The Knights Templar: an Overview

“The vulgar notion that the Templars were as wicked as they were fearless and brave, has not yet been entirely exploded; but it is hoped that the copious account of the proceedings against the order in this country, given in the ninth and tenth chapters of the ensuing volume, will tend to dispel many unfounded prejudices still entertained against the fraternity, and excite emotions of admiration for their constancy and courage, and of pity for their unmerited and cruel fate.” – History of the Knights Templar – Charles Addison

The Aftermath of the first Crusade

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Crusades. If you’re interested, I recommend starting with the first one which you can find here. Otherwise enjoy.

So the Crusaders had achieved the impossible.

But as the dust began to settle the paltry few who remained were beginning to accept the challenge that lay ahead of them. Most of the surviving crusaders set off home to their families. Having fulfilled their vows they were now legendary hero’s. As we can now confirm they would be carved into the pages of history forever.

By the conclusion of the first crusade it became clear that Alexius Comnenus would be having nothing to do with Jerusalem, and was at enmity now with Bohemond his new neighbour in Antioch. Yet Jerusalem would not lead itself.

One of the hero’s of the first Crusade was Godfrey of Bouillon. An extremely devout Christian, Godfrey had a reputation for being noble and well-mannered. Godfrey was respected by many as both an exceptional warrior, commander, gentleman and political leader. Godfrey was instrumental in the victory of the siege of Jerusalem in that not only was the tower he was commanding responsible for breaching the walls of the city, but Godfrey himself was at the top of the tower, leading the charge. Proficient with the crossbow he himself was one of the spearheads throughout the siege effort.

Godfrey was named the official head of Jerusalem. Refusing to be crowned King in the land where our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ was crucified, he settled for the title ‘Defender of the land of the Holy Sepulcher’. Sadly however, Godfrey survived a meagre 2 years following the First Crusade. Struck down with a terrible sickness, Godfrey passed away and was succeeded by his brother Baldwin who was serving as count of Edessa at the time. One can speculate about the enormity of the task of managing Jerusalem during this early period and the role that the inevitable stress must have played on his immune system.

Throughout the years 1099 and 1124 the Crusader states consolidated their reclaimed territory along the Mediterranean coast taking Acre, Tripoli, Beirut, Saida and Tyre.

The Crusader states Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem, became collectively known as The Outremer (pronounced ooh-treeme, very cool name, very French).

The Outremer – not for the feint-hearted

“The little state of Jerusalem was thus left an island in the sea of Islam.”

Following the victory at Ascalon the newly conquered territory was in the very perilous situation of being manned by a mere few thousand or so fighting men spread across a long, needle thin strip of land with the Mediterranean sea on one side and lots of enemies on the other.

Extremely rough depiction of the general layout of the mediterranean, following the first Crusade.
This map is not to scale (in case that wasn’t obvious)

“The enemy was seldom more than a day’s ride away”

Due to the nature of the Crusader states, their distance from each other and their proximity to danger, they were necessarily military in nature. They were garrison states consisting mostly of poorly paid soldiers.

The local populations of the Crusader states were mostly Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims with few Christian sects, Jews and other religions and pagans. Many of these residents were in fact content with the shift in power. Even the local Muslims considered the Christian leaders ‘fair and just’. This evidence strongly suggests they were not under pressure from greedy ‘land grabbers’, nor were they under any pressure to convert, despite popular rhetoric.

Beyond the protection of the main garrisons, on the roads between where not all townships were Christian controlled were very dangerous places. Many travelers were subject to harassment and persecution from local Muslim antagonists, robbers and highway bandits. These bandits hid in mountain crags and caves bordering the coastal provinces such as Tyre, Acre and Tripoli.

It was this constant enduring need to protect the pilgrims, and to maintain order that motivated the formation of the knightly orders. By far the most prominent, well-funded, powerful, mysterious, controversial and famous of all the knightly orders was the Knights Templar, as they came to be known.

The origins of the Knights Templar

And so it was the year 1119 A.D… Two men, veterans of the first Crusade, Hugh de Payans and Godfrey de Saint-Omer led a small band of men (about 9-30, no-one knows exactly) on route from the sea port Jaffa to the Holy land. King Baldwin of Jerusalem, brother of the legendary Godfrey of Bouillon, was more than happy to accommodate them. He offered them a wing on the eastern quarters of his palace, a location believed to lie atop the ancient ruins of the Temple of King Solomon himself.

Having committed themselves to lives of both poverty and chastity, these men took an oath to make war in the name of God. They had come with one purpose, to protect their Christian brethren on the dangerous roads to Jerusalem, and if need be, die for them.

They became the Order of the Poor knights of the Temple of Solomon or…

The Knights Templar.

Times were tough at first, the Templars had committed to a life of monkish asceticism, coupled with the rigours of combat. There was none of the affluence associated with the life of the clergy, nor was there the certainty of salvation. On the other hand, they also enjoyed none of the hedonistic pleasures of the life of a soldier, but had to endure all of the hardships. In the beginning it was an extremely disciplined and thankless occupation.

In 1127 Hugh embarked on a journey to Europe in order to secure more funding and support. Very fortunately, Hugh was able to rally an extremely influential member of the clergy, St Bernard of Clairvaux, to the cause of the Templars.

Bernard was a brilliant religious leader and a strong advocate of Chivalry.

Following the Council of Troyes in 1128, marked the beginning of a rapid rise to power, prestige and fame for the knights Templar. Their order became recognized as a legitimate order of the church, which gave them specific privileges, such as being answerable to none but the pope himself. This in itself harboured some resentment. Most notably from William of Tyre, an otherwise stellar historian and one of the primary sources on the first Crusade and the history of the Outremer, was extremely critical of the Templar organization, evident in much of his writings.

So Bernard wrote the ‘rule of the Templars’, a document containing the 73 articles outlining standards of behaviour, practice, ordinance etc. everything from their diet, to what they would wear.

Just a few examples:

  • The Templars were to wear white to signify their purity of cause, and were not to be embellished with jewels and other adornments. Thus, on the battlefield they would inspire fear, and not grandeur. It was not until later, during the second crusade they bore their almost synonymous Red Cross of Christ, signaling their willingness to die without hesitation.
  • The Templars would eat meat only three meals in a week at most (in contrast to the average knight who would’ve eaten a lot of meat, which was very high in fat and cholesterol).
  • They committed to chastity and celibacy (a very Catholic tradition in general).
  • Meals were to be eaten in silence.

Templars caught hoarding wealth and adornments could be immediately expelled from the order. Same goes for acts of sodomy, blasphemy or heresy.

The knights Templar were in essence a devoutly religious knighthood, sworn to protect the pilgrims set on reaching the Holy Land, but essentially they were protectors of the Holy land itself also. They were the personification of the warrior-monk – ultra-disciplined, highly trained and extremely pious.

This is best seen in their motto:

“Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam”, which means “Not to us, o Lord, not to us, but to Your Name give glory”.

They were also only interested in the best that Europe had to offer. Only qualified, experienced Knights need apply. In theory only the most righteous, morally upstanding knights need apply too. They were, arguably, the best of the best.

Of course in practice, the desperate need for manpower in the East made the consistent application of ethical standards difficult. In general however exceptional bravery and monasticism characterised the Templars. Over two centuries ~20,000 Templars died in service of the Lord and their Countrymen.

These qualities and the respect and admiration they imbued made the Templars very attractive and glamorous; at least a hyper-masculine, brutish kind of glamorous.

As they grew in popularity huge lots of land were donated to the Templars; forests and estates and over 40 Castles by 1150.

The ‘knights of Christ’, Bernard lauded the Templars as Martyrs:

“We are the Lord’s, exult and glory, if you die and are joined to the Lord.”

Due to their rapid surge in popularity and funding they became ‘burdened’ with managing, maintaining, storing and transporting their masses of wealth. As a result they became experts at transport and storage. They essentially became the first financial institution. One of the means for protecting pilgrims was to take stock of their valuables and store them in a repository, then reimburse them once they arrived safely in Jerusalem.

They began lending for interest (although they called it something else because of course interest was usury which was a sin). They even served as bond parties between state affairs, mediators who kept everything fair and orderly.

They built many enormous castles that were extremely expensive to build and maintain. Large portions of their funding was funnelled into maintaining these castles – all in the name of protecting pilgrims and sustaining the Christian empire.

They were pioneers in all this by the way, experts. They revolutionized banking and lending. In short, they became an extremely powerful institution both militarily and politically.

Despite all this the Templars were first and foremost protectors of the Holy Land and the individual knights were strict adherents to their life of poverty.

In general they were brave to a fault, often charging head long into battles with reckless abandon. They were always the first into the battle and last to retreat. Indeed during the fateful battle of Hattin, the Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort of the Templars rather unadvisedly lead a charge into the Saracens which cost many of the lives of both the Templars and Hospitallers (Gerard is considered to have been among the least competent Templar Grand Masters that there ever was).

The Templars had a fearsome reputation. They were the most deadly, highly trained soldiers in Christendom at the time. Despite the ultimate downfall of the Crusader states and the gradual loss of territory over time, the Templars were a bulwark against the ever-present threat of Islam. They patrolled the roads of the Outremer and were crucial elements in almost every battle in the area at the time. They were star players in both the second and the third crusades, most often taking up the protective ranks in the front and the rear of many crusader armies.

Their infamous cavalry formation was a sight known to strike terror into the hearts of their adversaries… a thundering, tight-knit formation of steel and lance. They were experts at it; often triumphing or holding their own against far larger forces, such as the battle of Montgisard. Even during the battle of Hattin, Saladin was said to have held his breath during every charge, and would not admit any hope of victory until it had become absolutely certain. As a side note Saladin, oft lauded for his chivalry and status as an Islamic gentleman, indiscriminately beheaded every last surviving Templar and Hospitaller knight captured at the end of the Battle of Hattin.

Individual Templars were known for their stunning bravery. Consider a few examples (taken from Barber and Bate, 2002):

  1. William of Beaujeu died defending a breach in the walls at the siege of Acre 1291;
  2. Odo of Saint Amand who was captured during the ill-fated battle of Marj Ayyun, died in captivity, apparently refusing to accept any ransom, knowing this would’ve broken the rules of the Order.
  3. Gerard of Ridefort, a high-ranking official, during the siege of Acre in 1189 refused to abandon his fellow knights (presumably he had at least one opportunity) instead standing firm and dying right alongside them as the city was overrun.

It is rather unfortunate in that regard that the Templars were then so intimately entwined with the fate of the Crusader states themselves. As I said they were first and foremost protectors of the Holy land. This meant that their very existence was almost entirely predicated on the success of the Outremer as a Latin Kingdom. If there were no pilgrims, there was no need for the Templars.

Furthermore, irrespective of any individual measure of success, skill, or bravery, the languishing power of the Outremer marred their reputation in the West. As the Christian controlled territory receded over the centuries, the romanticism of the Templars as invincible was difficult to maintain to Western observers who never saw their actions first hand.

With both diminishing territory and their enormous masses of wealth and land, the Templars became tempting targets for the greedy and powerful.

The fall of the Templars

Jaques De Molay, is one of the most famous and memorable names associated with the Templars. De Molay was the last Grand Master of the knights Templar. He spent the last decades of his life based at the new Templar headquarters on Cyprus campaigning for a new crusade to reclaim some of the severely declining Crusader kingdoms. To discuss with the Pope the possibility of another crusade in fact was the purpose of his journey to the West whereupon he was betrayed.

On October the 13th 1307, on the order of the French Government, Jaques de Molay and the entire Templar order that was present in France was arrested under suspicion of numerous charges including blasphemy, sodomy and Christ denial. De Molay was en-route to meet the Pope (who had a reputation for weakness) to discuss the possibility of a new crusade, and instead was arrested, charged with heinous crimes against the Church and tortured into confession. As it turns out, Molay recanted all admissions of guilt when he was later put before the church cardinals.

A similar fate befell a number of other Templars, many were tortured into similar confessions, some more willingly than others. Many were burned at the stake while their comrades were forced to watch, in an effort to intimidate them into further confessions of guilt.

Molay was imprisoned for seven years as the trial ensued. In the end, he was burned at the stake alongside two of his comrades in 1314. Branded a heretic, he died declaring his innocence amidst the flames. His only crime, as he put it, was falsely confessing to the heinous crimes he was charged with for the sake of some small hope of mercy. Before he died he implored all captive Templars to do the same.

It’s not certain how nefarious the plot against the Templars really was, or the role played specifically by King Philip IV of France. But what he stood to gain from their downfall is certain. The King had amassed an enormous amount of debt to the Templars, and he was a man who known for his pleasure-seeking, and his self-interest. It’s also quite certain that, initially at least, there was very little basis for the charges. The French Government bullied the church into submission throughout much of the ordeal.

Specialist crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith has given at least some credit to a portion of the charges in specific areas, especially some of the ‘less dramatic’ charges. Yet even under horrendous torture the majority of Templars refused to admit to the worst of crimes, preferring instead to endure unbearable suffering.

It is the consensus scholarly view that the trials against the Templars are largely an unjust tragedy, which is also the official view of the Catholic church today.

The Templar Order was officially disbanded by the Church in 1312, from whence it became illegal to be, or to ‘behave as a Templar’.


Despite the ultimate fate of the Crusader kingdoms, the Knights Templar comprised an organisation of supremely disciplined warriors, not given to the pleasures of this life, committed almost entirely to the cause of protecting Christians and the Holy land. A commitment that stood the test of time, after almost two centuries the Templars remained faithful to their mission right to the end.

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Addison, C. 1842. History of the Knights Templar. Kindle version 2009.

Baldwin, M. Setton, K. 1969. A History of the Crusades Vol I. University of Wisconsin Press.

Barber, M. 2006. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge University Press. 2nd Ed.

Barber, M. Bate, K. 2002. The Templars: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated, Manchester University Press.

Hazard, H. Wolff, R. Setton, K. 1969. A History of the Crusades Vol II. University of Wisconsin Press.

Partner, P. 1981. The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and their Myth, Oxford University Press.

Stark, R. 2009. God’s battalions: The case for the Crusades, HarperCollins Publishers.