POPE URBAN II DIED on 29 July 1099, two weeks after the recovery of Jerusalem but before the news reached Rome. He had no plans for ruling in the East; his object was to liberate its indigenous Christians from Arab and Turkish occupation and to restore Asia Minor and Syria to Byzantine rule. Carried forward by their courage and their faith, the crusaders had also captured Jerusalem. Their leaders established a feudal system and a hierarchy of self-governing states, the county of Edessa, the principality of Antioch, the county of Tripoli and the kingdom of Jerusalem, which was paramount.
Divisions in the Islamic world – not only the rivalry between the Arab Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and the Baghdad caliphate, which had been taken over by the Seljuk Turks, but also local divisions in Syria and Palestine, Arab against Arab, Turk against Turk – meant that the Middle East was fragmented into numerous Muslim emirates. The crusader states fitted into this mosaic and were accepted in the wider scheme of things. Rather than reacting to the fall of Jerusalem with a call to arms, local Muslim rulers sought accommodation with the Franks – the Franj as they were known in Arabic, meaning not only Franks but anyone from Western Europe.
The Franks were welcomed among the indigenous Christian population, as the celebrations at Bethlehem, Edessa and elsewhere showed. Moreover the Franks were welcomed by Muslims too, who valued the protection they offered against the depredations of the Turks. At first the Franks regarded the Muslims as the enemy, but gradually their attitude changed, partly as some among the Franks began to learn Arabic, and partly because in making allies among the Muslims they came to respect Islamic society. Outremer, the land across the sea, as the crusader states were collectively known, became a successful and progressive society and a source of fruitful exchange of goods and ideas between Latin Europe and the Muslim East.
The Templars were established to maintain security for pilgrims against marauding brigands, successors to those tribesmen who lived by plunder and had caused trouble throughout the days of Muslim rule. But apart from these local disturbances, the lands of Outremer were at peace. Only later, in the face of renewed Turkish aggression, did the Templars’ moment come, when they fought to the death for the defence and survival of the Holy Land.
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, the papal legate, but he had died 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, his nephew 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, in particular the Latin patriarch of the city, who wanted Jerusalem to be governed as a theocracy under patriarchal rule and subject to the pope at Rome. But the papacy had never seen the crusade as an imperial venture. Moreover within a year the pious Godfrey was dead and the crown passed to his brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, who had no qualms about ruling over a secular kingdom of Jerusalem as Baldwin I. After granting the county of Edessa to his cousin Baldwin of Bourcq, Baldwin I took up residence at Jerusalem. The Seljuks had turned the Temple Mount into a militarised acropolis, garrisoning their troops there. The crusaders were attracted by its biblical associations. For his palace Baldwin used the Aqsa mosque, which was assumed to stand on the site of Solomon’s Temple, as it is confusingly phrased in English; the Greeks called it the Nαόςτου Σολομώντα, where naos means both ‘temple’ and ‘palace’, while in Latin it was called Templum Solomonis, where again templum can mean ‘palace’; Christians at the time understood the meaning to be ‘palace’.1 The Dome of the Rock, which the crusaders not surprisingly mistook for a Byzantine building, was understood to occupy the site of the Jewish Temple. Known to Christians throughout the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem as the Holy of Holies, it became a Christian church, the Templum Domini, the Temple of the Lord, under the guardianship of the Augustinian canons of the Holy Sepulchre, although only much later was a cross placed atop the dome.
The stage was being set for restoring Jerusalem to the status of a great city, a royal capital. Except under the Umayyads, when Jerusalem was promoted and embellished, the Muslims had reduced the city to a provincial town subordinate to their administrative and military headquarters at Ramla and to their imperial capitals at Cairo and Baghdad. Over the coming decades the Franks would replace all the churches the Muslims had destroyed and build many more; they would construct monasteries, libraries, hospitals, bath houses, covered markets and other institutions; and they would build a royal palace and strengthen the city walls. The increased flow of pilgrims since the Frankish liberation of the holy sites was central to this great revival in the fortunes of Jerusalem and of the whole of Outremer.
Saewulf of Canterbury, who travelled to the Holy Land in 1102, described the perils facing pilgrims along the way. Arriving at the port of Jaffa as a storm was coming up, he quickly got ashore; but of thirty ships standing in the harbour, only seven survived the battering of the winds and waves.
Some people were consumed with terror and drowned there and then. Some people were – it seemed unbelievable to many – clutching to the wooden parts of the ship, but as I saw they were cut to pieces or, being snatched off the timber of the ship, were taken off to deep water. [. . .] Of human beings of either sex more than a thousand died that day.2
Such catastrophes explain why altars were set up in both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock to St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, where prayers were received from pilgrims for safety at sea.
But a safe landfall for pilgrims was merely the prelude to new dangers. Bedouin had brought havoc to Palestine ever since the Arab conquest, and Turkish tribesmen had more recently added to the violence and disorder. Saewulf told how parties of pilgrims landing at Jaffa were exposed to attack as they journeyed along the hard mountain road to Jerusalem. Pilgrims who wearied and fell behind, or groups that were vulnerably small, were prey to bands of 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 burial. ‘Anyone who has taken that road’, Saewulf wrote,
can see how many human bodies there are in the road and next to the road, and there are countless corpses which have been torn up by wild beasts. It might be questioned why so many Christian corpses should lie there unburied, but it is in fact no surprise. There is little soil there, and the rocks are not easy to move. Even if the soil were there, who would be stupid enough to leave his brethren and be alone digging a grave! Anybody who did this would dig a grave not for his fellow Christian but for himself!3
Daniel, a Russian abbot, needed all his courage when his pilgrimage through the Holy Land in 1106–7 brought him near the town of Basham in Galilee. ‘In this pool Christ himself bathed with his disciples and one may see to this day the place where Christ sat on a rock.’ But there was menace in the scene, where tall palms stood about the town like a dense forest and great reeds grew along the streams and in the water meadows. ‘This place is terrible and difficult of access for here live fierce pagan Saracens who attack travellers at the fords on these rivers.’4 The tribes were not the only problem. An especially shocking attack took place at Easter 1119, when a party of seven hundred unarmed pilgrims, both men and women, set out from Jerusalem for the traditional baptism site of Jesus in the river Jordan, east of Jericho. They were travelling, in the words of the German chronicler Albert of Aachen, ‘with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart’5 when they were set upon by a Fatimid sortie from Ascalon, on the coast south of Jaffa. Three hundred pilgrims were slaughtered, and another sixty were captured to be sold as slaves.
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 defending pilgrims against brigands on the roads. The Easter massacre along the way 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. The Hospital was located immediately south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Its ruins could still be seen there in the late nineteenth century until finally they were cleared away by the Ottomans to create the network of market streets seen today – still called the Muristan, meaning ‘hospital’. 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. This was where Bernard the Monk stayed during his visit to Jerusalem in 870. But in 1009 it was destroyed as part of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim’s violent anti-Christian persecutions. In about 1070 merchants from Amalfi obtained permission from the Fatimids to rebuild the Hospital, which was run by Benedictine monks and dedicated to St John the Baptist.6 But after the First Crusade the Hospital was released from Benedictine control and raised an order of its own, the Hospitallers of St John, which was recognised by the pope in 1113 and came under his sole jurisdiction. Recent research on the origins of the Templars suggests that the knights were probably first associated with the Augustinian canons, the guardians of the Holy Sepulchre, who housed them in the Hospital until the knights received permission to form a separate group.7
Official acceptance of the new order of Templars 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, and 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.
The Templars were also given the use of another hand-me-down. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the king had made do with the Aqsa mosque for his palace, but now he was building a new royal palace south of the Tower of David to the west. As gradually he moved from one to the other, he gave up the successive portions of what had been the mosque to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers. Because the Aqsa mosque was known as the Templum Solomonis, 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.
Even now, however, the Templars’ role was modest, and throughout the 1120s they remained in close association with the Hospital, sharing in the task of looking after pilgrims by acting as a gendarmerie, a police force on the roads. Had the archives of the Templars survived, there might be more to say; these were taken to Cyprus after the fall of Outremer at the end of the thirteenth century, and they were probably destroyed when the Ottomans overran the island in 1571. That explains why almost everything we know about the Templars comes from sources other than themselves – from bodies such as the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, the Italian trading communities, the Hospitallers and the various chroniclers and pilgrims in the Holy Land, from the Vatican archives and from the French trial documents of the early 1300s, when the Templars were convicted of heresy and their leaders burned at the stake. Nevertheless these numerous sources should have been sufficient to give some clear indication of Templar activity during the first half of the twelfth century in Outremer, but until the coming of the Second Crusade in 1148 the Templars rarely figure in the historical record, and then only in a minor way.
This fits with the reality of the situation; Outremer was largely at peace with its Muslim neighbours. According to Ibn al Jawzi, the Muslim scholar and chronicler, when the qadi – that is, judge – of Damascus travelled to Baghdad in August 1099 and gave an emotional account at the Abbasid court of the fall of Jerusalem to the crusaders a month earlier, many who were listening were reduced to tears, but no concrete proposals were forthcoming and ‘the people remained aloof’.8 The Muslim inhabitants of Syria and Palestine, wrote the Arab chronicler al-Muqaddasi, ‘have no enthusiasm for jihad’.9 Instead pragmatism prevailed. In 1108 the Damascus atabeg Tughtigin, a Turk who had made himself independent of Seljuk rule, signed an armistice agreement with the kingdom of Jerusalem, which made the Golan Heights a demilitarised zone and divided the revenues from their fertile agricultural lands: one-third to Damascus, one-third to the crusaders and one-third to the local peasants who tilled the land. The following year a similar agreement was signed with regard to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. These arrangements remained in force until Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 and were not disturbed even when the signatories attacked one another elsewhere from time to time. As for the coast, the view taken in Cairo, according to the Egyptian-Syrian chronicler Ibn Zafir, was that it was preferable that the Franks should occupy the ports of Syria and Palestine ‘so that they could prevent the spread of the influence of the Turks to the lands of Egypt’.10
The greatest danger to the crusader states came from the Turks in Aleppo, who twice, in 1119 and 1122, inflicted heavy defeats on the Christian armies of Antioch and Edessa and put the cities under threat. But Muslim aggression was sporadic, and so far as the kingdom of Jerusalem was concerned, it was easily rebuffed. Before Saladin began his campaigns against the Franks in the late 1170s, the mountain area of Jerusalem was raided only twice, in 1124 and then in 1152, the second assault feebler than the first. Ascalon was the base for Fatimid attacks, but in 1118 its garrison lacked the strength to prevent a small expedition against Egypt led by King Baldwin I; and Ascalon’s raid against Jerusalem in 1124 was possible only because the entire Frankish army was engaged in the siege of Tyre. The coastal plain north of Jaffa was free of menace until the late 1180s, and well before then, in 1153, Ascalon’s power was broken and the city was taken by the Franks. The district round Nablus, 40 miles north of Jerusalem, twice suffered incursions from Damascus, in 1113 and 1137; on the second occasion the Turks killed many of Nablus’ Christians and burned down their churches, but they were driven out again.
This was the sum of the disturbances that afflicted Palestine for the first eighty years or so after the First Crusade. There were great lapses of time between these incursions, sometimes as long as a generation, during which the Franks established themselves in the country, mixed with its inhabitants, and developed the security and the political structure of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the rest of Outremer. Conditions soon became settled in the East; the security of travellers and farmers in the kingdom of Jerusalem was ‘not much different from the state of security on the roads and in the rural areas of contemporary Europe’.11 Thanks to the Franks, Palestine enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity throughout most of the twelfth century that contrasted sharply with the violence and destruction of the previous century, when it was under Muslim rule.
By 1128 the Franks had liberated all the places of pilgrimage associated in the gospels with the life of Jesus. They had established themselves militarily and politically in Outremer, where the landscape was still marked by Christian shrines and carried Christian associations, but there was much to recover and rebuild.
The Temple Mount was the centre of the universe for Jews and the centre of the universe for Muslims too, and because it stood in an open position and was crowned by the gilded Dome of the Rock it could seem to dominate the Jerusalem skyline. But to the west another and higher hill rose above the city, and well up its eastern slope stood the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the dome of its Rotunda, or Anastasis, meaning ‘Resurrection’ in Greek, rising high above the press of surrounding buildings. Here the Templars had taken their founding vows on Christmas Day 1119; thereafter Templar churches would often be round, like the Anastasis. For medieval Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the centre of the world, the exact spot being in the court between the chapel of Golgotha, marking the site of the Crucifixion, and the tomb beneath the dome marking the place of Resurrection.12 Higher still was the Mount of Olives, east of the city across the Kidron valley (the biblical valley of Jehoshaphat); it was topped by the Church of the Ascension, built in 392, and enclosed a pair of Jesus’ footprints, marking the spot where he ascended to heaven forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:2–9).13 Now after the crusaders recovered Jerusalem, pilgrims discovered other footprints of Jesus, this time within the Temple of the Lord, the church that had been the Dome of the Rock, footprints pressed into the Rock itself, a reminder of Jesus’ many visits to the Temple Mount.
The crusaders’ enthusiasm for identifying the Temple Mount with various biblical events was shared with the Christians of Palestine generally and with pilgrims throughout Christendom, for since Umar’s conquest of Jerusalem Christians had been forbidden access to the Mount and it had become a place of confusion and mystery. Now in a burst of discovery wonderful associations were revealed. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19; Chronicles 3:1) and David’s encounter with the angel and his purchase of the threshing floor of Araunah (2 Samuel 24:15–25; 1 Chronicles 21:15–28) both took place on the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock, converted to a church, sanctified the spot where Jesus had driven the moneychangers from the Temple (Matthew 21:12; John 2:14–16), the very same Temple that had been built and dedicated by Solomon (1 Kings 6–8). Here took place the Presentation of Christ, where Jesus, soon after his birth, was presented by his parents to the Lord, and the aged Simeon prophesied that the child would be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of the people of Israel’ (Luke 2:22–32). Moreover Simeon’s own house, where the Holy Family had stayed, and which contained the bed of the Virgin Mary and the cradle and bath of the infant Jesus, was identified as having stood at the south-east corner of the Mount, a stone’s throw from the Templars’ quarters. In the Temple too the young Jesus was remembered for conversing with the doctors (Luke 2:46). In the cave below the Dome of the Rock the angel Gabriel announced that Zachariah would have a son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–23); and in the same cave Jesus forgave the adulterous woman (John 8:2–11), making it a suitable place for pilgrims to come for confession.
Headquartered on the Temple Mount, the Templars were daily in touch with these places and as aware as anyone of their holy associations. And in protecting bands of pilgrims on their journeys from the ports up to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem and to the River Jordan, the Templars were more familiar than most with the holy sites. Pilgrims would ask them for information and explanations, and the Templars found themselves providing answers and serving as guides. They also began interpreting the holy landscape for themselves: for example, routing the Via Dolorosa through the Temple Mount, the way previously forbidden to Christians by the Muslims. According to the Templars, after Jesus had been before Pilate at the praetorium, identified as against the northern side of the Temple Mount, and was beaten, spat upon, mocked and made to wear the crown of thorns, he was led up through the Mount where he briefly rested with his cross, the spot marked by a dome within the northwest quadrant and called the Throne of Jesus. Here Simon of Cyrene helped bear the cross (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26) as Jesus passed through what the Templars renamed the Sorrowful Gate, today’s Bab el Nazir, on the western side of the Mount, and so slowly upwards through the city to Golgotha, the site occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was crucified, buried and rose again on the third day. The most sacred procession in the Christian Church, the goal of every pilgrim, the Stations of the Cross along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, was reinterpreted, developed and enshrined by the Templars – until 1187, when Saladin swept everything Christian from the Temple Mount, and the Via Dolorosa was re-routed again.
In the autumn of 1127 or early in 1128 Baldwin II sent emissaries to the West with the aim of bolstering the foundations of his kingdom. When Baldwin was count of Edessa, he had married an Armenian princess by whom he had four daughters but no male heir, and to secure the succession he and his barons decided to offer the hand of Melisende, his oldest daughter, to a suitable candidate in France. The French king recommended Fulk V, count of the wealthy and formidable house of Anjou, the same Fulk who became an early backer of the Templars after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1120. The count, who was a widower, felt the time had come to devote the remainder of his life to the Christian cause in the East, and so handing Anjou to his son, Fulk agreed to return to Outremer and marry Melisende. In this respect Baldwin’s mission to the West was entirely successful; in due course the couple would succeed jointly to the throne, and meanwhile their union strengthened the kingdom’s ties with the West.
But there was more to the mission than that. Among the emissaries sent by Baldwin to the West was Hugh of Payns. Certainly the Master of the Temple was involved in the arrangements that brought Fulk to Jerusalem, but he was also sent to raise funds and as many knights as possible for Baldwin’s long-cherished ambition of conquering Damascus. Despite a treaty with Jerusalem, Damascus remained a constant threat, as shown by the attack against Nablus in 1113. Also, as Outremer was hardly more than a long, thin strip along the Mediterranean coast from the Amanus mountains in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba to the south, capturing Damascus would give the crusader lands strategic depth.
Yet at the same time there was disaffection among the Templars, a crisis of confidence or an apparent loss of faith in the direction they were taking. A letter written in about 1128 reveals the turmoil within the order. The author signed himself Hugh Peccator – that is Hugh the Sinner, who is thought to have been Hugh of Payns. Whoever wrote the letter, it was addressed directly to the Templars.
We have heard that certain of your number have been troubled by some people of no wisdom, as though your profession, by which you have dedicated your life to carrying arms against the enemies of the faith and peace in defence of Christians, as though, I say, that profession were illicit or harmful, that is either a sin or an obstacle to greater advancement.
It goes on to say that this is the tempting of the devil who
under the pretence of piety tries to lead you into the pitfall of error. [. . .] He tells the knights of Christ to lay down their arms, not to wage war, to flee tumults, to seek out the wilderness, so that when he shows the appearance of humility he takes away true humility. What is pride if not to disobey what God has imposed on one?
Clearly there were voices who argued against the notion of an order of monks that used the sword, and agreement with those voices was heard within the Templars themselves. The Templars had at first been asked to play a defensive role, to act as a protective militia for pilgrims travelling from one holy place to another along the roads. But Baldwin’s plan to attack Damascus meant that the Templars were being asked not to recover or protect but to take the offensive against the enemy in order to secure strategic goals necessary for the survival of Outremer. ‘In time of peace by abstinence and fasting you fight against your own flesh [. . .] but in war you fight with arms against the enemies of peace who harm or wish to harm.’14 Templars, warned Hugh Peccator, must not surrender to the argument of bogus piety or humility; they must accept that what they do is no sin, that they act in accordance with the will of God. The letter was written at a decisive moment for the future direction of the order and was meant to silence doubts and to stiffen resolve while Hugh of Payns was on his mission to the West to secure resources and support.
According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hugh of Payns’ recruiting drive was fantastically successful: ‘He summoned people out to Jerusalem, and then there went with him and after him so large a number of people as never had done since the first expedition in the days of Pope Urban.’15Whatever the reality, Baldwin acquired the wherewithal to mount his assault against Damascus in late 1129.
As Baldwin marched his army towards Damascus he sent out detachments, mostly men recently arrived from the West, to gather food and supplies; but they lacked discipline and wandered widely, distracted by opportunities for grabbing booty for themselves, and were caught off-guard by the Turkish cavalry and were overwhelmed; only forty-six escaped. Nevertheless Baldwin with the main force of his army, which included numbers of Templars, pressed forward to attack; but then the skies opened, rain fell in torrents, the ground turned to mud, the way became impassable, and Baldwin could do nothing but retreat in good order to Jerusalem. The records do not say whether the foragers cut down by the Turkish cavalry were men specifically recruited for the Templars by Hugh of Payns; we know only that some Templars were with the main army. And that is almost the last that is heard of the Templars until the arrival of the Second Crusade in 1148.
The silence about the Templars is all the more surprising because it was precisely at this time that they burst into the historical record in the West. Baldwin II had sent Hugh of Payns sailing westwards not only in the service of the kingdom of Jerusalem but also with the intention of gaining support and recognition for the Templars from the highest ranks of the Church and states in Europe. 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’.16
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 was devoted to the Virgin Mary; once in the later years of his life, as he stood before a statue of the Virgin imploring that she might be a mother to him, the statue came to life and offered him her breasts to suck. Bernard deliberately sought out the Cistercian order, a stricter form of the Benedictines and known for its austerity, and in 1113 joined its monastery at Cîteaux. 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 or 1128, Bernard was already well informed about the East and what was needed there; his mother’s brother was André 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 round 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 donors’ 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, among them seven abbots, ten bishops and two archbishops. They were presided over by a cardinal who was the papal legate, but dominating the assembly was one of the seven abbots, Bernard of Clairvaux. Clearly the Council of Troyes had been convened on the prior understanding that the Templars were to be accepted as a religious order. Hugh addressed the council 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-one 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. But Bernard was more than codifying existing practice and custom among the Templars; he was creating new conditions, imposing an ethos that had not entirely been in place before.
The evidence is in the Rule itself, which makes it clear that the Templars had at first been following a somewhat different life. For example, there was the rule on how married brothers were to be treated, making it clear that chastity was not originally required, but ‘we consider it unfair that this sort of brother should live in one and the same house with brothers who promise chastity to God’. Also in the early days there had been female members of the order, but Bernard put an end to this. ‘It is dangerous to add more sisters to the order because the ancient enemy has expelled many men from the straight path of Paradise on account of their consorting with women. Therefore, dearest brothers, in order that the flower of chastity should always be evident among you, it shall not be permissible henceforth to continue this custom.’
But chastity in relations with women might encourage homosexual activity, and this too was suppressed, through a series of oblique prohibitions. Pointed shoes and laces were ‘an abomination’, as were ‘excess hair or immoderately long clothes’ – that is, anything that might smack of femininity. The hair on their heads was to be cut short, but all Templar knights wore beards as they were not permitted to shave.
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. 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, although 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 were entitled to legal protection against what the Latin Rule called ‘the innumerable persecutors of the holy Church’.17
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 Payns 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 malicide – that is, the killing of evil itself – which was good. The Holy Land, wrote Bernard, bore the impress of Jesus’ life – Bethlehem, Nazareth, the River Jordan, 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 diocesan 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.
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? Why do we hear so little about them during the first three decades of their existence? 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, Greek and Arabic there before continuing his education at Paris and Bologna from about 1146 to 1165. 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, based on Arabic sources. 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 therefore 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 such as 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, André 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.
Nevertheless the notion that the Templars began with nine members and continued at that strength for a decade may have less to do with factual accuracy than with medieval number symbolism. Nine was considered an incorruptible number because no matter how many times it is multiplied it continues to reproduce itself in the sum of its digits. This symbolism would have enshrined nine in the founding myth of the Templars, a myth that was repeated by later generations from whom William of Tyre collected his information.
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 fulfilled 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.18
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.