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Military Orders

The Templars

Malcolm Barber

According to St. Bernard, in his treatise De laude novae militiae, written in the 1130s, the Templars were "a new species of knighthood, unknown in the secular world," who waged a double conflict against both flesh and blood and against the invisible forces of evil. To him they were a unique combination of knight and monk; to later historians, they were the first military order, soon imitated by the Hospital, by specifically Spanish orders and, at the end of the twelfth century, by the Teutonic Knights. They originated in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, probably in 1119, when two French knights, Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of St. Omer, responded to a perceived need to protect pilgrims travelling from the port of Jaffa to the shrines in and around Jerusalem. Encouraged by King Baldwin II and Warmund of Picquigny, Patriarch of Jerusalem, they were apparently seen as complementary to the Hospitallers (recognised as an Order of the Church by the papacy in 1113, but not militarised until the 1130s), who cared for sick and exhausted pilgrims in their convent in Jerusalem. Their services were welcomed in a land where, since its conquest by the First Crusade in 1099, the Latins had failed to achieve an acceptable degree of internal security, not the least because they lacked sufficient manpower.

In 1119, however, the venture was not seen as unique: the protagonists were seculars imbued with a desire to fulfil the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbour, but they were not a monastic order. It was at the Council of Troyes in Champagne, held in January, 1129, that their status underwent a dramatic change, for here they were officially accepted by Matthew of Albano, the papal legate, and they were given a proper Rule, written in Latin, which ran to 72 clauses. The impetus given by papal approval and the publicity generated by the visits of the leaders to France, England and Scotland in the months before the council, ensured that the "new knighthood" would long outlive its founders. Papal recognition at Troyes was followed by the issue of three key bulls, which established the Temple as a privileged Order under Rome. Omne Datum Optimum (1139) consolidated the Order's growing material base by allowing spoils taken in battle to be retained for the furtherance of the holy war, placing donations directly under papal protection, and granting exemption from payment of tithes. It also strengthened the structure of the Order by making all members answerable to the Master and by adding a new class of Templar priests to the existing organisation of knights and sergeants(1). The Templars could now possess their own oratories, where they could hear divine office and bury their dead. Milites Templi (1144) ordered the clergy to protect the Templars and encouraged the faithful to contribute to their cause, while at the same time allowing the Templars to make their own collections once a year, even in areas under interdict. Militia Dei (1145) consolidated the Order's independence of the local clerical hierarchy by giving the Templars the right to take tithes and burial fees and to bury their dead in their own cemeteries.

As these privileges indicate, during the 1130s the Temple had attracted increasing numbers of donors, for it proved to be especially popular with that sector of the French aristocracy which, while it could not aspire to comital status, nevertheless held castles and estates and could mobilise vassals, albeit on a modest scale. Moreover, the rulers of Aragon and Portugal, confronted directly with the problems of warfare on a volatile frontier, realised their military value more quickly than most others. The Templars therefore began to accumulate a substantial landed base in the West, not only in Francia, Provence, Iberia and England, where they were first known, but also in Italy, Germany, and Dalmatia and, with the Latin conquests of Cyprus from 1191 and of the Morea from 1204, in those regions as well. By the late thirteenth century they may have had as many as 870 castles, preceptories, and subsidiary houses spread across Latin Christendom. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries these properties were built into a network of support which provided men, horses, money, and supplies for the Templars of the East. The development of a role as bankers arose out of these circumstances, for they were well placed to offer credit and change specie through their holdings in both east and west. It was a short step to move into more general finance, unconnected to crusading activity; by the 1290s their house in Paris could offer a deposit bank with a cash desk open on a daily basis and specialist accountancy services of great value to contemporary secular administrations. The Templar structure was cemented by effective communications including its own Mediterranean shipping.

Together with the Hospitallers, the Templars thus became the permanent defenders of the Latin settlements in the Levant, increasingly entrusted with key castles and fiefs. By the 1180s they could call on as many as 600 knights in Jerusalem, Tripoli and Antioch, and perhaps three times that number of sergeants. No major battle took place without their participation. In the thirteenth century, the Order was the only institution capable of building great castles like Athlit (Pilgrims' Castle) (1217-21), on the coast to the south of Haifa, and Safed (early 1240s), dominating the Galilean Hills. Such military and financial power, together with the extensive papal privileges, gave them immense influence in the Latin East and, at times, led to conflict with other institutions. William, Archbishop of Tyre, the most important native Christian chronicler in the twelfth century, upset by what he believed were violations of episcopal rights, alleged that they forgot their original humility, and describes a number of incidents in which they appear to have disregarded royal policy. King Amalric (1163 74) was particularly incensed when, in 1173, a group of Templars murdered an envoy from the dissident Muslim sect of the Assassins with whom he had been negotiating, thus wrecking the king's attempt to achieve an alliance. In the thirteenth century, as their relative strength increased, they were involved in further conflict, most notably in the vicious civil war which arose from a dispute between the Venetians and the Genoese over the possession of the monastery of Saint Sabas (near Acre) between 1256 and 1258. The Templars took the Venetian side, while the Hospitallers backed the Genoese. Such incidents have reinforced their modern reputation for headstrong behaviour, a reputation which derives in part from the advice given by the Master, Gerard of Ridefort, to King Guy in July, 1187, which culminated in Saladin's overwhelming victory at the battle of Hattin. However, Templar aggression has often been exaggerated; most of the time they were intrinsically cautious, for they were well-aware of the continuing precariousness of the Latin states in the Levant. It was, for instance, largely on the advice of the the leaders of the military orders that the English king, Richard I, abandoned his advance upon Jerusalem in January, 1192.

The Latin Rule of 1129, which had been influenced by a monastic establishment with little experience of practical crusading, soon proved inadequate for such an expanding organisation. New sections, written in French, were added, first in the 1160s, when 202 clauses defined the hierarchy of the Order and laid down its military functions and then, within the next twenty years, a further 107 clauses on the discipline of the convent and 158 clauses on the holding of chapters and the penance system. Between 1257 and 1267 113 clauses set out case histories which could be used as precedents in the administration of penances. The existence of a version of the Rule in Catalan, dating from after 1268, shows that efforts were made to ensure that its contents were widely understood within the Order. Although the Order never underwent a thorough internal reform, these developments indicate that the Templars were not oblivious to the need to maintain standards.

The loss of Acre in 1291 and the Mamluk conquest of Palestine and Syria have often been seen as a turning-point in Templar history, for the Order was apparently left without a specific role in a society still profoundly imbued with the idea of its own organic unity. Indeed, the failure of the military orders to prevent the advance of Islam had attracted criticism since at least the 1230s; with the loss of the Christian hold on the mainland, opponents were provided with a specific focus for their attacks. The more constructive of these critics advocated a union of the Temple and the Hospital as the first step in a thorough reassessment of their activities, although the orders themselves showed little enthusiasm for such schemes. There was, however, no suggestion that either order should be abolished. In fact, the Templars continued to pursue the holy war with some vigour from their base in Cyprus for, in keeping with most contemporaries, they did not see the events of 1291 as inevitably presaging the decline of crusading. The attack on them by the government of Philip the Fair in October, 1307, ostensibly on the grounds of "vehement suspicion" of heresy and blasphemy, therefore owes more to the potent combination of a king afflicted by a morbid religiosity on the one hand and an administration in severe financial trouble on the other, than it does to any failings of the Templars. In the end, neither intervention by Pope Clement V nor an energetic defence by some Templars, could save the Order, which was suppressed by the bull Vox in excelso in 1312. Its goods were then transferred to the Hospital. Such a dramatic end proved a potent source of myths; in that sense the Temple lives on even today, for the manner of its demise has proved almost irresistible to conspiracy theorists determined to adapt history to suit their own world views.

(1) Sergeants: mounted, non-noble warriors.

Copyright (C) 1997, Malcolm Barber. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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