Birth of the Knights Templars' Legend

The Capture of JerusalemAccording to the most widely accepted account, the organisation of military monks known as the Knights Templars began with a group of just nine knights, who in 1118 - in the wake of the First Crusade, which reopened the Holy Land to Europeans - took a vow to protect pilgrims visiting the sacred Christian sites. The original nine were all from France, and were led by Hugues de Payens, the Order's first Grand Master.

The King of Jerusalem (a title established by the victorious Crusaders) gave Hugues and his companions quarters in his The Temple Mountpalace, part of the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. This was (probably incorrectly) believed to have been built on the site of the fabled Temple of Solomon. It was from this place that the Order took its name - the Order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Ordo Pauperum Commilitonum Christi Templique Salominici); Templars for short.


Very little has come down to us about the Knights Templar's founder, apart from his origins in the village of Payens in Champagne, and that he was a vassal of the Count of Champagne. Hugues was in his late 40s when he founded the Order and had probably travelled to the Holy Land with the Crusader armies.

The Al Aqsa Mosque, JerusalemThe names of seven of Hugues's companions have been preserved, although almost nothing is known about most of them:

Godfrey de St Omer
André de Montbard
Geoffrey Bisot (or Bisol)
Payen Montdidier
Archimbaud de St Armand
Rossol (or Roland)

The Early Years

A Knight of the First CrusadeVery little is known about the activities or organisation of the original group for most of their first decade in the Holy Land. There are a few records of grants of money and property to the fledgling Order by predominantly French nobles, but nothing is recorded about their deeds. Hugues and his companions seem to have been an ad hoc group, largely working on their own initiative, but with the sanction and support of the King and Patriarch of Jerusalem. Until 1128 they did not have any distinctive 'uniform', but wore the same military accoutrements as secular knights.

For about nine years the Order remained small - in fact, just Hugues and his original brother knights, together with a few new recruits. In 1126, André de Montbard and Gondamar returned to Europe to solicit the aid of the formidable Bernard of Clairvaux in gaining papal recognition of the Order, an idea that seems to have originated with Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem. Bernard - who was later declared a saint - was the head of the Cistercian Order of monks, and was also André de Montbard's nephew.

The Ruined Templar Chapel at LothianTwo years later Hugues de Payens himself travelled to Europe to promote the Order, soliciting donations and gifts of land and seeking new recruits. He established the first Knights Templars commandery outside the Holy Land, at Balantrodoch (now the village of Temple) in Lothian to the south of Edinburgh, and the first in England, at Holborn in London.

The New Knighthood

Bernard of ClairvauxUnder the patronage of Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most energetic, forceful and capable men of his time, the group began its expansion from the nucleus of nine fighting men into the largest and most powerful institution in medieval Europe - after the Church.

Bernard organised the Council of Troyes, which met in January 1128 (1129 by today's calendar), at which the Knights Templar were given their own Rule and a petition was made to the Pope for his formal recognition of the Order and endorsement of its aims, which Troyes Cathedralwas soon forthcoming. From that point, their rise to power and influence was irresistible.

Cambridge University historian Evelyn Lord, in her recent The Knights Templar in Britain (2002), says that the Council of Troyes turned the Knights Templar from a small group of knights to 'an international organisation crossing national frontiers'.

The Council redefined the purpose of the Order, extending it beyond the original function of protectors of pilgrims. The Knights Templars were now to be Christendom's army, fighting in defence of the Christian faith - and the Church's interests - wherever necessary.

The idea of an order of knighthood that was officially recognised by the Pope was in part inspired by the foundation of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem some years before. The Knights Hospitaller, as they were known, were created to shelter and give medical help to pilgrims in the Holy Land, and were recognised by the Pope in 1113. Later, following the Knights Templars' lead, the Hospitallers - who survive today as the Knights of Malta - also took on a military function, although this always remained secondary to their main role.

The Council of Troyes also established the 'Rule' of the Templars - the regulations and conditions that governed the Order as a whole and the day-to-day life of the individual knights. Such Rules were the basis of the monastic orders, and that of the Knights Templars was, for obvious reasons, closely modelled on the Cistercians' (which in turn was based on the Rule laid down by St Benedict in the 6th century). The Templar Rule (which was added to over the period of the Order's ascendancy) included certain modifications to take account of the military lifestyle of the Order - for example, allowing for a knight not to attend holy offices during military campaigns.

The Knights Templars were, quite literally, warrior monks - men who had taken holy orders and monastic vows but who were also trained in the arts of war. When not fighting, a Templar lived a life similar to that of any other monk. When he joined the Order he took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He spent the day in attending holy offices, praying and fasting.

The Rule established the Knights Templars' uniform - a white mantle and cloak (derived from the white habits of the Cistercians). Later the distinctive red cross (the croix pattée) was added to the mantle. The Rule also described their battle flag, the Beauseant, a simple and stark banner, the top half black and the bottom half white. The meaning or symbolism of the Beauseant was not explained in the Rule, and is still a matter of debate

Licensed to kill

A contemporary illustration of the Templar beauseantIn 1135 Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a short treatise,The Book of the Knights of the Temple: In Praise of the New Knighthood (Liber ad milites Templi: De laude novae militae), outlining the virtues of the Order.

Historian Edward Burman, in his 1994 study of the trial of the Knights Templars. Supremely Abominable Crimes, sums up Bernard's argument this way:

The first problem for Abbot Bernard was to resolve the moral discrepancy between the monastic ideal and the practical requirement for the 'knights of Christ' to kill Muslims in battle. This he does by The Templar Regaliafirst asserting that the knight who fights in the name of Christ need have no fear at all: neither of losing his life, nor of committing sin in taking the life of an adversary. The next step is to argue that this is more than a merely negative virtue. The killing of infidels actually merits reward and represents a way of attaining Christ, since the soldier of Christ 'is the instrument of God for the punishment of evildoers and for the defence of the just'. From this position it is a simple step to the most notorious assertion of the book: 'In fact, when he kills evildoers it is not homicide, but malicide and he is to be considered as Saint Bernard of ClairvauxChrist's legal executioner'. Here, surely, is the most magnificent historical version of a licence to kill!

The Knights Templars were the ultimate development of the crusading ideal. When Pope Urban II called for a 'holy war' to reclaim Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Saracens, he made fighting for the defence of the Christian faith and Christendom a sacred duty, for which the knight who took part would win remission of sins. The Knights Templars elevated this to the point where they did nothing but fight for Christianity.

Evelyn Lord comments:

The idea of a military order of monks was a totally new concept that went against the precepts of monastic life that forbade the spilling of blood. The foundation of the Templars created a body of men who saw fighting the infidel as an act of devotion. Whilst the monk spent his life in the monastery in perpetual prayer and praise to God, the monkish knight spent his day fighting for the glory of God. The Knights Templar were permanently at war, and war became a version of prayer for them.

A contemporary illustration of a battle between Crusaders and SaracensIn 1139 Pope Innocent II - who owed his election to Bernard's support and endorsement - wrote to Robert de Craon (Hugues de Payens's successor as Templar Grand Master following Hugues's death three years before) that 'your Order and venerable institution is famous throughout the whole world'.

In an unprecedented move, Innocent's Bull Omne datum optimum (Every Best Gift) placed the Knights Templars under Pope Urban II calling for the First Crusade - an illustration from 1490the sole authority of the Pope himself. The implications of this cannot be overestimated. The Church was the great authority throughout Europe, with a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. The Bull placed the Knights Templars outside that system: the individual members of the Order were answerable only to their Grand Master, and the Grand Master answerable only to the Pope.

The privilege was confirmed and increased by Innocent II's successor, Eugenius III - which is not surprising, as he had been a monk at Clairvaux and was a devoted disciple of Bernard's. During Innocent's and Eugenius's time on the papal throne, Bernard of Clairvaux can truly be said to have been the power behind it.

Within weeks of his election in 1145, Eugenius issued the Bull Militia Dei (Knights of Pope Urban IIGod), which extended the rights of the Knights Templars and their freedom from normal ecclesiastical authority. By its very nature, the Order was already outside the other major system of authority of medieval Europe, that of local nobility who were pledged to the King. (It was also Eugenius who granted the Knights Templars the right to wear the red cross on their white mantles.)

In practical terms, Eugenius's edict gave the Knights Templars the authority to undertake such things as building a church without the permission of the local bishop, and to bury their dead in their own cemeteries. It also freed them from paying tithes and taxes to the Church. The Knights Templars had their own priests, and were totally free from Church authority - they could not, for example, be excommunicated by a bishop.

As the Templar presence in Europe increased, it became the source of much resentment among the local ecclesiastical authorities, as bishops saw large parts of their diocese removed from their control.

The freedom from secular and religious authority gave the Knights Templars enormous power in Europe and the Holy Land. And it gave the Templar Grand Master a great deal of personal power over the members of his Order - as well as creating a potential danger, whether real or imagined, within Christendom.

As Edward Burman writes:

From a logical point of view, it left the way open for the Templars to commit any form of heretical act within the ample cloak of the Order, and then be absolved by their own Master. This in turn meant that the purity of the entire Order was dependent on the probity of the Grand Master: a leader of heretical inclination would have had the power to absolve his followers and thus to nurture deviant ideas within the Order.

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