How were the Knights Templar formed?

According to the medieval chronicler William of Tyre – who wasn’t a huge fan of the Templars – the order appeared in the year 1118. They promised to live as canons of the church living under vows of chastity and obedience. Nine knights banded together to form the Knights Templar with two playing a particularly prominent role: Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St Omer.

Templar-KnightsThey pledged to guard the routes to Jerusalem for pilgrims, protecting them from robbers and assassins. In an act of supreme generosity but also laden with meaning, this new militaristic religious order was given what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as its new headquarters. In 1118, it was under crusader Christian control and believed to be the temple of Solomon. Nearby was what’s now the Dome of the Rock but had then been renamed the Temple of the Lord with a crucifix placed on its golden dome.

They wore secular clothes for the first nine years of operation but then in 1129, a group of knights appeared before pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes – where he gave them permission to wear a white habit, signifying their purity. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his day, drew up new rules for the order. The Templars did not have to answer to any power in Christendom except the pope himself.

It’s aroused some curiosity as to how the Templars rose so fast to a point where the pope would take them under his wing within a decade of their formation. By 1170, according to William of Tyre, there were about 300 Templar knights and “countless” Templar sergeants – who were not permitted to wear the white habit, which had now acquired a red cross as well.

From this point onwards – their military, political and financial power increased rapidly.

Omne Datum Optimum – the turning point for the Templars

Pope Innocent II
Pope Innocent II 

Twenty years after the founding of the Templar Order, the rebel ‘anti-popeAnacletus II had died and pope Innocent II was able to seize control of the church with the support of Bernard of Clairvaux and other senior clerics. There was no love for the late anti-pope who Bernard described as ‘the broken branch, the rotten limb’ and continued that ‘he, that wicked one who made Israel to sin has been swallowed up by death and has gone down in to the belly of hell’.

Critically for the Templars, Bernard was a massive advocate for the Templar order – and exercised a significant influence on Innocent.  This would signal a decisive turn for the warrior knights.

The first Grand Master Hugh de Payens had been a tireless promoter of the Templars around Europe and his successor Robert de Craon was better connected and ready to take the order to the next level.  He was more blue-blooded than Hugh and able to network to far greater effect.  As the First Crusade drew to a close, the confidence of the Templars and their numbers were increasing, as was their wealth and prestige.  What they needed was a massive dose of papal approval.

Robert made a bee-line for Innocent, who was now safely established in Rome at the Lateran Palace.  The Order wanted a degree of independence to be able to function more effectively.  In Jerusalem, they were pulled this way and that by the crusader king of Jerusalem and the Christian patriarch.  In the west, they wanted to be able to run their estates and manage the affairs of their preceptories without having to answer to local lords and bishops.

For a pope who’d had to struggle against many foes to get control of the church, the idea of having a military order of sword wielding monks being wholly loyal to his person alone must have been very appealing.  Never mind about the feelings of local bishops, the pope needed strong armed support and the Templars looked like just the ticket.

The perks he now showered on the Templar Order would ultimately prove to be its undoing and there were some grumbles at the time.  They could appoint their own chaplains, build their own churches, exempt themselves from taxes and tithes, ignore local prelates and bury their own dead.

The Templars would not have to pay homage to anybody on earth except the pope and nobody could force them to swear an oath – except the pope.  Robert de Craon wasted no time in making sure the world knew about this highly agreeable state of affairs.  To the chagrin of clergy and nobility alike, he put the papal bull in to practice with gusto.

Even to the point of pushing the newly translated Templar Rule (Latin to French) in to areas it’s doubtful Innocent could have approved of.   For example, the Rule now said that the Templars could recruit the excommunicated – those whom the church had rejected and punished with damnation.  Did the pope ever really intend that?  Doubtful. Most likely it was a way in which the Templars chose to use their newly found independence to do what would previously have been unthinkable.  Was this kind of boldness that would eventually rebound on them?