The Templars Emerge from the Margins of History
The Christian states of Outremer enjoyed nearly half a century of security after the First Crusade thanks to the divisions among their Muslim neighbours, the Fatimids in Egypt and the numerous Turkish-controlled statelets in Syria and Iraq, who often fought against one another. Occasionally there were clashes between the Franks and Muslims but these were minor affairs and did not threaten the existence of Outremer; indeed Muslim princes made alliances with the Christians against their common enemies.
The most important of these enemies was Zengi, a Seljuk Turk, who began his career in 1127 when on behalf of the moribund Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad he made himself atabeg, or governor, of Mosul in northern Iraq. By means of war and intimidation, Zengi soon extended his authority over much of Muslim Syria, and he would have taken Damascus too but for an alliance between its Turkish ruler and King Fulk of Jerusalem.
In the event Zengi’s greatest victory was his conquest of the County of Edessa in 1144. The first state founded by the Crusaders, Edessa was the first to fall, and Arab chroniclers later looked back on this triumph as the start of the jihad that would drive the Franks from the East. In the West the loss of Edessa touched off the Second Crusade, a huge campaign by sea and land, this time led by two European kings. But the crusade may never have reached the Holy Land at all had it not been for the Templars, and when unexpectedly it failed they became convenient scapegoats. Yet against the gathering forces of the Muslim jihad Outremer could not have survived as it did for another one hundred and fifty years without the religious conviction and military prowess of the brotherhoods of Christian warriors.
Muslim Friends and Allies
In 1138 the Arab diplomat and chronicler Usamah ibn Munqidh was sent by the Turkish governor of Damascus, Muin al-Din Unur, to Jerusalem to discuss with King Fulk the possibility of an alliance against Zengi, the atabeg of Mosul. The Christian chronicler William of Tyre called Zengi ‘a vicious man’, and the Muslim inhabitants of Damascus agreed: they had learnt something of his brutality during his unsuccessful siege of their city in 1135, and the mission to Jerusalem was sent with popular support. For two years Usamah travelled back and forth, negotiating an alliance and making friends. Zengi threatened Damascus again in 1140, but his fear of being caught in a pincer movement forced him to withdraw, an event celebrated later that year when Usamah accompanied Muin al-Din Unur on a state visit to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
During the times he spent in Jerusalem Usamah became a close observer of the Franks and their ways and wrote about them in his chronicle. He regarded the Franks as the enemies of God and attached to almost every account of them some imprecation like ‘May Allah’s curse be upon them!’, but that was more a doctrinaire reaction to their faith than a true expression of his attitude towards them as a people. Of one knight in the army of King Fulk whom Usamah got to know well, he wrote, ‘He was of my intimate fellowship and kept such constant company with me that he began to call me “my brother”. Between us were mutual bonds of amity and friendship.’ He admired Western medicine, and he was struck by the lack of restriction placed on their women by Frankish men: ‘The Franks are void of all zeal and jealousy. One of them may be walking along with his wife. He meets another man who takes his wife by the hand and steps aside to converse with her while the husband is standing on one side waiting for his wife to conclude the conversation. If she lingers too long for him, he leaves her alone with the conversant and goes away’.
Usamah came to know the Templars particularly well and tells how they made a point of providing him with a place to pray. ‘When I was visiting Jerusalem, I used to go to the al-Aqsa mosque where my Templar friends were staying. Along one side of the building was a small oratory in which the Franks had set up a church. The Templars placed this spot at my disposal that I might say my prayers.’ Of course Usamah arranged himself to pray towards Mecca, which is south of Jerusalem, whereas Christian churches, wherever they may be, are oriented to the east. A Frank noticed Usamah’s direction of prayer and roughly pointed him towards the east, saying ‘Thus do we pray.’ Usamah’s Templar friends rushed forward and led the man away, but when their attention was diverted the man accosted Usamah again, repeating ‘Thus do we pray.’ Again the Templars intervened and led the Frank away, apologising to their Muslim friend, saying the man had just arrived from the West and had never seen anyone pray as Usamah had done. Usamah concluded that ‘everyone who is a fresh emigrant from the Frankish lands is ruder in character than those who have become acclimatised and have held long association with the Muslims’.
The Fall of Edessa
Unfortunately for the Franks they were often engaged in petty quarrels among themselves, and when Zengi’s large and powerful army turned its unwelcome attention upon Edessa in 1144 Outremer was divided. The count of Edessa, Joscelyn II, was at odds with the prince of Antioch; the count of Tripoli was only vaguely interested in events so far to the east; and in Jerusalem King Fulk had just died, leaving the government in the hands of Queen Melisende as regent for Baldwin III, their thirteen-year-old son. Consequently, Zengi found his attack opposed only by the negligible forces of Edessa itself.
The other Crusader states fringed the Mediterranean, but Edessa was landlocked; it lay beyond the Euphrates, a day’s ride east of the river. Its population was made up of Christians of the East, Chaldeans and Armenians, who were more devoted to trade than skilled in the use of arms; Westerners rarely visited the city and those Franks who lived there had mostly married the local Christians, so that its defence was entrusted largely to mercenaries. When Zengi laid siege to the city he came up against its formidable walls, but in the words of William of Tyre, ‘All these defences could be of use against the enemy only if there were men willing to fight for their freedom, men who would resist the foe valiantly. The defences would be useless, however, if there were none among the besieged who were willing to serve as defenders. Towers, walls, and earthworks are of little value to a city unless there are defenders to man them. Zengi found the town bereft of defenders and was much encouraged.’ Help was sent too late from Jerusalem and Tripoli, while Antioch sent no help at all. On Christmas Eve 1144 Zengi’s forces breached the walls and rushed into the streets and houses of the city. ‘They slew with their swords the citizens whom they encountered, sparing neither age, condition nor sex’, wrote William of Tyre, and they enslaved any who survived.
Bernard Launches the Second Crusade
At first the West was slow to react to the fall of Edessa. In autumn 1145 Pope Eugenius III wrote to King Louis VII of France asking him to undertake a new crusade to the East. At Christmas Louis summoned his barons and told them that he was taking the cross and invited them to do the same, but their response was poor. Louis was young, only twenty-five; he was seen as impetuous, weak and greedy; and he had angered his barons by recently seizing land from the count of Champagne. But the barons did agree to convene again at Easter 1146 at Vezelay in Burgundy.
Meanwhile Louis arranged that Bernard of Clairvaux should speak at Vezelay. Not only was Bernard the friend of Popes and kings (Eugenius had been a monk at Clairvaux and the king’s brother had recently joined the Cistercians there), but his asceticism, conviction and eloquence combined to make him the most formidable spiritual figure of the age. At word that Bernard would speak, such a crowd of aristocrats and admirers from all over France were drawn to Vezelay that, as at Clermont when Pope Urban called for the First Crusade, the cathedral was not big enough to contain the throng and a platform was erected in the fields outside the town.
This was an age like no other, Bernard told the crowd. God had found new ways to save the faithful. The fall of Edessa was a gift from God. It was an opportunity created by God to save men’s souls. ‘Look at the skill he is using to save you. Consider the depth of his love and be astonished, sinners. This is a plan not made by man, but proceeding from the heart of divine love.’ Amid the roars of ‘Deus le volt!’, so many came forward to take the cross that Bernard had to tear his own habit into strips. King Louis was the first among them, followed by his barons, many of whom were the sons and grandsons of original Crusaders. Bernard was able to write a few days later to the Pope: ‘You ordered; I obeyed. I opened my mouth; I spoke; and at once the Crusaders have multiplied to infinity. Villages and towns are now deserted. You will scarcely find one man for every seven women. Everywhere you see widows whose husbands are still alive.’
Bernard broadcast his message farther, travelling into the north of France and to Flanders, and addressing a letter to the people of England, explaining that Jesus, the Son of God, was losing the land in which he had walked among men for more than thirty years. ‘Your land’, Bernard told the English, ‘is well known to be rich in young and vigorous men. The world is full of their praises, and the renown of their courage is on the lips of all. Do not miss this opportunity. Take the sign of the cross. At once you will have indulgence for all the sins which you confess with a contrite heart. It does not cost you much to buy and if you wear it with humility you will find that it is the kingdom of heaven.’
News of the crusade had also reached Germany where it touched off anti-Semitic pogroms along the Rhine. Bernard hastened to Germany to condemn the atrocities on the spot. ‘The Jews’, he said, ‘are not to be persecuted, killed or even put to flight. The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always what the Lord suffered.’ And then to control and give direction to the popular feeling, Bernard preached the crusade to the reluctant King Conrad III of Germany himself, finally persuading him to take the cross at Christmas 1146.
The following spring, Pope Eugenius gave his blessing to the campaign of Alfonso VII of Castile against the Muslim occupation of Spain, declaring it a crusade, and that autumn a Crusader fleet from northern Europe helped the Portuguese capture Lisbon from the Arabs. Largely through the energy of Bernard, the Second Crusade had rapidly become an international campaign against the forces of Islam on both the eastern and western fronts.
Mary Magdalene at Vezelay
Vezelay was a particularly potent spot from which to launch the Second Crusade for it possessed the bones of Mary Magdalene. The claim was first made by the great abbey church at Vezelay in the 1050s, an assertion quickly supported by a Papal document dated 27 April 1058. The Muslim occupiers in the Middle East had recently been making it difficult for Europeans to undertake pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and this encouraged the development of pilgrimage sites within Europe itself. Various well-known New Testament figures were suddenly discovered to have travelled to the West and died there, their bones unearthed by enterprising churches. Glastonbury had already laid claim to Joseph of Arimathea in this way; in Paris they announced the discovery of the bones of Saint Denis, a convert and student of Saint Paul; while Saint James had turned up in Spain at Compostela to aid the reconquest, and Saint Mark had arrived at Venice. Unfortunately the great ninth-century Romanesque church at Vezelay had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and as she had bodily risen to heaven at her assumption, there was no question of finding her relics. But Vezelay lay along the profitable pilgrimage route from Germany to Compostela, and the profits to be gleaned from the passing trade, not to mention the prestige and the protection to be had, made the happy discovery of some suitable remains all but unavoidable, and who better than Mary Magdalene.
In the Gospels Mary Magdalene is present at the most important moments of the Jesus story–his death and his resurrection. At the crucifixion of Jesus his disciples have gone into fearful hiding, but Mary Magdalene is at both the Cross and the tomb, and it is she who carries the news to the disbelieving disciples that Jesus has arisen. Her appearances in the Gospels are brief but telling. It is as if she fulfils the role of those ancient goddesses whose lives embraced the deaths and rebirths of their men.
The shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vezelay became immensely popular, but how, the faithful wondered, had her bones come to Burgundy? A pious fiction was circulated saying that her relics had first been in Provence but were threatened by Saracen raiders, and so they were removed and brought to Vezelay for safekeeping. But how had the bones come to Provence in the first place? Another legend was invented to conveniently explain that Mary Magdalene and her companions had escaped from the Holy Land by sea and landed, some say, at Marseilles, or according to others at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, from where she made her way inland and died at St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume. It was from there that a monk from Vezelay had dug up her bones and taken them back to Burgundy.
Meanwhile Mary Magdalene’s bones were performing miracles; she was associated with the liberation of prisoners, assistance with fertility and childbirth, spectacular cures and even the raising of the dead. Such wonderful stories demanded yet wider circulation, a challenge taken up in the thirteenth century by the Dominican writer Jacobus de Voragine. To his account of Mary Magdalene in his compendium of saints’ lives called the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend), he added the plethora of new miracles put about by Vezelay and produced what very quickly became a medieval bestseller that was soon translated from Latin into nearly every European language, including Dutch and Czech.
However, King Charles of Anjou (1226–85) was establishing a Mediterranean empire based on Naples, Sicily and his newly acquired territory of Provence. Learning from the Legenda Aurea that Mary Magdalene’s bones had been associated with St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume, he went to have a look for himself. And what did he find? The bones of Mary Magdalene. Clearly the church at Vezelay had been mistaken. Charles installed the Dominican Order as caretakers of Mary’s shrine, and they in turn proudly broadcast the importance of their mission by fabricating the Book of Miracles of Saint Mary Magdalene, documenting all the miraculous intercessions and cures the saint had wrought at her Provençal sanctuary. The publication’s success was measured by the fact that Vezelay as a centre for the miraculous soon went into decline. Indeed, pilgrims still come to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to see where Mary Magdalene came ashore and visit St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume to kneel before her bones.
The Templars’ Role in the Crusade
The growing importance of the Templars can be measured by the fact that on 27 April 1147 King Louis VII and Pope Eugenius III came to the Paris Temple–which had become the European headquarters of the order–to discuss plans for the Second Crusade. Also in attendance were four archbishops and 130 Templar knights, with at least as many sergeants and squires.
Here, it was agreed that the Templars would accompany the French army to the East, and it was probably on this occasion that the Pope conferred on the Templars the right to emblazon their white robes with the red cross, symbolising their willingness to die in defence of the Holy Land. The Pope also appointed the Templar treasurer to receive the tax that had been imposed on all Church goods to finance the crusade. It was the start of a fateful relationship, that would last for over a century and a half, with the Paris Temple serving in effect as the treasury of France.
Everard des Barres, the master of the Temple in France, was sent ahead to Constantinople by the king to negotiate with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus for the passage of the French and German armies; this time they had not been invited, and in Constantinople the prospect of their approach was regarded with some scepticism and alarm. Moreover, the Byzantines were at war with Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, and to cover their backs had recently agreed a treaty with the Seljuks. To the minds of those in the West this accommodation with the infidel seemed treacherous, an attitude that deepened suspicions on both sides.
Nevertheless, everything seemed set fair in September 1147 when Conrad’s army arrived in Constantinople and was ferried across the Bosphorus, to be followed by Louis’ army a month later. The Second Crusade had two armies marching through Byzantine territory, and a large northern European fleet was heading into the Mediterranean after capturing Lisbon from the Muslims.
The first disaster struck in late October. Conrad led his army on the direct route across Asia Minor and straight up against the border of Seljuk territory where at Dorylaeum on 25 October the Germans were heavily defeated by the Turks. The survivors, including Conrad himself, retreated to Nicaea where they joined the French who were following the safer coastal route. At Ephesus Conrad fell ill and returned with his forces to Constantinople, while the French, inadequately provisioned by the Byzantines, marched up the Maeander valley and eastwards against the advancing winter. Toiling through the narrow defiles of the Cadmus mountains in early January 1148 the heavily armoured French knights were easy prey for the Seljuks’ light cavalry with their talent for firing off arrows at full gallop.
With his army on the verge of disintegration, King Louis surrendered his responsibilities to Everard des Barres, the Templar master, who divided the force into units, each under the command of a Templar knight whom they swore to obey absolutely. Thanks to the boldness and organisational skills of the Templars, the army was led to safety at Attalia (modern Antalya) on the Mediterranean. But their ordeal was not yet over, for the expected Byzantine fleet was too small to take them all to the Holy Land, so only Louis and part of his army sailed east. The rest attempted to march overland through Seljuk lands, and most of them died on the way.
By the time Louis arrived at Antioch early in March the cost of supplies and shipping had been so great that he needed to borrow if he was to continue with the crusade. Abandoning his intention of retaking Edessa, Louis instead led his army southwards via Tripoli to Jerusalem where he fulfiled his pilgrim’s vow, meanwhile despatching Everard des Barres to Acre where he raised enough money from Templar resources to cover the cost of the French expedition–a sum that was more than half the annual tax revenue of the French state.
Fiasco at Damascus
Despite the French losses in Asia Minor, the crusading forces that finally arrived in the Holy Land were far from negligible, and added to these were the survivors of the German army which had arrived by sea from Constantinople with Conrad. On 24 June 1148 the lords and military leaders then in Outremer attended a great council at Acre; Baldwin III, the seventeen-year-old King of Jerusalem presided over the gathering, which included the Hospitallers and the Templars and the kings of Germany and France.
Zengi was dead but his son Nur al-Din controlled Aleppo in northern Syria astride the route to Edessa, and Raymond of Antioch wanted to strike in that direction. Others spoke of Egypt, but the road south was blocked by Ascalon, a powerfully fortfied city still in the hands of the Fatimids. The third possibility was Damascus, the one Muslim power in the region willing to ally with the Franks against Nur al-Din, a fact that might have deterred some in Outremer but meant nothing to the new arrivals from the West. In any case, for the Frankish states of Outremer, perilously clinging to the Mediterranean seaboard, it was always a strategic necessity to extend their depth, to conquer Aleppo, Damascus or Cairo. Damascus was a venerable and wealthy city whose capture would give the Franks control over the crossroads of commerce and communications in the East. After vigorous discussion of these various plans of action the assembly finally decided to concentrate all the available forces of the crusade against Damascus.
The Second Crusade marched out from Galilee for Damascus in late July 1148. The army camped in a well-supplied position amid orchards and fresh-flowing water in front of the western walls and prepared for the siege. But the orchards also served detachments of Damascenes who used their cover to make repeated sorties against the Crusaders. Louis and Conrad responded by switching their attack to the eastern walls where there was open ground and they could deploy their heavy cavalry to greater effect. But the city walls were higher on this waterless desert side, and when the siege dragged on the Crusaders had no choice but to withdraw. Without even fighting a battle the Second Crusade was defeated, ending in a whimpering fiasco. Six years later Damascus fell to Nur al-Din, and the encirclement of Outremer by a united Muslim power began.
The Strategic Importance of Damascus
If the Second Crusade proved a calamity for its failure to capture Damascus, the great error had already been committed half a century before when Damascus was not seized by the First Crusade. Then the momentum was with the Franks, who had the men to do the job, but their ideological fixation on Jerusalem obscured the strategic reality. As it was, the Crusader states formed a long thin line along the Mediterranean coast from the Amanus mountains in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, but they had no depth: the Crusaders never controlled the hinterland to the east where Damascus sits on the desert fringe. Eastwards of this hinterland lay nothing but barren desert, not easily traversed by large armies. If the First Crusade had taken Damascus it would have cut the Muslim world in two; instead this hinterland became a highway for Muslim forces moving between Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and eventually Cairo, who freely harassed Outremer all along its desert flank and kept the Christian forces permanently stretched.
The Bitter Aftertaste
The withdrawal from Damascus caused a bitterness in relations between Outremer and the West that lasted for a generation. Seen from the perspective of the East, Kings Louis and Conrad had neither recovered Edessa nor offset its loss by taking Damascus or anything else; indeed their bungling placed Outremer in greater peril than before the crusade began.
In the West the failure of the crusade came as a shock because it had been led by the powerful kings of Germany and France and had been preached by Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest spiritual figure of the age. Some blamed the Franks of the East, who had previously been in alliance with the ruler of Damascus; some German chroniclers, anxious to protect Conrad, blamed the Templars, saying that they had deliberately engineered the retreat; the anonymous Wurzburg chronicler wrote of Templar greed, and of betrayal by taking a massive bribe. The French did not make the same accusations, having been supported by the Templars throughout. And in fact there is no evidence of Templar treachery, but it is significant that they were blamed–it was the first indication that the long history of ambiguous feelings about the foundation of an order of monks who also fought for God might be translated into open and specific complaints.
The problem was that the more the Franks of Outremer relied on Western subsidy and military aid, the more critical the West became if things went wrong; the enthusiasm was there, but only for victories that came easily and cheap. From now on, the defence of the Holy Land would depend on its network of castles, largely built and commanded by the knights of the military orders.