+ Real Crusades History +

+ Real Crusades History +

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

True Tales of the Knights Templar 3: The Battle of Montgisard 1177

+Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Dr. Schrader continues our fifteen-part series on the Knights Templar with the third of our "Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar."  Today's essay looks at the role of the Knights Templar in the Battle of Montgisard 1177

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

In in 1177, Salah-ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched the first of what were to be several full-scale invasions of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. At this time Saladin had effectively united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years, but his hold on power was still precarious. In Egypt his faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented a clear and serious military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria.  But Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he also took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a obvious attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah-ad-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and throughout his career Salah-ad-Din used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been led five expeditions into Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and immanent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Salah ad-Din had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off, the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and the Sultan seized the opportunity, invading with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether there were infantry with him or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal body guard.

Salah ad-Din's army crossed into Frankish territory from Egypt and significantly by-passed the Templar stronghold at Gaza. Presumably, Salah ad-Din considered it too tough a nut to crack. Laying siege to a Templar fortress would, he calculated, cost far too much time and too many lives. Salah ad-Din (as throughout his career) preferred "soft targets.

Significantly, the Templars let the Saracen army pass without offering any resistance. The Templars were said to have gathered a large fighting force at Gaza, thinking this would be the target of the invasion. (Howarth, p. 132; Robinson, p. 131.)  Furthermore, the Master of the Temple had taken personal command at Gaza in anticipation of this confrontation.  The new Master was Odo de Saint Amand. He was a man William of Tyre (who knew him personally) described as "dictated by the spirit of pride, of which he had an excess." (Barber, p. 109.) Two years later, Saint Amand would be responsible for a Templar charge that very nearly cost the Kingdom of Jerusalem their king, and landed him in a Saracen prison. So it is unlikely that the Templars failed to respond to Salah ad-Din's invasion out of indifference or fear. Furthermore, as my essay on the Siege of Ascalon highlighted, the Templars were capable of impetuous acts in which they took on forces much larger than their own. The most likely explanation is that despite an ethos that viewed numbers as irrelevant in the face of faith, the size of the invading army was simply too daunting for the roughly 300 knights collected at Gaza.  

An Example of a Crusader Stronghold -- here Margat, a Hospitaller Castle
Meanwhile, according to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own. His most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. Nevertheless, Baldwin rallied his forces and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon, the southern-most stronghold of his kingdom.

Baldwin and his improvised force of secular knights arrived in Ascalon only shortly before Salah ad-Din with his whole army on November 22.  King Baldwin took control of the city, but then hesitated to risk open battle with the Saracens because of the imbalance of forces.  Thus, while King Baldwin's dash to Ascalon had been heroic, it had been rash as well. Salah ad-Din was now in a position to keep the King and his knights bottled up inside Ascalon with only a fraction of his forces, while taking the rest of his army and striking at the now unprotected Jerusalem

This was exactly what Salah ad-Din did, and it might have resulted in the fall of Jerusalem had Salah ad-Din not made a major error. The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie. H also somehow managed to get word to the Templars at Gaza of his plans and request that they rendezvous with him

The Templars were not vassals of the King of Jerusalem and not obliged to do as he asked. But Saint Amand did not hesitate to join the King.  He sortied out of Gaza with his entire mobile force of just 84 knights, plus an unknown number of sergeants and Turcopoles. 

Together this mounted force started to shadow Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Frankish tactics, however, required a combination of cavalry and infantry, so King Baldwin could not engage the enemy until he had sufficient infantry as well. He issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. Infantry started streaming to join him.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  

Modern Depiction of Montgisard by Zvonimir (copyright Medieval World) with the the Templars and the Ibelins at the forefront of the Frankish cavalry.
The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights, probably led by Templars, smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream.

Although the battle was hard fought and there were heavy Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were soon routed.  Not only that, Salah ad-Din himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel.  

For the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned their plunder, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few men of the Sultan’s army made it home to safety in Egypt.

Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose. Certainly he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. It was not until the crushing defeat of the Frankish armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in "Knight of Jerusalem," the first book in a three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

Buy Now!

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

True Tales of the Knights Templar 2: The Siege of Ascalon 1153

+Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Dr. Schrader continues our fifteen-part series on the Knights Templar with the second of our "Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar."  Today's essay looks at the role of the Knights Templars in the Siege of Ascalon 1153.

Ascalon, allegedly, called "the Virgin of the Desert" because it remained "inviolate since the days of the First Crusade" (Howarth, p. 109), posed a threat to the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the very start. It was garrisoned by troops from the Fatimid Caliphate based in Cairo, and maintained an aggressive posture toward the crusader kingdom throughout the first half of the 12th century. Not content with being an island of Islam in a Christian sea, the garrison frequently sallied out to harass the surrounding countryside, sometimes raiding deep into the kingdom.

The raids were so threatening that King Fulk (1131-1143) decided it was necessary to build a ring of castles around Ascalon, from which troops could respond rapidly to repel these raids. These were the castles of Ibelin in the north, Blanchegard in the northeast, Beth Gibelin in the southeast and Gaza in the south. Of these, the castle at Gaza was the most important as it stood between Ascalon and reinforcements from Egypt by land. The castle of Beth Gibelin was held by the Hospitallers, and in 1149 Gaza was turned over to the Knights Templar. According to Barber, it was the first major castle in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that was turned over to the Templars. (Barber, p. 73.)

The Egyptian garrison in Ascalon recognized the danger at once. They undertook a major offensive against Gaza in 1150, hoping to re-open their lines of communication with Egypt. They were repulsed with such heavy losses that the garrison was significantly weakened.  Furthermore, the Egyptians completely abandoned efforts to reinforce or supply the garrison by land, and the enclave at Ascalon became completely dependent upon support brought by sea.

This situation combined with internal turmoil in the Fatimid Caliphate became a temptation too great to resist. In January 1153, Baldwin III declared his intention to capture Ascalon. He assembled a large army which included large contingents of both Templars and Hospitallers, commanded respectively by their Grand Masters, Bernard de Tremelay and Raymond du Puy. 

Ascalon itself had a history dating back to 5000 years before Christ. It had been Canaanite, Philistine and Phoenician.  It had been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines before the Arabs came. It lay across the vital trade routes between Egypt and Syria. It was built like large semi-circle, the coast forming a straight line that stretched through the diameter of the circle and the walls forming the circumference.  These walls were massive. They had Byzantine foundations that had been repaired and extended by the Egyptians. 

The sad remnants of Ascalon's walls today.

The forces of Baldwin III first blockaded the port, ensuring there was no relief for the garrison, and then commenced a siege. The city had been well stocked and resisted all assaults valiantly and effectively.  In June an Egyptian fleet managed to slip through the blockade bringing some supplies to the beleaguered garrison. The forces of Jerusalem had meanwhile been reinforced by the spring pilgrims, many of whom were fighting men and anxious to take part in the struggle. 

Baldwin III had from the start deployed as many siege engines as he could muster and continually hammered the walls of Ascalon throughout the siege.  The Franks also employed a large, mobile assault tower that ranged higher than the walls. On the night of August 15, the Egyptian defenders succeeded in setting fire to this tower. As the inferno raged, the wind suddenly shifted, blowing the burning engine and the flames back toward the city of Ascalon. The stones first expanded under the intense heat. Then, as they cooled, they cracked and began to collapse. According to the contemporary chronicler, William Archbishop of Tyre, the collapse of the wall woke the entire army. Men rushed to dress and arm themselves to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Templars held the sector of the encirclement immediately opposite the breach in the wall and reached it first. Led by their Master forty Templar Knights rushed through the breech. Before the Templars could be reinforced, the defenders of Ascalon overwhelmed them, pushed stones and rubble into the breach and defended it. The following morning, the bodies of the dead Templars, including that of Master de Tremelay, were hung headless and naked from the walls of Ascalon. 

Unfortunately for the reputation of the Templars, William of Tyre claims in his account of the siege that: "It is said that [the Templars] prevented the others from approaching for this reason, that the first to enter obtain the greater spoils and the more valuable booty." (Tyre, quoted in Barber, p. 74.)  However, Tyre himself was not in the Holy Land at this time and was relying on second hand accounts from other participants. Furthermore, he could not have spoken to witness capable of telling him what the Templar intentions had been since the Templar participants were all dead.  

It hardly seems plausible that the Templars seriously expected to defeat the entire garrison and capture the city with just 40 knights. More likely (at least to me) is that the other Franks, who had arrived too late to reinforce the Templars, tried to shift the blame for the disaster away from themselves.  In short, this was nothing but a flimsy excuse: "we came, but the Templars wouldn't let us in." Notably, the Arab sources that describe the siege in detail, including the burning of the siege engine and the ensuing breach of the wall, make no mention of the Templars at all.

Given the Templar ethos and their ferocious defense of their independence, it is quite probable that the Templars were guilty of nothing more culpable than excessive zeal. Instead of waiting for reinforcements or making an effort to coordinate their attack with the other components of the besieging army, they rushed into the breach at once. By the time other Frankish troops arrived, it was too late; the breach was fiercely defended -- not by the Templars but by the Muslim garrison of Ascalon.

Yet it is telling that Tyre was willing to believe and repeat this accusation of greed.  It shows that as early as the mid-12th century, the Templars had acquired a reputation for avarice. Furthermore, with such an authority as Tyre crediting the Templar Grand Master with seeking nothing but plunder, most modern historians follow this interpretation blindly. 

Less than a week later, on August 22, 1153, the garrison of Ascalon sought surrender terms. The King of Jerusalem readily granted them their lives and the right to take all their movable goods with them. The garrison of Ascalon received a safe-conduct to Egypt, which was scrupulously respected.  It was after crossing into Muslim held territory that many of the garrison were attacked, robbed and/or enslaved by Bedouins. 

Ascalon was re-settled with a predominantly Christian population, and played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was the city from which Baldwin IV sallied forth to end Saladin's invasion of 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard, and, after falling to Saladin in 1187, it was a particular bone of contention between Saladin and King Richard of England in the Third Crusade. It was briefly re-integrated into the Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1239-1247.

Sources for this article:
Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes and Nobles Books, 1993.
Robinson, John J. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1994.

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

Ascalon is the setting of much of Knight of Jerusalem, a novel set in late 12th Century Jerusalem, and the first book in my Jerusalem Trilogy, a three-part biography of 
Balian d'Ibelin. 

Buy Now!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

True Tales of the Knights Templar 1: The Second Crusade

+Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Dr. Schrader continues our fifteen-part series on the Knights Templar with the first of our "Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar."  Today's essay looks at the role of the Knights Templar in the Second Crusade.

It was not until nearly two decades after the successful end of the First Crusade in 1118 that a handful of knights sought out the Patriarch of Jerusalem with an unusual request. These men wanted to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in exchange for devoting themselves to the service of God in an exceptional way.  Rather than withdrawing from the world and living a monastic life, they proposed (or according to Malcolm Barber, p. 7, accepted a proposal) to serve God by protecting unarmed pilgrims at risk of attack by robbers and Saracens while visiting the holy sites. The King of Jerusalem, welcomed this endeavor and agreed to give them space inside his palace, which was then located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in what was then thought to be the site of King Solomon’s Temple and residence. It was from this building that the Templars drew their name “the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.”  They were at this time so poor that they wore only cast-off clothing donated by the pious, and allegedly did not have enough horses to go around, resulting in their early seal showing two knights on a single horse.


However, founding members had powerful and wealthy relatives and connections. More important the attracted some powerful early recruits, notably Hugh, Count of Champagne, who joined the nascent order in 1125. Other nobles, not willing or able to take vows of chastity and poverty, showed their veneration for what the Poor Knights were trying to do by leaving land or revenues to them. Yet arguably their greatest asset in the first two decades after their founding was ties through one of their founding members, Hugh of Payns, to St. Bernard of Clairvaux ― the most influential churchman of the early 12th century.

It was not until 1129, however, that at the Council of Troyes that the “Poor Knights” received a monastic code, a “Rule” by which they were to live, and Papal sanction for their now official, religious order.  The Rule was drafted by none other St. Bernard and based on the Rule of the Cistercians, but differing as necessary to allow the knights to look after their armor, horses, and operate on highways rather than living in the seclusion of a monastery.  In fact, the exact wording of the Rule was developed in a large committee that included several of the knights themselves.  It was at this time that the Poor Knights (who were increasingly rich as an Order, although poor as individuals) adopted white robes and surcoats as their habit.  The exclusive right to wear a red cross patée on their shoulders and/or breast was granted 17 years later in 1147.

Yet despite their success with gaining recognition, property and recruits, the Knights Templar (as they increasingly came to be called) had not yet emerged as a significant military establishment nor proven their worth in battle. It was the Second Crusade that gave them that opportunity.

The loss of the County of Edessa to the powerful Selkjuk leader Zengi in 1144 shocked Western Europe and triggered a call for a new crusade. Pope Eugenius made the official appeal, while St. Bernard became the most passionate, articulate and effective preacher of this new crusade. Although St. Bernard succeeded in recruiting the German King, Conrad of Hohenstaufen, from the start the driving force behind this crusade was the young French King, Louis VII. Louis had in childhood been destined for the Church and only became heir to the crown of France after his elder brother’s death. Throughout his life, he was noted for his great piety, and the crusade appealed to him greatly.  After an impassioned speech by St. Bernard at Vézélay on Palm Sunday 1147, enough nobles (including the Duchess of Aquitaine, wife of King Louis) had been recruited to make the crusade viable.

From the start, however, the crusade suffered from poor coordination. The German crusaders set off ahead of the French and proceeded in such an undisciplined fashion across the Western territories of the Byzantine Empire that it came to many armed clashes with Imperial troops.  The French followed a month behind the Germans and although more disciplined, they now encountered inhabitants burned by the behavior of the Germans who were hostile ― which meant reluctant to sell food and other necessities. The situation was critical and King Louis sent envoys to the Greek Emperor to negotiate for market privileges in exchange for an orderly passage of the crusaders through Byzantine territory.

One of Louis’ envoys was the Master of the Temple in France (not to be confused with the Grand Master.) This was a certain Everard de Barres, already a close confidante of King Louis, and commander of 130 Templar Knights and probably equal numbers of sergeants and support elements for a total of about 300 Templars. These Templars were presumably all recent recruits from France, but they had had time to undergo training and indoctrination. From the start of the Second Crusade, they appear to have assumed their now traditional role of protecting pilgrims ― in this case armed pilgrims and their very large baggage train including the Queen of France and many other ladies.  

After crossing the Bosporus in late October, the French crusaders received alarming reports of the destruction of the German crusader ― rumors that soon proved all too true. The German has been all but annihilated near Dorylaeum (the site of a great crusader victory in the First Crusade).  Allegedly only one in five of the German crusaders escaped the slaughter. Conrad von Hohenstaufen preferred to blame “betrayal” by the Greeks rather than take responsibility for his own poor leadership and failure to send out scouts. It was the message of “betrayal” that he gave King Louis.

Although the remnants of the Germans now joined the French, Conrad himself soon fell ill and returned by ship to Constantinople.  The French continued more cautiously along the coastal road.  Two days beyond Laodicea the road led through a steep pass over Mt. Cadmus.  The vanguard was ordered to camp at the top of the pass to give the rest of the army time to catch up, but the commander (a vassal of the Queen of France rather than her husband) ignored the orders and continued over the pass allowing a large gap between units to develop. The Turks, who had been shadowing the army all along, immediately took advantage of the situation and fell upon the main and rear divisions, still struggling up the slope.  King Louis was unhorsed early on and too refuge either among the rocks or up a tree (depending on account). In the ensuing slaughter and chaos, the Templars distinguished themselves as the only disciplined fighting force capable of delivering counter-blows. When darkness fell, the Turks had been driven back, but not before the crusaders had suffered severe losses, particularly to the horses and baggage train.

Shaken by his experience, King Louis effectively turned the command of his entire army over to the Templars!  Everard de Barres organized the crusader force into units of 50, each under the command of a single Templar.  The Templars established an order of march and insisted that it be maintained. They also gave orders for the infantry to protect the horse during attacks and that ensured that no counter attacks were undertaken until ordered and properly coordinated and led.  These were simple things, but they had evidently not been instituted prior the Templars taking command ― in sharp contrast to the highly disciplined army of Richard the Lionheart half a century later.

Yet discipline is not substitute for food and fodder. The Turks employed a form of “scorched earth” policy to deny the advancing crusaders both.  Soon the crusaders were eating their horses ― except for the Templars, who had husbanded their supplies and could still feed both themselves and their mounts. This enabled the Templars to disguise the weakness of the entire force ― and beat off four more attacks by the Turks before the crusaders finally reached the Byzantine controlled port of Adalia. (Howarth, p.88)

Here King Louis VII ignominiously (and unlike his descendant and namesake King Louis IX) promptly abandoned his army, and took ship for Antioch with his wife and his leading nobles. The common crusaders were left to die of plague and hunger or sell themselves into Turkish slavery in order to survive.

King Louis arrived in Antioch in March 1148 with none of his infantry and in desperate need of money. The Templars were now to prove their value in the second field of endeavor or which they were to become famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view): as bankers.  Everard des Barres sailed from Antioch to Acre and there managed to raise loans by mortgaging Templar properties. The sums raised were enormous, as King Louis’ instructions to his ministers in France to repay the Templars document that they amounted to nearly half the annual revenues of the King of France at this time. (Barber, p. 68)

The rest of the Second Crusade was equally disastrous. At Acre on June 24, 1148 a joint decision was taken by the leaders of the crusade including Conrad of Hohenstaufen (who had sailed from Constantinople directly to the Holy Land and joined the crusader council), King Louis and King Baldwin of Jerusalem to attack Damascus. The choice seems odd since the Sultan of Damascus at this time had been comparatively friendly and was a joint enemy of Zengi’s successor Nur ad-Din. Although the Masters of both the Temple and the Hospital were present at this war council, their opinions are not known, and their voices were not yet powerful enough to be decisive.  

Initial assaults on Damascus from the East/South were thwarted because the city was here surrounded by gardens and orchards with irrigation ditches that prevented the use of mass cavalry charges but provided archers with effective cover. The decision was therefore taken collectively to move the besieging army to the east where there were no such gardens and orchards ― but where there was also a dearth of water. Thereafter, the entire crusade broke down into bickering and recriminations while the crusading army disintegrated ― destroying the reputations of King Louis and Conrad of Hohenstaufen both.

The failure of the Second Crusade had serious repercussions.  It proved that “Frankish” knights were not invulnerable and Frankish armies not invincible. This greatly bolstered confidence among the Turks. In Western Europe it proved that God was not always on the side of the crusaders.  But since God had to be on their side, the search for scape goats was on at once.  The most obvious scapegoat was the Greeks. Both Conrad and Louis felt they had been “betrayed” ― misled at best or intentionally led into ambushes at worst. Another scapegoat were the “Poulains” ― the barons and lords of the Kingdom of Jerusalem ― who seemed to the crusaders too ready and willing to make truces with their Saracen foes.

Yet as Barber points out it is ominous that one German chronicler pinned the blame for the disaster at Damascus on the Templars. The Templars, he claimed, had accepted a massive bribe from the Saracens to give secret aid to the besieged (Barber, p. 69). It is notable that this allegation came only from German sources and not from French. King Louis returned to France full of praise for the Templars, and their reputation there continued to grow.  The Templars never really put down strong roots in the German speaking world and within half a century, the Germans would found their own Order, the Deutsche Ritter Orden. Yet it would be a French king who destroyed the Templars.

Join Dr. Schrader next week for the second in our series Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Knights Templar: An Historical Overview

 +Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Our fifteen-part series continues today with a brief historical overview of the Knights Templar.  Here Dr. Schrader provides a prelude to our series, which will be highlighting ten episodes from the history of the Knights Templar in the coming weeks. 

After the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem following the First Crusade, pilgrims flooded to the newly freed Holy Land, but the situation was far from stable and the secular authorities were unable to guarantee the safety of pilgrims who ventured out upon the dangerous roads from Jerusalem to other pilgrimage sites such as Jericho and Nazareth. 

In 1115 Hugues de Payens, a Burgundian knight, and Sir Godfrey de St. Adhemar, a Flemish knight, decided to join forces and form a band of sworn brothers dedicated to protecting pilgrims. They soon recruited seven other knights, all men like themselves – stranded in the Holy Land without wealth or land, and allegedly so poor that Payens and St. Adhemar had only one horse between them. In 1118 the King of Jerusalem gave them the stables of what was believed to have been the palace (or temple) of King Solomon for their quarters, and from this they took their name, “The Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem” – a name was soon shortened to the Knights Templar. 

At the same time, or shortly afterwards, these nine knights took monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience before the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Knights Templar rapidly attracted new recruits – and powerful patrons -- highlighting the extent to which the concept of knights dedicated to the service of God touched a chord in men at this time. But the concept of fighting monks was revolutionary. Even the crusades had not sanctioned the bearing of arms by men dedicated to the Church; the crusades had only allowed secular men to serve the interests of the Church. What the Knights Templar proposed was to allow men of God to also be fighting men.

Tomb from the Temple Church in London
showing a Templar from the 12th Century
Recognizing the need for guidance and official sanction, Payens approached the Pope, and not only was his new kind of monastic order recognized, it was enthusiastically praised. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his age (credited with founding 70 new Cistercian monasteries), agreed to write the Templars’ Rule. Not surprisingly, he fashioned the Templar Rule on that of the Cistercians; more unusual, however, was that he also wrote a treatise in praise of the Knights Templar, the De Laude Novae Militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood), in which he contrasted the virtuous Templars with the vain, greedy, and (senselessly) violent secular knights of the age. 

According to De Laude Novae Militiae, the Knights Templar were disciplined, humble, and sober. Thus, “impudent words, senseless occupations, immoderate language, whispering, or even suppressed giggling are unknown. They have a horror of chess and dice; they hate hunting; they don’t even enjoy the flight of the falcon. They despise mimes, jugglers, storytellers, dirty songs, performances of buffoons – all these they regard as vanities and inane follies.” The documented initiation ceremonies – in contrast to the fabricated accusations of King Philip IV’s paid informers tasked with discrediting the Order two centuries later – were simple and sober professions of Catholic orthodoxy and vows to obey the officers of the Order, to remain chaste, to own no property, and to protect the Holy Land and Christians.” (See Hopkins, p. 90.)

The Templars were an instant success (by medieval standards), and their resources increased exponentially over the next decades. They soon controlled properties in virtually every kingdom of Christendom, from Sicily to Ireland, but particularly in France, England, and Portugal. The Order also rapidly developed a sophisticated hierarchy and structure. The bulk of the Order’s members were lay brothers: men who worked the fields of Templar landholdings and served as skilled laborers, from blacksmiths to stone masons, in the fortresses of Outremer. 

Furthermore, although only men already knighted, i.e., men from the landed class, could become Knights Templar, men of lesser birth could be men-at-arms, just as in any other army of the age. In contrast to the usual pattern, however, these men were not foot soldiers or archers but mounted fighting men, armed with sword and lance and called “sergeants.” While the knights were allowed four horses and two squires, the sergeants appear to have been allowed two horses and one squire. These squires, incidentally, were not members of the Order, and not bound by monastic vows nor compelled to fight. Last but not least, as enthusiasm for the Holy Land waned in the West, the Templars came to rely more and more on auxiliary troops raised in the Holy Land itself: men of Armenian, Greek, Arab, or mixed descent, called “Turcopoles.” The Templars also had their own priests and clerks.  

But manpower is only half the equation. Fighting men, particularly monks who had renounced all wealth and owned nothing, had to be clothed, equipped, mounted, armed, and fed at the expense of the Order. The great castles in the Holy Land – absolutely crucial to the defense of the Christian kingdoms – had to be built, maintained, and provisioned. The cost of equipping even one knight was substantial, the cost of keeping a castle enormous; the costs of maintaining thousands of knights in the field and dozens of castles in defensible condition were astronomical. It would not have been possible without the huge estates donated to the Templars in the West.

The Templar Castle of Collieure in the Languedoc
The Templars’ extensive properties in Western Europe provided the Order with recruits, remounts, and above all, financial resources. They also created a network through which the Templars could influence secular leaders. Furthermore, the extensive network of Templar “commanderies,” combined with the Templars’ reputation for incorruptibility and prowess at arms, enabled the Templars to move money (then still exclusively in the form of gold and silver) across great distances. Furthermore, the Templar network made it possible for someone to deposit money at one commandery and withdraw it from another with a kind of “letter of credit” – a service unknown before the Templars. Because of their own wealth and the funds deposited with them, the Templars were soon in a position to provide substantial loans, and are on record as having lent money to the Kings of both England and France. Because of their reputation as being scrupulously honest yet financially astute, they were also often employed as tax collectors and financial advisors by ruling monarchs, from Richard I of England to Philip IV of France.  

Yet the Knights Templar would not have attracted these riches or enjoyed such prestige if they had not delivered impressive military accomplishments in the Holy Land. The ethos of the Knights Templar called on knights to fight to the death for the Holy Land, to defend any Christian molested by Muslims, never to retreat unless the odds were greater than 3 to 1, and to refuse ransom if captured. Such attitudes clearly set the Templars apart from secular knights of the period. A hundred years after their founding and a hundred years before their demise, the Bishop of Acre wrote in his History of Jerusalem that the Templars were: “Lions in war, mild as lambs at home; in the field fierce knights, in church like hermits or monks; unyielding and savage to the enemies of Christ, benevolent and mild to Christians.”

A modern depiction of a Templar charge
by Mariusz Kozik (copyright Mariusz Kozik)
More important, the vow of obedience enabled disciplined fighting – a rarity in the Middle Ages, when most men were proud to fight as individuals, conscious of their own glory and gain. In contrast, a Templar who acted on his own was subject to severe disciplinary measures, including imprisonment or degradation for a year. There are many accounts of the Templars forming the shock troops during the advance and the rear guard during the retreat on crusades, of Templars defending the most difficult salient in a siege, and of Templar sorties to rescue fellow Christians in distress. At the height of their power, the Templars controlled a chain of mighty castles from La Roche de Roussel, north of Antioch, to Gaza, as well as a powerful fleet.  

The Knights Templar suffered a fatal blow, however, when Jerusalem was lost to Saladin in 1187. Although the consequences were not immediately apparent, the loss of Jerusalem – and the failure of all subsequent crusades to regain permanent control – slowly eroded the faith in Christian victory and, ultimately, the interest in fighting for the Holy Land. As the territory controlled by Christians shrank, so did the resources of the local barons. Soon, sufficient resources could not be raised in the Holy Land to finance its defense. This meant that the defense of the remaining Christian outposts fell increasingly to the militant orders, the Templars and Hospitallers, who could still draw on the profits of their extensive holdings in the West. 

But these resources proved insufficient in face of the huge cost of maintaining their establishment in the Holy Land as enthusiasm for fighting for the Holy Land waned. Throughout the second half of the 13th century, the crusader territories were lost, castle by castle and city by city, mostly as a result of the defenders having insufficient manpower to maintain their garrisons. When the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land, the Temple at Acre, fell to the Saracens in 1291, some 20,000 Templars had given their lives for the Holy Land.  

The Knights Templar transferred their headquarters to Cyprus after losing their last foothold in Palestine, but they had lost their raison d’être. That would have been crippling in itself, perhaps, but what proved fatal was that they retained their apparent wealth. 

King Philip IV, whose coffers were again empty, decided to confiscate the Templar “treasure” – meaning their entire property. To justify this move, Philip accused the Templars of various crimes, including devil worship, blasphemy, corruption, and sodomy. Without warning, on the night of Friday, October 13, 1307, officers of the French crown simultaneously broke into Templar commanderies across France and seized all the Templars and their property. While most of the men arrested were lay brothers and sergeants (since most knights who had survived the fall of Acre were on Cyprus), Philip IV made sure he would also seize the senior officers of the Temple by inviting them to Paris “for consultations” in advance of his strike. All those arrested, including the very men King Philip had treated as friends and advisors only days before, were subjected to brutal torture until they confessed to the catalog of crimes the French King had concocted.  

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Templars were in any way heretical in their beliefs. Furthermore, although Philip persuaded the Pope to order a general investigation of the Templars, in countries where torture was not extensively employed (such as England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Cyprus), the Templars were found innocent.

Meanwhile, in France, Templars who retracted the confessions torn from them under torture were burned at the stake as “relapsed heretics.” Tragically, the Pope at the time lived in terror of King Philip IV, who had deposed his predecessor with accusations almost identical to those leveled against the Templars. He preferred to sacrifice the Templars rather than risk confrontation with King Philip. Thus, although the evidence against the Order was clearly fabricated and the Pope could not find sufficient grounds to condemn the Order, he disbanded it in 1312. The last Master and Marshal of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charney respectively, were burned at the stake in the presence of King Philip for retracting their confessions on March 18, 1314. Not until 2007 did the Vatican officially declare the Templars’ innocent based on the evidence still in the Papal archives.

Recommended Reading:

  • Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.  Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, From Historical  Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Collins & Brown Ltd, 1990.
  • Howarth, Stephan. The Knights Templar. Barnes and Noble Books, 1982.
  • Pernoud, Regine. The Templars: Knights of Christ. Ignatius Press, 2009.
  • Robinson, John J., Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.,
The Templars are present to a greater or lesser extent in all my novels set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem:

Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

and in: