few members of the high nobility to join. Hugh of Champagne remains one of the more mysterious of the first Templars.
As with so much of the politics in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the story of Hugh, first count of Champagne, is that of family. When he was born, the county of Champagne didn’t exist. For most of his life he called himself the count of Troyes, which was the main holding of his ancestors.
Hugh was the youngest son of Thibaud I, who was count of Blois, Meaux, and Troyes, and of Adele of Bar-sur-Aube. Thibaud had gained some of his property by taking over lands belonging to a nephew.1 Therefore, he had something to give to Hugh, his last-born son. Hugh’s older brother, Stephen-Henry, got the best property, that of Blois and Meaux. Hugh inherited Troyes and other bits from his mother and the property of his middle brother, Odo, who died young.2
Hugh did not go on the First Crusade in 1096, although Stephen-Henry did. He may not have been interested or he may have been too busy subduing all his far-flung properties. One of these properties was the town of Payns not far from Troyes. A son of the lord of the town, Hugh de Payns, became one of Hugh’s supporters and a member of his court.3
Hugh scored a coup in 1094 by his marriage to Constance, daughter of Philip I, king of France. She brought with her the dowry of Attigny, just north of Hugh’s lands.
As the twelfth century dawned, Hugh seemed to be an up-and-coming young nobleman, with an expanding amount of land and royal connections.
In 1102, Stephen-Henry died in battle in Palestine. He left several young sons and a formidable wife, Adele, the daughter of King Henry I of England. This was Stephen’s second trip to the Holy Land. It was said that Adele wasn’t pleased with her husband’s military exploits on the first trip. He had deserted the crusader army before reaching Antioch. Adele insisted he return and fight more bravely before showing his face at home again.4 Stephen-Henry’s death in battle apparently satisfied her.
At about the same time, 1103, Hugh had a very strange encounter. One day while he was traveling in the valley of Suippe, a man named Alexander, a pilgrim from the Holy Land, came to see him. A charter from the convent of Avenay tells what happened next. “Hugh . . . used to ransom captives and aid the destitute. Among these was a certain Alexander, an impoverished man from overseas whom the count took into his own household. The most noble count and his family treated this man so well that he even ate and often slept in the count’s personal quarters.”5
Hugh’s confidence in Alexander was misplaced for, one night, “judging the time and place appropriate, [he] tried to slit the throat of the sleeping count.”6
The records don’t give a reason for the attack, nor do they say anything more about the pilgrim. This is one of the frustrations of historical records.
Hugh only survived the attack because his men took him directly to the nearby convent of Avenay, where he spent several months recovering. In return he gave a large donation to the nuns, whose care and prayers he felt had saved his life when doctors couldn’t.
It may have been the combination of his brother’s death and his own near miss that convinced Hugh to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He left in 1104 and returned around 1107.7It’s not clear whether he and his retinue aided in the ongoing fight to keep the land won by the first crusaders or simply visited the pilgrim sites.
While Hugh was off on his journey his wife, Constance, decided she’d had enough. She and Hugh had been married eleven years and had no children. Fortunately, most of the nobility of France were related in one way or another and so she was able to have the marriage dissolved on the grounds that they were cousins. This was the medieval way around the prohibition of divorce and it was used all the time. Constance later married Bohemond I, ruler of Antioch, and ended her days there.8Her descendants, especially the women, played important roles in the history of the Latin kingdoms.
So upon his return to Champagne in 1107, Hugh found himself single. He soon married again, this time to Elizabeth of Varais, daughter of Stephen the Hardy of Burgundy. Elizabeth was related to a number of strong, powerful women of the time. She was the niece of Clemence, countess of Flanders, and also Matilda, duchess of Burgundy. Her first cousin was Adelaide, the wife of Louis VI, king of France.
In October 1115, Count Hugh was attending Pope Calixtus II at the Council of Reims, where he and his men provided an escort to the bishop of Mainz.9 The pope was, by the way, Elizabeth’s uncle. Life was going well again for the count of Champagne.
Therefore, it was strange that when Elizabeth presented Hugh with a son, he refused to believe it was his and said so publicly. The dating of the blessed event is uncertain, around 1117. Hugh had gone on his second pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1116 and it could have been that his wife tried to convince him that she had had a fourteen-month pregnancy. But the reason Hugh gave was that his doctors had all told him that he was sterile, so he may have thought that it was chronologically possible for him to be the father.10In any event, the child, Eudes, and his mother were repudiated.
Apparently, there was enough doubt among others of the family as to the legitimacy of the baby that no great storm of protest hit Hugh. While Eudes had friends who took his side over the years, he was never able to attract enough support to be a threat to the next count of Champagne, Hugh’s nephew, Thibaud. Eudes was given a small fief and allowed to live out his life in peace.
Hugh did not try another marriage. In 1125 he abdicated as count and returned to Jerusalem, where he joined the newly formed Templars. 11 He died there sometime after 1130.
The story of Hugh, count of Troyes and Champagne, is one of the real mysteries of the Templar saga. According to legend, the order was formed in 1119, after Hugh de Payns decided to remain in Jerusalem while Count Hugh returned to Troyes. Did the count have any influence on the decision of the future founder of the order to stay behind? As Hugh’s overlord, Count Hugh would have had to give his permission for Hugh to leave his service. Was the count part of this initial decision to form a monastic military order?
We don’t know. None of the chroniclers mention him, except to note that he ended his life as a Templar. Is it because they were embarrassed to say that the count of Champagne chose to become subservient to a man who had once been one of his vassals? Count Hugh seems to have been a consummate warrior. He spent most of his life fighting or on pilgrimage. He seems a much more likely candidate for being the founder of the Templars than Hugh de Payns.
But he wasn’t. He died as a member of the order, nothing more. Champagne went to Thibaud, the great-grandson of William the Conqueror and the son of Count Stephen-Henry, who had died as a soldier of God. And Hugh faded into a footnote to Templar history.
Michel Bur, La formation du comté de Champagne (Universite de Lille III, 1977) p. 259.
Bur, p. 267.
Thierry Leroy, Hughes de Payns, Chevalier Champenois, Fondateur de l’Ordre des Templiers (Troyes: La Maison du Boulanger, 2001).
Bur, 473-74, quoting the anonymous historian of the First Crusade.
Theodore Evergates, tr., Feudal Society in Medieval France: Documents from the County of Champagne (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991) p. 124. Translation of text found in Lalore, Cartularie de l’abbale de Saint-Loup de Troyes (Paris: E. Thorin, 1875) 14-16 no. 4.
Bur, p. 274.
Ibid. Constance’s life story is really much more interesting than Hugh’s in my opinion.
Oderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis Vol. VI, p. 252.
Bur, p. 275.