The first decade of the history of the Knights Templar is shrouded in mystery. They begin as nine knights in Jerusalem allegedly just protecting the roads into the city for the protection of pilgrims. Within two decades they are a hugely wealthy global organisation. Their own written accounts are lost to us – so we have to rely on chroniclers who were often unsympathetic to the knights.
According to the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre, nine “noble men of knightly rank” from the Champagne region of France founded the Templar order in the year 1118. So what they do in their first ten years? Well, the answer is a bit vague:
- They didn’t wear their characteristic white mantles and red crosses until after 1129 – in fact they wore secular clothes for the first few years
- But they did observe holy vows of chastity and obedience as if they were monks
- Nine men swore to protect all the roads leading into Jerusalem so that pilgrims could get to the sacred sites peacefully – just nine men!
- They gave up holding any property themselves but pooled their resources into the new order
- The King of Jerusalem gave them what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as their new headquarters
- They believed the mosque was the Temple of Solomon and called it this
- After nine years – William of Tyre recounts that there were still only nine knights
It does seem unusual that the order didn’t grow at all in its first decade. And yet, at the Council of Troyes in 1129, both Pope Honorius and the Patriarch of Jerusalem showered praise on the Templars and allowed them to wear a white mantle. Later they began to sew red crosses on to the front of these mantles.
From nine knights to a global organisation
With support from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – who was a leading cleric of the time but also related to one of the founder Templars and from the same part of France – the order developed its own rule book. Money was pumped into the order through bequests by rich nobles. By 1170, there were 300 knights and “countless” Templar sergeants (a lower rank that could not wear the coveted white mantle).
The mystery though is why the order appeared to stand still in its first decade and yet suddenly expand at an incredible pace after 1129 – both in terms of members and wealth. Why did the King of Jerusalem give nine knights with bold claims control of the Temple of Solomon? And why were Popes so willing to make the Templars answerable only to themselves and to no king, prince or bishop – something that would come to generate intense hatred towards the Knights Templar.