A unique glimpse of the everyday life of the Knights Templar

everyday lifeProfessor Helen Nicholson is a globally recognised expert on the Knights Templar. I’m very honoured to be sharing a platform with her at the Bradford Literature Festival on 30 June, 2018 discussing all things Templar related.

Ahead of that, I want to bring to your attention Helen’s most recent book that reveals the daily life of the Knights Templar – with fascinating insights. The book is called The Everyday Life of the Templars and I heartily recommend it.

What did the Knights Templar eat and drink? What was their daily routine? If you could be transported back to a Templar preceptory (one of their rural estates), what would you have seen going on?

Well, to give you a flavour of the answers to those questions to be found in her book, I’ve just interviewed Helen and here – exclusively for my users – she gives some glimpses of the secretive life of the Knights Templar. To find out even more, you’ll of course have to get a copy of her compelling read from Amazon and other online retailers.

So, here is Professor Nicholson in conversation with me:

What motivated you to write a book about the everyday life of the Templars?

I have been researching the surviving inventories and records of the Templar estates in Britain and Ireland from the period from the Templars’ arrest early in 1308 until the point when the estates were handed over to the Hospitallers. The inventories from Ireland and the sole inventory from Wales were published many years ago but the records from England remain unpublished. There is an enormous amount of information about the crops being grown on the Templars’ estates, the livestock being raised, the people employed there, manufacture of cheese, butter, cider, wine, which brothers were living in each Templar house and the other people who lived there. So the records give an insight into life in these Templar properties early in the fourteenth century. Other scholars have studied similar records from the Templar properties in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. So I thought it would be interesting to draw this material together to give wide picture of how the Templars and their tenants and workers would have lived.

Where did you find most of the source material, given the Templars didn’t write much about themselves?

When the Templars were arrested, full inventories were made of their properties. Their properties were administered by royal or church officials, until the pope decided the fate of the Order. Many of these records survive: from England & Wales, Ireland, France, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. They give a snapshot of what was in the Templars’ properties on the day the Templars were arrested, and an ongoing picture of day-to-day activity over the next few years. Many records were not retained, or have been mislaid or destroyed, but enough survives to give an overall picture.

If we had visited a preceptory in the 13th century – what activity would we have seen going on?

There would not have been many Templars living in each house; most preceptories/commanderies in England were home to only four brothers or fewer, and many were leased out to tenants and had no Templars in residence. The rural commanderies/preceptories were like manor houses, running the estate farm. The farm workers would have been busy maintaining the fields and crops, taking care of the livestock and doing maintenance around the estate. The cook would be making potage (a type of oat porridge) for the workers’ daily meal. There might be a clerk attached to the commandery who kept the day-to-day records. There would have been household servants looking after the house. Any Templars in residence would have administered the estate, holding the manor court, ensuring rent was paid, farm work was done, workers were hired and paid as necessary. There would also be non-Templars living in the house: some of them were former Templar employees who now received a pension, while others had made a donation to the Templars in return for food and lodging for the rest of their lives. In addition, the Templars had wide networks of supporters who could come into their houses to make donations or transact other business. Some Templar houses had valuable religious relics which pilgrims would come to see. Travellers would come to find lodging, and Templar houses made regular weekly donations of food to the poor. So Templar houses would have been busy places.

Was the day punctuated by prayer?

The Templars’ regulations expected the Templars to follow the normal monastic pattern of prayers at fixed times during the day. The Templars should go into the chapel for these services, but as not every house had a chapel in actual fact they might have to say their prayers as they went about their work (as the regulations allowed them to do if they were on a military campaign). Most Templar houses with a chapel did not have a Templar priest, but employed a secular priest or a friar as priest in their chapel.

How effective were the Templars as farmers (compared to the monasteries for example) and did they engage in any other kind of business?

So far as the records show, the Templars were effective farmers who made careful judgements on the most effective way of working their land for good long-term returns. Apparently they were more generous employers than the Benedictine monks. Their livestock produced meat and other products such as wool and hides, which they could use or sell. They manufactured some food products (cheese, butter, cider, wine) and sold some of this produce as well as consuming it within the estate. The records from after the Templars’ arrests also show that some people owed money to the Templars — not large amounts — so, like other religious orders, they did make loans, but this was not a major business for most Templar houses.

What role did women play on Templar estates and were they allowed to be members of the order?

The estate records show that women were employed as cooks and to do the laundry. They were also employed on farm work: for example, picking grapes, milking the sheep, helping with the harvest. In addition, the estate records from the Templars’ commandery at Payns in Champagne refer to a Templar Sister (her name isn’t recorded; she’s simply refered to at ‘the sister’) and her female servant, Hersant. So, yes: women could be members of the order and women could live in the Templars’ houses.

Did all this activity in the preceptories across Europe really fund the military ventures of the Templars?

Yes — that was the purpose of the Templar properties in Europe! But clearly a lot of money would have been needed to maintain the Templars’ estates, invest in property, pay their workers and carry on the charitable work they did in Europe, so not all the income from their estates would have gone to the East.

How did it all end? What happened to the property owned by the Templars after 1307?

At the Council of Vienne in spring 1312, Pope Clement V gave the Templars’ former property to the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers were able to claim some of the properties, but some properties were taken back by the families of the original donors, some were kept by the kings who had arrested the Templars, some property was given to other religious orders, and in Spain and Portugal much of the property was used to found new military-religious orders.

If you enjoyed this interview and you’re in the United Kingdom on 30 June, 2018 – try and join us in Bradford, Yorkshire for what will promise to be a hugely fascinating discussion. Click HERE for tickets.


Why were the Templars suppressed?

templar4I almost feel like this is a game of Templar medieval Cluedo – were they killed with the Turkish mace in the banqueting hall or with the lance in the dovecote?  The web is not short of sweeping conclusions so I thought I’d have a go at dissecting some of the theories – briefly of course, in the spirit of blogging!

So, let’s look at some possible reasons.

ULTRA-RICH TEMPLARS:  The Templars did become very wealthy.  Nobles placed their estates/wealth with the Order for safekeeping while on crusade.  The Order developed ingenious ways of transferring wealth from one preceptory to another developing a primitive version of the modern banking system.  They lent money to kings and popes who were not always disposed to paying that money back.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they got way too rich and powerful.

A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES:  Templars operated as an order of monastic warriors with their own command structure headed up by the Grand Master in Jerusalem.  From early on in their history, the papacy gave the Templars an enviable degree of independence.  They did not have to answer to local bishops, they ran their own estates as semi-independent fiefdoms, they could even recruit former excommunicates…only the pope could take them to task.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they were just too big for their crusading boots.

templar5TEMPLAR FAILURE:  The Templars were formed to protect pilgrims being attacked as they journeyed to the holy places in outremer.  However, the order evolved in to a well-oiled military machine.  Their estates around Europe funded their military exploits in the Holy Land.  Together with the rival order of warrior monks, the Hospitallers, they put some backbone in to the crusades.  But from as early as the 1180s – just over 60 years from the order’s formation – things started to go wrong. The defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 wiped out the Templar success against Saladin at Montgisard. Now the brave knights were on the back foot.  Barring a few outstanding moments, it was the Saracens who were now notching up victories – Battle of Jaffa, Battle of Al-Mansurah, Siege of Safad, etc.  In 1300, together with the Hospitallers, the Templars tried to take Tortosa and failed dismally.  The crusades were over.

Conclusion: With the veneer of invincibility wearing off and the crusades unraveling completely by the early 14th century, the Templars were well past their prime and a force no longer needed.

HOSPITALLER DEVIOUSNESS:  There were two main orders of warrior monks in the Holy Land – the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.  Both were engaged in the last attempt to establish a Christian foothold in the Holy Land in 1300.  The Hospitallers were as wealthy as the Templars.  After the suppression of the Templars, the Hospitallers acquired much of their property.

Conclusion: The Hospitallers wanted to preserve their wealth and position – so they were complicit in destroying the Templars.

EVIL FRENCH KING:  Phillippe the Bel – or king Philip IV of France – fought wars on several fronts against the English and in Flanders.  Wars cost money and he ran up impressive debts.  To raise money, the king expelled French Jews in 1306 – the year before the Templars were outlawed.  He attacked the church and even sent a party of knights to arrest the pope who died as a result of his captivity.  Phillippe then got a more compliant pope – Clement V – based in Avignon and not Rome, who was far more compliant (if he knew what was good for him).  Phillippe also raided Lombard merchants for money to try and erase his debts.  The king owed the Templars a great deal of money and they had turned him down for another substantial loan.

Conclusion: Closing down and expropriating Templar assets fitted in to a pattern of grabbing assets that was a hallmark of Phillipe’s reign.

There are plenty of other factors to consider.

France had been divided by the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries – a Gnostic variant on Christianity that exposed a deep well of resentment against papal interference in all aspects of political life.  The result of the crusade against the Cathars was the emergence of the Dominican order and the inquisition.  Possibly this created a climate where allegations of heresy against the Templars were more readily accepted.

Some argue that the Templars themselves were heretics and the church was forced to wipe them out to protect its position.  This view comes in different variants but the recurring themes are that the Templars had either picked up heretical ideas in the East or even discovered ‘secrets’ (often dug up under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, now the Al Aqsa mosque).  Those secrets of course include the Holy Grail.  Evidence is thin on the ground though some of the symbols much beloved of the Templars raise eyebrows – for example the demi-god Abraxas.

There is also the theory that having failed in the Holy Land, the Templars now consisted of a large army, well funded and organised, with not much to do.  Where was it going to go?  How would its hunger for power be sated?  Were the Templars even contemplating some kind of coup d’etat against the French king?

And of course – were the Templars engaging in those practices that caused so much abhorrence to the medieval mind?  The charge of sodomy was of course leveled against them by a bishop, incidentally, who went on to level the same charge against the English king, Edward II.  His charges stuck in both cases.

The jury is still out and this is one game of Cluedo that hasn’t drawn to a conclusion after seven hundred years of being played.

Who were the Hospitallers?

English: One reported version of the flag of t...

At around the same time that the Templars were formed in the Holy Land in the early 12th century – up pops another order of military monks called the Hospitallers.  Unlike the Templars, they were not subsequently persecuted out of existence and still exist as a formal organisation today – though not exactly resembling the medieval order.

So how different were they from the Templars?    Well, as we know I hope, the Templars were formed to protect pilgrims on their way to the holy sites from attacks by bandits and Saracens.  The Hospitallers seem to have been formed to serve the medical hospital, such as it was, in Jerusalem.  Hence the name of the order.

According to Karen Ralls in her excellent ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’, there were hospitals in Jerusalem after the First Crusade and possibly even before – but they were not in continuous use.  Then along came the Benedictines who set up a hospital near the Holy Sepulchre around the year 1080.  It was the chap in charge of this place – a man called Gerard – who went on to become the first Grand Master of the Hospitallers.

Pope Paschal II recognised the Hospitallers in 1113, five years before the official founding date of the Templars.  Both Templars and Hospitallers were under the direct protection of the papacy in Rome. Like the Templars, they seem to have evolved quite rapidly from providing services to pilgrims in to becoming a full blown military order with, it’s believed, quite a formidable fleet.  Also like the Templars, they found themselves retreating across the Mediterranean – first to Rhodes and then Malta – as the Saracens gained the upper hand in the Middle East.

Gerard died in 1120 and his skull is still revered as a relic at the Convent of Saint Ursula in Valletta in Malta.  The “Maltese Cross” is the one most associated with the Hospitallers whose black mantles – in contrast to the white of the Templar knights – were emblazoned with a white cross.   I do wonder if the Hospitallers could easily have been confused for Templar serjeants – the more junior rank of Templars who also wore black mantles.

As you can imagine, there was some rivalry between the Hospitallers and Templars and when the Templar order was crushed by the papacy and king of France, it should come as no surprise to find that the Hospitallers made a grab for Templar properties.

Battle of Hattin – the aftermath

English: Battle of Hattin
Battle of Hattin 

Having been defeated at the Battle of Hattin, the crusaders and Templars now found themselves at the mercy of Saladin.  When it came to the Templars and Hospitallers, the muslim leader was in no particular mood to show mercy.  The victorious leader declared that the warrior monks were “monstrous orders whose practices are of no use, who will never renounce their hostility and who will render no service as slaves”.

Saladin knew that the Templars would never renounce their faith.  He went through the motions of offering conversion or death but all opted to die.  In total, something like 230 knights of the Order of the Temple and the Hospital were beheaded by Saladin’s troops.  One exception to the mass execution was the Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort who avoided the blade and was imprisoned.

Acre fell to Saladin shortly after followed by Ascalon and then Gaza.  De Ridefort appears to have convinced the Templars at Gaza to surrender and in return for this, Saladin set him free.  The Grand Master returned to the fray against the Saracens and appears to have been eventually executed by Saladin after being captured yet again.

The insanely unstable Reynald de Chatillon was killed by Saladin in person after the defeat at Hattin.  Saladin offered iced water to King Guy of Jerusalem – a gesture of mercy by the muslim leader.  But Guy passed the cup to Reynald, an act which angered Saladin who had certainly not intended to offer clemency to Reynald.  To reinforce this point, it is claimed Saladin took a scimitar and beheaded him in front of a no doubt horrified Guy.

After Hattin….it was only a matter of time before Jerusalem fell to Saladin.