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.
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.
Jerusalem 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.
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.