army belonged to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John. They were known as Hospitallers and wore a red eight-pointed cross on their black mantles. They, too, arose from humble beginnings and learned to exercise kingly powers. About the year 1070, some citizens of Amalfi established a hostel for poor pilgrims in Jerusalem, with the permission of the Egyptian governor of the city. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, the master was a certain Gerard, a Benedictine priest, who escaped or was expelled from the city before its conquest. He provided the Crusaders with valuable information and was soon in the good graces of the new rulers, who endowed his hostel and encouraged his work in every way. The Church assumed control of the hostel. Like the Templars, the Hospitallers owed obedience to the pope.

When Raymond of Le Puy became the new master, around 1118, the order changed direction. In Raymond’s view it was not enough that the order should care for pilgrims; it must also defend them. The rule of the Hospitallers was less strict than the rule of the Templars. The Hospitallers were steadier, less adventurous, more somber. The Templars had a glitter about them while the Hospitallers seemed almost colorless. The Hospitaller army was much smaller than the Templar army and never attained the popularity of the Templars; it was also much poorer. These two rival orders vied for honor and renown. They often clashed, but when they moved in unison they performed marvelously.

Soon the orders became proud and imperious, and since the king was also likely to be proud and imperious, there were continual disputes and quarrels. In theory, they were independent of the king, owing allegiance only to Rome. In fact, the masters of the two orders had their places in the royal council chamber, and no important act was decided upon without their agreement. More and more, as the wars continued, it appeared that the kingdom was ruled by a triumvirate: the king, and the masters of the Temple and the Hospital.