Who Were the Knights Templar?
Space does not allow for a full coverage of the Knights Templar identity, but a demeanour worth noting that was central to the identity of this warrior-monk was miles Christi (soldiers of Christ)—that as they bear the crosses on their uniforms and armour just as Christ bore His cross, they bear the cross in His name as they fight His enemies. The rationale behind the concept of miles Christi was to aid just war theory in order to justify “Christian warfare and thus overcome the moral dilemmas inherent in the idea” (Barber, 29), based entirely on Augustine (for more on Augustine’s just war theory, see Riley-Smith pp. 11-13; bibliography below).
The concept of miles Christi is evocative in crusading sermons, e.g., Etudes Châteauroux, “‘The cross is the sword with which the Lord fought the earthly powers and their followers and up to now he has not ceased fighting them… And today, who but the knights more aptly and more evidently trust that Christ is their lord? They follow his call and form his army'” (Riley-Smith, 41). Miles Christi is also evocative in the Templar Rule, for example, the concluding clause 57, “‘Divine providence, as we believe, has undertaken through you the beginning of this new type of order in the holy places, that you might mix knighthood with religion and thus religion should proceed armed through knighthood (and) should strike the enemy without sin” (Barber, 31).
In its totality, the Rule “reminds the Templars of the continuing battle for their souls in which the devil seeks to entrap them by diverting them from God’s purpose, but his cunning should be resisted” (Barber, 31-32). Warning against the devil’s cunning, the Rule employs just war ideology: the devil will say they “hate unfairly” or “covert unjustly,” but the Rule encourages them by saying they do not hate unfairly since they do not hate the man but the evil and they do not covert unjustly since they plunder what is justly owed for their work. Barber calls this a fallacy since “God judges not upon externals, but upon inward disposition” (Barber, 32). It is Barber’s opinion that because the Templar Order “could provide the means of salvation for those who, in secular life, were sinners,” this “quite overtly made the Templars the centrepiece of the general crusade ethic” (Barber, 36).
Perceptions amongst their Contemporaries
Amongst the senior clergymen, the ecclesial perception of the Templars were overall a mixed bag rather than a unanimous perception. The contributing factour to the conflicts between the Templars and the senior clergy as well as the public’s positive perception was the Templars’ ardent ambition “to expand their network of parish churches even against the wishes of bishops who previously had supported them and that, in so doing, they proved willing to engage with the lay public on an even larger scale” (Schenk, 274).
Since their founding in 1119, the Templars began accumulating large quantities of churches, chapels, and oratories. While these properties, in general, were reserved for the use of the Templar brothers, laypeople were allowed to enter and utilise the facilities for religious and even secular purposes such as burials, ceremonies, receptions, contract negotiations, and business transactions. The Templars even allowed the laypeople to attend Templar burials, which were set by the senior clergy to be a private affair amongst the Templars.
Tensions began to rise between the Templars and senior clergy perhaps around 1139. Up until then, the Templars were permitted to select and ordain their own clergy as well as control over the revenues of their churches. Following 1139, the Templars were required to present their priests pending the approval of the local bishop. Ideally, this was supposed to be merely a formality, “but in reality the Templars’ choices were frequently contested, causing the popes time and again to urge the bishops to accept the priests or vicars presented to them by the Templars.” As a result of the bishops’ opposition, “the Templars were growing increasingly reluctant to seek the bishops’ approval in the first place” (Schenk, 279).
While the popes were invariably in favour of the Templars, even as late as 1235 they urged the Templars to present their priests to the bishops. Papal favour was made most evident in Pope Innocent II’s bull, Omne datum optimum of 1139, which placed the Templars under direct papal authority and, therefore, had apostolic protection. While it can be argued that this papal action only worsened tensions between the Templars and the Church’s bishops, Schenk puts the best construction on the event: “The intention of the bull may have been to facilitate the Templars’ access to the sacraments and the cure of souls (cura animarum) and not to diminish the influence of ordinary church authorities in the Order” (Schenk, 280). Still, amendments were made to the papal bull that declined revenues and disciplinary authority of the bishops in the Order (Schenk, 281).
Despite these tensions, however, the majority of bishops acquiesced to the papal privileges given to the Templars largely due to the wide support of the public. For example, “Temporary association with the Templars in the Holy Land became a recognized form of penance; even benefactions to the Temple (and the Hospital) and visits to particular Templar (and Hospitaller) churches counted as penitential exercises” (Schenk, 282). Penance was even expressed in the wills of certain nobility (Barber, 40). At times, the Templars were even awarded fortresses for their military successes, such as the fortress Almudaine Gumara in Palma de Mallorca that James I of Aragon awarded them after defeating the Islamic Majorca in 1229, where the famous Bernard of Clairvaux Altarpiece would be found (Bauer, 79).
In fact, it appears that such favourable treatment toward the Templars was the norm despite the presence of some dissenters among senior clergymen, at least in France and Italy (Schenk, 284). Many bishops even extolled the Templars as paragons of discipline since spiritual discipline and vigor were severely lacking in their dioceses. Schenk briefly covers a list of bishops who were instrumental in establishing the Templar Order in their localities to help instill spiritual discipline and vigor among the peoples who “demonstrate the bishops’ trust in the Templars’ spiritual steadfastness, a trust that would certainly have registered with other laymen and ecclesiastics in the diocese.” This even included Pope Gregory IX who was convinced, for example, “that the Templars of Tuscany possessed the spiritual manpower and equipment that was necessary to enforce a regimen of reform in a monastic community that had hitherto failed to live up to its religious standards” (Schenk, 284-285).
I would be remiss not to mention St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prodigious endorsement of the Templars. Central to the miles Christi demeanour delineated above was St. Bernard’s tract, Liber ad milites Templi de laude novae militae (early 1130s), which gave superlative honour to the knights. For St. Bernard, Templars were “better than both those who fight the enemy solely through bodily strength… and those who wage the war against vices or demons which, although praiseworthy, is not to be marvelled at, ‘since the whole world is seen to be filled with monks'” (Barber, 33). He considered them to be better than those who solely fight enemies of flesh and blood (secular knights who don’t fight for Christ’s cause) and mendicants who fight against sin and spiritual enemies (demons) because Templars supposedly fight on both fronts simultaneously.
In St. Bernard’s view, whereas secular knights fought in “‘the irrational movement of anger, or appetite for vainglory, or cupidity for some kind of earthly possessions,'” the Templars—the miles Christi—were “‘the ministers of God, engaging not in homicide but in malicide, the killing of evil-doers'” (Barber, 34). As Konieczny puts it, “It could be said that this monk was more responsible for making the Knights Templar than the Templars themselves were” (Konieczny, 7).
However, these positive perceptions did not last. In spite of this widespread support, “bishops and prelates were careful to take precautions that their own privileges would remain untouched and their interests protected” (Schenk, 286). Templar chaplains were permitted to share in parish revenues but remained under bishop oversight. Under such oversight, Templar chapels and cemeteries were to be restricted to the Templar brothers and their associates rather than public use. Even the ringing of church bells was restricted. However, this did not prevent the Templars from engaging with the public and other prohibited activities.
Templars were ardent on expanding their religious presence and public engagement. For example, “The inventory lists of Templar houses and the accounts of lawsuits and complaints issued by other religious suggest that religious activity was taken seriously in the Temple and that considerable energy was spent on the creation of devotional spaces that Templars as well as laymen could use” (Schenk, 302). They were also caught in other illegal activities such as ringing their church bells to assemble the laypeople for Mass that was otherwise prohibited (Schenk, 287). There is also a decent collection of manuals, books, and liturgical instruments that serve as evidence for their ecclesiastical misconduct, including rites for paedobaptism, catechesis, exorcism, and instructions on how to make holy water for the sick.
Another contributing factour to the conflict between Templars and senior clergymen that cannot be ignored was, of course, the supposed false dichotomy between monk and warrior: “Some criticism was voiced about the fact that the Templars, as professed members of a religious order, engaged in military activities, and opinions differed on how a spirituality thus expressed compared to that of more traditional religious institutions” (Schenk, 302). In other words, there were dissenting voices who were concerned that this false dichotomy between warrior and monk—between a contemplative and active life—would inevitably end in the Templars being corrupted (Konieczny, 7).
However, the founding Templar father, Hugh de Payns, “felt obliged to respond to [charges of this false dichotomy] by attacking any such doubts about the spiritual validity of the military vocation as the work of the devil” (Brodman, 398; see also Konieczny pp. 7-8 for a brief excerpt of Hugh de Payns’ response to these criticisms). However, it is worth noting that contemporaries at first did not view monastic knighthood as entirely mutually exclusive since both monastic life and crusading had to do with salvation, due largely to Pope Urban II’s preaching and crusading indulgences (Madden, 50-52).
These diversity of perceptions serve to show that while there was certainly dissension present amongst the senior clergy, “the religiosity of the Temple itself was never questioned. Popes, bishops, and prelates entrusted the Order with spiritual responsibilities and religious duties and interfered if they thought the Templars were overstepping or abusing their privileges. But they never argued that the Order was fundamentally unfit to perform them” (Schenk, 302). Assuming this is true, what led to the collapse of the Knights Templar? How did they go from this universal, albeit divided, support to becoming a point of shame for the Church for millennia to come?
The Templar Collapse
There is, of course, the fall of Acre in 1291 where, up until then, the Knights Templar “were praised for their military prowess much more often than the Hospitallers, even at battles where both orders seemingly acquitted themselves with comparable bravery” (Brodman, 398). The siege led to many subsequent military defeats such as the Battle of La Forbie in 1244 and the Battle of Mansourah in 1250. Besides losing their influence and numbers, they also lost their purpose (Bauer, 81). With Jerusalem totally lost to Christendom, there was no longer a purpose to the Order’s existence.
In addition to these devastating defeats, verbal criticism had already been on the rise well before the fall of Acre. “Criticism was voiced by secular magnates, ecclesiastics, the papacy, and troubadours alike, all of whom accused the military orders of, among other things, treacherous alliances with Muslims, internal conflicts, and transgressions and excesses that stood in sharp contrast with the orders’ original claim for humility and modesty” (Bauer, 83). There seems to be substantial evidence supporting these criticisms.
A possibly related contributor to the increasing negative perception of the senior clergy toward the Templars was their acquisition of a large number of estates, as delineated in the prior section. This large acquisition “drew criticism from the church hierarchy, leading to repression and eventually to the order’s dissolution in the early fourteenth century” (Miele, 192).
Included in these criticisms was the increasing narrative that the Templars “were acting more for their own interests than to help the Christians defend the Holy Land” (Konieczny, 8). According to their Rule, the Templars had a largely charitable focus. For example, “Whenever a brother [Templar] died, a pauper was to receive his rations for forty days, or in the case of a secular knight in temporary service to the Order, seven days. In memory of a deceased master, a hundred poor were to receive refreshment. On Holy Thursday, the master or other brothers were to wash the feet of thirteen paupers [thus imitating Christ in the Upper Room], who were then to be given bread, new clothing, and a small sum of money.” However, “In all these instances the charity is given in response to the spiritual needs of the giver, not the material need of the pauper” (Brodman, 392-393).
Thus, it can be argued that such charitable works—or mercy work—were entirely narcissistic, which is the opinion of Schenk: “The rule of the Order of the Temple clearly favored an introspective spiritual development through outward action guided by right intentions. This means that although they engaged in the world, the Templars’ motivation for doing so was ultimately self-centered and in line with Cistercian ideas of inward spiritual edification” (Schenk, 301). On a related note, John France’s opinion is that the Templars’ increasing greed, beginning at the failed siege of Ascalon in 1153, was a major contributing factour to the eventual demise of their Order (Madden, 52). Beyond this, William of Tyre—in spite of his praising Templar ideology and piety—quickly accuses them of “aspiring to rival the wealth of monarchs” (Menache, 5).
Mentioned above is the worry among dissenting voices that the Templars would become corrupt. This appears to have occurred. William, Archbishop of Tyre (1127-1135), and others accused “the Templars (and other military orders) of failing in their duty to the [sic.] protect the Holy Land, of being soft, and even of collaborating with the Muslim enemy” (Konieczny, 8). Interestingly, Hamilton’s coverage of Sultan Saladin would seem to suggest that the Templars did collaborate with the Muslim enemy. A short romance called L’Ordene de Chevalerie composed in northern France “relates how during [Templar Hue de Tabarie’s captivity in 1179] Saladin prevailed on him to confer the Order of knighthood upon him, and how Hue explained the significance of all the parts of the ceremony. There could be no doubt in the mind of the readers what was happening to him” (Hamilton, 383). Whether fact or fiction, while many others were also responsible for the constant defeats of the 13th century, the Templars were being scapegoated (Konieczny, 8). This is not the only accusation of conspiring with the enemy, however. At the siege of Damascus of July in 1148, “The Templars were reported to have been bribed by the Moslems to persuade Conrad III, King of the Romans, to raise the siege” (Menache, 6).
Arguably a major contributing factour to the Templar collapse was the loss of financial support from the nobility, which, as we have seen in the previous section, was quite substantial. Their support from the nobility “was obvious from their contribution, both in land and money, and the willingness of many nobles to expand the ranks of the Templars in the Holy Land. In contrast, as early as 1160, Pope Alexander III had to issue a bull restraining people from pulling Templars off their horses, treating them dishonestly or abusing them” (Menache, 2-3). Nevertheless, Alexander III and subsequent popes had to continue to attempt to demotivate civilian friendly fire against the Templars. Eventually, the Templars were removed from clerical patronage as well as clerical tithing, thus losing significant financial support.
We see, then, that well before 1307, support for the Templars was no longer universal as it once had been and was severely waning. Furthermore, by this time, “the Templars were perceived to embody vices such as greed, avarice, and treachery, which were taken as their hallmark” (Menache, 10). Whether these perceptions were well founded is not the point. If the perception of a particular person or organisation or order, in this case, is substantially antagonistic, a continuing positive reputation and existence is hardly manageable and survivable.
By the early 14th century, then, they had a reputation of failed warriors and hypocritical monks, which made them ever more susceptible to defeat. King Philip IV of France would be the first to take advantage of this, who believed the rumours that the Templars were engaging in heretical behaviours and was possibly also motivated by the debts he owed to the Templar Order. Whatever the case, he deployed troops to arrest the Templars in France on October 13, 1307. Soon enough, this expelling spread throughout Europe. Trials would also be held to determine if the Templars were in fact engaging in heretical behaviours.
Historians generally believe the Templars were not guilty of these heresy charges with the exceptions of a few minor infractions. It is likely the Templars were innocent of heresy because of Philip IV’s resolve to destroy the Order by causing many of them to forced confessions via means of torture or intimidation (Konieczny, 9). Menache herself believes these heresy charges were marginal compared to the universal antagonistic perception by then, which are arguably well founded (Menache, 12).
Eventually, “On March 22, 1312, the Papacy sent out an official order suppressing the Knights Templar, ending the organization after nearly 200 years of existence. Most of the remaining members would be retired and live out the rest of their lives in monasteries, but some refused to accept these decisions. Dozens of Templars, including Jacques de Molay, its last Grand Master, were burned at the stake for heresy” (Konieczny, 9). As the title of Michael Haag’s book suggests, a tragedy indeed (The Tragedy of the Templars).
Today, many myths have been developed about the Templars. Some even attempt to find evidence that the Order has somehow survived their persecution and carried on its existence, a myth that the video game franchise called Assassin’s Creed picks up on and created a fascinating, immersive historical fiction. What is not mythical or speculative is that by May 1312, after branding the Templars heretics and handing them over to secular authority for the proper punishment, “The Church had now washed its hands of the Templars,” but as the remaining faithful Templars were burned at the stake for “heresy,” they “went to their deaths with courage, in the tradition of their order” (Haag, 366-368).
Barber, M. C. “The Social Context of the Templars.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 34 (1984): 27-46.
Bauer, Doron. “Milk as Templar Apologetics in the St. Bernard of Clairvaux Altarpiece from Majorca.” Studies in Iconography 36 (2015): 79-98.
Brodman, James W. “Rule and Identity: The Case of the Military Orders.” The Catholic Historical Review 87, no 3 (Jul 2001): 383-400.
Haag, Michael. The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States. New York: HarpCollins Publishers, 2013.
Hamilton, Bernard. “Knowing the Enemy: Western Understanding of Islam at the Time of the Crusades.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 7, no 3 (Nov 1997): 373-387.
History.com Editors. “Knights Templar.” History. July 13, 2017. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/the-knights-templar.
Housley, Norman. Knighthoods of Christ: Essays on the History of the Crusades and the Knights Templar, Presented to Malcolm Barber. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Howe, John. “The Rule: Military Secrets of the Knights Templar.” Medieval Warfare 6, no 5 (Nov/Dec 2016): 20-25.
Konieczny, Peter. “Who were the Templars?” Medieval Warfare 6, no 5 (Nov/Dec 2016): 6-9.
Madden, Thomas F. Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Menache, Sophia. “The Templar Order: A Failed Ideal?” The Catholic Historical Review 70, no 1 (Jan 1993): 1-21.
Miele, Chris. “Gothic Sign, Protestant Realia: Templars, Ecclesiologists and the Round Churches at Cambridge and London.” Architectural History 53 (2010): 191-215.
Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Schenk, Jochen. “Aspects and Problems of the Templars’ Religious Presence in Medieval Europe from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Century.” Traditio 71 (2016): 273-302.
Worrall, Simon. “The Templars Got Rich Fighting For God—Then Lost It All.” National Geographic. September 22, 2017. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/knights-templar-crusades-dan-jones.