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.

What were the Templars up to in their first decade of existence?

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
institution_of_the_orderof_the_knights_templar_granet
Council of Troyes – turning point for the Templars?

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.

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.

How did the Knights Templar come to exist?

Templar sealJerusalem was taken by the Muslim caliphate in 638CE ending centuries of Roman rule. The late Roman – or Byzantine – period had seen the city become one of the great centres of Christendom. Its patriarch was one of five leading patriarchs in Christianity – the others being Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. At the centre of the city was the church of the Holy Sepulchre built under the Emperor Constantine and covering the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.

Throughout the early period of Islamic rule, Christians continued to visit Jerusalem on pilgrimage and revere the holy sites. But in the eleventh century, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim – widely assumed to have been mentally disturbed – demolished the city’s churches reducing the Holy Sepulchre to rubble. To add to Christian woes, reports circulated of pilgrims being systematically robbed and worse as they made their way to the city.

Me at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 2012
Me at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 2012

In 1099, a Crusader army stormed Jerusalem ending four hundred years of Muslim rule. Contemporary accounts suggest a huge massacre ensued of Jews, Muslims and anybody who got in the way. The blood, it was said, splashed on the crusader stirrups. Even allowing for a certain degree of hyperbole, it does seem to have been a violent event.

The crusaders were western knights who had been heeding the call of Pope Urban to defend the holy places in the east. This they did with gusto! The pope in turn had been responding to a call from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople to defend what was left of his empire from the forces of Islam. After two centuries of the Byzantines enjoying a position of relative strength in relation to the caliphate, they had suffered a terrible defeat against the Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. This defeat would eventually lead to the complete transformation of Anatolia from Greek speaking and Christian to Turkish and Muslim.

Into this very volatile situation came a group of French knights led by Hugues de Payens. They approached King Baldwin II of crusader-controlled Jerusalem and the patriarch in 1118 with the novel idea of setting up a militaristic order of monks that would protect pilgrims. This was very much in keeping with the ethos of a church that carried a bible in one hand and a sword in the other. It was a muscular and very medieval approach to the defence of Christ.

The band of knights were allowed to base themselves in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. This site had housed the long destroyed Jewish temple and was revered by Christians. In turn, it had become a holy place for Muslims. Now under crusader rule, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock – both early Muslim buildings – became the temple of Solomon and the Templum Domini respectively. Basing themselves in what they believed had once been the temple of Solomon – the new order of knights called themselves the Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.  Or the Knights Templar for short.

 

Origins of the Knights Templar

cropped-templar-artworkAs is often said, the Templars were the first multinational corporation – through a network of preceptories across Europe and the Middle East, engaged in farming, shipping and finance to fund their crusading activities.

The Templar Timeline

  • 1118 – Foundation of the Knights Templar by nine knights
  • 1118 – Hugh de Payens becomes first Grand Master
  • 1127 – First Templar church and preceptory in London
  • 1129 – Council of Troyes establishes the rules that will govern the Templars
  • 1139 – Omne datum Optimum – a papal bull makes the Templars answerable only to the pope
  • 1147 – the Second Crusade with the fall of Edessa and its aftermath brings the Templars centre stage in the Holy Land
  • 1174 – the rise of Saladin
  • 1187 – disaster at the Battle of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem
  • 1192 – Templars in Acre
  • 1204 – the Fourth Crusade ends with the plundering of Constantinople
  • 1248 – the crusade of King Louis
  • 1291 – Acre falls to the Mamluks and the Templars edged out of the Holy Land
  • 1302 – Ruad falls and Templars massacred
  • 1307 – Templars arrested under orders of the King of France and Pope Clement V

Here’s an interesting video on the origins of the Knights Templar: