Political Masterclass: Death of the Templars, II

by northernbeholder

Now, before we get into the juicy conspiracy part of the Templars’ tale, we need to contextualize it with a good dose of the order’s history. The Order of the Temple was a unique organization when first founded in the twelfth century. Although founded by a small group of fighting knights expressly for the purpose of battling bandits and raiders along the pilgrim roads of Outremer (the Frankish term for the Holy Land), they lived their private lives in imitation of the monastic orders, swearing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and were to become officially recognized as a monastic order in 1129 in direct contravention of existing belief and custom regarding the permission of monks to engage in violence (specifically, they weren’t – monks were meant to be peaceful lambs of God, and violence was strictly forbidden for members of monastic orders). Unfortunately for the Knights Templar, their dual identity was not a balanced one, and while they achieved great success and renown as holy warriors battling against the infidel to preserve the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its many fiefdoms, their exploits in Christian Europe – where their primary function was not as warriors, but rather as monks – were continuously dogged with suspicion, rumour, and mistreatment. When the Crusader kingdoms in the East finally fell for the last time and the Templars could no longer trumpet their exploits as warriors, the weak and unstable monastic side of their brotherhood quickly collapsed under the weight of dangerous accusations and political intrigue.

Founded in 1118 AD by Hugh de Payens, Godfrey of Saint-Omer, and a small group of like-minded knights, the Order of the Temple was dedicated to the protection of pilgrims along the roads of the Holy Land, a duty the small and overstretched military forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were unable to effectively undertake on their own. Their name was derived from the quarters they were granted by King Baldwin II on the Temple Mount in recognition to their service and respect for the monastic-style vows the knights had undertaken – those of poverty, obedience, and chastity – to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. A decade after the founding of the Order, the ecumenical Council of Troyes in 1129 granted and drafted for them the thirty-two clause Latin Rule, formally recognizing them as a monastic order. The prominent monastic scholar Bernard of Clairvaux, a stalwart and influential supporter of the Templars, had a major hand in the creation of the Latin Rule.

Bernard himself is an excellent representative for the sort of propagandists working to enhance the image of the Templars and overcome objections to their founding in their early years. His missive In Praise of the New Knighthood, published around the year 1130, was written at the request of Hugh de Payens, the leader of the Knights Templar, and though he manages to turn half of his tract into a tourist guide to the Holy Land for would-be pilgrims, he still constructs an important defence for the Order of the Templar’s acceptance and existence. In a screed that is as with all religious publications rife with biblical references, Bernard manages to stretch scripture to depict the Knights Templar as an avenging force of Christ created at the behest of God himself – “Even now he brings about the redemption of his people, and again raises up for us a horn of salvation in the house of his servant David.” As he continues his description of the “New Knighthood” Bernard uses exclusively military terminology to describe both their martial prowess and their unwavering faith, gushing forth with limitless praise for the unshakable martyrs to whom the opening of his message is directed. He follows this praise with an all-out assault on all knights of secular status, finding them vain, effeminate, and overly concerned with worldly things, and for these reasons both less effective and less desirable as warriors than the pious Knights of the Temple.

From there Bernard moves to further glorify the existence and purpose of monk-sworn warriors, again showing a masterful craft in the twisting and turning of scriptural sources to suit his every need – such as turning Christ’s admonishment to soldiers to be content with their pay into a tacit endorsement of holy men bearing arms. The new order of most holy warriors is again cast as the hand of God bringing relief to the beleaguered settlers in the Holy Land and as the fulfilment of ancient scriptural prophecy. In comparison with this effluent praise for the Order as warriors, Bernard devotes only a small section of the fourth chapter of his work to discussing their virtues as monks, and even then he communicates little more than that they are diligently following monastic practices. The Templars are described as being disciplined, obedient, chaste, living without displays of wealth or ostentation, and – of particular importance to Bernard, given how specific he is in its many manifestations – studiously avoiding any sort of entertainment that might provoke laughter or other signs of enjoyment.

In fact, Bernard is so starved for content discussing the monastic side of Templar life that midway through the chapter he once again begins referring to their military virtues, praising their discipline, their bravery, the plainness of their armour and weapons, and their absolute trust in the blessings of God to grant them victory no matter the odds. He even concludes this, the last portion of In Praise of the New Knighthood to actually refer to the Templars at all, with a final benediction lauding them once more as divinely provided by God himself and a last quoting of scripture: “God has hand picked such troops, and from among the most valiant men of Israel he recruited from the ends of the earth servants to guard vigilantly and faithfully that sepulchre which is the bed of the true Solomon; all bearing sword in hand, and superbly trained to war.”

Clearly, the supporters of the Order of the Temple were expecting and anticipating the warrior side of the new order far more than they cared about the monastic part of their organization.  While this was a state of affairs that played to the Templars’ strength so long as there were holy causes in which to fight, it would come back to haunt them when Christendom turned its attention away from bloody wars for the Holy Land.