The Knights Templar 1: the Knights

INTRODUCTION

A new knighthood has arisen, of a type never before heard of on earth … this is happening in Jerusalem, and the whole world shakes.

St Bernard of Clairvaux [1]

St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, was one of the leading minds of the 1100s.

When he said that something new and important had happened, people listened.

The ‘new knighthood’ he was talking about was the Knights Templar.

One of the Knights Templars’ many seals (mentioned in The Sword of Moses)

One of the Knights Templars’ many seals
(mentioned in The Sword of Moses)

He went on to stress that this new knighthood (militia in Latin) was the very opposite of the ordinary knights who terrorized Europe.  He even made a joke of it, calling the ordinary knights the malitia, making a play on the Latin word malus, meaning wicked or evil.

But it was not an obscure pun.

His medieval audience would have known exactly what he meant.

WORLDLY KNIGHTS

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, knights were the social elite. They were the sons of wealthy landowning families, and they ruled the countryside from their castles by force.

Clifford’s Tower, all that remains of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068

Clifford’s Tower, all that remains of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068

The Victorians and Hollywood have turned medieval knights into caricatures, regularly presenting them as refined and genteel: composing ballads, strumming lutes, and competing in courtly jousts to win the hearts of their misty-eyed paramours.

Robert Taylor as Lancelot with Ava Gardner as Guinevere in Knights of the Round Table (1953)

Robert Taylor as Lancelot with Ava Gardner as Guinevere in Knights of the Round Table (1953)

This is as far from the truth as it is possible to get.

Medieval knights of the period were the backbone of a heavily militarized aristocracy which thrived on regular and indiscriminate violence.

Knights were trained from a young age in mayhem and destruction.  The more vicious they were, the more lands and glory they acquired, and the faster they rose to the top of the pile.

The chronicles are full of knights sacking villages, towns, churches, monasteries, nunneries, and regularly raping, mutilating and killing anyone in their way: men, nuns, children.

For example, a typical twelfth-century chronicle entry reads: 

After these things, Henry [II], king of England, returned from Normandy to England, and marched with a great army into Wales … [where] he did justice upon the sons of Rees, and upon the sons and daughters of his nobles, for he had the eyes of the male children put out, and cut off the noses and ears of the females

Roger of Hoveden [2]

For most of the medieval period, the thing a damsel in distress feared the most was the appearance of an armed knight.

THE TEMPLARS: THE ‘NEW KNIGHTHOOD’

However, those who became Templars chose a very different life.  They left behind the bloodshed that regularly soaked the countryside, and instead became monks.

The Templars intended from the outset to change society.

Their constitution (known as the Rule) opens by saying that ordinary knights do not defend the poor, widows, orphans, or churches as they should, but instead plunder, despoil, and kill.

The Rule of the Templars, approved at the Council of Troyes (France) in 1129

The Rule of the Templars, approved at the Council of Troyes (France) in 1129

The Templars vowed that they would right these wrongs.

MONK-KNIGHTS

From the moment a knight joined a Templar monastery (a commandery), he renounced his family and wealth, and put on the rough woollen clothes of a monk.  As the Templars’ spiritual father was St Bernard of Clairvaux, this was the pure white habit of his Cistercian order.

An artist’s impression of an early Templar in his monk’s robes.  This is pre-1147, before Pope Eugenius III granted the Order the right to wear the iconic red cross patty.

An artist’s impression of an early Templar in his monk’s robes. This is pre-1147, before Pope Eugenius III granted the Order the right to wear the iconic red cross patty.

Instead of passing his days fighting, hunting, drinking, and whoring like ordinary medieval knights, the Knight Templar lived as a monk, learning enough Latin to chant the relevant parts of the eight daily services in the commandery’s chapel.[3]

A typical twelfth-century monastic chapel.  It is Cistercian rather than Templar, but Templar chapels were very similar (Silvacane, Provence, France).

A typical twelfth-century monastic chapel. It is Cistercian rather than Templar, but Templar chapels were very similar (Silvacane, Provence, France).

 

The Templars were intentionally unlike other knights. But they were also unlike any other monks.

Ordinary monks liked to say, metaphorically, that they were ‘cowled champions’ living in ‘castles of monks’ fighting Satan spiritually with prayer.[4]

But what made the Templars unlike any other medieval monks was what they did when they were not praying.

Instead of illuminating manuscripts or meditating on sacred texts (very few of them could read or write), they took up their swords, put on their armour, and trained relentlessly for war.

A Templar riding into battle, from a twelfth-century map of Jerusalem

A Templar riding into battle, from a twelfth-century map of Jerusalem

It was an utterly revolutionary idea.  For centuries, Europe had been built on three separate pillars of society: bellatores (warriors), oratores (those who pray), and laborares (workers).  In a stroke, the Templars collapsed two of these into one, and fused themselves into a new breed of warrior: spiritual and physical.

Two Templars on one horse in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora (c. 1250).  The motif of two knights on one horse represents the unity and fraternity of the Order (not poverty, as is sometimes claimed)

Two Templars on one horse in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora (c. 1250). The motif of two knights on one horse represents the unity and fraternity of the Order (not poverty, as is sometimes claimed)

In an age when kings and their retainers raised temporary armies of vassals for specific seasons or campaigns, the idea of knights training together all year round to perfect their heavy cavalry charge was radical and visionary.  And the results proved dramatic on the battlefield.

Christian chroniclers revelled in the Templars’ dominance in combat, and their adversaries acknowledged their prowess, too.  After the battle of Hattin (1187), when Saladin smashed the squabbling crusaders and retook Jerusalem (which the crusaders never recaptured in a hundred years of trying), Saladin acted decisively.  He freed the majority of conquered crusaders, but had all the Templars brought before him and beheaded as too lethal an enemy to be allowed to survive.[5]

Ghassan Massoud playing Saladin at the battle of Hattin in Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ghassan Massoud playing Saladin at the battle of Hattin in Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

At the same time as developing a reputation for mastery of the battlefield, the Templars also lived up to their ideal of protecting the vulnerable.  For example, at the climactic siege of Acre (1291), the last major battle of the crusades, the Templars responded heroically to the attacking Mamluk army’s molestation of the city’s women and children.  The Templars chose to stand and face inevitable slaughter by the overwhelmingly vast forces under al-Ashraf Khalil (Sultan of Egypt and Syria) in order to buy the terrified women and children time to get onto the Templar’s ships and escape to Cyprus.

JOINING UP

To join the Order, a knight needed to be voted in by a majority of the knights present at his local commandery.

There were hundreds of commanderies all over Europe, usually filled with sergeant-brothers and convalescing or elderly knights.

The Templar commandery at Ponferrada (Castilla y Léon, Spain)

The Templar commandery at Ponferrada (Castilla y Léon, Spain)

When a new knight was going to join, Templars from nearby travelled to attend, and the ceremony was often presided over by a senior local Templar knight or a visiting Templar dignitary from overseas.

At the reception ceremony, the candidate had to promise he was already a knight, had no wife or fiancée, had never vowed himself to any other order, owed no debts, was healthy, had not paid anyone to enter the Order, and was free.

He then took the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, after which he also promised to uphold the customs of the Order, that he would not leave the Order for a stronger one or a weaker one, and that he would never be involved in wrongfully depriving a Christian of his property.

After 1187, when the Christians had lost Jerusalem to Saladin, he also vowed that for all the remaining days of his life, he would ‘help to conquer, with all the strength and power that God has given you, the holy land of Jerusalem’.[6]

 Knights Templar, from the walls of the Templar commandery at Cressac (France)

Knights Templar, from the walls of the Templar commandery at Cressac (France)

There were then a series of prayers, and the new brother was finally presented with the iconic white mantle and red cross of the Templar knight.[7]

Soon after, he was shipped over to Palestine to join the crusades.

If a knight wanted to serve with the Templars but not make a lifelong commitment, he was (unlike in any other monastic order) allowed to join for a fixed period, even if he was married, although he was not allowed to wear the white mantle.

While a few Templars came from Europe’s most prominent royal and aristocratic houses, the majority were drawn from the layer beneath: from the second-tier noble families whose castles dotted the cities and countryside.  Most joined in their mid-twenties.

APPEARANCE

The knights’ personal appearance was distinctive.

Monks and priests traditionally shaved off a patch of hair (a tonsure) from around the crown of their heads.

A medieval monk receiving the tonsure (from St Anselm’s De similtudinibus,  probably twelfth century)

A medieval monk receiving the tonsure (from St Anselm’s De similtudinibus, probably twelfth century)

Templar knights went a step further and, like nuns, shaved off all their hair, although for the Templars it was not only to show their rejection of vanity: it was also more practical for military headwear.

To distinguish themselves even more from the mostly clean shaven knights of the age, they also grew their beards long and grisly.
 

ARMOUR AND WEAPONS 

The Templars were formed in 1120 (at the council of Nablus), so looked nothing like Hollywood knights in clanking armour and feathered helmets, who came centuries later.

The early Templars had no plate armour at all.  They wore a conical helmet with a noseguard, a knee-length split coat of chainmail (a hauberk), and leather guards on their legs (greaves) and arms (vambraces).  They resembled the Norman knights depicted on the Bayeux tapestry.

A knight from the Bayeux tapestry (c. 1070)

A knight from the Bayeux tapestry (c. 1070)

Over time, as weapons technology evolved, their appearance changed.  The two most important developments were the appearance of the great (or bucket) helm to cover the entire head, and the addition of small pieces of plate armour to protect their joints.

Great helm (England c. 1370)

Great helm (England c. 1370)

Lances, maces, crossbows, and longbows were all popular.   But the knights’ principal weapon was always the sword.  During the crusades, these evolved from short, blunt-ended weapons for hacking and slashing into longer pointed models suited for bursting open chain mail.

Sword from the 1000s (England, River Thames)

Sword from the 1000s (England, River Thames)

Sword from the 1300s (England, River Thames)

Sword from the 1300s (England, River Thames)

INSPIRATION FOR OTHERS

Fueled by the Templars’ success with their unprecedented fusion of knighthood and monasticism, other copycat orders were quickly founded.  Many of them fought in the crusades, and some outlived the Templars.  A good example is the Knights Hospitaller, who still exist as the Order of Malta.

Nevertheless, the Templars were the original monk-knights, and undoubtedly remain the best known and most iconic.

A Knight Templar carrying the Order’s piebald ‘Bauceant’ battle standard (Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, c. 1253)

A Knight Templar carrying the Order’s piebald ‘Bauceant’ battle standard (Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, c. 1253)

The next blog will deal with the other two categories of men who wore the Templar cross: sergeant-brothers and priests, as well as the ordinary men and women who joined as affiliate members.

NOTES

[1] ‘Novum militiae genus ortum nuper auditur in terris … haec Ierosolymis actitantur, et orbis excitatur.’  St Bernard of Clairvaux, Liber ad milites templi de laude novae militiae, caps 1 and 10.

[2] Roger of Hovedon, Chronica, for the year 1165.

[3] Matins, Lauds, Prime (followed by Mass), Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline.

[4] Orderic Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica, 3.

[5] This was reported by Christian and Muslim chroniclers and eye witnesses, for example, ‘Imad ad-Din (1125–1201), Saladin’s secretary, al-Fath al-qussi fi l-fath al-qudsi.

[6] ‘Encores promotes vos a Dieu et a madame sainte Marie que vos, tous les jors mès de vostre vie, aiderés a conquerre, a la force et au pooir que Dieu vos a done, la sainte terre de Jerusalem.’ The Rule of the Temple, cap. 676.

[7] The Rule of the Temple, cap. 657-686.

18 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I will be dealing with many of
    these issues as well..

  2. I’m not certain where you are getting your info, however great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thank you for wonderful info I used to be in search of this info for my mission.

  3. EricFong says:

    Good job, although you put the wrong great helmet model. It should be the dargen great helm that was used around 1250 c

    The model you posted came too late as the Templar disbanded in 1307

    http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_spot_ghelm.html

    • Dominic Selwood says:

      Hi – thanks very much for the link to such a great article! I knew the helm was after the Templars (I put the date on it). It is to show the general development in knightly weaponry and armour. The Templars were dissolved in 1312. All best wishes, Dominic

    • EricFong says:

      I got the disband date wrong, but thank you for fixing.

  4. Lindsay Hall says:

    I am afraid Mr Selwood has forgotten the important 11th-century divine, whose childrens’ stories were retailed some decades ago on the BBC by Kenneth Williams, Fussi-bn-nag-nag

  5. Bill Allum says:

    Fascinating Dominic! Thank you for opening a window into the world of the Knights Templar. Can’t wait for the next episode….

  6. Miles says:

    Thanks for the link to this absorbing blog – can’t wait for the next instalment!

  7. Paul Engeham says:

    Dominic – duly forwarded to my interested friends for their immediate attention!

  8. Tony Ayres says:

    Good stuff. What’s the story about there just being nine of them originally?

    • Thank you, Tony! Nine knights for nine years is generally thought to be symbolic. The chronicler who came up with it (Archbishop William of Tyre, writing 50 to 60 years later) wanted to show how perfect they were in the early days, and nine was a highly symbolic and holy number. A more plausible account (Michael the Syrian) says there were thirty of them to start with, and this seems a more credible military force. Nevertheless, the order itself perhaps began to promote the idea of nine, suggested by the nine stars around three crosses in the apse lunette of their important commandery chapel at San Bevignate in Perugia.

  9. Nick says:

    Excellent job Dominic – very readable and interesting. Look forward to your next blog.

  10. Adam-Shirwa Jama says:

    Great read Dr Dom

    • Hi Adam – you win the prize for being the first EVER person to comment on any of my blogs. Thank you! And thank you especially for it being a positive comment!! :-)

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Will be talking to University of Exeter, Centre for Medieval Studies, Research Seminar tomorrow on my favourite topic – Templars1