So far as is generally known, the first historical information on the Templars is provided by a Frankish historian, Guillaume de Tyre, who wrote between 1175 and 1185. This was at the peak of the Crusades, when Western armies had already conquered the Holy Land and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem or, as it was called by the Templars themselves, “Outremer’, the “Land Beyond the Sea’. But by the time Guillaume de Tyre began to write, Palestine had been in Western hands for seventy years, and the Templars had already been in existence for more than fifty. Guillaume was therefore writing of events which predated his own lifetime events which he had not personally witnessed or experienced, but had learnt of at second or even third hand. At second or third hand and, moreover, on the basis of uncertain authority. For there were no Western chroniclers in Outremer between 1127 and 1144. Thus there are no written records for those crucial years.
We do not, in short, know much of Guillaume’s sources, and this may well call some of his statements into question. He may have been drawing on popular word of mouth, on a none too reliable oral tradition. Alternatively, he may have consulted the Templars themselves and recounted what they told him. If this is so, it means he is reporting only what the
Templars wanted him to report.
Granted, Guillaume does provide us with certain basic information; and it is this information on which all subsequent accounts of the Templars, all explanations of their foundation, all narratives of their activities have been based. But because of Guillaume’s vagueness and sketchiness, because of the time at which he was writing, because of the death of documented sources, he constitutes a precarious basis on which to build a definitive picture. Guillaume’s chronicles are certainly useful. But it is a mistake and one to which many historians have succumbed to regard them as unimpugnable and wholly accurate. Even Guillaume’s dates, as Sir Steven Runciman stresses, ‘are confused and at times demonstrably wrong’.”
According to Guillaume de Tyre, the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was founded in 1118. Its founder is said to be one Hugues de Payen, a nobleman from Champagne and vassal of the count of Champagne.” One day Hugues, unsolicited, presented himself with eight comrades at the palace of Baudouin I -king of Jerusalem, whose elder brother, Godfroi de Bouillon, had captured the Holy City nineteen years before. Baudouin seems to have received them most cordially, as did the Patriarch of Jerusalem the religious leader of the new kingdom and special emissary of the pope.
The declared objective of the Templars, Guillaume de Tyre continues, was, ‘as far as their strength permitted, they should keep the roads and highways safe .. . with especial regard for the protection of pilgrims ‘.3 So worthy was this objective apparently that the king placed an entire wing of the royal palace at the knights’ disposal. And, despite their declared oath of poverty, the knights moved into this lavish accommodation. According to tradition, their quarters were built on the foundations of the ancient Temple of Solomon, and from this the fledgling Order derived its name.
For nine years, Guillaume de Tyre tells us, the nine knights admitted no new candidates to their Order. They were still supposed to be living in poverty such poverty that official seals show two knights riding a single horse, implying not only brotherhood, but also a penury that precluded separate mounts. This style of seal is often regarded as the most famous and distinctive of Templar devices, descending from the first days of the Order. However, it actually dates from a full century later, when the Templars were hardly poor if, indeed, they ever were.
According to Guillaume de Tyre, writing a half century later, the Templars were established in 1118 and moved into the king’s palace presumably sallying out from here to protect pilgrims on the Holy Land’s highways and byways. And yet there was, at this time, an official royal historian, employed by the king. His name was Fulk de Chartres, and he was writing not fifty years after the Order’s purported foundation but during the very years in question. Curiously enough, Fulk de Chartres makes no mention whatever of Hugues de Payen, Hugues’s companions or anything even remotely connected with the Knights Templar. Indeed there is a thunderous silence about Templar activities during the early days of their existence. Certainly there is no record anywhere not even later of them doing anything to protect pilgrims. And one cannot but wonder how so few men could hope to fulfill so mammoth a self-imposed task. Nine men to protect the pilgrims on all the thoroughfares of the Holy Land? Only nine? And all pilgrims? If this was their objective, one would surely expect them to welcome new recruits. Yet, according to Guillaume de Tyre, they admitted no new candidates to the Order for nine years.
None the less, within a decade the Templars’ fame seems to have spread back to Europe. Ecclesiastical authorities spoke highly of them and extolled their Christian undertaking. By 1128, or shortly thereafter, a tract lauding their virtues and qualities was issued by no less a person than Saint Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux and the age’s chief spokesman for Christendom. Bernard’s tract, “In Praise of the New Knighthood’, declares the Templars to be the epitome and apotheosis of Christian values.
After nine years, in 1127, most of the nine knights returned to Europe and a triumphal welcome, orchestrated in large part by Saint Bernard.In January 1128 a Church council was convened at Troyes court of the count of Champagne, Hugues de Payen’s liege lord at which Bernard was again the guiding spirit. At this council the Templars were officially recognised and incorporated as a religiousmilitary order. Hugues de Payen was given the title of Grand Master. He and his subordinates were to be warrior-monks, soldier-mystics, combining the austere discipline of the cloister with a martial zeal tantamount to fanaticism a “militia of Christ’, as they were called at the time. And it was again Saint Bernard who helped to draw up, with an enthusiastic preface, the rule of conduct to which the knights would adhere a rule based on that of the Cistercian monastic order, in which Bernard himself was a dominant influence.
The Templars were sworn to poverty, chastity and obedience. They were obliged to cut their hair but forbidden to cut their beards, thus distinguishing themselves in an age when most men were clean-shaven. Diet, dress and other aspects of daily life were stringently regulated in accordance with both monastic and military routines. All members of the Order were obliged to wear white habits or surcoats and cloaks, and these soon evolved into the distinctive white mantle for which the Templars became famous. “It is granted to none to wear white habits, or to have white mantles, excepting the .. . Knights of Christ.” So stated the Order’s rule, which elaborated on the symbolic significance of this apparel, “To all the professed knights, both in winter and in summer, we give, if they can be procured, white garments, that those who have cast behind them a dark life.
In addition to these details, the rule established a loose administrative hierarchy and apparatus. And behaviour on the battlefield was strictly controlled. If captured, for instance, Templars were not allowed to ask for mercy or to ransom themselves. They were compelled to fight to the death. Nor were they permitted to retreat, unless the odds against them exceeded three to one.
In 11396 a Papal Bull was issued by Pope Innocent II a former Cistercian monk at Clairvaux and protege of Saint Bernard. According to this Bull, the Templars would owe allegiance to no secular or ecclesiastical power other than the pope himself. In other words, they were rendered totally independent of all kings, princes and prelates, and all interference from both political and religious authorities. They had become, in effect, a law unto themselves, an autonomous international empire.
During the two decades following the Council of Troyes, the Order expanded with extraordinary rapidity and on an extraordinary scale. When Hugues de Payen visited England in late 1128, he was received with “great worship’ by King Henry I. Throughout Europe, younger sons of noble families flocked to enrol in the Order’s ranks, and vast donations in money, goods and land were made from every quarter of Christendom. Hugues de Payen donated his own properties, and all new recruits were obliged to do likewise. On admission to the Order, a man was compelled to sign over all his possessions.
Given such policies, it is not surprising that Templar holdings proliferated. Within a mere twelve months of the Council of Troyes, the Order held substantial estates in France, England, Scotland, Flanders, Spain and Portugal. Within another decade, it also held territory in Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Holy Land and points east. Although individual knights were bound to their vow of poverty, this did not prevent the Order from amassing wealth, and on an unprecedented scale. All gifts were welcomed. At the same time, the Order was forbidden to dispose of anything not even to ransom its leaders. The Temple received in abundance but, as a matter of strict policy, it never gave. When Hugues de Payen returned to Palestine in 1130, therefore, with an entourage quite considerable for the time of some three hundred knights, he left behind, in the custody of other recruits, vast tracts of European territory.
In 1146 the Templars adopted the famous splayed red cross the cross pat tee With this device emblazoned on their mantles, the knights accompanied King Louis VII of France on the Second Crusade. Here they established their reputation for martial zeal coupled with an almost insane foolhardiness, and a fierce arrogance as well. On the whole, however, they were magnificently disciplined -the most disciplined fighting force in the world at the time. The French king himself wrote that it was the Templars alone who prevented the Second Crusade ill-conceived and mismanaged as it was from degenerating into a total debacle.
During the next hundred years the Templars became a power with international influence. They were constantly engaged in high-level diplomacy between nobles and monarchs throughout the Western world and the Holy Land. In England, for example, the Master of the Temple was regularly called to the king’s Parliament, and was regarded as head of all religious orders, taking precedence over all priors and abbots in the land. Maintaining close links with both Henry II and Thomas a Becket, the Templars were instrumental in trying to reconcile the sovereign and his estranged archbishop. Successive English kings, including King John, often resided in the Temple’s London preceptory, and the Master of the Order stood by the monarch’s side at the signing of the Magna Carta.”
Nor was the Order’s political involvement confined to Christendom alone. Close links were forged with the Muslim world as well the world so often opposed on the battlefield and the Templars commanded a respect from Saracen leaders exceeding that accorded any other Europeans. Secret connections were also maintained with the Hashishim or Assassins, the famous sect of militant and often fanatical adepts who were Islam’s equivalent of the Templars. The Hashishim paid tribute to the Templars and were rumoured to be in their employ.
On almost every political level the Templars acted as official arbiters in disputes, and even kings submitted to their authority. In 1252 Henry III of England dared to challenge them, threatening to confiscate certain of their domains. “You Templars .. . have so many liberties and charters that your enormous possessions make you rave with pride and haughtiness. What was imprudently given must therefore be prudently revoked; and what was inconsiderately bestowed must be considerately recalled.” The Master of the Order replied, “What say est thou, O King? Far be it that thy mouth should utter so disagreeable and silly a word. So long as thou dost exercise justice, thou wilt reign. But if thou infringe it, thou wilt cease to be King.” It is difficult to convey to the modern mind the enormity and audacity of this statement. Implicitly the Master is taking for his Order and himself a power that not even the papacy dared explicitly claim the power to make or depose monarchs.
At the same time, the Templars’ interests extended beyond war, diplomacy and political intrigue. In effect they created and established the institution of modern banking. By lending vast sums to destitute monarchs they became the bankers for every throne in Europe and for certain Muslim potentates as well. With their network of preceptories throughout Europe and the Middle East, they also organised, at modest interest rates, the safe and efficient transfer of money for merchant traders, a class which became increasingly dependent upon them. Money deposited in one city, for example, could be claimed and withdrawn in another, by means of promissory notes inscribed in intricate codes. The Templars thus became the primary money-changers of the age, and the Paris preceptory became the centre of European finance. It is even probable that the cheque, as we know and use it today, was invented by the Order.
And the Templars traded not only in money, but in thought as well. Through their sustained and sympathetic contact with Islamic and Judaic culture, they came to act as a clearing-house for new ideas, new dimensions of knowledge, new sciences. They enjoyed a veritable monopoly on the best and most advanced technology of their age the best that could be produced by armourers, leather-workers, stone masons military architects and engineers. They contributed to the development of surveying, map-making, road-building and navigation. They possessed their own sea-ports, shipyards and fleet a fleet both commercial and military, which was among the first to use the magnetic compass. And as soldiers, the Templars’ need to treat wounds and illness made them adept in the use of drugs. The Order maintained its own hospitals with its own physicians and surgeons whose use of mould extract suggests an understanding of the properties of antibiotics. Modern principles of hygiene and cleanliness were understood. And with an understanding also in advance of their time they regarded epilepsy not as demonic possession but as a controllable disease.
Inspired by its own accomplishments, the Temple in Europe grew increasingly wealthy, powerful and complacent. Not surprisingly perhaps, it also grew increasingly arrogant, brutal and corrupt. “To drink like a Templar’ became a cliche of the time. And certain sources assert that the Order made a point of recruiting excommunicated knights.
But while the Templars attained both prosperity and notoriety in Europe, the situation in the Holy Land had seriously deteriorated. In 1185 King Baudouin IV of Jerusalem died. In the dynastic squabble that followed, Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Temple, betrayed an oath made to the dead monarch, and thereby brought the European community in Palestine to the brink of civil war. Nor was this Ridefort’s only questionable action. His cavalier attitude towards the Saracens precipitated the rupture of a long-standing truce, and provoked a new cycle of hostilities. Then, in July 1187, Ridefort led his knights, along with the rest of the Christian army, into a rash, misconceived and, as it transpired, disastrous battle at Hattin. The Christian forces were virtually annihilated; and two months later Jerusalem itself captured nearly a century before was again in Saracen hands.
During the following century the situation became increasingly hopeless. By 1291 nearly the whole of Outremer had fallen, and the Holy Land was almost entirely under Muslim control. Only Acre remained, and in May 1291 this last fortress was lost as well. In defending the doomed city, the Templars showed themselves at their most heroic. The Grand Master himself, though severely wounded, continued fighting until his death. As there was only limited space in the Order’s galleys, the women and children were evacuated, while all knights, even the wounded, chose to remain behind. When the last bastion in Arce fell, it did so with apocalyptic intensity, the walls collapsing and burying attackers and defenders alike.
The Templars established their new headquarters in Cyprus; but with the loss of the Holy Land, they had effectively been deprived of their raison d’etre. As there were no longer any accessible infidel lands to conquer, the Order began to turn its attention towards Europe, hoping to find there a justification for its continued existence. A century before, the Templars had presided over the foundation of another chivalric, religious-military order, the Teutonic Knights. The latter were active in small numbers in the Middle East, but by the mid-thirteenth century had turned their attention to the north-eastern frontiers of Christendom. Here they had carved out an independent principality for themselves the Ordenstoat or Ordensland, which encompassed almost the whole of the eastern Baltic. In this principality which extended from Prussia to the Gulf of Finland and what is now Russian soil the Teutonic Knights enjoyed an unchallenged sovereignty, far from the reach of both secular and ecclesiastical control.
From the very inception of the Ordenstaat, the Templars had envied the independence and immunity of their kindred order. After the fall of the Holy Land, they thought increasingly of a state of their own in which they might exercise the same untrammelled authority and autonomy as the Teutonic Knights. Unlike the Teutonic Knights, however, the Templars were not interested in the harsh wilderness of Eastern Europe. By now they were too accustomed to luxury and opulence. Accordingly, they dreamed o founding their state on more accessible, more congenial soil that of the Languedoc.
From its earliest years, the Temple had maintained a certain warm rapport with the Cathars, especially in the Languedoc. Many wealthy landowners Cathars themselves or sympathetic to the Cathars had donated vast tracts of land to the Order. According to a recent writer, at least one of the co-founders of the Temple was a Cathar. This seems somewhat improbable, but it is beyond dispute that Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Order, came from a Cathar family. Forty years after Bertrand’s death, his descendants were fighting side by side with other Cathar lords against the Northern invaders of Simon de Montfort.