Templar hero: Hugh de Payens

Baldwin and Hugh de Payens
King Baldwin and Hugh de Payens

Transport yourself back nine hundred years to what is now Israel…

The city of Jerusalem was like a magnet to Christians at that time. It was the ultimate pilgrimage. If you were a devout Christian in England, France or any other kingdom of the time, you would have yearned to make that long journey to the Holy Land and see for yourself where Christ was born, preached, died and rose again.

It was a dangerous trip. And it took many months. There was a strong likelihood you would never return home again. Add to that the uncomfortable fact that Jerusalem was no longer under Christian control. In 1118, when the Templars appeared, the city had been in Muslim hands for 450 years.

Now that hadn’t been an insurmountable problem. Pilgrims were still able to get to Jerusalem and the sacred sites were normally protected. But there had been outbreaks of hostility towards the Christians and the roads into the city were plagued by bandits, thieves and murderers. As you completed your long trek, you might have trudged past the skeletons of those killed for their money and belongings.

Horror stories like these were used to raise a crusader army in Europe to take Jerusalem back from Muslim control. There had also been desperate pleas from the Christian emperor in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) whose Greek speaking empire was being eaten away by Seljuk Turkish invaders. The pope and many priests, most notably Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, told their congregations to take up the sword and wield it in the name of their faith.

In 1099, the first crusade seized Jerusalem in an orgy of bloodshed. A few years later, a band of nine knights emerged with a novel proposition. They went to the king of Jerusalem – now a Christian – and submitted an idea for a new religious order. It would protect the pilgrimage routes and see off the bandits. And it would be based in what these knights believed to have been the Temple of Solomon in biblical times – a building that is now the Al Aqsa mosque.

Their leader was Hugh de Payens. Like Saint Bernard and many of the early Templars, he came from the Champagne region of France, near the important market town of Troyes. Exact details of how he came to create the Knights Templar and become its first Grand Master are very scant. Hugh probably joined the first crusade and when his liege lord, the Count of Champagne, returned to France – he stayed behind.

How did he come up with the idea for the Templars? Why was King Baldwin of Jerusalem so cooperative? What compelled Hugh to insist the order had to be based in the Temple of Solomon, from which it took its name? We don’t know for certain. But in a very short period, Hugh had established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short.

He went on a kind of fund raising and brand visibility tour of Europe. In 1128, he even made his way to London and then up north to Edinburgh setting up Templar houses. These were economic engines to create the riches to fund the order’s crusading activity. Donations started to flood in from the aristocracy proving that Hugh de Payens and his fellow knights had really tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist.

In 1129, he went before Pope Honorius at the Council of Troyes. Doing a double act with Saint Bernard, they sold the notion of the Templars to a very receptive church audience. He assured them that his knights lived according to monastic vows. They prayed regularly. They took no wives. They lives modestly. Pope Honorius was convinced and the Templars would enjoy papal protection for nearly two centuries until their downfall.

For twenty  years, Hugh tirelessly built the Knights Templar until his death in the Holy Land in 1136. Then the order was led by its second Grand Master Robert de Craon. Its richest and most glorious days were still ahead of it. But Hugh must be credited with developing the concept of an order of monastic knights and turning into into a bright and shining reality.

How the Templars became the Order of Christ in Portugal

2017-08-10 21.26.02
From my trip to the Viagem Medieval in Portugal in 2017

In 1312, Pope Clement V ordered all Christian rulers to seize the assets of the Knights Templar and hand them over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. One king refused to obey. In Portugal, King Dinis took over the Templar assets himself.  In effect, he used his royal power to protect and reshape the order so that it could continue. The result was the formation of the Order of Christ.

By 1319, King Dinis had convinced Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to recognise his new order. Dinis argued that Portugal still faced a significant threat from Muslim armies to the south. 150 years before, the Templars had helped the first kings of Portugal to create their country. This had involved conquering cities like Lisbon and Santarem from Muslim control to forge a new Christian nation.

The Templars had always been in the front line pushing the frontier ever further southwards. They had done so at considerable risk to their own safety. For this, Portugal was grateful. And so when the king was asked to suppress the Templars, he recoiled. Dinis came up with a novel and unique solution. Today, we would call it rebranding. He took brand Templar and relaunched it as brand Order of Christ.

As with the Templars, the new order followed the Cistercian rule – the code by which those monks led their daily lives. The Cistercians and Templars had always been closely interconnected. From 1357, the Order of Christ was moved to the same headquarters the Templars had used and built – the castle at Tomar.

FullSizeRender (2)King Dinis was a complex character. A poet who resisted church power and did more than any king before him to promote a strong Portuguese identity.

His son Afonso IV continued his father’s legacy nurturing the Order of Christ which was soon to play a leading role in the age of discoveries, which would see navigators from Portugal sail around Africa and discover Brazil.

This year, I went to a historical reenactment festival in northern Portugal called the Medieval Journey – Viagem Medieval. Every year, huge crowds turn out to see battles and short plays about a particular monarch. This year, it was the turn of King Afonso IV.

The festival slogan was a bit grim: Hunger, Plague and War. But Afonso IV reigned during a stormy period that included the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated populations across Europe. He also had to see off attacks from both Muslim armies and those of neighbouring Castile, another Christian kingdom that would evolve in future centuries into modern Spain.

Here are some images from my visit and a video of the battle scene – enjoy!

Tomar – mysterious city of the Knights Templar

I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.

I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.

I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.


Burial place of Templar Grand Masters

This is a Templar jewel – something everybody should visit. It’s the burial place of the Templar grand masters of Portugal – a church in the town of Tomar built in the very century that the order was formed by Hugh de Payens. Every Templar Grand Master from Gualdim Pais onwards was interred in this modest church until the Templars were suppressed by order of the pope. It’s difficult to find the graves of all the masters and a simple plaque indicates the remains of Pais – a legendary figure in his own lifetime who fought the Moors alongside the first king of Portugal.

These are photographs I took there in August this year.

Interview with the Ancient and Noble Order of The Knights Templar

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
Knights Templar 

I’m very pleased to have reached out to The Ancient and Noble Order of the Knights Templar and they have kindly responded with some very helpful details on their aims and objectives. The Order has recently held its General Meeting and subsequent Investiture at the Templar Church in London. The event was attended by Knights and Associates from North America, South America, Turkey, Portugal and England, and supported by other representations from Knights and Associates in Australia, Chile, Ecuador and Switzerland.

Sir Peter R Evans KST, Vice Chancellor and Knight Seneschal of The Ancient & Noble Order of the Knights Templar explains more about the Order and its work:
This Order does not seek publicity per se, preferring as it’s testament the individual actions of it’s Knights and Associates around the world.

This Order was re-founded last century and as far as possible it is a revival of the original Order founded in the 12th century. It is registered in Jerusalem, the Knights Templar spiritual home, and its main tenet duplicates that of the original Templars – to help all those in need wherever it can.

We have accredited Associates, Knights Templar, Knights Commander and Knights Seneschal in all the continents on earth.

From the senior Seneschals there are 6 elected to the Inner Court, the main governing body of the Order, who live in various countries around the world and who meet twice a year.

The main objectives of the Order are essentially:-

1)  To restore the good name of our former brothers-at-arms, the original Knights Templar,

2)  To help create a modern equivalent of the Knights Templar Organisation embracing all extant like minded Templar Organisations worldwide, and

3)  To continue our own work, in whatever way each and everyone of our Knights Templar can, in his own community, to help those in need and thus make a difference.

As regards 1) we are now on the way to our goal. With the publication of the “Chinon Document” the Vatican has now effectively acknowledged the injustice done to our former brethren. The Vatican is aware of our existence and we remain in correspondence with them.

As regards 2) we are in continual discussion and dialogue with other Bona Fide Templar Organisations around the world with a view to the creation of a Worldwide Council of Knights Templar. This Council may well then, in future years, be the single acknowledged representative voice on which to build the future Templar Organisation.

The above are long term goals and may very well take more than a lifetime to come to fruition.

However, the creation of a World Council of Templars, with due authority, will not only be a lasting testament to the original Templars and a vindication of their way of life and death for their beliefs, but the modern Templars can carry that ethos forward into the 21st century and on, with pride.

As regards 3) please see our website, click on the trust tab and view a selection of some of the many projects around the world that our individual Knights and Associates are directly involved with.

Membership is by invitation only following email application and subsequent vetting and selection.

There are no monetary costs involved by the Associates in the process of joining the Order.

It is not the intention of the “Order” to make any such profit from it’s full members. There is a request for a small annual amount to be paid by all full Knights Templar of this Order, although this is not mandatory –  in the poorer countries we prefer that our Knights expend their time, energy and any other available funds on helping their fellow man.

No member or Officer is paid anything for their voluntary services rendered to the Order.

Each of our Knights and Associates works in his own community to help his fellow man in whatever way he deems appropriate.

To find out more, you can visit the website HERE or email: info@theknightstemplar.info

Prester John – the imaginary king who could help the Knights Templar

"Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia,...
“Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library) 

Prester John was a fabled king who medieval chroniclers imagined ruled lands in the East or Africa. He was a Christian, possibly a Nestorian, and some hoped he could be an ally against the Muslim realms.

There were all sorts of fantastical ideas about this never seen monarch. His wealth was fabulous and he was descended from the Magi, the wise man who had showered gifts on the baby Jesus. His kingdom was made up of the lands once ruled by the Magi.

Prester John had discovered the fountain of youth and had a mirror through which he could see events happening at any place in his kingdom.

Reports of his existence first emerged during the Crusades when Christian Europe stormed into the Middle East. Bishop Hugh of Gebal (modern Jbail in Lebanon) wowed the papal court at Viterbo in 1145 with stories of this Christian ruler.

As recorded by Bishop Otto of Freising in Germany, Prester John was said to have defeated the Muslim emirs of Persia and might have taken Jerusalem if he had been able to cross the mighty Tigris river. There were then confused tales about the Mongols and their wars with Persia and how Prester John might have been involved.

Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, believed that somebody called King David of India had inflicted a huge defeat on the Muslims. He was said to be the grandson of Prester John. In fact, some think this King David was actually Genghis Khan but in a world with poor communications and unreliable histories, the Khan morphed into Prester John’s grandson.

Alberic des Trois Fontaines, a 13th century chronicler, wrote that in 1165, Prester John had sent letters to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa and other kings of Europe declaring that he would soon come to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The Holy Sepulchre, sacred to the Templars, would be retaken.

Such was the willingness to believe in Prester John, that even Pope Alexander III penned a reply to the legendary king in 1177. He sent an envoy to try and track down Prester John but to no avail.

One anti-Templar circulated that a letter from Prester John warned that the knights were in league with his brother an trying to overthrow him. Ironic then that it was the Order of Christ in Portugal, the rebranded version of the Templars that country created after the order was suppressed in 1307, which set sail in the 16th century to resume the search for Prester John.

But he proved to be impossible to trace.