The Poor Knights of Christ


The Beginning of the Order

How does a legend begin? In the case of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, it began in obscurity. No contemporary chronicler mentions their existence. We only know they existed by 1125 because there is a charter from that year witnessed byHugh de Payns in which he is called the “Master of the Temple.”1

Later generations would tell the story of the first Templars, each one a little differently:

At the beginning of the reign of Baldwin II, a Frenchman came from Rome to Jerusalem to pray. He had made a vow not to return to his own country, but to become a monk after helping the king in the war for three years; he and the thirty knights who accompanied him would end their lives in Jerusalem. When the king and his barons saw that they had achieved remarkable things in the war . . . they advised the man to serve in the army with his thirty knights and defend the place against brigands rather than to become a monk in the hope of saving his own soul.2

That is the explanation for the beginning of the Templars given by Michael, the Syrian patriarch of Antioch, in about 1190. At about the same time, an Englishman, Walter Map, gave a somewhat different account:

A knight called Payns, from a district of Burgundy of the same name, came as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. When he heard that the Christians who watered their horses at a cistern not far outside the gates of Jerusalem were constantly attacked by the pagans, and that many of the believers were slain in these ambuscades, he pitied them, and . . . he tried to protect them as far as he could. He frequently sprang to their aid from well-chosen hiding places and slew many of the enemy.3

Walter views the founder of the order as a sort of Lone Ranger who eventually enlisted other knights to join him in his work. This would make a good movie plot, but it is unlikely that a man doing this would live long enough to establish an order of knights.

Yet another story of the first Templars is from a later writer, Bernard, a monk at Corbie. He wrote in 1232, over a hundred years after the order began, but he was drawing on a now lost version by a nobleman named Ernoul living in Jerusalem about the same time as the other writers. Bernard wrote:

When the Christians had conquered Jerusalem, they installed themselves at the Temple of the Sepulcher and many more came there from everywhere. And they obeyed the prior of the sepulcher. The good knights there took counsel among themselves and said, “We have abandoned our lands and our friends and have come here to elevate and glorify the rule of God. If we stay here, drinking, eating and hanging around, without doing work, then we carry our weapons for nothing. This land has need of them. . . . Let us get together and make one of us the master of us all . . . to lead us in battle when it occurs.”4

So Bernard believed that the men had originally been pilgrims, perhaps staying at the church of the Sepulcher under the supervision of a priest, and it was only through boredom that they decided to form a fighting unit.

Finally we have the account of William, Archbishop of Tyre. He is the one most often quoted and it is his version that has most often been accepted. Since he was born in Jerusalem and educated in Europe, he had both access to the records and the polished style necessary to present the history.

In that same year [1119] some noblemen of knightly rank, devoted to God, pious and God fearing, placed themselves in the hands of the lord patriarch for the service of Christ, professing the wish to live perpetually in the manner of regular canons in chastity, and obedience, without personal belongings. The leading and most eminent of these men were the venerable Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of St. Omer. As they had neither church nor fixed abode, the king gave them a temporary home in his palace which was on the south side of the Temple of the Lord, . . . Their main duty, imposed on them by the patriarch and the other bishops for the remission of their sins, was that they should maintain the safety of the roads and the highways to the best of their ability, for the benefit of pilgrims in particular, against attacks of bandits and marauders. 5

These explanations have a few things in common. They all imply that Hugh de Payns was the first of the Templars and that King Baldwin II of Jerusalem was the one to recognize them, either as knights committed to the protection of pilgrims or as a group of religious men who wished to devote their military skill to the defense of the Christian settlements. They also agree that at first the Templars lived at the site the crusaders believed to be the temple of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus had been buried. It was only after they became a military order that the men moved to the king’s palace, in what was believed to be the Temple of Solomon. They may have shared quarters at the beginning with the Hospitallers, who had been established in the Holy Land since 1070.

The chronicles are unclear on whose idea it was to have an order of men who lived like monks and fought like soldiers. After all, fighting monks? That didn’t make sense. Men who fought had to shed blood; shedding blood was a sin. Monks prayed for the souls of warriors while deploring their violence. The idea was that fighting men were a necessary evil to protect society from the lawless. Some of them would find religion, give up their aggressive ways, and join a monastery, but who ever heard of a religious order whose mission was to go into battle?

It was an idea born of desperation. With the success of the first wave of crusaders, Jerusalem and the sites of the Bible were once again open to Christian pilgrims. And the pilgrims came in droves from all the corners of Christendom.

But, while the cities of Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch, and Acre had been taken, the roads that connected them were still, for the most part, in the hands of the Moslems. And there were a number of towns that had not been conquered. The pilgrims were fair game for raiding parties. At Easter in 1119 a party of some seven hundred was attacked while going from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. Three hundred of them were killed and another sixty captured and sold into slavery.6

Walter Map’s story of Hugh de Payns single-handedly guarding a watering hole may have come not from the Templars but from the experiences of a Russian, the abbot Daniel. In about 1107, he told of a place between Jaffa and Jerusalem where the pilgrims could get water. They would stay there for the night “in great fear” for it was near the Moslem town of Ascalon from “whence the Saracens would issue and massacre the pilgrims.”7

Despite the dangers, people were still determined to make the journey. The initial conquest of the Holy Land had been meant to reopen Jerusalem to pilgrims. Something had to be done to protect them. But King Baldwin and the other crusader lords didn’t have the men or the resources to patrol all the routes to the sites of the Bible that the pilgrims were determined to see. Whoever had the idea for the Templars, it was greeted with enthusiasm by local lords. In the end it was decided that Hugh and his friends could serve God best by keeping His pilgrims safe.

The Templars were at first a local group with no connection to the papacy. They received the approval of the patriarch of Jerusalem, Garmund, 1 and may have been presented at a church council held at the town of Nablus on January 23, 1120.

The council was not convened to establish the Knights of the Temple but to discuss problems that had developed in the twenty years since the founding of the Latin kingdoms. The main worry was that grasshoppers had been destroying the crops for the four years past. The general feeling was that this was a divine punishment because morals had slackened since the conquest of Jerusalem. So most of the twenty-five pronouncements that the council passed addressed the sins of the flesh.8

It is interesting that even though this was a religious council, there were as many lay lords as bishops participating. This shows that the concerns were widespread and needed to be solved by all those in power.

This council interests me because several historians of the Templars mention it as if it were important to the formation of the Templars, but, when I went to the official records, nothing was said about them.9Instead, the canons (laws) that were enacted at Nablus dwell on which sins the lords and clerics of Jerusalem thought were the worst. Seven of them forbid adultery or bigamy and four concern sodomy. Five more deal with sexual and other relations between Christians and Saracens, which were not allowed unless the Saracen had been baptized. The general implication seems to have been that if people stopped doing these things, the next harvest would be better.

There is no official report as to whether the decrees of the council were followed or if the next year’s crops were unmolested. From other sources, it appears that sins of the flesh were committed as usual.

The only canon that might relate to the Templars, a group still in its infancy, is number twenty: “If a cleric takes up arms in the cause of defense, he is not held to be guilty.”10 It does not mention knights becoming military clerics.

All the same, this was a radical departure. Despite the loosening of the command against general warfare in the case of those who fought for God, priests and monks had always been absolutely forbidden to fight.

However, at Antioch, the year before the council, Count Roger and most of his army had been killed outside the walls of the city in a battle still known as the “Field of Blood.” In order to save Antioch, the Frankish patriarch, Bernard, issued arms to anyone who could carry them, including monks and priests. Luckily, the clerics didn’t have to fight, but the precedent had been set.11

This was the atmosphere in which the Order of the Temple was formed.

ONE of the myths that the Templars told about their own beginning was that for the first nine years there were only nine knights. This is first mentioned in William of Tyre but was often repeated by later chroniclers who learned it from the Templars of their own time.12

Were there only nine members? Probably not. While the Order of the Temple didn’t seem to have grown very much in the first few years, it wouldn’t have lasted at all with so few men. The number nine might have been chosen because it went with the nine years from the founding until theCouncil of Troyes, where the order was given formal recognition.

Some scholars think the Templars may have been influenced by medieval number symbolism. Nine is a “circular number”: no matter how much it is multiplied, the digits always add up to nine or a multiple of it, “and therefore could be seen as incorruptible.”13Many years after the founding, the poet Dante surmised that the number nine was chosen because “nine is the holy cipher of the order of angels, three times the holy cipher three of the Trinity.”14

I don’t think that the first knights were well enough educated to come up with something that esoteric. However, William of Tyre was, and it is in his chronicle that we first find this idea. It’s very possible that the number was William’s invention and that it was taken up by the Templars of his time and added to their own version of their legend. There’s no way to tell, but the number nine did become part of Templar lore and was used in the artwork in some Templar chapels.15 From there it came to be considered a fact simply because the legend had been repeated so often.

So we know very little about the first years of the Knights Templar. There are a few charters from Jerusalem and Antioch that are witnessed by the early members. But these are not gifts to the Templars, merely evidence that these men existed and were in the Holy Land. There are no surviving records of donations to the order before 1124.16

It is human nature to want to fill in the gaps, the blank spaces on the maps, the parts of the story that don’t seem enough. This is what happened to the story of the first Templars. At the time, they weren’t considered important enough for the chroniclers to mention. But sixty-odd years later, when they were an important part of society, people wanted to know how it all began.

And so the legends were born and started to grow. They are growing still.

1Charters of the Holy Sepulcher no. 105, in Thierry Leroy, Huges de Payns (Troyes, 2001) p. 194.

2 Michael the Syrian, in Malcom Barber and Keith Bate, The Templars: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated (Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 27. Taken from the Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche Jacobite d’Antioch (1166-90), ed. and tr. J. B. Chabot (Paris: Ernest Lerous, 1905) p. 201.

3 Walter Map, De nugis curialium/Courtiers’ Trifles, tr. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle (London, 1924) p. 33.

4 Text in Anthony Luttrell, “The Earliest Templars,” in Autour de la première croisade. Acts du Colloque de la Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East (Clerment-Ferrend, 22-25 juin 1995) ed. M. Balard (Paris: Publications do la Sorbonne, 1996) p. 196. “Quant li Chrestiien orent conquis Jherusalem, si se rendirent asses de chevaliers au temple del Sepucre; et mout s’en I rendirent pius de toutes tieres. Es estoient obeissant au prieux dou Sepucre. Il i ot de boins chevaliers rendus; si prisent consel entr’iaus et disent: “Nous avoumes guerpies noz tieres et nos amis, et sommes chi venu pour la loy Dieu i lever et essauchier. Si sommes chi arreste pour boire et pour mengier at por despendre, sans oevre faire; ne noient ne faisons d’armes, et besoinge en est en le tiere: . . . Prendons consel et faisons mestre d’un de nos, . . . ke nous conduie en bataille quant lius en sera.” (my translation)

5William of Tyre in Barber and Bate, pp. 25-26. Text in Guillaume de Tyr, Chronique, ed. R. B. C. Huygens, 2 vols. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediavales 63 and 63A (Turnholt, 1986) 12.7 pp. 553-54 “Eodem anno quidam nobiles viri de equstri ordine, deo devotei religiosi et timentes deum, in monu domini patriarche Christi servicio se mancipantes, more canonicorum regularium in castitate et obedientia et sine proprio velle pertpetuo vivere professi sunt. Inter quos primi et precipui fuerenut viri vernerabiles Hugo de Pagainis et Gaufridus de Sancto Aldemaro. Quibus quoniam neque ecclesia erat neque certum habebant domicilium rex in palatio suo, quod secus Templum Domini as australem habet partem, eis ad tempus concessit habitaculum, . . . Prima autem eorum professio, quodque eis a domino patriarcha et reliquis episcopis in remissionem peccatorum iniunctum est, ut vias et itinera maxime ad salutem peregrinorum contra latronum et incursantium insidias pro viribus conservarent.”

6Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 9.

7Quoted in Edward Burman, The Templars, Knights of God (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1986) p. 16.

8Charles-Joseph Hefele and H. Leclerq, Histoires de Conciles d’apres les documents Originaux, t. Va (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912) p. 592.

9Benjamin Z. Kader, “On the Origins of the Earliest Laws of Frankish Jerusalem: The Canons of the Copuncil of Nablus, 1120,” Speculum April 1999 (Latin Canons reproduced from Bibiloteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Lat. 1345 Fols. 1r-3r) pp. 331-34.

10 Ibid. p. 334. “Si clericus causa defenssionis [sic] arma detulerit, culpa non teneantur.” (my translation)

11 Ibid. p. 332 and in article. See also Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades Vol. II (Cambridge University Press, 1952) pp. 150-52.

12William of Tyre, p. 554. “Cumque iam annis noven in eo fuissent proposito, non nisi novem errant.”

13 Barber and Bate, p. 3.

14Quoted in Marie Luise Buist-Thiele, “The Influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Formation of the Order of the Knights Templar,” ed. Michael Gervers The Second Crusade and the Cistercians (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) p. 58.


16 Marquis d’Albon, Cartularie Général de l’Ordre du Temple 1119?-1150 (Paris, 1913) p. 1. It was a donation made in Marseille and there are several uncertainties about it.

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