The rise and fall of the Knights Templar

Dan Jones tells the story of a crack unit of holy hard-men who spent 200 years defending crusaders’ interests in the Middle East with unblinking ferocity…

This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

The Knights Templar depicted on an antique map of Jerusalem. (Alamy)
The Knights Templar depicted on an antique map of Jerusalem. (Alamy)

 

On a cripplingly hot day at the start of July 1187, Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, stood beside his son al-Afdal and peered across the battlefield towards a red tent on a hill. The sultan’s face was pale with worry. The armies before him had been fighting for hours, tortured by near-unbearable heat, dust and smoke, which billowed up from the desert scrub Saladin’s own men had set alight. Thousands of men and horses lay dead. The enemy – a vast force led by the Christian king Guy of Jerusalem – was badly battered and falling back, but until the king’s red pavilion fell, victory would not be complete. 

Al-Afdal, youthful and bullish, cheered every Christian charge that the Muslim army repulsed. Saladin scolded him. “Be quiet!” he said. “We have not beaten them until that tent falls.” Moments later, the sultan’s angst turned to tearful jubilation. The tent collapsed, King Guy was captured and the battle of Hattin was over. The Christians’ holiest relic – a fragment of the True Cross – was seized. The dead were left to rot where they lay, while the living were led off in disgrace: the lowliest Christian prisoners for slaves, and the more valuable for ransom. 

But there was one category of captives who received quite different treatment from all the rest. A reward of 50 dinars was offered to anyone who could present the sultan with a member of the military orders: Hospitallers and Templars. These knights and sergeants were the elite special forces within the armies of the cross. They were the most dedicated and highly trained warriors in the Holy Land. And Saladin had special plans for them.

 

Band of brothers

In 1187 the Order of the Poor Knights and of the Temple of Solomon was about 68 years old. The Order had first been assembled in 1119 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by a French knight called Hugh of Payns. Hugh had travelled to the east around the time that Jerusalem fell to the Christian armies of the First Crusade, and he stayed there: seeking a way to combine his skill as a soldier with his yearning for religious purpose. 

Templars wear their distinctive uniforms in a French mural. (Bridgeman)

 

With a small number of like-minded men – later accounts said there were nine – Hugh established a brotherhood of religious warriors: skilled fighters who took oaths of chastity and poverty. They dedicated themselves to protecting Christian pilgrims on roads around the holy city, which were menaced by brigands preying on vulnerable travellers touring unfamiliar countryside.

This fraternity of holy hard-men soon gained official recognition. The then-ruler of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, put them up in the al-Aqsa Mosque, which they identified with the biblical temple built by Solomon. This was how the Templars gained their name. 

 

Papal tax breaks

For survival, the brothers relied on charitable handouts, and they quickly became expert at soliciting these – particularly in western Europe, where they built up a large network of profitable estates donated by supporters of the crusading movement. In the 1120s the order was granted a quasi-monastic rule to live by, designed by the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. In the 1130s the pope granted them sweeping tax breaks and an official uniform of white or black tunics emblazoned with a cross. 

By the 1140s the Templars had begun to expand their mission of merely providing roadside rescue for pilgrims. In parallel with the Hospitallers, who branched out from providing medical services in Jerusalem to assuming military duties, the Templars manned castles throughout the Holy Land and assisted in raids on Muslim cities such as Damascus. 

At the other end of the Mediterranean they had been drafted into the Reconquista: the Christian campaigns for control of the Muslim states of al-Andalus, in southern Spain. The Templars were by now a self-sustaining paramilitary organisation, a crack squad of hardened and dedicated soldiers, able to fight across all terrains and oath-bound to serve God and their brothers. In modern terms, they were the equivalent of the SAS, the Navy SEALS or the French Foreign Legion. 

The seal of the Knights Templar, who were, according to one Muslim chronicler, "the fiercest of all the Franks". (Shutterstock)

 

“They were the fiercest fighters of all the Franks.” This was the Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Athir’s assessment of the Templars. (By ‘Franks’, he meant the western Christians in the Holy Land.) Ibn al-Athir was around 27 years old in 1187 and, like his contemporary Saladin, he knew just how competent – and dangerous – the Templars could be.

After all, history fairly buzzed with examples. In 1148 the Templars had saved the French armies of the Second Crusade from annihilation. Tens of thousands of ill-disciplined troops led by King Louis VII had tried to cross hostile territory in Asia Minor on foot and horseback, on their way to Syria, where they planned to liberate the city of Edessa. Bedraggled and badly led, they were prey to repeated attacks from Turkish horsemen, who inflicted a particularly terrible defeat on the crusaders at Mount Cadmus, near modern-day Denizli in Turkey. Hundreds were killed and Louis only escaped capture by hiding on a boulder. 

In desperation, the French king handed over military command of the entire expedition to a Templar named Gilbert. He was one of only 50 or so brothers among the vast procession, but Gilbert’s leadership was inspired. He divided the pilgrims into battalions, each with a single brother in charge. All the able-bodied were given a crash-course in military conduct, and shown how to hold their shape and discipline under attack. As a result, the French survived the hard trek east, and on arrival in the Holy Land the Templars even raised an emergency loan to keep Louis’s troubled campaign afloat.

In the years that followed, the Templars were trusted to defend castles around Gaza in the south, where Christian territory gave way to Egyptian lands. Further north they guarded the passes through the Amanus Mountains, which controlled the routes from Asia Minor into the Christian principality of Antioch. They advised secular leaders on military strategy, but were also pointedly independent, carrying out kidnapping missions and raids of their own as they pleased. Even the Assassins – the shadowy Shia terrorist sect who lived in the Syrian mountains and specialised in spectacular public assassinations of leaders of all faiths – would not touch the Templars, and paid them a fat fee to be left alone.

The Templar Rule, which originally resembled a Cistercian monk’s order of daily routine, was heavily revised around 1165 to become more of a military handbook: setting the Templars’ battlefield protocols, and emphasising the importance of discipline and obedience. The order’s famous black-and-white flag was only to be lowered when the last man defending it was dead. “No brother should leave the field… while there is a piebald banner raised aloft; for if he leaves he will be expelled from the house forever,” it read.

When they rode into battle, the Templars sang a psalm: ‘‘Not to us, O lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory, for your steadfast love and faithfulness.” The sight and sound of these men charging in their red-crossed white and black cloaks was rightly feared throughout the Holy Land.

 

Suicidally proud

When Saladin’s men had finished rounding up Templars and Hospitallers after the battle of Hattin in 1187, around 200 prisoners had been delivered. These included the Templar grand master, Gerard of Ridefort, an impulsive and suicidally proud leader who repeatedly led his men into fights against impossible odds, yet somehow always emerged with his own life. He would do so again now, as Saladin ordered him to be imprisoned and exchanged for the Templars’ castle at Gaza.

Knights Templar are arrested on the orders of the "cruel and conniving" French king Philip IV, in a scene from the 14th-century 'Chroniques de France ou de St Denis'. (Bridgeman)

 

The rest were not so lucky. Saladin had witnessed the Templars’ bravery at first hand several years previously, when the commander of their besieged fortress at Jacob’s Ford met his death by deliberately riding headlong into a burning section of the castle. Now, wrote his secretary and biographer Imad al-Din: “He wished to purify land of these… unclean orders, whose practices are useless, who never give up their hostility and who have no use as slaves… He ordered that each would have his head cut off and be erased from the land of the living.”

Instead of committing the job to a professional headsman, Saladin asked for volunteers from his religious entourage. Sufis, lawyers and scholars stepped forward for the chance to decapitate an infidel, with predictably gruesome results. Some deaths were swift. Others were painful and slow, as inexperienced clerics hacked away with blunt blades and no technique. Many, wrote Imad al-Din, “proved themselves ridiculous and had to be replaced”. 

Saladin sent a letter to Baghdad containing news of his extermination of the Christian military orders. “Not one of the Templars survived,” he wrote, with satisfaction. And he was very nearly correct.

Saladin captures the Holy Cross from a crusader army at the battle of Hadin in 1187, as depicted in Matthew Paris's 'Chronica maiora'. Following the victory, the Muslim leader would inflict a terrible vengeance on the Knights Templar. (AKG-Images)

 

The Templars fight back

Nearly, but not quite. It took several years for the Templars to rebuild their numbers and their military reputation, but they managed it. When Richard the Lionheart arrived in the Holy Land to lead the Third Crusade in 1191 he revived the order’s fortunes, installing new leaders from his own entourage and ensuring that the Templars rode either at the vanguard or rearguard of his army as it marched down the coast from Acre to Jaffa, reclaiming cities Saladin had conquered. He briefly handed the Templars a military dictatorship on Cyprus, although they found the island ungovernable and sold it on. And when Richard left the Holy Land for Europe in 1192, he was said to have travelled incognito, wearing Templar uniform.

The order remained at the military heart of the crusades for another century. In 1218–19 they starred in the Fifth Crusade to Damietta in Egypt, deploying armoured galleys in the water of the Nile Delta, as the Christian armies attempted an amphibious siege of the city. Two generations later they were back again, having helped fund and provision another crusader army with designs on Damietta, this time led by Louis IX of France. Throughout the 13th century, the Templars continued to be involved in the Reconquista, helping King James I of Aragón to conquer Ibiza and Mallorca between 1229 and 1235, and the kingdom of Valencia by 1244.

Then, at the end of the century, when the Christians were being swept from the Holy Land by an Egyptian slave-soldier regime called the Mamluks, the Templars provided the very last line of defence. Their huge fortress in Acre was the last bastion to hold out against Mamluk forces storming through the breached walls in 1291, in what turned out to be the crusaders’ final stand.

Mamluk cavalry train for combat in a military manual from 1371. It was against these Egyptian slave-soldiers that the Templars of the Holy Land made their final stand - defending the crusader city of Acre in 1291. (Bridgeman)

 

In 1307, however, the order was destroyed by a cruel and conniving king of France, Philip IV. Philip used a popular wish for the Templars and Hospitallers to be merged into one military super-order as a pretext for investigating their practices and then confiscating their wealth. Their collapse was swift and dramatic, as the king’s lawyers and papal inquisitors accused the brothers of corruption, blasphemy, and sexual crimes. By 1312 the Templars had been disbanded. Their last master, James of Molay, was burned at the stake as a heretic in Paris in 1314.

Other orders survived the decline of crusading. The Hospitallers continued the fight against the church’s enemies from a new base on the island of Rhodes, while the German Teutonic Order governed a semi-autonomous state in Prussia for centuries. The Mamluks, who were themselves somewhat like an Islamic military order, ruled Egypt and Syria until they were swept aside by the Ottomans in 1517. 

Why did the Templars fall? Part of the answer lies in the weakness of their last master, James of Molay; part in the cruel caprice of Philip IV. But what is seldom noted is that the Templars, for all their wealth and privilege, never established for themselves a geographical base that they could defend against all assaults, even from their own side.

The brothers were famed for their bravery, dedication and piety but these were not enough to save them when Philip IV attacked. Had they established themselves as the rulers of Cyprus when they had the chance in 1191, their history might have been different. But they did not, and the Knights Templars’ shocking demise now dominates our memory of an order that was, in its day, better known by Ibn al-Athir’s assessment: “The fiercest fighters of all the Franks.”  

The Templars' Tunnel running underneath Acre (today Akko in Israel), site of the military order's last stand. Rediscovered in 1994, tunnels linked the Templar fortress to the main port and customs house. (Shutterstock)


The rise and fall of the Templars 

1119: Hugh of Payns and eight other knights band together in Jerusalem, agreeing to protect Christian pilgrims outside the city. They are officially recognised in 1120. Their base is the al-Aqsa mosque, which they call the Temple of Solomon.

1129: The first Templar Rule is written at a church council in Troyes. Templars are committed to a life of celibacy, poverty and military exercise, and banned from knightly frivolities such as hunting with birds or wearing pointed shoes.

1134: Alfonso I ‘the Battler’, king of Aragon, dies and leaves one third of his kingdom to the Templars, drawing the order into the Reconquista.

A coin depicting Alfonso I and, on the reverse, a cross. (cngcoins.com)

 

1139: Pope Innocent II decrees that the Templars are only answerable to papal authority, and grants them the right to wear the sign of the cross on their chests. 

1148: During the Second Crusade to liberate the city of Edessa, the Templars repel Turkish attacks and shepherd a French army all the way to the Holy Land. 

1187: On 4 July, Saladin defeats a huge Christian army at the battle of Hattin. He then orders the summary beheading of all Templars captured by his forces.

A medieval depiction of the battle of Hattin, a black day for the Templars. (Bridgeman)

 

1191: Richard the Lionheart conquers Cyprus and sells it to the Templars. But the order cannot hold it peacefully and quickly sell it on to Guy of Lusignan, the former king of Jerusalem.

A 14th-century illustration shows Guy of Lusignan departing for Cyprus. (BnF)

 

c1200: German author Wolfram von Eschenbach casts Templar-like figures as the defenders of a mysterious item known as the Holy Grail. 

1218: Templars join the Fifth Crusade in the Nile Delta, fighting on board armoured galleys.

1291: Mamluk armies attack the last crusader outpost in the city of Acre. The Templar master William of Beaujeu is killed leading the defence. 

1307: On Friday 13 October, agents working for King Philip IV arrest every Templar in France. In 1312, the order is disbanded and its property confiscated.

Dan Jones is a historian, TV presenter and author of The Templars. He was a historical advisor for the new historical drama Knightfall, which premieres on History in the US and Canada tonight (6 December), in Southeast Asia on 7 December and in Italy on 13 December. A UK air date is to be confirmed.

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