Political Masterclass: Death of the Templars, III

by northernbeholder

The supporters of the Order of the Temple, of whom Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most prominent, were expecting from the new warrior-monks more of the warrior than the monk. An examination of the sources regarding the record of the Knights Templar in service in Outremer bears out that reality coincided with the expectations placed upon them.

The Chronicle of the Third Crusade is a collection of primary documents written by contemporary scribes during 1187-1192, narrating the capture of Jerusalem by Muslim forces led by Saladin and the expeditions launched by Emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, King Philip II of France and King Richard I of England to recover it. The Knights Templar, as would be expected, participated heavily in the campaigns, and in all cases the description of their actions is not only positive but positively lauding, at times denigrating the secular soldiers in comparison. At the battle of Hattin, where the armies of Jerusalem were crushed by those of Saladin, the Templars who did not die fighting were ordered by their captors to convert to Islam or be killed, an order they refused, preferring martyrdom to dishonour. Although the account in the Chronicles is somewhat embellished, claiming that a holy light shone on their unburied bodies for three nights following their death, the fact that the Christian scribes would so venerate the fallen Templars only serves to illustrate in what high esteem the holy warriors were held. (The memoirs of Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din dealt with their capture in a much more practical statement, corroborating the facts while avoiding flights of fancy.)

In another account, during King Richard I of England’s siege of the city of Acre, the common soldiers and secular knights are depicted with disdain in comparison to the Knights Templar: first abandoning their positions in the battle-line to search for loot amongst the abandoned camp of the enemy, and then cascading into a full-blown rout when their disorganized positions left them vulnerable to a counter-attack launched from the city. In contrast, the Templars maintained disciplined formation, and were the only ones to engage the enemy forces issuing forth from the city, fighting fiercely to the last man. The scribes chastise the secular knights and soldiers for not keeping formation and thus causing the deaths of the Templar knights, while venerating the fallen warrior-monks as martyrs. In another battle in the fields near the small keep of Casal Maen, the Knights Templar again impressed the chroniclers with their valour, standing firm against an overwhelming Turkish assault and holding out until reinforcements belatedly arrive.

Throughout the Chronicle the Templars were always given positions of honour and responsibility in the marching army, commanding either the vanguard or rearguard, both crucial positions in an army on the march. These assignments showed both trust and respect, and they consistently acquitted themselves well when harassed by enemy troops. Whenever mentioned in the Chronicle the Templars are depicted as reliable, zealous and honourable soldiers. More importantly, unlike many of the secular forces, they remained with the Crusading army throughout the campaign, a demonstration of reliability that continued into the late thirteenth century. During the siege of Acre in 1292, the Knights Templar were preeminent among the various military orders in defending the city as the secular knights and soldiers quarrelled among themselves. In fact, the Templar castle was the last stronghold to fall in the city, lasting two months beyond the fall of the city proper until finally agreeing to terms of surrender. Even when the fourteenth century arrived and the Templars were brought under increasingly intense and slanderous assault, in the few regions where they maintained the military side of their order, such as the northern Iberian kingdom of Aragon, the accusations against them were not so easily believed, as they proved their prowess as defenders of Christendom time and again against the armies of the Islamic states which occupied much of the Spanish peninsula.

All of the available evidence shows that the Knights Templar were admirably successful in their undertaking as warriors. Not only did they excel on the field of combat, but their bearing, demeanour and reputation was such that they became idolized by those around them as the ideal warrior. Crucially, however, these successes as warriors were largely exclusive to Outremer – far to the east of western Europe. In Christendom, the Order of the Temple was encountered most often in their other role – that of the monk. As monks, their record contains far less success, with their houses in Europe frequently subjected to criticism and the object of scurrilous rumours. In fact, it could even be those houses themselves which spawned discord, as aptly demonstrated in William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.

Although William’s description of the Knights Templar begins innocently enough, describing the origins of the order, their monastic vows, and their early successes, it takes a sudden turn towards the caustic at the end: “They are said to have vast possessions, both on this side of the sea and beyond. There is not a province in the Christian world today which does not bestow some part of its possessions on these brethren, and their property is reported to be equal to the riches of kings…” William’s specific mention of both “vast possessions” and the value of their property is set up in deliberate contrast to his earlier mention, scarcely a paragraph away, of the specific vow of poverty those of the Order had ostensibly undertaken, the obvious implication being that they had broken it. Particularly, William mentions as part of this thinly-veiled complaint the properties granted to the Templars throughout Christian Europe – properties staffed by Templars far more monk than warrior. He even goes so far to suggest that the wealth supposedly generated from these holdings led directly to the Order becoming confident enough to defy the authority of the Patriarch of Jerusalem – hardly a ringing endorsement for the influence of the Order’s monastic side.

William’s complaints were not entirely unfounded; the Templars were significant landholders in western Europe, owning estates in England, France, the Italian peninsula, Sicily, and the Iberian peninsula. In fact, they were so widespread that in England they held estates of one sort or another in almost every county, two of which were prosperous enough to become the centres of burgeoning new towns. The fact that the Templar houses permitted laity to enter for mass and other reasons, as well as frequently leaving the walls of their compound to travel through the local communities was hardly the behaviour one would expect of cloistered monks; and, more importantly, behaviour that left them open to the mischief of disrespectful common folk, as shown in the necessity of a papal bull released in 1160 forbidding the abuse and maltreatment of Knights Templar, especially the act of pulling them from their horses. The unprecedented level of contact this allegedly monastic organization had with the outside world in western Europe also led to the growth of scurrilous rumours, and by the thirteenth century the Templars had acquired an unfortunate reputation for drunkenness, debauchery, and illicit behaviour – a reputation which would prove to be key in their downfall.