The New Knighthood
Christianity was founded on a pacifist ideal, and strong voices within the Church continued to be raised against the use of violence in any circumstances. But instead of chasing the impossible ideal of the total abolition of violence, the Papacy had spent much of the eleventh century trying to control and channel violence, for example trying to limit feudal warfare by promoting a set of rules called the Truce of God. Part of Pope Urban’s thinking in launching the First Crusade was to usefully externalise this aggression by redirecting it against the Muslim threat.
The use of force against a deadly enemy and in the service of Christ had already been justified in the fifth century by no less a figure than Saint Augustine of Hippo, who in The City of God described the necessity of repelling the pagan barbarian invasion of Italy. Similarly Christians saw the First Crusade as an entirely just war. But however much the First Crusade may have brought about a widespread acceptance of warfare in the name of God, what was new and exceptional was that the need to provide security for pilgrims to Jerusalem gave rise to a body of armed knights who were also monks.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem
On 17 July 1099, two days after the reconquest of Jerusalem, the Crusader barons met to choose a leader. This was against the wishes of the Tafurs, who hourly awaited the Second Coming and wanted no government at all. The favourite choice among the barons would have been Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, but he had died of illness a year earlier at Antioch. In his stead, the crown was offered to Raymond of Toulouse; his age, wealth, experience and his closeness to both Adhemar and the Byzantine Emperor Alexius made him the almost necessary choice. But Raymond knew he was unpopular, and his own soldiers wanted to return home, so reluctantly he refused. Of the other candidates, Bohemond had already made himself prince of Antioch after leading the attack on that city; Tancred was regarded as merely an appendage of his uncle; and Robert of Normandy had let it be known that he wanted to return to Europe. And so on 22 July the crown was offered to Godfrey of Bouillon, who delicately replied that he would wear no crown where Jesus had worn the crown of thorns, nor would he presume to bear the title of King in Christ’s holy city, but he would accept kingly powers under the title of Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, the Defender of the Holy Sepulchre.
There were some, and perhaps Godfrey was among them, who wanted Jerusalem to be governed as a theocracy under a patriarch appointed by the Pope in Rome. But within a year Godfrey was dead and the crown passed to his brother, who had no qualms about ruling over a secular Kingdom of Jerusalem as Baldwin I. For his palace he used the al-Aqsa mosque, which was assumed to stand on the site of Solomon’s Temple, while the Dome of the Rock, which does occupy that site, became a Christian church, the Templum Domini, the Temple of the Lord, surmounted by a cross, and served also as the residence of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.
Outremer and Its Muslim Neighbours
The Crusader states, or Outremer as they were collectively called, French for ‘overseas’, formed a series of contiguous territories that were linked to Europe by Byzantine Asia Minor and reached as far south as Egypt and the Red Sea.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem closely corresponded in extent to the kingdom of David and Solomon, that is all of what is today the state of Israel, plus the east bank of the Jordan river, western Jordan, southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria including the Golan Heights.
Dependent on Jerusalem were the feudal Crusader states of Antioch, Edessa and Tripoli. Bohemond had established the Principality of Antioch in 1098 as the Crusaders were still advancing towards Jerusalem, while Baldwin of Boulogne (the future Baldwin I of Jerusalem) had carved out the inland County of Edessa in that same year. Raymond of Toulouse began the conquest of northern Lebanon and coastal Syria in 1102, which when completed under his successors in 1109 would form the County of Tripoli.
The soldiers and rulers of Outremer were European, largely French in origin, and the commercial class was mainly Italian. During the first decades many of these Franks, as the Westerners were known, conquerors, traders, settlers and pilgrims, mingled with the indigenous inhabitants, adopted their dress and customs, were tolerant towards Muslims and intermarried with local Christians.
Fulcher of Chartres, a chronicler of the First Crusade, who died in Jerusalem in 1127, was a first-hand observer: ‘Now we who were Westerners have become Easterners. He who was Italian or French has in this land become a Galilean or a Palestinian. He who was a citizen of Rheims or Chartres is now a Tyrian or an Antiochene. We have already forgotten our birthplaces. Most of us do not know them or even hear of them. One already owns home and household as if by paternal and hereditary right, another has taken as wife not a compatriot, but a Syrian, Armenian, or even a baptised Saracen woman. He who was an alien has become a native, he who was an immigrant is now a resident.’
Divisions in the Islamic world–not only the rivalry between the Fatimids in Egypt and the Baghdad caliphate which had been taken over by the Seljuk Turks, but divisions among the Seljuks themselves–meant that the Middle East was fragmented into numerous Muslim emirates. The Crusader states fitted into this mosaic and, from the Muslim point of view, were no more disturbing than any other emirates. The Franks fought against Muslims, but also made alliances with them; the fighting, which was on a minor scale, was no more than had been taking place in recent centuries among Muslims themselves. The fact that Christians were involved was of no great significance in a region where a large number of Christians had been a factor all along. If anything, Outremer was a source of fruitful interchange of goods and ideas between Latin Europe and the Muslim East.
The Crusaders and Byzantium
With the help of the Crusaders, the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus had recovered Asia Minor for the Byzantine Empire, and in exchange for subsidising the Westerners he assumed that he would get back Syria too. But Antioch, which had been taken from the Byzantines by the Seljuks as recently as 1085, was claimed by Bohemond instead. Bohemond was a Norman, and the Normans had long had designs on Constantinople, wanting to add it to their string of conquests in England, southern Italy and Sicily. Nor were the rest of the Crusaders interested in sharing their conquests in Syria and Palestine.
Behind this was the long-developing rift–religious, political and economic–between Western Europe and the East Roman Empire. This deeply aggrieved Alexius and prevented the formation of a united Christian front against the Muslims such as existed in the West against the Arab occupation of Spain. As previously noted, the Crusaders had arrived in the Middle East at a time when there were deep divisions among the Muslims, not only between Sunni and Shia, but also as the Arabs were being subjected to domination by the newly arrived Turks, who themselves were increasingly at odds with one another. But should that situation ever change, the Crusader states would find themselves alone, dependent on their command of the sea, their supply lines to the West, and what defences they could put in place against a unified Muslim power.
Fear and Massacre on the Roads
Many of those who came on the First Crusade went home when it was over, and few of the pilgrims who followed in their wake chose to settle in the Holy Land. Owing to insufficient Frankish immigration, the Crusader states would always be short of fighting men. The King of Jerusalem, the prince of Antioch and the counts of Edessa and Tripoli could between them raise no more than two thousand knights. The towns were made secure, but travellers along the roads were vulnerable to brigands and sudden enemy raids.
Saewulf of Canterbury, who visited the Holy Land in 1102, described how parties of pilgrims landing at Jaffa were exposed to attack as they journeyed along the mountain road to Jerusalem. Pilgrims who wearied and fell behind, or groups that were vulnerably small, were prey to bands of nomadic Bedouin who lived in the surrounding wilderness. The bandits did not hesitate to kill to get at the money sewn into travellers’ clothes. Corpses were left to rot along the route up to Jerusalem because it was too dangerous for their companions to leave their party to give them a proper Christian burial.
There was danger not only from brigands but from Turkish forces in the north and Egyptians in the south. A Russian recounting his pilgrimage in 1106–07 was referring to the Fatimid Egyptians who held Ascalon, south of Jaffa, when he wrote of his visit to the church of Saint George at Lydda on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road: ‘There are many springs here; travellers rest by the water but with great fear, for it is a deserted place and nearby is the town of Ascalon from which Saracens sally forth and kill travellers on these roads.’
The Russian’s journey to Galilee, which took him near the town of Baisan, was no less hazardous: ‘Seven rivers flow from this town and great reeds grow along these rivers and many tall palm trees stand about the town like a dense forest. This place is terrible and difficult of access for here live fierce pagan Saracens who attack travellers at the fords on these rivers.’ An especially shocking attack took place at Easter 1019 when a large party of seven hundred unarmed pilgrims, both men and women, set out from Jerusalem for the river Jordan. They were travelling, in the words of a German chronicler, ‘in joy and with a cheerful heart’ when they were set upon by an Egyptian sortie from Ascalon. Three hundred pilgrims were killed and another sixty were captured to be sold as slaves.
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon
The formation of the Templars arose out of these conditions of insecurity on the roads and the murder, rape, enslavement and robbery of unarmed pilgrims. Only recently a group of nine French knights, most prominently Hugh of Payns, a knight from Champagne who had fought in the First Crusade, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer in Picardy, had proposed to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Warmund of Picquigny and King Baldwin II, who had succeeded his cousin in 1118, that for the salvation of their souls they form a lay community or perhaps even withdraw into the contemplative life of a monastery. Instead Baldwin, alive to the urgent dangers confronting travellers in his kingdom, persuaded Hugh of Payns and his companions to save their souls by protecting pilgrims on the roads, or as one chronicler put it, they were to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but were also ‘to defend pilgrims against brigands and rapists’. The Easter massacre along the road to the river Jordan persuasively drove home the King’s view, and on Christmas Day 1119 Hugh and his companions took their vows before the Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, calling themselves in Latin the Pauperes commilitones Christi, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ.
The King and Patriarch probably saw the creation of a permanent guard for travellers as complementary to the work of the Hospitallers who were providing care for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem. Already in 600 Pope Gregory the Great had commissioned the building of a hospital at Jerusalem to treat and care for pilgrims, and two hundred years later Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged it to include a hostel and a library, but in 1005 it was destroyed as part of the Fatimid caliph Hakim’s violent anti-Christian persecutions. In 1170 merchants from Amalfi obtained permission from the Fatimids to rebuild the hospital, which was run by Benedictine monks and dedicated to Saint John the Almsgiver, a charitable seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria. But after the First Crusade the hospital was released from Benedictine control and raised an order of its own, the Hospitallers of Saint John, which was recognised by the Pope in 1113 and came under his sole jurisdiction.
Official acceptance of the new order came at Nablus in January 1120 when the nine members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ were formally introduced to an assembly of lay and spiritual leaders from throughout the lands of Outremer. In this year too they first attracted the attention of a powerful visitor to Outremer, Fulk V, count of Anjou, who on his return home granted them an annual revenue, an example that was soon followed by other French nobles, which added to the allowance they were already receiving from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet altogether these amounted to only a modest income, and individually the Poor Fellow-Soldiers were genuinely poor and dressed only in donated clothes, meaning they had no distinctive uniform–the white tunic emblazoned with a red cross came later. Their seal alludes to this brotherhood in poverty by depicting two knights, perhaps Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer, having to share a single horse.
They were also given the use of another hand-me-down. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the King had made do with the al-Aqsa mosque for his palace, but now he had built a new palace to the west and he gave what had been the mosque to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers. They made it their headquarters, residing there and using it to store arms, clothing and food, while stabling their horses in a great underground vault at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. As the vaults were thought to have been Solomon’s stables, and the al-Aqsa mosque was known as the mosque of the Templum Solomonis because it was believed to have been built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, it was not long before the knights had encompassed the association in their name. They became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici–the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon; or, in a word, the Templars.
Digging Up Secrets
A story much put about these days in books like The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is that the Templars were founded not to protect pilgrims or to defend the Holy Land but to undertake secret excavations beneath the surface of the Temple Mount. This argument takes advantage of gaps and uncertainties in the historical record, and it turns unknowns into mysteries–or into conspiracies. Why were there only nine Templars? Because they had a secret to keep, and so the fewer the better. Why do we know so little about the military activities of the Templars in their early years? Because really they were digging holes in the Temple Mount. Why did the Templars become so powerful? Because they found a huge treasure or discovered an explosive secret beneath the Temple Mount which they used to blackmail the Church. Why were the Templars destroyed? Because they knew too much.
There are indeed numerous holes, cisterns, chambers and tunnels beneath the Temple Mount, some of them very ancient and going back even before the time of Solomon, others dating from the years when the Templars were in residence. Over the centuries pilgrims and travellers have recorded their own explorations and discoveries, and in modern times the Temple Mount has been studied by archaeologists. For more on which, see the Locations section of this book.
Templar Mission to the West
In the autumn of 1127 Baldwin II sent emissaries to the West in an effort to solve two fundamental problems facing the Kingdom of Jerusalem: its military weakness and his lack of a male heir. Baldwin had four daughters but no sons, and to secure the succession he and his barons had decided to offer the hand of Melisende, his oldest daughter, to Fulk V, count of Anjou. In the event the mission to Fulk was a complete success; the count agreed to return to Outremer and marry Melisende, securing the succession and strengthening the kingdom’s ties with the West.
Baldwin also sent Hugh of Payns, the Grand Master of the Templars, sailing westwards at the same time, his mission to solicit donations and to raise recruits. The King had prepared the ground for Hugh by writing to Bernard, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, explaining that the Templars were seeking approval of their order from the Pope, who they hoped would also initiate a subsidy that would help fund the battle against the enemies of the faith who were threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin knew his man: Bernard had already written to the Pope objecting to a proposal put forward by a fellow abbot to lead a mission of Cistercians to the East, saying that what the Holy Land really needed was ‘fighting knights not singing and wailing monks’.
Bernard of Clairvaux, who was made a saint within twenty-years of his death, was one of the most influential and charismatic figures of the medieval Church. A volatile and passionate young man of an aristocratic family, he deliberately sought out the Cistercian order, known for its austerity, and in 1113 joined its monastery at Citeaux. Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, he founded a new Cistercian house and became its abbot, calling the monastery Clairvaux, meaning the Valley of Light. By the time Pope Honorius II was elected in 1124, Bernard was already regarded as one of the most outstanding churchmen of France; he attended important ecclesiastical assemblies and his opinion was regularly sought by Papal legates.
Significantly Clairvaux was built on land given to Bernard by Hugh, the count of Champagne, whose vassal was Hugh of Payns, the future founding Grand Master of the Templars. By the time Hugh of Payns sailed westwards in 1127, Bernard was already well informed about the East and what was needed there; his mother’s brother was Andre of Montbard, one of the original nine Templars, and Bernard’s early patron the count of Champagne had three times gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on the last occasion, in 1125, he too renounced his worldly possessions and joined the Templars.
Grants of land as well as silver, horses and armour were made to the Templars almost as soon as Hugh of Payns landed in France in the autumn of 1127. The following summer the Grand Master was in England where he was received with great honour by King Henry I, who donated gold and silver to the order. Hugh established the first Templar house in London, at the north end of Chancery Lane, and he was given several other sites around the country. More donations followed when Hugh travelled north to Scotland. In September Hugh of Payns had returned across the Channel where he was met by Godfrey of Saint-Omer and together they received further grants and treasures, all these given for the defence of the Holy Land and for the salvation of their donor’s souls.
The climax of Hugh of Payns’ tour came in January 1129 at Troyes, the capital of the counts of Champagne, where Theobold, Hugh of Champagne’s successor, hosted a convocation of Church leaders dominated by the presence of Bernard of Clairvaux. Hugh addressed the assembly and described the founding of the Templars and presented their Rule, adapted from the precepts followed by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This stipulated attendance at services together with the canons, communal meals, plain clothing, simple appearance and no contact with women. Because their duties carried them away from the church, they could replace attendance with the recitation of paternosters, and they were also allowed a horse and a small number of servants, and while the order was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem they owed their individual obedience to the Grand Master. These regulations formed the raw material from which, after considerable discussion and scrutiny by the gathered churchmen, Bernard drew up the Latin Rule of seventy-two clauses.
Bernard’s Latin Rule enjoined the Templars to renounce their wills, to hold worldly matters cheap, and not be afraid to fight but always to be prepared for death and for the crown of salvation and eternal life. The knights were to dress in white, symbolising that they had put the dark life behind them and had entered a state of perpetual chastity. The hair on their heads was to be cut short, but all Templar knights wore beards as they were not permitted to shave. Foul language and displays of anger were forbidden, as were reminiscences about past sexual conquests. Property, casual discussion with outsiders, and letters and gifts given or received were subject to the approval of the master. Discipline was enforced by a system of penances with expulsion the punishment in extreme cases.
In all this the Templars were regulated like monks, but when it came to guidance in military matters Bernard offered few practical injunctions, though he did understand that in creating ‘a new type of Order in the holy places’, one that combined knighthood with religion, the Templars needed to possess land, buildings, serfs and tithes, and was entitled to legal protection against what the Latin Rule called ‘the innumerable persecutors of the holy Church’.
Daily Routine of the Knights Templar
For all their reputation as warriors, the Knights Templar were very much monks and lived the monastic life in accordance with the canonical hours as indicated by this outline of their day.
4am Rise for Matins and attend to horses, then return to bed.
6am to noon Attend services, Prime (around 6am), Tierce (around 9am) and Sext (towards noon). Meanwhile train and groom horses.
Noon Dinner of cooked meats. Complete silence throughout the meal while the chaplain reads from the Bible.
3pm Attend Nones, the afternoon service.
6pm Attend Vespers, followed by supper.
9pm Attend Compline, after which the knights receive a glass of wine and water. Then instructions for the following day. Attend to horses.
Midnight To bed in complete silence until 4am.
Saviours of the East and Defenders of All Christendom
The endorsement of the Templars by the Council of Troyes was subsequently confirmed by Pope Honorius II. These successes had come largely through the efforts of Bernard of Clairvaux, who was now urged by Hugh of Payn to write a robust defence of the Templars for general distribution.
De Laude Novae Militae was the name of Bernard’s panegyric, In Praise of the New Knighthood, in which he announced the Templars as the champions of a higher struggle in which homicide, which was evil in Christian eyes, was really malecide, that is the killing of evil itself, which was good. The Holy Land, wrote Bernard, bore the impress of Jesus’ life–Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Jordan river, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encompassed the places of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The Templars were the protectors of these holy sites and even acted as pilgrim guides, but by their proximity and daily familiarity with these footsteps in the life of Jesus, the Templars also had the advantage and the duty to search for the deeper truth, the inner spiritual meaning of the holy places. The implication of Bernard’s De Laude was that by understanding the full meaning of their role the Templars would be fortified in their mission, which had gone beyond policing the pilgrimage routes and now embraced the defence of the Holy Land itself.
Following the death of Hugh of Payns in 1136, his successor Robert of Craon, the second Grand Master, consolidated the gains made at Troyes by securing for the Templars a string of Papal bulls (from bullum, the Latin for seal, and so meaning an official decree). In 1139 Pope Innocent II issued Omne Datum Optimum, which had the effect of establishing the Templars as an independent and permanent order within the Catholic Church answerable to no one but the Pope and sanctioned their role as defenders of the Church and attackers of the enemies of Christ. The Grand Master was to be chosen from among the ranks of the Templar knights free from outside interference. The Templars were also given their own priesthood answerable to the Grand Master even though he was not ordained, which made the order independent of the diocesian bishops in Outremer and the West, and they were allowed their own oratories and cemeteries. The Templars were exempted from all tithes, but they were free to collect tithes on their own properties; all spoils of battle against the infidel were theirs by right; and donations made to the Templars were put under the protection of the Holy See.
These privileges were confirmed and extended by two further bulls, Milites Templi, issued by Pope Celestine II in 1144, and Militia Dei issued by Pope Eugenius III in 1145, which taken together with Omne Datum Optimum put the Templars beyond reproach and formed the foundation for their future wealth and success. It was also under Eugenius III that the Templars were granted the right to wear their famous habit of a red cross over a white tunic, symbolising their readiness to suffer martyrdom in the defence of the Holy Land.
Yet for all the powerful backing the Templars received from the West, it comes as a surprise that there is so little on record to show for their activities in Outremer for the first three decades after their founding in 1119. This is in contrast to their evident importance in the Iberian peninsula.
In Spain King Alfonso I of Aragon had reconquered large territories from the Muslims and was attracted to the concept of military orders as a means to safeguard them. When he died childless in 1134 he willed his entire kingdom to the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in equal measures. But though the will was contested and adjusted, a settlement was reached with the Templars in 1143 which gave them six major castles in Aragon, a tenth of royal revenues and a fifth of any lands in future conquered from the Muslims, turning the Templars into a major force in the Reconquista against the forces of Islam. The Templars were the first; the Hospitallers followed them into the Iberian peninsula around 1150.
Christian rulers of the Iberian peninsula could call on greater numbers of local Christian troops than their counterparts in Outremer where so much of the population had been converted to Islam or driven out by Muslims. And so the Templars played a less significant role in battle than in the Middle East. Instead the principal task of the Templars was to build castles along the frontiers to prevent Muslim incursions. The responsibility for defending Aragon and Catalonia rested largely on the Templars and the Hospitallers, but in the centre of the peninsula the kings of Castille and Leon relied on home-grown military orders established for the most part during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Nevertheless the Templars exercised considerable influence on these Spanish orders which had been founded in direct imitation of their own order. The kings of Castile and Leon also entrusted the Templars with the overlordship of great tracts of underpopulated territory that fell to the Reconquista.
The Templars played a similar role in the west of the Iberian peninsula where in the struggle against the Muslims a new nation was emerging, the independent kingdom of Portugal. The Templars’ commitment to the cause of the crusade against Islam made them perfect allies; at no cost to existing Portuguese resources they were given anticipatory grants, so that as the frontier was extended against the Muslims during the 1130s and 1140s the Templars acquired a share in newly recovered lands and were given control of border castles.
Yet in Outremer, where the availability of local Christian troops was more limited than in Iberia, meaning that the military orders might have found a greater battle role, the Templars are reported in medieval sources to have been involved in only three military engagements between 1119 and the arrival of the Second Crusade in 1148. They were at a failed siege of Damascus in 1129, they took part in a campaign to defend an eastern outpost of the County of Tripoli which met with defeat in 1137, and they were worsted in a skirmish at Hebron in 1139. The Templars did take over responsibility for guarding the passes into Antioch from Asia Minor through the Amanus mountains where they were put in charge of Baghras castle in about 1136. Otherwise the surviving record is silent on the early decades of the Templars in the East, though the mystery is probably explained by the loss and destruction of sources than by a lack of Templar activity. Certainly a section of opinion in the West was convinced, according to the chronicler Richard of Poitou, a monk of Cluny writing in 1153, that the Franks would long since have lost Jerusalem had it not been for the Templars.
Templar Origins: Historical Agendas
The Knights Templar would in time become one of the wealthiest and most powerful financial and military organisations in the medieval world, yet there are holes in the historical record about their origins, and there are contradictions too. When were they founded? How many were there? What accounts for their meteoric rise? Part of the problem in finding the answers to these questions lies in the nature of the sources themselves.
The earliest chronicler of Templar history was William, archbishop of Tyre. Born into a French or Italian family at Jerusalem in about 1130, he studied Latin and probably Greek and Arabic there before continuing his education from about 1146 to 1165 in France and Italy. After returning to Outremer he wrote, among other works, a twenty-three volume history of the Middle East from the conquest of Jerusalem by Umar. This Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum, or History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, was begun around 1175 and remained unfinished at the time of William of Tyre’s death in about 1186. Most of it concentrated on the First Crusade and subsequent political events within the Kingdom of Jerusalem–events from which William was not entirely detached, for he was involved in the highest affairs of both the kingdom and the Church, and as archbishop and contender for the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem he was naturally jealous of any diminution of ecclesiastical authority–and so resentful of the Templars’ independence and their rise to wealth and power.
Two other early chroniclers were Michael the Syrian, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, who died in 1199, and Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford, who died in about 1209. But Michael was weak on matters outside his own experience and times, while Walter preferred a good story to sound historical inquiry, and moreover his prejudice against the Templars was fundamental, for he objected to the entire concept of an order of fighting monks. Despite his own bias against the Templars, William of Tyre is considered the most reliable of the three; he diligently sifted through sources to glean the facts about events that occurred before his time, and he made a point of interviewing surviving first-hand witnesses.
All the same, William of Tyre did not even begin writing his history until the mid-1170s, that is fifty-five years after the founding of the Templars, and there is no earlier source. The chroniclers of the First Crusade, men like Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent, had all completed their works within a decade of the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and long before the foundation of the Templars in 1119–or was it 1118? According to William of Tyre it was the latter, but he was notoriously poor on dates even if careful in other things, and the balance of scholarly opinion has the Templars established in 1119. In whatever year it was, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to write a first-hand account of the founding ceremony of the Templars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Day–at the time it did not register as a significant event.
We do not even know how many founding members there really were. William of Tyre says that there were nine and names the two most prominent as Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer. Other sources also name Archambaud of Saint-Aignan, Payen of Montdidier, Andre of Montbard, Geoffrey Bissot, a knight called Rossal or possibly Roland, another called Gondemar, and two more whose names have not survived. Moreover, William of Tyre maintains that even as late as the Council of Troyes in 1129 there were still only nine Knights Templar. But why would only nine men command such attention from the Council and the Pope, and why would Bernard of Clairvaux devote so much effort to praising their worth and propagating their fame? Indeed in this case Michael the Syrian seems to be more reliable, for he says there were thirty founding Templar knights, and most likely there were very many more a decade later.
Just as we owe it to William of Tyre that the Templars comprised only nine members right up to 1129, so we also owe to him the claim that they were a poor and simple order throughout the early decades of their foundation. Certainly the Templars looked back on themselves in this idealistic way, so that in 1167 when they were very rich indeed they adopted as their seal the two knights astride one horse, a self-image perhaps also derived from their ascetic Cistercian promoter in the West, Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet however humble the lives of the individual knights, the order itself was never indigent, not even at the start when already it was receiving an income from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as significant donations from powerful French barons.
But to portray the Templars as poor and humble and few in numbers in their early years gave William of Tyre a handy stick with which to beat them in his critical history. By the 1170s, according to William of Tyre, the Templars ‘are said to have immense possessions both here and overseas, so that there is now not a province in the Christian world which has not bestowed upon the aforesaid brothers a portion of its goods. It is said today that their wealth is equal to the treasures of kings.’ William contrasts this state of affairs with the Templars’ earlier simplicity, suggesting they have somehow betrayed themselves. But it seems that his real complaint is that their support in the West made them independent of any power in Outremer, particularly that of the Church as represented by William, the archbishop of Tyre, and would-be Patriarch of Jerusalem:
‘Although they maintained their establishment honourably for a long time and fulfiled their vocation with sufficient prudence, later, because of the neglect of humility, they withdrew from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, by whom their order was founded and from whom they received their first benefices and to whom they denied the obedience which their predecessors rendered. They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.’
This was the beginning of the criticism the Templars would receive from sources whose interests they crossed. Some would call them saviours of the East and defenders of all Christendom, others would find them ‘troublesome’ and accuse them of arrogance, greed, secrecy and deceit. Their destruction lay in their beginning; when there was no more East to save, the Templars would be doomed.