The Founding of the Templars: Unanswered Questions

The al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the Templars first baseThe story of how the Templars began is by now familiar, one that is often trotted out only too uncritically. However, a little delving soon reveals how little it is supported by historical documentation, and, until the era when the Council of Troyes brought the new Order to the attention of Christendom, there are many conspicuous gaps in the history. Inevitably this suspicious silence raises questions about the true motive of Hugues de Payens and his companions. Has the history of this most secretive of institutions effectively been censored - and if so, why?

Conspicuous by Their Absence

William of TyreThe main source for the standard version of the Order's origins is a chronicle written by William, Archbishop of Tyre, entitled A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. However, William wrote in the late 1170s or early 1180s - some 60 years after the events he describes. The sources on which he based his account are unknown, and even the most eminent historians accept that it cannot be relied on: Sir Steven Runciman pointed out in particular that William's dates are 'confused and at times demonstrably wrong.'

William of Tyre was hardly unbiased, being no friend of the Templars. By his day the Order Medieval map of Jerusalemwas flourishing, and as a Churchman he resented the fact that the Pope had removed them from the jurisdiction of the Church.

According to William, Hugues de Payens and his companions presented themselves to Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem (unfortunately, he omits to say which of the two kings of that name, which would have helped resolve the uncertainties about the dates - see below) and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. They volunteered themselves for the task that 'as far as their strength permitted, they should keep the roads and highways safe from the menace of robbers and highwaymen, with especial regard for the protection of pilgrims.'

There was certainly a need for protection, as the roads were the hunting grounds of robbers and marauding bands of Saracens. In one notorious example, at Easter 1119 300 pilgrims were massacred as they travelled from Jerusalem to the River Jordan.

The execution of Christian prisoners by the SaracensKing Baldwin was obviously impressed by Hugues, and, according to William of Tyre, 'Since they had neither a church nor a fixed place of abode, the king granted them a dwelling place in his own palace on the north side of the Temple of the Lord'.

From later accounts, the 'dwelling place' appears to have been a large hall and the huge underground stables beneath - then believed to be Solomon's stables, but more likely to have been Herod's. A German monk named Theodoric gave a description of the Templars' quarters in the 1170s:

They are next to the Palace, and their structure is remarkably complex. They are erected with vaults, arches, curved roofs, and according to our estimation we should bear witness that they will hold 10,000 horses with their grooms. A single shot from a crossbow would hardly reach from one end of the building to the other, either in length or breadth.

However, Theodoric was writing some 50 years after the founding of the Order, by which time it had grown into a huge army. It seems unlikely that so much space would have been allocated just for Hugues de Payens and his eight companions (and, presumably, their squires).

A plan of the Temple Mount showing the Templars' quarters.Indeed, according to William of Tyre, for many years the founding Templars remained a small and select band, not adding to their number for nine years.

However, there are many problems with William's account - as we have seen, historians dismiss it as unreliable. After all, it was written over half a century after the events it describes.

The fact that the first known account of the origins of the Templars comes so long after the event is a puzzle in itself - since there should be earlier, and more accurate, The stables beneath the Temple Mount, the Templars' first baseaccounts. There were other chroniclers writing, not only during the intervening years, but, more importantly, at the very time that Hugues de Payens and his eight companions presented themselves to King Baldwin - and they say nothing at all about this episode. Most conspicuous of all is the complete silence of Baldwin's own court historian, Fulk de Chartres.

The absence of any mention of the creation of the Order is compounded by the fact that there are no records or accounts about the nine knights doing anything in the Holy Land before Hugues's return to Europe in 1128. Apart from a brief mention (in a chronicle by Michael the Syrian) of an unnamed French knight - who wanted to take holy orders but was instead urged by Baldwin to dedicate himself to the protection of the holy sites - who might have been Hugues de Payens, none of the chroniclers refer to him or the original Templars at all.

If their deeds were not recorded, at least there are documents that establish that Hugues and his brother knights were around. The earliest surviving document dates Seal depicting the Dome of the Rockfrom 1121, when Fulk, Count of Anjou, gave the first recorded grant to the knights after he had lodged with them in Jerusalem. (Fulk later became King of Jerusalem.) By 1124 they had been given their first land in Europe - in Marseille - and a year later there is a reference to Hugues de Payen as magister Templi, 'master of the Temple', which implies that the group had established a formal organisation and chain of command. But there are no accounts of them actually doing anything during this time.

A Matter of Dating

William of Tyre is certainly wrong in saying that no new knights joined the original nine for nine years - i.e. until 1127 or 28. It is recorded that at least four others, including one very prominent French count, Hugh of Champagne, joined the order between 1120 and 1126. Unless - as some have suggested - William is right about the nine-year gap but wrong about the year in which the order was founded.

Although 1118 is most often given as the year the Templars were founded (and has consequently inspired many attempts at a numerological interpretation), there is in fact some controversy over the exact year of the Order's 'birth'. The issue is complicated by the fact that in 12th-century France the new year began on 25 March, so a document dated, say, January 1118 would have been written in 1119 according to today's reckoning.

The Templar Rule itself, drawn up at the Council of Troyes in January 1128 (1129 in modern terms), states that the Council was held 'in the ninth year after the founding of the aforesaid knighthood'. To be in the 'ninth year' in January 1128, the Order must have been established during 1119, or possibly even as late as January 1120. Some historians believe that a date of 1119 makes sense, on the assumption that Hugues de Payens's vow to protect pilgrims was a reaction to the massacre at Easter in that year.

William of Tyre's account gives no other details that might shed light on this problem. Most frustrating of all is his omission about which King Baldwin - the First or Second - was involved, although even knowing that may not help, as both ruled in 1118. (Baldwin I died in April of that year, and was succeeded by his cousin, Baldwin II.)

However, there is more to the question of the date of the Templars' foundation than an academic debate over a year or two - as there is compelling evidence that the order existed as a recognisable entity at least four years before 1118.

As Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), relate:

In 1114 the count of Champagne was preparing for a journey to the Holy Land. Shortly before his departure, he received a letter from the bishop of Chartres. At one point, the bishop wrote, 'We have heard that before leaving for Jerusalem you made a vow to join "la milice du Christ", that you wish to enrol in this evangelical soldiery.' 'La milice du Christ' [Knights of Christ] was the name by which the Templars were originally known, and the name by which Saint Bernard alludes to them. In the context of the bishop's letter the appellation cannot possible refer to any other institution. One historian [the 19th-century M.H. d'Arbois de Jubainville] who noted this letter drew the rather curious conclusion that the bishop cannot have meant what he said. He could not have meant to refer to the Templars, the historian in question argues, because the Templars were not founded until four years later in 1118. Or perhaps the bishop did not know the year of Our Lord in which he was writing? But the bishop died in 1115. How, in 1114, could he 'mistakenly' refer to something which did not yet exist? There is only one possible, and very obvious, answer to the question - that it is not the bishop who is wrong, but Guillaume de Tyre [William of Tyre], as well as all subsequent historians who insist on regarding Guillaume as the unimpeachable voice of authority.

However, it is not simply a matter of William of Tyre making a mistake that was perpetuated by those who came after him, as the Templars themselves gave the same date of their foundation. Article 5 of the Rule drawn up at the Council of Troyes makes the following statement (emphasis added):

...we, in all joy and all brotherhood, at the request of Master Hugues de Payens, by whom the aforementioned knighthood was founded by the grace of the Holy Spirit, assembled at Troyes from divers provinces beyond the mountains on the feast of my lord Hilary [13 January], in the year of the incarnation of Jesus Christ 1128, in the ninth year after the founding of the aforesaid knighthood.

This makes it clear that, according to the Templars and Bernard of Clairvaux, the 'knighthood', at least as far as their 'official' history was concerned, was established in 1119.

How can this be reconciled with the Bishop of Chartres's reference to 'knights of Christ' five years before that date? There is no possibility that he was referring to any other order of knights, as the concept of an 'evangelical soldiery' was an innovation of the Templars. It was born with them.

One possibility is that the Order was already in existence by 1114, but only a select group - which clearly must have included the Count of Champagne and the Bishop of Chartres - knew about it. If so, Hugues de Payens's application to King Baldwin of Jerusalem merely marked the knighthood's emergence into the public arena.

If this reasoning is correct, then it appears that, prior to 1118 or 19, the Order kept itself secret - but why?

Behind the Scenes

TroyesThe evidence that the existence of the Templars was recognised prior to the 'official' date of their foundation, taken with the vagueness of the accounts of their origins and their absence from chronicles in which they should appear during the years 1118-1128, has led many researchers to the conclusion that there was something more going on than meets the eye.

Added to this, it has often been pointed out that it was a futile task for nine knights, however valiant, to patrol and safeguard all the roads of the Holy Land.

These inconsistencies have led many to conclude that the standard account is some Bernard of Clairvauxkind of cover story - put into circulation by the Templars much later and picked up by chroniclers such as William of Tyre - designed to hide the real reason for the presence of Hugues de Payens and his companions in the Holy Land, and for their subsequent meteoric rise.

Were they sent there with some other purpose in mind - a mission or quest of some kind? And, if so, on behalf of whom?

There are two very obvious candidates, in the shape of two very powerful and influential figures of the time, whose stories are closely intertwined with each other and with the origins of the Templars: Hugh, Count of Champagne, and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hugh's court at Troyes was a great centre of culture, the arts and scholarship - even including a famous Cabalistic school. Hugues de Payens and at least two of his companions were his vassals, and not only had the Count - according to the Bishop of Chartres's letter quoted above - made a vow to join the 'Knights of Christ' in 1114, but he eventually became a Knight Templar, joining the Order in 1125. Further evidence of his close involvement in the origins of the Templars is the fact that his 'capital' in Champagne, Troyes, was chosen by Bernard of Clairvaux as the venue for the Council that established the Templar Rule in 1128. And Bernard, as we have seen, was the nephew of one of the founding Templars, André de Montbard.

The authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail: left-right Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln and Michael BaigentBernard, in fact, largely owed his position to Hugh of Champagne. The future saint, who was born in 1090, had intended to become a knight, but a religious experience - it is said connected with the cult statue of the Black Madonna of Châtillon - led him, at the age of 22, to become a Cistercian monk instead. Three years later, in 1115, Hugh of Champagne donated a large tract of land at Clairvaux to the Cistercians, and Bernard was chosen as the Abbot of the new monastery.

At that time the Cistercian Order was in decline, and had just seven abbeys. However, Bernard had a talent for organisation, and under him the Order's fortunes experienced a complete turn-around. It expanded rapidly - by the time of his death in 1153 it had more than 300 abbeys throughout Europe.

Bernard was also a mystic, who was especially devoted to the Virgin Mary - a devotion that he passed on to the Templars. He had a particular reverence for the Feminine aspect of the divine, albeit cloaked in Christian terms. He wrote more than 90 sermons on the Song of Songs, the strange and uncharacteristically erotic Old Testament poem. Bernard also elevated another female figure from the Gospels, Mary Magdalene, whom he explicitly equated with the 'Bride' of the Song of Songs. When he established the Rule of the Templars, he commended them to 'the obedience of Bethany, the castle of Mary and Martha' (the Gospel character of Mary of Bethany then - rightly or wrongly - being considered as one and the same as Mary Magdalene).

Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) were among the first to explore in depth the connections between Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of Champagne and the founding Knights Templar. The trio found that the sequence of events formed an intriguing pattern:

1099: The forces of the First Crusade capture Jerusalem, reopening the Holy Land to European visitors.

1104: Hugh of Champagne meets with representatives of certain noble families, at least one of whom had just returned from the Holy Land, and including the liege lord of André de Montbard, Bernard's uncle. Immediately after this meeting, Hugh of Champagne travels to the Holy Land himself, remaining there until 1108.

1114: After taking a vow to join the 'Knights of Christ', Hugh of Champagne makes another voyage to the Holy Land.

1115: Hugh returns to Champagne and donates the land at Clairvaux to the Cistercians, on which they build an abbey and appoint the young Bernard as abbot, and from which he presides over the massive expansion and growth of his monastic order.

1118/19: one of Hugh of Champagne's vassals, Hugues de Payens, leads a group of knights, including André de Montbard, to Jerusalem, marking the 'official' foundation of the Knights Templar.

1128: At a council held in Hugh of Champagne's capital, Troyes, Bernard sets in motion the rapid expansion of the new Order of the Temple.

When set out like this, it becomes apparent that there is at least a plausible case for there being some kind of orchestration behind the founding of the Templars - some hidden purpose, known only to a small but select group masterminded by Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of Champagne.

On the other hand, critics of 'alternative historians' such as Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln maintain that this does not necessarily add up to a conspiracy. The connections between the individuals and the sequence of events are valid, and to a degree Bernard of Clairvaux - an individual who was more than capable of getting his own way - was pulling the strings, influencing the Count of Champagne's support for, and lobbying the Pope for endorsement of, his nephew's cause. However, this does not necessarily mean that there was anything more to the Templars than there appeared to be. Bernard had, after all, wanted to be a knight himself, and he passionately believed that there was a need for an army of holy warriors to protect Christendom - and as with most things he turned his energies to, he made sure that it became a reality.

However, this does not account for the evidence that the Templars existed in secret from at least 1114, which suggests that there was a much greater degree of premeditation, and a much bigger game plan, involved.

As to what the aim of that plan was, in the absence of any specific evidence researchers can only speculate - and there has certainly been plenty of speculation...

A Secret Quest?

The most popular scenario is that scholars in the Count of Champagne's court had discovered, or had passed down to Medieval maps placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world, demonstrating the importance with which the city was viewedthem, some important piece of information relating to Jerusalem and the Holy Land - perhaps the secret of the location of some sacred artefact or horde of treasure, or even (and most excitingly) a source of lost knowledge.

Then, after the First Crusade, the Holy Land became accessible to Europeans again. Hugues de Payens and his companions were sent to Jerusalem on a mission, either to verify this information, to follow the trail further, or to retrieve something and bring it back to France. This would account for the lack of contemporary accounts of the activities of the original nine Templars - if the protection of pilgrims was indeed a cover story designed to allow them to carry out some other, secret task.

This line is summed up by New Age writer Gaetan Delaforge in The Templar Tradition in the Age of Aquarius (1987):

The real task of the nine knights was to carry out research in the area in order to obtain certain relics and The Temple Mount in Jerusalemmanuscripts which contain the essence of the secret traditions of Judaism and ancient Egypt, some of which probably went back to the days of Moses.

Many theories centre on the claim that the Templars excavated beneath the Temple Mount, apparently looking for something. As we have seen, the founding knights were given quarters in part of the former al-Aqsa mosque on the Mount, and certainly by the 1170s they were using the huge underground stables there.

A 12th-century depiction of the Ark of the CovenantThe evidence for the excavations takes the form of Templar artefacts that were found by an archaeological expedition undertaken by the Royal Engineers, and led by Lieutenant Charles Wilson, at the beginning of the 20th century. However, while this suggests that the Templars had made some kind of exploration of the ground beneath the Temple Mount, it does not tell us when they did so, or establish that it was Hugues de Payens's group that was responsible. In fact, it seems unlikely: until the Order was given its own colours, insignia and symbols following the Council of Troyes there were no artefacts that would be recognisably 'Templar'.

Is this the final resting place of the fabled Ark of the Covenant?But if the Templars were digging on this sacred spot, what were they looking for?

Graham Hancock, in his 1992 bestseller The Sign and the Seal argued that they had gone to Jerusalem in search of the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Apart from its sacredness, the appeal to a military order of this holy object, which was said to make those who owned it invincible in battle, is obvious. It was part of One of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did the founding Knights Templar go searching for a similar cache of ancient documents?Hancock's case that the Templars failed to find it, as it had been taken out of Jerusalem millennia before, and had ended up in Axum in Ethiopia, where it remains today. Others, however, disagreeing with Hancock's reconstruction of the fate of the Ark, believe that the Templars did find it, and that it may lie hidden in one of their strongholds, perhaps in the Languedoc.

The 'Jerusalem Cross' worn by the Geoffroi de Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First CrusadeChristopher Knight and Robert Lomas, in The Hiram Key (1996), suggested that the Templars were looking for documents - similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls - that they believed had been hidden beneath the Temple.

While such theories are plausible, in the absence of any conclusive evidence they have to remain in the realm of speculation.

Hidden Agenda

Whatever the Templars were looking for or expected to find, the obvious question is did they find it? Is this why there was a change of direction so that, under the patronage of Bernard of Clairvaux and the Count of Champagne, the small group of knights became the nucleus of an organisation that spread throughout Christendom. In other words, was the real purpose of the Order to protect - or exploit - whatever it was they had found?

If there was an ulterior motive for the founding of the Templars, then presumably that same motive - even if known only to a select few in the upper ranks of the Order's leadership - remained its driving force during its period of greatest power. It may even have been the reason for their downfall two centuries later.

Alan Butler (right) and Stephen DafoeSome researchers go further, and argue that the establishing of the Order of the Temple as a major political force was the aim of the plan from the beginning. In this scenario, the behind-the-scenes plotting that lay behind the joint rise of the Templars and the Cistercians was nothing less than an attempt to take control of Christendom - one Order being the spiritual arm and the other the military. (Indeed, Bernard of Clairvaux did effectively manage to take control of the Papacy.)

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh sum up their conclusions on this point in The Temple and the Lodge (1989):

The evidence suggests that this avowed purpose was a façade, and that the knights were engaged in a much more ambitious, more grandiose geopolitical design which involved the Cistercian Order, Saint Bernard, and Hugues, Count of Champagne and one of the first sponsors and patrons of both the Cistercians and the Templars.

These theories assume the existence of another, secret order that lay behind, and controlled, the Templars (as well as the Cistercians). This belief has long been part of the traditions of the European world of the occult and secret societies, and there are many modern groups who claim that they were the secret power behind the Templars. One of the best-known such groups is the Priory of Sion, made famous through The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

Alan Butler and Stephen Dafoe, authors of The Templar Continuum (1999) identify what they call the 'Troyes Fraternity' - a group of noble families of Burgundian origin who may or may not be one and the same as the Priory of Sion - who had their own religious and political ideology and aims:

What we suggest is that the formation of the Cistercians, and later the Templars, represent part of a cohesive plan, the ultimate intention of which was to change the political and religious complexion of Europe.

Whether intended or not, the Templars were indeed to exert a powerful influence over Europe and the Middle East for most of the next 200 years - an influence that was in many ways to shape the modern world.

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