Origins and Foundations
The emergence of military orders was one facet of the growing diversification which characterized the religious life of western Christendom in the later eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Members of military orders lived according to rules which were similar to, and in part based on, existing monastic regulations; but a religious way of life was combined with fighting. Military orders were also mainly composed of lay brothers. Although all these orders had brother chaplains, the majority of members were lay brethren, and authority rested mostly in their hands. In the leading orders they were grouped into the two ranks of knight and sergeant, with the latter rank comprising both sergeants- at-arms and non-military sergeants. Perhaps surprisingly, many military orders in addition included some women members, although these did not participate in military activities.
The first military order was that of the Temple. It was founded in Jerusalem about the year 1120, and gained its name from the building which the crusaders identified as the Temple of Solomon, where its headquarters were established. Its first function was to provide protection to pilgrims travelling through the Holy Land, but within a few years it was forming part of the Christian military forces against the Muslims. In undertaking these tasks, it was fulfilling an obvious need: it is clear from pilgrim writers that in the years following the First Crusade the roads in the kingdom of Jerusalem were by no means safe; and in the early twelfth century the rulers of the Latin settlements lacked sufficient troops.
It has sometimes been suggested that the Christian military order was created in imitation of the Muslim institution of the ribat, which has been defined as a fortified convent, whose inmates combined a religious way of life with fighting against the enemies of Islam. Yet there were significant differences: those serving in ribats, for example, usually stayed for only a limited period, and are to be compared with crusaders rather than members of Christian military orders. It has, moreover, not been demonstrated that those living in the kingdom of Jerusalem in the early twelfth century were aware of the existence of the Muslim institution. The military order can in fact be seen as a product of contemporary Christian society. Fighting for a proper purpose had come to be widely regarded as a means of salvation, and an act of charity, and thus an acceptable function for laymen wishing to lead a religious life: the canonical prohibition on taking up arms, which has been seen by some as an obstacle to the development of the military order, applied only to clerics. Admittedly, doubts were voiced about the new institution. A letter written in the Temple’s early years shows that even some brethren felt uncertain about their vocation. This was partly because in the Middle Ages any novelty tended to be viewed with suspicion. A further cause of concern was that a military order was seen by some as being inferior to a contemplative institution. Opposition was also voiced by those who still regarded fighting for any purpose to be sinful. This stance seems to have provided the most significant criticism of the new institution, and it was mainly this view which St Bernard of Clairvaux sought to counter in his work De laude novae militiae, written in support of the Templars. Yet, although doubts were expressed, the Templars quickly received widespread approval in the Church, as is apparent from the proceedings of the Council of Troyes in 1129, when Templar observances were discussed and formulated into a rule. At that time the order was also beginning to attract patronage in many countries of the West, and this rapidly increased, so that within a few years the order was establishing subordinate convents in most western kingdoms.
Despite the success of the Templars, in the Holy Land no other new orders were founded in imitation of the Temple; but several existing religious foundations in the kingdom of Jerusalem were transformed into military orders. The Hospital of St John, founded in Jerusalem before the First Crusade for the care of the poor and sick, was assuming military responsibilities by the mid-1130s, although not all historians have accepted that Hospitaller brethren themselves had taken up arms by then. The Teutonic Order developed out of the German hospital established at Acre at the time of the Third Crusade; and the house of regular canons, which later became the military order of St Thomas of Acre, was similarly founded during the Third Crusade. The transformation of these two foundations occurred in 1198 and the later 1220s respectively. It is not clear, however, when the leper hospital of St Lazarus, first mentioned in surviving sources in 1142, assumed military duties. Amongst the earliest engagements in which its members are known to have participated is the battle of La Forbie in 1244.
Surviving sources provide little information about the reasons for these transformations. A precedent had obviously been set by the Temple, but it is not altogether clear why it was followed. In some cases there were certainly particular influences at work: the militarization of St Thomas of Acre owed much to Peter of Les Roches, bishop of Winchester, who was in the East at a time when the house of canons was in decline. But there were also more general factors. In particular, the foundations in question—except St Thomas of Acre—probably had members who were capable of fighting, and these would have received encouragement to take on military duties because of the constant shortage of warriors in the Holy Land.
Although the institution of the military order first emerged in the Holy Land, it soon appeared on other frontiers of western Christendom. The first orders to take up arms in Spain were the Templars and Hospitallers. They had at first been interested in the Iberian peninsula only as a source of income and recruits, but in 1143 the count of Barcelona persuaded the Templars to participate in the Reconquest, and the Hospitallers had taken up arms against the infidel in Spain by the middle of the twelfth century. But in the third quarter of the century a series of local military orders was established: Calatrava was founded in Castile in 1158, and Santiago in Leon in 1170. The order of Montegaudio, whose possessions lay mainly in Aragon, was created about the year 1173, and by 1176 the order which later became known as Avis had been established in Portugal, as had San Julian de Pereiro—the forerunner of Alcantara—in the kingdom of Leon. The only military orders founded in Spain between the later 1170s and 1300 were San Jorge de Alfama, which was created at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and Santa Mana de Espana, which emerged in the 1270s. These Spanish foundations were military orders from the outset, and were established in imitation of the Temple and Hospital. But in explaining their creation, it is necessary to take into account the aspirations of their founders and first members— the founder of Montegaudio, for example, was a discontented member of Santiago—and also the attitudes of the Spanish kings who supported their foundation. Christian rulers in Spain clearly hoped for military assistance on land, and Santa Mana de Espana was apparently supported by Alfonso X of Castile as a means of gaining naval help at a time when much of the conflict with Islam centred on control of the Straits of Gibraltar. It should also be noted that the order of Calatrava emerged because the Templars, to whom the castle of Calatrava had earlier been given, were unable to defend it. Local orders had the further advantage that they did not have to send part of their revenues to the Holy Land; and, by favouring a number of foundations, rulers could ensure that no one institution became too powerful: this consideration probably explains the favour shown to Montegaudio by Alfonso II of Aragon. Spanish rulers also seem at first to have envisaged using these local foundations against their Christian rivals, but the leading Spanish orders quickly extended their holdings throughout the peninsula, and adopted a neutral stance in conflicts between Christian kings.
Despite royal support, not all Spanish orders flourished.
Montegaudio was amalgamated first in 1188 with the ransom hospital of the Holy Redeemer at Teruel, and then with the Temple in 1196; and although some brethren refused to accept that union and established themselves at Monfrague, on the river Tagus in Castile, this group was later swallowed up by Calatrava. While these unions occurred because of difficulties encountered within Montegaudio and Monfrague, the union of Santa Marfa de Espana with Santiago was occasioned by the losses sustained by Santiago in the battle of Moclin in 1280. The other Spanish orders survived and expanded, but they remained essentially peninsular institutions; although there were various proposals to extend their activities to North Africa, the Holy Land, and even the Baltic region, none of these plans had lasting consequences.
In central Europe, unlike Spain, the Temple and Hospital were not the first orders to take up arms. In the early thirteenth century reliance was placed instead on new foundations and on the Teutonic Order. These played a leading part in the subjugation of Prussia and Livonia, which was completed—despite setbacks and rebellions—by the end of the thirteenth century. The Swordbrethren and the order of Dobrin were originally established to provide protection and assistance for missionary activities: the former was founded in Livonia in 1202 with the support of Bishop Albert, and the latter was established in Prussia, probably in 1228, on the initiative of Bishop Christian of Prussia and the Polish Duke Conrad of Masovia. Both of these orders were, however, amalgamated with the Teutonic Order in the 1230s.
This order had first extended its interests to central Europe in 1211, when Andrew II of Hungary gave it the district of Burzenland, which lay to the north of the Transylvanian Alps and faced the pagan Cumans. The Teutonic Order possibly saw the offer as providing more scope for expansion than was likely in the Holy Land, where it was in competition with the well-established Templars and Hospitallers. Yet in 1225 Andrew expelled it, apparently because the order was seeking to achieve independence of the Hungarian king. It was about this time, however, that Conrad of Masovia, who was then under pressure from the Prussians, offered it the region of Culmerland. The subsequent negotiations, which also involved the Emperor Frederick II, paved the way for the establishment of an independent state in Prussia under the authority of the Teutonic Order. By about 1230 it had begun campaigning against the Prussians, and later in the decade, following the union with the Swordbrethren, it also established itself in Livonia, though its authority there was not as extensive as in Prussia.
Although in this way the Teutonic Order appears to have become the only military order fighting on these fronts, there was still a place for other orders in central Europe. After its expulsion from Hungary and its establishment as an independent force in Prussia, the rulers of Hungary and Poland were likely to turn elsewhere for help. An attempt in 1237 by Conrad of Masovia to re-establish the order of Dobrin at the castle of Drohiczyn on the river Bug soon failed, however, and the Templars do not appear to have settled permanently at Lukow, on the eastern borders of Poland, which was given to them in the 1250s. In the same way the Hospitallers did not take over the permanent defence of the district of Severin, which stretched from the Transylvanian Alps to the Danube and was assigned to them by Bela IV of Hungary in 1247.
Bela IV had hoped for Hospitaller assistance not only against pagans, but also against schismatics; and although in this case aid was not forthcoming, farther south the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order did contribute to the defence of the Latin empire of Constantinople, which had been created in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade. As crusades were being launched increasingly frequently in the thirteenth century against Christian opposition, it is not surprising that campaigning against the Greeks was considered a proper function for a military order. Efforts were in fact also made during the thirteenth century to establish and use orders for the purpose of fighting against heretics, papal enemies, and disturbers of the peace within western Christendom. On a number of occasions popes urged military orders to intervene in internal conflicts in the kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem, and Clement IV in 1267 expected the Hospitallers to support Charles of Anjou against the last Hohenstaufen claimant in South Italy. Attempts were also made to establish new orders in the south of France to combat heresy. These met with no lasting success, but in Italy the order of the Blessed Virgin Mary had a longer history: its rule, compiled in 1261, defined its functions as the defence of the faith and of ecclesiastical freedom, and the suppressing of civil discords. Such developments were, however, of minor significance, and throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the primary function of military orders was to fight against non-Christians on the frontiers of western Christendom.
In the leading orders, the brothers who could give military service comprised both knights and sergeants-at-arms. In military matters the difference between them was of degree rather than of kind. The knights had more elaborate armour and, whereas sergeants usually had only one mount, knights were allowed three or four. But, although sergeants might be used as infantry, the weapons and equipment of the two groups were similar: the sergeants never constituted a light cavalry of the type found in some Muslim armies. These brothers were permanent members of an order, but they were at times assisted by individuals who lived with, and fought alongside, the brethren of an order for a term. In the Holy Land assistance of this kind was presumably provided mainly by crusaders coming from the West. The Templar Rule devotes three clauses to these men, and service of this kind continued to be given into the thirteenth century. Orders could normally also demand military service from their own vassals, and at least in some areas mercenaries were hired. In the Holy Land paid troops included turcoples (turcopoles), who were recruited from the native population and who were in some cases mounted and equipped with a bow.
On all fronts the contingents of the military orders comprised only one out of several elements in the Christian forces, but they enjoyed a more independent role in Syria and the Baltic than in Spain. The leadership of the Spanish Reconquista was in the hands of the Christian rulers of the peninsula, and they sought to maintain firm control over military undertakings. Many charters issued to military orders in Spain stated that they were to make war and peace at the king’s command, and the orders normally observed this ruling, despite some papal protests. Spanish kings were not, however, trying to stifle all initiative, and the orders did launch expeditions of their own—narrative sources, for example, record the capture of a number of Muslim castles by Santiago and Calatrava in the late 1220s and early 1230s—but such expeditions took place within the confines of royal policy. In the East, by contrast, Bohemond III of Antioch in 1168 allowed the Hospitallers to make war and negotiate truces as they desired, and promised to observe any cease-fire agreed by them. A similar promise was made by Leo II of Armenia in 1210. There is no record of concessions of this kind in the kingdom of Jerusalem during the twelfth century, but the decline of monarchical authority there allowed the orders in the thirteenth century to pursue their own policies throughout Palestine and Syria. In the early decades of the century the Templars and Hospitallers were adopting an aggressive stance in the north, and this enabled them to extract tribute from neighbouring Muslim rulers; and further south they formulated their own policies towards Egypt and Damascus, while later in the century, as Mamluk power grew, they negotiated their own truces with the invader. It was in the Baltic, however, that orders consistently enjoyed the greatest freedom of action. In Prussia the Teutonic Order was subject to no superior power, and although in Livonia the Swordbrethren and later the Teutonic Order did not in theory enjoy such complete independence, no one held authority over them in the field. Henry of Livonia thus wrote of the master of the Swordbrethren early in the thirteenth century that he ‘fought the battles of the Lord, leading and commanding the army of the Lord on every expedition, whether the bishop [of Riga] was present or absent’.
The warfare conducted by the orders on the various fronts also differed to some extent in aims and method. In Syria and Spain the primary purpose of offensive warfare was to assert control over land: the conversion of Muslims was not a direct aim. In the Baltic, however, conquest was accompanied by the baptizing of pagans. The Baltic region was also different in that campaigns were often conducted in winter, when marsh and river were frozen, and movement easier. But on all fronts the military orders were concerned mainly with warfare on land. Even the order of Santa Marfa de Espana did not devote itself to fighting exclusively at sea, and in the eastern Mediterranean it was only at the end of the thirteenth century that the Templars and Hospitallers were developing sizeable fleets of their own.
On land, the orders’ activities comprised both the defence of strongholds and fighting in the field. In Palestine and Syria during the twelfth century the Templars and Hospitallers were entrusted with a growing number of castles, which were either given or sold to them by rulers and nobles who lacked the manpower or resources to defend them adequately. It has been estimated that in 1180 the Hospitallers were responsible for the defence of about twenty-five castles in the East. Already before 1150 Bait Jibrin and Gaza, near the southern borders of the kingdom of Jerusalem, were held by the Hospitallers and the Templars respectively, while lesser fortifications in their hands came to include forts which lay along pilgrim routes and provided refuges for those travelling to Jerusalem or the Jordan. In the twelfth century, however, these two orders held more castles in northern Syria than in the kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1144 Raymond II of Tripoli gave the Hospitallers a group of strongholds, including Crac des Chevaliers, near the eastern borders of his county, while in the north of the principality of Antioch the Templars were entrusted with the Amanus march. The most important Hospitaller castle in the principality was Margat, which the order received in 1186, after its former lord ‘realised that he could not hold the castle of Margat, as was necessary in the interests of Christianity, because of excessive expenses and the very close proximity of the infidel’. Most of these castles were lost in the aftermath of the battle of Hattin. Some, however, were later recovered, and other strongholds were newly acquired by the Templars and Hospitallers in the thirteenth century, while the Teutonic Order also at that time became responsible for garrisoning and defending castles, particularly in the hinterland of Acre. The orders were taking on the main burden of defence.
The orders’ responsibilities were not limited to supplying manpower for the defence of castles: they also undertook the building of new strongholds as well as the repair and extension of existing ones. Among Templar constructions were those of Chastel Pèlerin, built on the coast in 1217/18, and Safad, which was rebuilt after the place had been recovered from the Muslims in 1240. Besides building new castles, such as Belvoir, the Hospitallers also extended Crac des Chevaliers, where an outer enceinte was added about the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Less is known in detail about building operations in Spain, but it is clear that a large number of frontier castles in the peninsula passed under the orders’ control. In Aragon and Catalonia during the twelfth century reliance was placed mainly on the Templars and Hospitallers: an attempt by Alfonso II to promote the order of Montegaudio in southern Aragon came to nothing. But in the southern part of the kingdom of Valencia, conquered towards the middle of the thirteenth century, the Aragonese King James I chiefly favoured Santiago. In the same way, on the other side of the peninsula, the Templars and Hospitallers were used by Portuguese rulers in the twelfth century, while Spanish orders, especially Avis and Santiago, were preferred in the thirteenth. In the centre of the pensinsula, however, the Castilian and Leonese kings consistently relied mainly on Spanish orders—particularly Calatrava and Santiago—to undertake the defence of frontier castles.
In the Baltic region the orders built as the conquest progressed. This was done, for example, by the Teutonic Order as it advanced along the river Vistula and then the Frisches Haff in Prussia. In Livonia the orders similarly made an important contribution to castle-building. In both districts, the primitive pagan structures of wood were often fired during assault and were replaced, although the early fortifications built by the orders were themselves mostly of wood and earth, and it was not until later that more sophisticated structures became the norm, with brick being extensively used.
It should not be assumed that all the castles in the orders’ hands were defended by large garrisons of brothers. In 1255 the Hospitallers stated that they intended to maintain sixty mounted troops at Crac des Chevaliers, and it was reported that eighty Templars were necessary to garrison Safad. But these are amongst the largest figures to which credence can be given, and the number of brothers in a castle was often much smaller, particularly in the Baltic region and Spain. A chronicler reports that only seven brethren were left at Thorn, on the Vistula, after the Teutonic Order had fortified it in 1231. And some minor fortifications had no permanent garrison of brethren.
The brothers defending a castle were, however, assisted by auxiliary troops. These might include vassals from the surrounding district. But colonization by westerners was often necessary before adequate aid from subjects could be obtained, and in some regions resettlement constituted a significant stage in the process of securing Christian control over border districts. Although colonization on the orders’ lands in Syria appears to have been very limited, the orders commonly sought to attract settlers to their lordships in conquered parts in Spain: numerous settlement charters issued by the orders have survived. Yet it was not always easy to attract settlers to lands which had been lying waste and were still under threat, and the process of resettlement in Spain was slow, while in Prussia colonization by western peasants did not make much progress until the closing years of the thirteenth century, after the Prussians had been finally subjugated, and in Livonia there was never any large- scale settlement by western peasants.
The orders were nevertheless often praised for their work in defending frontier castles, and at times they offered stout and determined resistance. The Hospitaller castle of Belvoir held out for more than a year after the battle of Hattin, and Saladin was at that time unable to take either Crac des Chevaliers or Margat. In the same way, in 1211 the brethren of Calatrava maintained lengthy resistance at their castle of Salvatierra, in Castile, when it was attacked by the Almohad caliph. There were, on the other hand, occasions when strongholds rapidly fell. The Templar castle of Gaza surrendered without a fight after the battle of Hattin, and several of Calatrava’s fortresses in Spain were quickly lost after the Christian defeat at Alarcos in 1195. In some cases, particular factors explain success or failure. Gaza was surrendered by the Templars in order to obtain the release of their captured master, while according to Islamic sources it was the exceptional position and strength of Margat which enabled it to remain under Hospitaller control after the battle of Hattin. Yet it was usually the general military and political situation, rather than more particular factors, which determined the fate of the orders’ strongholds. After severe defeats in battle, such as those of Hattin and Alarcos, it was difficult to retain castles, especially when garrisons had been reduced or removed in order to put a viable force into the field. And when in the later thirteenth century the orders in Syria faced the growing power of the Mamluks, and could not look to relieving armies for help, garrisons could not easily hold out for long; it was sometimes even thought preferable to surrender in return for a safe-conduct for the besieged, rather than fight to the bitter end. In the 1260s numerous castles of the Teutonic Order in Prussia similarly fell following widespread revolts, because they lacked the resources to maintain prolonged resistance and could not be relieved. Yet, in defending strongholds, the orders were seeking to undertake a task which could not easily be fulfilled by any others.
In the field the military orders were not usually obliged to provide a fixed number of men, and it is difficult to assess the size of their contingents on any front. But the numbers of brethren seem to have been relatively small, even by medieval standards. A Templar letter from the Holy Land in 1187 reported that the order had lost sixty brothers at Cresson in May of that year and that a further 230 had been killed in the battle of Hattin: the central convent had been ‘almost completely annihilated’. A further letter written after the defeat at La Forbie in 1244 stated that the Templars and Hospitallers had each lost just over 300 knights, with thirty-three Templars and twenty-six Hospitallers surviving. These orders may therefore each have been capable of putting a force of about 300 brethren into the field in the kingdom of Jerusalem. If these figures are accepted, the joint contingents of these two orders were similar in size in the second half of the twelfth century to the force raised through the feudal levy, and in the thirteenth century their contribution was proportionately greater.
The military orders were less significant numerically in the Iberian peninsula. When Santiago lost its master and fifty-five brethren at the battle of Moclin in 1280, the loss was serious enough to occasion the amalgamation with the order of Santa Marfa de Espana; and in 1229 the Templar contingent comprised only about a twenty-fifth of the force which attacked Mallorca, even though the Temple was the leading military order in the Aragonese realms. But it should be remembered that the Christian rulers of Spain could call upon larger contingents of secular Christian troops than their counterparts in Syria could mobilize, for western Christians comprised a much larger proportion of the population of the peninsular kingdoms than of the crusader states, and the Spanish rulers made use of the general obligation of military service, as well as demanding contingents from the nobility.
Chronicles reporting fighting in the Baltic region also give the consistent impression that the numbers of brethren in the field were small by comparison with those of other troops raised locally. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, for example, states that in 1268 the provincial master of the Teutonic Order in Livonia summoned all the available brethren, and that these comprised 180 out of a total land force of 18,000. It is also clear that major advances in that district were often dependent on assistance provided by crusader contingents. Thus conquests in Samland in 1255 were effected with the aid of Ottokar II of Bohemia, the margrave of Brandenburg, and a large force of crusaders.
Despite their limited numbers, at least in the East the brethren’s bravery and determination were held in high regard by their opponents: the chronicler Ibn al-Athir, for example, described a Hospitaller castellan of Crac des Chevaliers as ‘a bone in the gullet of the Muslims’. The brethren also provided a more disciplined force than many secular contingents. The Templar Customs include strict regulations about conduct in camp and on the march, and the brethren of all orders were, of course, bound by a vow of obedience, which was reinforced by the threat of severe penalties for disobeying orders in the field. In all leading orders the punishment for desertion in battle was expulsion, while Templars who launched an attack without permission lost their habit for a period. The threat of censure could not eliminate all acts of disobedience in the field, but several crusade theorists agreed with the view of the Templar master James of Molay that, because of their vow of obedience, brethren were superior to other troops. Some theorists also saw the military orders in Syria as having the advantage of experience. Certainly, leading officials in the orders had usually given long service, although in the Temple the rank- and-file knightly brethren in the East were normally fairly recent recruits, who served in the Holy Land for only a limited period while they were still young. Long service and experience did not, of course, always produce sound decisions: the losses suffered at Cresson in 1187 occurred when the Templar master Gerard of Ridefort rejected advice and committed his troops against a much larger Muslim force. Usually, however, the advice given by leading brethren of the orders on all fronts revealed a realistic assessment of the political and military situation, and often tended towards caution. During the Third Crusade the Templars and Hospitallers advised against besieging Jerusalem, partly on the grounds that during a siege they would be exposed to Saladin’s forces, just as during the conquest of Mallorca the Hospitaller prior counselled the Aragonese king against attacking the Muslims in the hills behind Inca because of the attendant danger. Brethren in the frontier regions were not fanatics, and were prepared—if the military situation demanded it—to fight alongside non-Christians.
In the eastern Mediterranean region, the orders’ experience and knowledge were often utilized by placing contingents of brethren in the vanguard and rearguard of crusading forces, as happened during the Fifth Crusade and Louis IX’s Egyptian crusade. They were not assigned this role in Spain, where the bulk of the secular forces were Spanish; but there they often helped to provide a nucleus of an army at the start of campaigns, as it was difficult to mobilize most secular contingents very quickly. Nor was the service given by brethren usually affected by the limitations and restrictions which commonly characterized that provided by secular forces. On all fronts crusaders usually fought for only a limited period, while in Spain there were normally time limits on the service owed by subjects: thus in 1233 the siege of Ubeda was abandoned by some Castilian town militias because their term of service had expired.
Yet in practice brethren were not always themselves available to fight against the infidel. Their arms were at times being turned instead against fellow Christians in defence and in pursuance of the orders’ own interests. Examples can be provided from all fronts. In Livonia, the Swordbrethren in 1233 were in conflict with the supporters of the papal legate Baldwin of Alna; in the East the orders became involved in the internal political conflicts which characterized the thirteenth century, such as the war of St Sabas, as well as engaging in private quarrels; and the same happened in Castile, which was beset by political instability in the later thirteenth century. These activities used up resources which might otherwise have been employed against Muslims or pagans. In Syria the orders’ independence also meant that they could refuse to give service when asked; and although military orders enjoyed less freedom in Spain, they were displaying a growing reluctance to give service there in the second half of the thirteenth century. The registers of the Aragonese kings include not only repeated summonses after orders had failed to respond to a first request for service, but also threats of action against the orders’ property for non-compliance with royal demands. Yet, if there were times when military orders could not be relied upon, in the East and in the Baltic region they made significant contributions in the field against the infidel, and on all fronts they played an important role in the garrisoning and defence of strongholds. Already in the mid-twelfth century, Amalric of Jerusalem was telling the French king that ‘if we can achieve anything, it is through them that we are able to do it’.
On the battlefield, the Hospital and some Spanish orders appear to have provided care for the injured and wounded; but charitable activities—which formed part of the functions of all military orders—were mainly performed away from the field of battle. When it was amalgamated with the ransom hospital of the Holy Redeemer in 1188, Montegaudio assumed the task of ransoming Christian captives, and the rule of Santiago stated that all booty taken by that order was to be used for a similar purpose. Santiago came, in fact, to possess ransom hospitals in most parts of the Iberian peninsula. The Hospital of St John and the Teutonic Order had both been founded for the care of the poor and sick, and they continued this task after they had become military orders. Although in the later twelfth century Pope Alexander III expressed concern that the Hospital’s military functions were adversely affecting its charitable work, the pilgrim John of Wurzburg, who visited Jerusalem in the 1160s, wrote of the Hospital that: ‘a great number of sick—both men and women—is gathered in various buildings, and is daily restored to health at great expense. When I was there, I learned from the report of the servitors themselves that the sick totalled up to two thousand.’ The Templars, as was frequently pointed out during their trial, were under no obligation to provide hospitality, but they—like all other military orders—were expected to dispense alms regularly. This duty was partly fulfilled by assigning to the poor a tenth of the bread baked and used in Templar convents.
Members of all orders inevitably became involved in estate management, and the Teutonic Order assumed responsibility for the government of the whole of Prussia, while the leading orders in the Holy Land also wielded considerable political power. Several orders—especially the Temple—also developed banking and moneylending interests. Their convents were often used as places of deposit for money, jewels, and documents. It has sometimes been emphasized that the orders’ military and religious character made them particularly suited to this task, although it should not be assumed that all convents away from frontier regions were located in well-fortified strongholds. Some deposits were merely for safekeeping, but orders could also arrange the transfer of goods from one place to another. Operations of this kind were facilitated by the network of convents which the leading orders possessed throughout western Christendom. Many deposits were of an occasional nature, but some individuals had a current account with the Temple, which regularly received the client’s revenues and made payments on his behalf. For much of the thirteenth century the Temple in Paris acted as a treasury for the French kings; and many nobles, including several of Louis IX’s brothers, had accounts with the Templars there.
The Templars also became particularly important as moneylenders. In Aragon, for example, they were advancing money as early as the 1130s, and in the later thirteenth century they were regularly making loans to the Aragonese crown. In the twelfth century, loans were usually sought in order to meet a special need, but in the following century borrowing became a regular feature of government financing: rulers’ cash obligations were increasing, and to meet financial needs they often anticipated their revenues by resorting to short-term loans. They turned to those whose capital was sufficient to provide large sums, and these included not only firms of Italian merchants, but also the Templars, although there were occasions when the Temple was itself obliged to borrow in order to meet royal demands for money: to retain royal favour it could not easily reject requests for loans.
The orders’ military and charitable activities inevitably necessitated very considerable expenditure, and were dependent on the availability of adequate resources. Income was obtained in various ways. Successful warfare was itself a source, usually in the form of booty and estates in conquered territories, while on some fronts tribute was also obtained. But most orders received much of their income from property situated in regions away from frontier districts. The Temple and Hospital were able to assume a leading role in the defence of the Holy Land because they—unlike rulers and nobles in the Latin East, who had to rely mainly on income obtained locally—could draw regularly on sources of revenue in all parts of western Christendom. These were, however, the only orders which gained considerable holdings in all areas of the West.
Gifts in regions away from the borders of western Christendom were made by all ranks of lay society, though patronage by the secular clergy was limited. By their donations, benefactors were in part seeking to further the Christian cause against the infidel. In the twelfth century, the concept of holy war was still comparatively new, and influenced patterns of patronage at a time when the popularity of older monasteries was waning. Some had more particular reasons for supporting a military order: a gift was sometimes a substitute for going on a crusade, while some patrons were men who had taken the cross and had personal experience of the orders’ military and charitable operations. In deciding to patronize a military order, individuals were sometimes influenced by personal and family links, and geographical factors were also of importance: benefactors often patronized an order which had a convent in their neighbourhood. But by their gifts all donors were seeking divine favour, to be shown both in this world and in the next. The names of patrons were included in prayers said in an order’s convents, although benefactors of military orders did not usually seek to found new convents in the way in which monasteries were commonly endowed by wealthy patrons. Twelfth-century benefactors expected the income from their donations to be used primarily for military and charitable purposes. In the thirteenth century, however, there was a growing tendency for patrons to make gifts for the endowment of chantry priests, and for masses or for lamps which were to burn before altars in orders’ chapels. Some donors also expected to obtain the more material benefits—such as maintenance—which were frequently assigned to monastic benefactors.
Military orders added to gifts of land by purchasing property. They were investing surplus revenues in a way which would bring long-term profit; and in some districts purchases were more numerous than donations, although usually not as valuable. Acquisitions made by gift and purchase were very varied in nature. Since military and charitable activities were costly, military orders could not, like some monastic foundations, place restrictions on the kinds of property which were considered acceptable. The second clause of the rule of the Teutonic Order states that, because of the expense of warfare and of caring for the poor and sick, ‘the brothers can have both movable and immovable property . . . namely, lands and fields, vineyards, townships, mills, fortifications, parish churches, chapels, tithes, and the like’. This list is not exhaustive: gifts of horses and armour or of cash were common, and the orders also received privileges, which either provided opportunities for increasing their income or allowed them to retain more of their revenues for their own use. The papacy, for example, allowed those who made an annual benefaction to an order to have a seventh of their penance remitted, and most orders also obtained from the papacy a partial exemption from the payment of tithes. Orders could also increase their income by involving themselves in the land reclamation which was taking place in most parts of western Christendom during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Moneylending was a further source of income, although few details have survived of the profits made. It was commonly said, however, that the orders also sought to increase their revenues by abusing their rights and privileges.
Although military orders had various ways of obtaining wealth, not all of these retained their importance. In Syria and in Spain, where the Reconquista came to a halt in the mid-thirteenth century, opportunities for profiting from war against the infidel dwindled; and in most districts away from the Christian frontiers the flow of donations declined in the thirteenth century, as did the number of purchases. The military orders were losing their popularity with patrons, while the decline in purchases is to be related to the orders’ financial situation.
Orders were not only failing to increase their wealth: they were also losing existing sources of revenue. Estates in the East were lost as the Mamluks advanced: in 1268 the Hospitaller master was claiming that he had received no revenues in the kingdom of Jerusalem for eight years. But the frequency of papal threats against those who harmed the possessions of the military orders shows that the retention of rights anywhere in western Christendom required constant vigilance. Among those who did manage to encroach on those rights were the secular clergy, who were anxious, in their own financial interest, to restrict the orders’ privileges in matters such as the right of burial. The orders were also affected by more general trends, such as inflation, and in many parts of western Christendom income was reduced, at least in the short term, by warfare and other disturbances.
Nor should it be imagined that most of the revenues which the orders did receive could be devoted to military and charitable activities, or investment in property. A large part of Templar and Hospitaller income in western Europe was used for maintaining brethren resident there, for it was in the West that the majority of Templars and Hospitallers lived. Religious obligations in the form of chantries and masses also consumed revenues: according to an inquest compiled in 1309, more than a quarter of the Templars’ income at Cressing, in Essex, was used for this purpose. Payments also had to be made to those who were promised maintenance, and to men whose favour an order needed. The orders’ disposable income was further reduced by the dues and taxes which were owed to outsiders. In the thirteenth century earlier exemptions were restricted: thus tithe exemptions were limited by Innocent III in 1215, and were further reduced by local compromises after conflicts with diocesans. Some secular rulers, faced by growing financial needs, similarly sought to reduce the exemptions from taxation which their predecessors had earlier granted. The orders were also expected to contribute to new forms of general taxation which were being exacted in the thirteenth century by both kings and popes: although the papacy did not demand contributions to taxes which it imposed in aid of the Holy Land, the orders were on various occasions asked for subsidies for papal needs in the West.
While some of the smaller orders, such as Monfrague, never possessed sufficient revenues to become viable, even well-established foundations often experienced financial difficulties when taking on additional burdens or when they had suffered serious military setbacks. The Hospital, for example, overreached itself by giving over-enthusiastic support to plans for the conquest of Egypt in the 1160s, and in Spain the Castilian king found it necessary to subsidize Calatrava after its losses in the aftermath of the defeat at Alarcos. Yet during the course of the thirteenth century there is growing evidence of more long-term financial difficulties experienced by the leading orders. References to debts increase, and these were by no means always short-term debts. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Hospitallers sought to overcome financial difficulties in Germany partly by restricting recruitment and banning new building; but a more common solution was to alienate property. This might provide relief in the short-term, but at the expense of long-term income.
Both charitable and military activities were affected by these problems. In 1306 the Hospitaller master was asserting that his order no longer had the resources to maintain the sick adequately, and on several occasions in the later thirteenth century Templar masters claimed that, because of poverty, it might become necessary to abandon the Holy Land. In Spain the master of Santiago was similarly arguing in 1233 that his resources were scarcely adequate to defend his order’s strongholds, and the growing reluctance to give service in the Iberian peninsula appears to have been occasioned by financial problems. Many orders were finding it increasingly difficult to carry out their obligations.
A steady supply of recruits, as well as of cash resources, was needed, especially as the mortality rate in military orders was likely to be higher than in religious houses of a contemplative nature. Most military orders recruited mainly, though not exclusively, in one region: postulants to the Spanish orders came principally from the Iberian peninsula, and most members of the Teutonic Order were German-speaking. Only the Templars and Hospitallers regularly attracted applicants through out western Christendom, although even these orders looked to France as their chief area of recruitment. As in monastic orders, however, there were entry requirements. All recruits had to be of free status, and in the thirteenth century knightly descent was required of those wishing to enter the rank of knight. Knightly recruits to the Temple and Hospital at that time also had to be of legitimate birth. Knightly postulants comprised, however, only a minority of recruits in orders such as the Temple and Hospital: the majority entered the rank of sergeant. In most orders married postulants were not allowed to join without the assent of their spouses, and recruits were further questioned about their health and financial status. In the earlier Middle Ages, religious houses had commonly been regarded as suitable places of refuge for deformed or handicapped offspring, and the military orders particularly wanted to avoid being saddled with these; they also sought to ensure that they were not burdened with a recruit’s debts. Although in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was growing opposition in the Church to the requirement that recruits to the religious life should make a gift on entry, this practice was slow to die out in the military orders. These orders were, however, more in line with current Church practice in rejecting child oblation. Although it was not uncommon for sons of nobles to be reared in a convent, instead of being placed in a noble household, children who lived in the house of a military order were under no obligation to take vows; and several orders set minimum age limits for entry. The records of the Templar trial show that in practice a few joined when they were only 10 or 11, but these were exceptions: the average age of recruitment was the mid-2os.
As is clear from the wording of regulations, however, this did not mean that parents were deprived of all say in their children’s choice of career. Younger sons, who comprised a considerable proportion of recruits, were, moreover, often in need of a livelihood. The words addressed to postulants at admission ceremonies imply that entry was seen by some to offer a comfortable existence. In some instances it also promised enhanced social status. That considerations of these kinds were often of importance is suggested by the claim made by one Templar that when he joined ‘they asked him why he wanted to do this, since he was noble and rich and had enough land’. Yet most surviving sources stress the spiritual concerns of recruits, and these should not be discounted too lightly. To some, especially in the early crusading period, fighting against the infidel may have seemed a more comprehensible way of serving God, and of securing salvation, than enclosure in a monastery. There was, however, also the further factor that military orders were less exclusive than monasteries: those who might enter monasteries only as conversi could become full members of a military order. Nor should family and neighbourhood links with an order be overlooked when explaining recruitment.
Difficulty in attracting recruits was most often encountered in an order’s early years; and some foundations, such as Montegaudio, may never have overcome the problem of attracting sufficient numbers of postulants. But once they had become established, the Temple and Hospital—though attracting few clerical postulants—seem to have had little difficulty in recruiting enough laymen in most parts of the West, even in the thirteenth century. Some postulants were able to gain admission only through the intervention of influential patrons, and the chronicler Matthew Paris reports that after the defeat at La Forbie in 1244 the Templars and Hospitallers ‘admitted to their orders many selected laymen’. In the thirteenth century the situation faced by military orders in the Iberian peninsula may not, however, have been so favourable.
In the years immediately following its foundation, a military order consisted of a small group of brethren under the leadership of a master: at this stage little governmental machinery was needed. As property and recruits were gained, however, it became the norm to establish subordinate convents, both in frontier regions and elsewhere. If expansion was considerable, an intermediate tier of government between convents and an order’s headquarters was soon needed, since it became difficult for masters to supervise distant convents, and a system was needed by which resources and recruits could easily be channelled to frontier regions from convents in other parts of western Christendom. Orders which fought on several fronts also required a military leader in each district. The forms of organization then existing in the monastic world hardly suited the purposes of military orders, and the more important of these adopted the practice of grouping the convents in a region into what were called provinces or priories. Although there were variations in detail, the leading orders adopted a three-tier system of government.
In frontier districts, convents were often located in castles and had military responsibilities, whereas elsewhere a primary task was the administration of property in the surrounding district. Most members of a convent were normally lay brethren, though some orders, such as Santiago, had a number of separate convents for clerics, and several military orders possessed houses of sisters. Convents of sisters sometimes contained as many as forty or fifty members, but male houses away from frontier regions usually contained no more than a handful of brothers, who were far outnumbered by the outsiders who lived or worked there. The head of a convent was generally called a ‘preceptor’ or ‘commander’ and was normally imposed from above, and not elected by the members of the house. He had to see that the rule was followed, and in frontier districts he led his brethren in the field; he was also responsible for the administration of his convent’s property, from the revenues of which in non-frontier districts a portion had to be paid each year to his superior. He had few subordinate officials, but was expected to govern with the advice of the conventual chapter, which normally met once a week. Heads of provinces or priories were also appointed from above, and had functions similar to those of commanders. In the Temple, Hospital, and Teutonic Order, heads of provinces in western Europe were normally under the obligation of sending a responsion of a third of their provinces’ revenues to headquarters. At this level there were again few assistant officials, but provincial masters were counselled by provincial chapters, which met annually and were attended by heads of convents. At the headquarters of the leading orders, the master was assisted by officials who included a grand commander, a marshal with military responsibilities, and a drapier who had charge of clothing; these offices are not, however, encountered in smaller orders. A master would consult the members of his central convent, who presumably met each week in chapter, and all orders of any size adopted the practice of holding periodic general chapters, at which some brethren from the various provinces were present.
At all levels, therefore, officials were counterbalanced by chapters. On some issues, such as the admission of recruits, there was often a requirement that decisions should be taken at chapter meetings, and it also became the norm for several other types of business to be transacted there. Central and provincial chapters were occasions when dues were paid and accounts rendered. In some orders the latter obligation was linked with a periodic surrender of offices: appointments were therefore also commonly made at chapter meetings. Yet officials in practice enjoyed a considerable freedom of action, and were not dominated by their subordinates. Provincial and general chapters met only infrequently, and lacked continuity of membership; and not all chapters had seals of their own. Even when checks did exist, there seems to have been little desire to shackle officials too rigidly. It was usually only when there had been persistent misconduct that subordinates stepped in, as happened in the Hospital in 1296, when the central convent sought to remedy abuses perpetrated by a series of recent masters. The vow of obedience perhaps exercised a restraining influence on subordinates, but it should be remembered that in the secular world there was a similar reluctance to impose permanent restrictions on rulers.
Officials did not, on the other hand, always find it easy to maintain close supervision over all their subordinates. Masters of the leading military orders were seeking to exercise authority throughout western Christendom, and in orders based in the Holy Land the situation was made more difficult by the fact that their headquarters were not in a central position geographically. Visitation became a customary practice in all the bigger orders; yet, although heads of provinces could carry out this task in person, masters of orders usually had to act through delegates. There was obviously the possibility of a trend towards provincial independence, especially as most brothers were natives of the district where they resided, and there was a danger that local ties and loyalties would take precedence over obedience to the master. Yet, although provinces sometimes defaulted on their financial obligations, the only serious attempt to achieve greater provincial independence before 1300 was that made at the end of the thirteenth century by brethren of Santiago in Portugal: with the support of the Portuguese king, they succeeded in reducing the master’s authority over them.
Convents of clerics or of sisters, unlike those in which lay brethren predominated, often had the right to elect their own head; and lay brothers were, of course, subject in spiritual matters to their priestly colleagues. But the government of military orders rested mainly in the hands of brethren who were lay brothers, and at the upper levels in the hands of knightly brothers. Leading central officials and heads of provinces usually belonged to the rank of knight, and knights were certainly the largest group at the Temple’s central convent, where the day-today business of the order was conducted. They were also the largest element in general chapters, and in the Temple and Teutonic Order are known to have predominated in the committees which elected new masters, for these consisted of eight knights, four sergeants and one chaplain. At the more local level, knights were usually in charge of convents belonging to the leading orders in frontier regions, but in other areas of western Christendom commanders were often sergeants, and they sometimes had knights among their subordinates. In these regions, appointments seem to have been determined by suitability for a post, rather than rank. Chapters of local convents were also made up largely of sergeants, as the latter comprised the largest group in areas away from Christian frontiers. The roles assigned to the various ranks did not always make for harmony, but the only prolonged dissensions between ranks seem to have been those in Santiago and Calatrava, where clerics repeatedly complained of encroachment on their rights, and in the Hospital, where the sisters of Sigena in Aragon clashed on a number of occasions with the head of their province.
Military orders did not have complete control over their own affairs. Although most enjoyed the privilege of exemption and were thus freed from episcopal jurisdiction, they remained subject to papal authority, and popes intervened when they considered that there was a need for correction. There was also occasional papal interference in appointments to offices in military orders: this happened either for political reasons or because a pope wished to favour a protégé. Intervention of this kind was also practised by kings, and for the same reasons, while the dispatch of responsions to the Holy Land was on occasion hindered by secular rulers in the West. Military orders which were affiliated to other religious foundations were, however, subject to more regular external supervision. Several Spanish orders, including Calatrava, Montegaudio, and Santa Maria de Espana, were affiliated to the Cistercians, while Avis and Alcantara became affiliated to Calatrava. The reasons for these arrangements are not always known, although in the case of Calatrava affiliation is to be explained by the circumstances of the order’s foundation: it was established after the Cistercian abbot of Fitero had accepted responsibility for the defence of the castle of Calatrava in 1158, when the Templars could no longer hold it. The relationship which was established was similar to that which obtained between Cistercian houses, with the head of the mother house having the right of visitation, and a role in the election of masters. Yet most military orders were in theory subject only to the pope.
Recruits to military orders took the normal monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—the exception was Santiago, which admitted married men to full membership—and they were expected to live a coenobitic form of life within a convent, sleeping in a dormitory and eating in a refectory. All brothers resident in convents were obliged to attend services but, since many were illiterate, they were merely expected to listen as chaplains recited offices, and to say a certain number of paternosters for each of the canonical hours. The periods between services were taken up by practical pursuits. Meditative reading was not expected of lay brethren; and although literary activity was not entirely lacking in the military orders, the only books found in most Templar convents at the time of the Templar trial were those needed for the conduct of services. Administration and charitable work occupied some brethren, while sergeants often performed household or agricultural tasks. Little is known, however, of the military training and exercises undertaken during periods of peace. Rules and regulations were merely concerned to ensure that activities characteristic of secular knighthood, such as hunting and hawking, were shunned. In the words of the Templar Rule, ‘it is not appropriate for a religious order to indulge in this way in worldly pleasures’, although in waste lands brethren of Calatrava were allowed to eat animals they had hunted. Unlike monks, members of military orders were in fact permitted to eat meat, though usually on only three days a week. The fasts to which they were subjected were also less rigorous than in monasteries, and additional fasting without permission was prohibited. Although—except in the Baltic—the main periods of fasting did not coincide with the campaigning season, and although only a minority of brethren were actually engaged in warfare, the concern was to ensure that brethren were strong enough to fight. As in monasteries, silence was normally to be observed at mealtimes, although the Templar Rule did accept that ignorance of sign-language might necessitate some talking during meals. In the matter of clothing the Templar Rule also made a concession by allowing linen, instead of wool, to be worn between Easter and All Saints because of the Syrian heat. But simplicity was to be maintained in clothing and equipment, and extravagance avoided.
Graded schemes of penalties were devised to punish those who contravened regulations, with sentences ranging from expulsion to merely a few days’ penance, sometimes accompanied by a beating. Yet decrees could not prevent breaches of discipline, and there were also some permitted relaxations of observance. The common life was not maintained in its entirety. There is a growing number of references to rooms or quarters belonging to individual officials, and by the beginning of the fourteenth century ordinary brothers at the Hospital’s headquarters at Limassol appear to have been occupying cells or rooms of their own. References to dormitories—both in leading and in smaller houses—are, however, encountered in the records of the Templar trial. There were also some permitted relaxations of food regulations: these were sometimes, though not always, justified by military needs. Rules concerning dress and equipment were not relaxed, but were difficult to enforce. Thirteenth- century Hospitaller statutes, for example, contain repeated condemnations of embroidered clothing and of gold and silver on equipment. Nor were restrictions on hunting uniformly observed.
The enforcement of a strict regime of life in military orders was often hindered by the absence of a novitiate, which would have allowed both a postulant and those who received him to assess his suitability for the religious life, and which would also have provided an opportunity for instruction. Although Calatrava continued to insist on a probationary period, by the mid-thirteenth century recruits to the Teutonic Order could be admitted without a novitiate, and in the Temple it disappeared altogether. Even when there was no probationary period, however, orders did seek to provide some instruction: in the Temple this was first undertaken at the end of the admission ceremony, when the recruit was told of the penalties for various offences and given details about the daily routine. Yet for the recruit this could not have been a very effective way of learning and, although in the Temple, as in other orders, there were periodic public readings of regulations, the records of the Templar trial in the early fourteenth century reveal widespread ignorance and inaccurate knowledge among brethren. Very varied assessments were given, for example, about the number of paternosters to be said for each office. The absence of a novitiate, together with the illiteracy of many brothers, inevitably created special problems; but declining standards were a common phenomenon throughout the monastic world.
Critics and Changing Roles
Although the flow of donations was maintained until well into the thirteenth century, and recruits to the leading orders continued to come forward, the military orders became subjected during the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to a widening range of criticism. The doubts which had been expressed when the institution first emerged were echoed by some later writers, but the orders were increasingly attacked on other grounds. They were commonly accused of both pride and avarice. But there was also growing censure of the uses to which the orders put their wealth. Some critics argued that brethren lived a life of ease and luxury, and that they devoted their revenues to this end. It was held that, in consequence, the orders were not maintaining as many knights in frontier regions, especially the Holy Land, as they should: among those who voiced this argument were the St Albans’ chronicler Matthew Paris in his Chronica majora and the dean of Lincoln at the Council of Lyons in 1274. Brethren who did reside in frontier regions were blamed for a readiness to use force against fellow Christians. This complaint was frequently made of the Teutonic Order in the Baltic region, and it was also claimed more widely that the orders, especially the Templars and Hospitallers, were turning their weapons on each other because of the bitter rivalry which was thought to exist between them. Rivalry was further seen to hamper fruitful co-operation in battle. Effective military action against Muslims in the East was also thought to be hindered by the independence enjoyed by the orders, while another claim was that military orders in the eastern Mediterranean region were reluctant to pursue aggressive policies towards the infidel. When, for example, the Templars and Hospitallers counselled against attacking Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, they incurred the censure of French crusaders. They were in fact thought by some to be on rather too friendly terms with the Muslims. On the other hand, the English Franciscan Roger Bacon in the 1260s criticized them for fighting at all. His argument, which was one of expediency, was that their military activities impeded the conversion of the infidel. This was clearly a minority view, but the Swordbrethren and the Teutonic Order in the Baltic region were on various occasions criticized for not furthering conversion and for adopting policies which hindered it.
Such criticisms must obviously be seen in context. All religious orders had their detractors. Nor were all who commented on the military orders uniformly critical: these institutions had their defenders, even among those who were at times ready to pass censure. Popes expressed criticism, but they also supported the orders throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some critics were clearly biased. The secular clergy lost income and authority as a result of the privileges granted to the orders by the papacy, and in the thirteenth century they were also repeatedly being asked to contribute to taxes in aid of the Holy Land. In the Baltic region many detractors were rivals of the Teutonic Order. Some of the orders’ opponents were, moreover, not basing their comments on personal experience, but merely repeating what had become the conventional view. Many critics were also ill-informed and had only a limited understanding of the orders’ position. They had an exaggerated notion of the military orders’ resources, and therefore assumed that these orders should have no difficulty in financing the defence of the Holy Land. But inventories drawn up during the Templar trial reveal few signs of affluence. The extent of rivalry was similarly exaggerated. Complaints about the orders’ policies towards the infidel in the Holy Land are to be explained partly by misconceptions and differences of outlook. Crusaders often lacked a clear understanding of the political circumstances in the East and did not comprehend where the interests of the Latin settlements lay in the long term; they had come to fight the infidel and favoured aggressive policies, without thought for the future.
Yet not all criticism was unfair. The orders did at times abuse privileges; and the use of arms against fellow Christians could not always be justified by the argument of self-defence, while the Teutonic Order’s determination to assert its independence first in Hungary and then in Prussia suggests that it was concerned not merely with furthering the struggle against the infidel.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century the military orders were thought by many to be in need of major reform. The ecclesiastical authorities, as well as the authors of crusading treatises, devoted considerable attention to the matter. Some suggested that the orders’ independence in the eastern Mediterranean region should be curbed, but more frequently it was argued that, to avoid rivalry, some or all of the military orders should be amalgamated. This view was advanced by many theorists, such as Raymond Lull and Peter Dubois, and also by the provincial councils which were summoned to consider the issue by Pope Nicholas IV in 1291. In some of these councils it was also advocated that the orders’ resources should be assessed to discover how many knights could be maintained from their lands. Peter Dubois, however, was of the opinion that their properties in the West should be confiscated and used in other ways for crusading purposes.
Although some theorists looked forward to a future when a single military order would assume the leadership of the Christian cause in the eastern Mediterranean, the proposed reforms were not implemented. Change resulted instead from altered circumstances in frontier regions. It took place most gradually in Spain, where the Reconquista had come to a halt in the mid-thirteenth century. The emphasis shifted towards involvement in conflicts between Christians. Spanish rulers came to expect military orders to give service against their Christian rivals, as happened when the French invaded Aragon in 1285; and in Castile the orders were caught up in the internal struggles of the later thirteenth century. In the eastern Mediterranean, the collapse of the Latin settlements in 1291 might seem to provide a clearer turning point; but the losses of that year did not immediately destroy the orders’ raison d’etre, for it was not apparent to contemporaries that the Holy Land had been lost for good. The Templars and Hospitallers, together with St Thomas of Acre, moved their headquarters to Cyprus, which was only 100 miles from the Syrian coast, and in the following years several expeditions against Islam were launched from there, while Templar and Hospitaller masters entered the current discussions about the best way of recovering the Holy Land. Yet the Hospitallers encountered problems in Cyprus, and in the first decade of the fourteenth century created a new role for themselves by conquering the island of Rhodes, off the south-west coast of Asia Minor. Apparently in the meantime the order of St Lazarus transferred its headquarters to France, where it no longer had a military role, while the master and convent of the Teutonic Order established themselves in Venice. But in 1309 the headquarters of the Teutonic Order were moved again to Marienburg in Prussia, and from that date the order’s interests became centred in the Baltic region.
The Trial of the Templars
While other orders were assuming new roles, the Temple was abolished. In October 1307—the order’s headquarters were then still in Cyprus—the Templars in France were suddenly arrested on the initiative of King Philip IV. It was claimed that during admission ceremonies recruits were forced to deny Christ, to spit on the cross, and to engage in indecent kissing; brethren were also accused of worshipping idols, and the order was said to encourage homosexual practices. Pope Clement V protested against Philip’s action, but after the Templar master, James of Molay, and numerous Templars had made confessions, he ordered all western rulers to arrest the Templars and seize their property. The only district where considerable difficulty was encountered in implementing the pope’s instructions was Aragon, where the Templars shut themselves up in their castles and resisted, in some cases for more than a year. In the early months of 1308 further investigation of the accusations was delayed by squabbles between Philip and the pope, but by 1311 inquiries had been conducted by inquisitors and prelates in all countries of the West. The results varied. Although in France and some parts of Italy most Templars admitted the more serious charges, no confessions on these issues were obtained in Cyprus, Aragon, Castile, or Portugal, while in England only three Templars admitted the truth of the main accusations. It was against this background that the Council of Vienne met late in 1311 to decide the fate of the order. A group of Templars who arrived to plead in the order’s defence were not heard, although the majority of the prelates present felt that they should be given a hearing; and on 22 March 1312, two days after Philip IV had arrived at Vienne, Clement pronounced the abolition of the order. Most of the surviving Templars were quickly pensioned off, but the fate of Templar property was an issue which was not so easily resolved.
Since the time of the trial there have been two main topics of discussion concerning the suppression of the Templars. The first concerns their guilt or innocence, and the second the motives of Philip IV. It is difficult to believe that the Templars were guilty of the more serious offences of which they were accused. The absence of incriminating evidence, such as idols and copies of secret statutes, particularly in France, where the Templars were taken by surprise, is in itself significant. Furthermore, the testimonies of those who confessed to the more important charges are hardly convincing: they are not consistent, and no plausible explanations were advanced for the introduction of the practices mentioned in the articles of accusation, while even in France none sought to defend the alleged activities. The confessions convey the impression that large numbers of Templars were doing what none of them believed in; and some French Templars later retracted their confessions, a step that would have been of no benefit to the guilty. Nor is it likely that, if the practices had been of long duration, they would have escaped detection earlier, for in the Temple, as in other orders, there had been apostasies, and many brethren had made confessions before the trial to non-Templar priests. In this context, it is noteworthy that during the trial no witness who had heard Templar confessions before 1307 claimed to have encountered error. It should also be remembered that the accusations against the Templars were not new: precedents can be found in charges made earlier against alleged heretics or against Muslims. There remains the fact that many Templars did confess; but this result was achieved through persistent and skilful interrogation, deprivation, and torture: the innocent have often been found guilty by these means.
It is more difficult to discern the motivation behind the arrest of the French Templars, partly because there has been uncertainty about the extent of the king’s own involvement in decision-making. It has commonly been argued that the French crown was in need of money and that the motive was financial. Certainly the French king, like all other rulers, did obtain shortterm financial benefit while Templar property was under his control. But this is not necessarily an indication of the primary motive; and the French government does not seem to have pressed persistently for long-term financial advantages. The further argument has been advanced that the crown was seeking to extend its authority and could not tolerate an independent, military, and aristocratic organization within its kingdom. But in France the Temple was scarcely military in character; its membership was not primarily aristocratic; and its independence was in practice limited. The trial has also been interpreted as an affirmation of monarchical power over that of the papacy. Yet a case involving heresy and idolatry was hardly best suited for the purpose: the French government had to accept that passing judgement on the order was a matter for the pope, even if it was able to browbeat and influence him. Some contemporaries set the trial against the background of recent proposals which were partly designed to extend French influence in the Holy Land; but it is not clear that any of these emanated from the French government and it is difficult to relate them to the crown’s stance during the trial. It is possible, however, that Philip actually believed rumours which had been circulating about the Templars. He seems to have become increasingly preoccupied with matters of religion after the death of his wife in 1305, and he may have doubted whether the pope would take what he would have regarded as adequate action. But it is difficult to reach definitive conclusions.
The early fourteenth century in many ways marks the end of the first stage of the history of the military orders. Yet, although the Temple was abolished and all orders criticized, the institution was still seen to be of value, even though in the fourteenth century the orders’ roles were being modified.