The Knights Templar 3: Birth of the Order

Templars leading the crusader army, from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Templars leading the crusader army, from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

The Knights Templar shook the known world.

Everything about them was radical.

This blog will look at their origins.

INTRODUCTION

Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982)

In 1982, one of the earliest Templar ‘conspiracy theory’ books, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, led its readers on a whirlwind pseudo-history journey.

The authors ‘revealed’ that the Templars were founded by a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which they unveiled as an age-old clandestine organization sworn to protect Jesus Christ’s secret bloodline on earth.

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (2003)

Unsurprisingly, the authors had been duped, as were their many followers: most famously Dan Brown, who used the idea in The Da Vinci Code.

In fact, the Templars were founded by Hugh of Payns, a high-ranking knight from Champagne.

And he was very open about what the Order was for.

HOLY FIRE

Today, and since at least the year 870, on the eve of Easter, Jerusalem’s Christians anxiously await what they believe is an annual miracle.

In the darkened hush of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarch enters the low door into the tomb of Christ, and a blue-white fire magically appears out of the rock.

The crowd in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre gathered around the tomb of Christ on Easter Saturday, passing around the ‘holy fire’

The crowd in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre gathered around the tomb of Christ on Easter Saturday, passing around the ‘holy fire’

Lighting candles from it, he passes the ‘holy fire’ around the church, and the faithful take their flaming candles to kindle the lamps in their homes. (These days, it is even flown on special flights around the world.)

Although ‘holy fire’ day is usually a time of rejoicing, in 1119, twenty years after the knights of the First Crusade triumphantly seized Jerusalem, the celebration ended in a bloodbath.

Christian pilgrims regularly travelled east from Jerusalem to visit the River Jordan, north of the Dead Sea. where they believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus

Christian pilgrims regularly travelled east from Jerusalem to visit the River Jordan, north of the Dead Sea. where they believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus

Filled with wonder from the ‘miracle’, seven hundred ecstatic pilgrims swarmed out of Jerusalem’s walls and headed east across the Judaean Desert to bathe and give thanks in the River Jordan, twenty miles away.

Weak from fasting, but ‘in joy and with glad hearts’ they walked through the night.

Passing a place of solitude, they were unexpectedly ambushed by a large force of heavily armed Muslims. The confused and unarmed pilgrims scattered, but not before three hundred of them were murdered.

Islamic fighters during the crusades

Islamic fighters during the crusades

By the time King Baldwin ii heard the news back in Jerusalem and sent out a squadron of knights, it was all over.

The attackers had melted into the night, leaving the corpses in the blood-soaked desert, and taking sixty captives with them, never to be heard from again.(1)

WHEN CHRIST AND HIS ANGELS SLEPT

The Franks (as the crusaders called themselves) were deeply shocked by the massacre.(2)

And the news was about to get even worse.

The Battle of the Field of Blood, June 1119

The Battle of the Field of Blood, June 1119

A few months later, they suffered a crushing military defeat beyond anything they had ever experienced. The entire Italian Norman garrison of Antioch, seven hundred knights and three thousand soldiers, was wiped out at the battle they named the Ager Sanguinis (the Field of Blood).

To the crusaders, these disasters were part of a catalogue of calamities, coming on top of a series of destructive earthquakes that toppled their castles, and four years of crops destroyed by locusts and mice.

Patriarch Daimbert crowns King Baldwin I on Christmas Day 1100 in Bethlehem

Patriarch Daimbert crowns King Baldwin I on Christmas Day 1100 in Bethlehem

The euphoria of carving out a shiny new European colony had worn off long ago.

Life was grim.

Crusader architecture from the 1130s.  The Church of St Anne in Jerusalem, built on the site where the crusaders believed the Virgin Mary was born.

Crusader architecture from the 1130s. The Church of St Anne in Jerusalem, built on the site where the crusaders believed the Virgin Mary was born.

Although the crusaders had hammered their conquered lands into a feudal society they recognized, with a king ruling a royal court of senior barons and a patriarch running a network of bishops and churches, it was not the land of milk and honey they had anticipated.

Most of the knights who had stormed Jerusalem in 1099 had returned home, leaving only hardcore pioneer settlers bent on seizing the riches and influence they had no access to in Europe.

The tower, chapel and dormitory of Chastel Blanc (the White Castle) in Safita (Syria), built by the Templars.  Its walls are 3 metres thick.

The tower, chapel and dormitory of Chastel Blanc (the White Castle) in Safita, Syria, built by the Templars with three-metre thick walls

But despite their new power and territory, the sober reality was that they held the land by military force alone, and did not have enough manpower to do it effectively.

The result was constant danger and endless losses, especially for those on the move and not tucked up in the impregnable castles mushrooming in the desert.

IMMORALITY

Faced with these catastrophes, the crusaders tried to work out what was going wrong.

The answer they arrived at was the same as when disasters had struck on the First Crusade. They concluded that God was angry with them for their immorality.

So the following year, in January 1120, they decided to clean up their act.

To do it, they held a council.

The Council of Nablus

The Council of Nablus may have taken place in the Church of the Passion and Resurrection, now the Great Mosque of Nablus (Jami’ Nablus al-Kebir)

The Council of Nablus may have taken place in the Church of the Passion and Resurrection, now the Great Mosque of Nablus (Jami’ Nablus al-Kebir)

They travelled thirty miles north of Jerusalem to the ancient city of Nablus, and sat down to work it out.

King Baldwin ii and his court were present. So were Patriarch Warmund and his bishops. There had never been a crusader meeting like it. They all knew the stakes. Their future existence hung in the balance.

The flag of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (a cross potent with four crosslets or)

The flag of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (a cross potent with four crosslets or)

The outcome of their meeting was a list of twenty-five crimes: ranging from adultery and rape to prostitution, pimping, interracial sexual relations, bigamy, sodomy, theft and a selection of other immoral acts that had seemingly been committed by Frankish settlers. The punishments they agreed were typically medieval: cutting off the genitals of male adulterers, mutilating the noses of female adulterers, the same for those guilty of interracial sexual relations, burning at the stake for sodomy, and so on.

Emotions were running high.

In this charged atmosphere, Hugh of Payns made his move.(3)

Jeremy Irons (playing Raymond III of Tripoli) in council.  He and the knights are all bearing the arms of Jerusalem, from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Jeremy Irons (playing Raymond III of Tripoli) in council. He and the knights are all bearing the arms of Jerusalem, from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

He stood before the council and set out his vision of a group of monk-knights devoted to a life of penance and caring for pilgrims. And fighting.

It was radical beyond belief.

Some of the remains at Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of the Battle of Hastings (1066) as part of his penance for killing so many during the conquest of England.  The church’s high altar supposedly marked the spot where King Harold was slain.

Some of the remains at Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of the Battle of Hastings (1066) as part of his penance for killing so many during the conquest of England. The church’s high altar supposedly marked the spot where King Harold was slain.

In 1066, when William ‘the Bastard’ conquered England, the pope ordered William’s Norman soldiers to do penance for every person they killed.(4)  Three years per corpse if the knight had killed for justice, seven if he had done it for gain.

However, in 1099, when Pope Urban ii launched the First Crusade, he shifted the ground dramatically, declaring that in his new war, the act of killing would itself be a penance for the knights’ other sins.

Now, twenty years later, Hugh took the idea to its next logical level.

He wanted the Templars to be monk-knights: devoted for all the remaining days of their lives to holy, penitential violence.

Templars in castleIt was doubly revolutionary because although Pope Urban ii had encouraged knights to go on the First Crusade, he had respected centuries of church teaching and insisted that monks and priests were forbidden from fighting.

But this was precisely what Hugh was proposing: an Order of monks dedicated to lethal force.

A Templar riding into battle, from the bottom of a crusader map of Jerusalem

A Templar riding into battle, from the bottom of a crusader map of Jerusalem

Even though it was against all established church teaching, Hugh had judged the mood just right.

Both King Baldwin and Patriarch Warmund saw the world the way he did. Baldwin was a lifelong military man, but so pious he had calluses on his knees: he had no problem with holy violence. Patriarch Warmund was likewise a fan: he died laying siege to the castle of Belhacem eight years later.

With the approval of these two men representing state and church, the Templars were born.

King Baldwin II gives the Temple of Solomon (the al-Asqa mosque) to Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of St Omer

King Baldwin II gives the Temple of Solomon (the al-Asqa mosque) to Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of St Omer

As a sign of royal favour, Baldwin presented Hugh with a gift that would define the new Order for all time: the Temple of Solomon (the al-Aqsa mosque) on Temple Mount, located on the traditional site of King Solomon’s Temple.(5)

When Hugh and his men entered the council, they had been knights.

When they left, they were Christendom’s first ever monks of war.

Who Was Hugh of Payns?

Payns is eight miles from Troyes (Champagne, France), and Hugh was a senior figure at the court of Count Hugh of Champagne.

He had one known son, Thibaut (Theobald), who became abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Colombe in Sens, and was last heard of on the Second Crusade with King Louis vii, where he probably died.

Hugh’s early life is not known, but he was an old hand at crusading. He was in Jerusalem with Count Hugh in 1104–7, and again from 1114–5. After this second visit, he stayed: so he knew the crusader states well.

We can only guess what his personal motivations were to found the Templars.

Perhaps he had been deeply affected by the Easter massacre the previous year. Maybe he was one of the knights who rode out and found the bodies. Perhaps he lost friends or family in the slaughter. Maybe even his wife, as he would not have been able to take monastic vows if she had been living.(6)

Even though, in Nablus, Hugh presented his ideas to a relatively small group of crusaders three thousand miles from home, the effects of what he had created would fundamentally alter forever the history of the crusades, the military, the church, and the shape of European society.

The Holy Sepulchre

Hugh and his brother Templars knew about fighting. But they had no religious training.

Templars in chapelFor that, they turned to Patriarch Warmund and his power base at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the most important building in Jerusalem. It was built around what the crusaders believed to be Christ’s tomb and also the omphalos, a marker showing the centre of the world. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre lay at the heart of the crusades, and all crusaders (technically pilgrims) had to pray there on arrival in Jerusalem to complete their vows.

The Temple Pyx, depicting three Templar knights from the Order’s early years.  The arcading is probably the Holy Sepulchre, showing the knights guarding both the host and the tomb.  It is of English or German origin, bronze gilt, found in the Temple Church, London (1125–50)

The Temple Pyx, depicting three Templar knights from the Order’s early years. The arcading is probably the Holy Sepulchre, showing the knights guarding both the host and the tomb. It is of English or German origin, bronze gilt, found in the Temple Church, London (1125–50)

The relationship between Hugh and the patriarch was a special one, as the patriarch helped Hugh organize the Templars into a religious order.  Pioneering research is beginning to show that the patriarch may well have been a moving force in shaping Hugh’s desire to create the Order, as the earliest Templars were specifically detailed to defend the Holy Sepulchre and its pilgrims.(7)

Early Doubts

In the years following the Council of Nablus, Hugh travelled to Europe on a recruitment and funding mission for the Order.

A TemplarWhile away, he wrote to the Templars in Jerusalem, signing off as ‘Hugh the Sinner’ (Hugo peccator). The letter survives, and in it Hugh works hard to cheer up his brothers in Jerusalem, some of whom seem to have been struggling with doubts about what they were doing.(8)

Perhaps unsure whether or not he had done a good enough job of reassuring them, Hugh turned to the most honey-tongued preacher in Christendom. A figure whose austere mysticism dominated the first half of the century. An organizer who single-handedly built the largest monastic order of the age, smashing the five-hundred-year monopoly of the Benedictine monasteries. An orator of such eloquence that the pope turned to him in person to preach the Second Crusade: a job he did so silkily that kings, nobles and even Europe’s most powerful queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, packed their bags and travelled to Jerusalem for the last great peoples’ crusade. (9)

Saint Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux

If anyone could reassure the Templars, and the world, that the Templars’ calling was holy, it was St Bernard of Clairvaux.

The next blog will look at how the Templars used St Bernard to build their brand.

NOTES

(1) The incident is described by Albert of Aix in his Historia Hierosolymitana.

(2) The Muslims copied the word, calling them the Franj in Arabic. The crusaders also called themselves ‘Latins’. They did not use the word ‘crusader’, although it comes from the Latin cruce signatus, meaning signed with the cross, a reference to the cloth cross they stitched onto their clothes when they made their vows, known as ‘taking the cross’.

(3) There is no definitive record that Hugh made his announcement at the Council of Nablus. But William of Tyre (writing 1170–84), the main crusader chronicler for the period, wrote that Hugh won the blessing of King Baldwin ii and Patriarch Warmund nine years before the Council of Troyes (1129). Given that the king, patriarch and senior crusaders were at the Council of Nablus, most experts conclude that Hugh was there and used the opportunity to seek approval for his new group.

(4) William ‘the Conqueror’ was known as William the Bastard in his day as he was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert i of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter. People taunted him about it. For example, when he was beseiging Alençon, the townsfolk mocked him by hanging out animal hides.

(5) The Temple of Solomon had been a royal residence since 1099. But by 1120 it was falling apart, and King Baldwin was in the process of moving to the Tower of David.

(6) She may, of course, have died of natural causes. Or she could have entered a nunnery.

(7) For example, chapter 1 of D Selwood, Knights of the Cloister, DPhil thesis (Oxford), which was not included in my book of the same name, and A Luttrell, ‘The Earliest Templars’ in Autour de la Premiere Croisade.

(8) One copy of the letter survives, in Nîmes.

(9) Eleanor (Aliénor) of Aquitaine was married to two kings: Louis vii of France and Henry ii of England. She had ten children, including five monarchs: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and John i of England, Eleanor of Castille and Joan of Sicily.

PHOTO CREDITS

Coronation of King Baldwin i, from William of Tyre, Histoire d’Outremer, Ms 142, f 89v, Bibliothèque Municipale, Boulogne-sur-Mer

Crusader map of Jerusalem, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

Photos of Templars from National Geographic’s Templars: The Last Stand (2011)

7 Comments

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  4. Phil Rubenstein says:

    Love the blog, Dominic. Would be very interested to read your take on the Templars and Cathars – no doubt already on your ‘forward features’ list …

    All the best
    Phil

  5. Toby Birch says:

    The detail brings the trials and tribulations of the era to life. I’m looking forward to hearing more about my favourite Queen Eleanour of Acquitaine who I believe went on Crusades herself.

    • Dominic Selwood says:

      Thanks, Toby! She did indeed. She rustled up a very large contingent of crusaders from Aquitaine, and an equally impressive baggage train!

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