The Knights Templar: Origins, History, And Military

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Introduction –

Knights Templar (or simply Templars), mysteries, and warfare – these three avenues had an obscured connection when it came to the mercurial times of the medieval Crusades. In fact, their full name ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’ (or Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici in Latin) directly pertains to the enigmatic Temple of Solomon. And while the Templars did exhibit their fanatical martial prowess on the battlefields (a ‘quality’ conducive to Crusades), the moniker of ‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ’ didn’t really do the organization any justice. That is because, by 13th century AD, the Order administered an incredibly well-managed economic infrastructure throughout Christendom while also making innovations in early European banking systems. However, there was more to the Knights Templar than deep fortunes and fervent warfare tactics. So without further ado, let us take a gander at the origins, history, and military of Knights Templar.

Origins: From Praying to Fighting –

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It is quite a well-known fact that the Knights Templar took a vow to defend their fellow Christians from ‘foreign’ intrusions, especially in the Outremer (the conglomeration of Crusader States in the Levant). But interestingly enough, as Prof. Helen Nicholson noted, their proclivity towards martial pursuits was only developed as a reactionary measure, rather than a (starting) ideology that dictated religious warfare. To that end, historically, in the aftermath of the First Crusade, some of the Christian warriors actually decided to put away their swords in favor of a monastic lifestyle based around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

But with the establishment of the Christian entities in the Holy Land, the scenario became a logistical nightmare for the nascent Outremer kingdoms – because a great number of pilgrims flocked to these newly conquered lands. And as more visitors turned up around the confines of Jerusalem, local bandits (that also included Muslims who lost their lands) took advantage of the chaos and attacked these common pilgrims. Afflicted by such unconventional forays, the monastic warriors decided to once again take up their swords. As a result, pertinent military brotherhoods were formed, and they finally coalesced together to form the Templar Order, officially approved by the Church in 1120 AD.

The Obscure Link to Temple of Solomon?

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As we mentioned before, the full name of the Knights Templar (‘Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’) directly linked the order with the Temple of Solomon. Now from the historical perspective, the Temple of Solomon pertains to an enigmatic ancient structure whose existence is still debated among historians (read this post for more details). But the ‘Temple of Solomon’ referred to in the case of the Templars might not be as sensational as one would be inclined to think. That is because after the Order was ratified by the Church (possibly at the Council of Nablus, circa 1120 AD), the king of Jerusalem, Balwin II, gifted the Templars a wing of his makeshift ‘palace’ inside the Al Aqsa mosque situated on Temple Mount.

Now given Temple Mount’s mystical (and possible physical) association with the Temple of Solomon, western Europeans frequently (and misleadingly) referred to the Al Aqsa mosque as the ‘Temple’. As a result, the new occupants of this palace probably became known as the ‘Order of the Temple’, or the ‘Templars’. And on an interesting note, Al Aqsa is possibly the oldest Islamic structure in the world. But since it has been rebuilt many times during the course of history, the building cannot be considered as the oldest ‘extant’ specimen of Islamic architecture – an honor that belongs to the proximate Dome of The Rock.

Commercialism (and Banking) Beyond the Holy Land –

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While the primary goal of the Templars was to defend the pilgrims against ‘foreign’ forays, it was not long before they were involved in political affairs in Outremer, sometimes at the beckoning of the newly established Christian kingdoms in the region. Such overtures translated to defending borders of these realms or mounting skirmishes against local enemy forces, thus allowing the Templars to flex their military muscle. In return, the Order was gifted lands, farms and even castles for management.

Similar scenarios were also played out in the west in Iberia (Spain and Portugal), and Christian kingdoms based there valued the military prowess of the Templars – so much so that they were offered swathes of lands on the frontiers that separated the Moors. This scope was further complemented by land and monetary endowments that were situated across Europe, far away from the conflict zones. Supported by such large tracts of real estate, the Templars not only managed farms and vineyards, but also engaged in manufacturing, imports, and even ship-building – thus creating a ‘multinational’ commercial empire of sorts that connected Christendom.

Interestingly, in spite of their mercantile acumen, the individual Knights Templar were sworn to poverty (at least in theory). This, in turn, led to the creation of a trustworthy ‘brand value’ that advertised Catholic Christian virtues with a military veneer. Inspired by these supportive measures, and also fearful of their own safety, European pilgrims (circa 1150 AD) frequently deposited their valuables with the local Templar preceptory before embarking on their overseas journey to the Holy Land.

The Templars, in turn, prepared letters of credit that indicated the value of these deposits. So once the pilgrim reached the Holy Land, he/she was handed over an amount of treasure of equal value (as written in the document). Simply put, this system alluded to an early form of banking and quite a successful one at that.

Alternate Feudalism of the Knights Templar –

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Source: ThoughtCo

With all the talk about lands, it is interesting to know that the Templars managed their assets in a feudalistic manner, as mentioned by Prof. Nicholson (in her book Knight Templar 1120 – 1312). In fact, like most kingdoms of the time, the lands of the Order were divided into autonomous provinces that were governed by the ‘provincial’ Grand Master – who usually came from an aristocratic background. The individual provinces were further divided into smaller commanderies (or preceptories in Latin), with each property being administered by a commander, who also hailed from the higher social strata.

Now in practical terms, as many of these rural commanderies consisted of farmlands that were controlled by a hold. This local stronghold housed the regional brothers, while also comprising a chapel and accommodation for travelers. And mirroring the secular feudal system of Europe, a portion of the annual revenues generated from the lands under the commander – known as responsion, was paid to the provincial Grand Master, who in turn transferred the income to the Knights Templar headquarters.

The amounts and requirements of responsion were frequently discussed in the ‘chapter’ meetings that were organized intermittently at a gap of a few years. These meetings also doubled as general assemblies that appointed officials and passed newer rules and amendments. Furthermore, the chapter conclaves practically maintained the (much needed) communications between the Templar brothers who were usually stationed in various parts of Europe and the Outremer.

The ‘Knights’ of the Templar Order –

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Often times the Templars were considered synonymous with the Knights Templar; though in a practical scenario that was not the case. In fact, knights formed a small percentage in a chapter, and they usually headed the other warrior-brothers from the Order. Now it should be interesting to know that the statuses of these Knights Templar also mirrored the evolution of the knightly class as the political elite in the European societies. So as we discussed at length in one of our articles about the medieval knights – “the first medieval knight was not really the lord who dabbled in opulent affairs. On the contrary, he was of ‘relatively’ lower social status (though always a free man) who was brought forth to the political world because of his military prowess.”

Similarly, in the case of the Templars, the knights who were inducted into the Order in 1120 AD were (possibly) of lower (or mixed) social status. However, after a century later, most European knights acquired their higher social standing, and thus by the late 13th century, a brother whose family belonged to the knightly class was only allowed to enter the Order as a knight (and thus was accorded the status of  Knights Templar).

The other non-knightly warriors in the Templar Order mainly consisted of the sergents (in French) or servientes in Latin, which can be either translated as ‘sergeants’ or ‘servants’. Most of these warriors played a supporting role in the battlefield, by forming solid infantry lines or at times doubling up as screening medium cavalry. However, there were also many sergents who played non-combative roles by taking up ‘commercial’ professions like builders and craftsmen.

The Armor of the Knights Templar –

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Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

An armor list dating from circa 1165 AD sheds light on the protective equipment worn by the knights of the Templar Order. It starts off by listing the padded jerkin or haubergeon that was worn beneath the main armor and as such provided additional protection. Over the jerkin, the knight preferred the mail hauberk, basically comprising a long-sleeved mail shirt extending till the head – known as mail coif (fort et turcoise), the hands – mail mittens (manicle de fer), and thighs – cuisses

But arguably, the most recognizable element of a Knights Templar panoply pertains to their white surcoat, which not only made them identifiable (within Crusader contingents) but also mitigated the hot Levant sun that could beat down on the relatively heavy armor underneath. In fact, the high temperatures of the Outremer often forced many of their Hospitaller brethren, who unfortunately tended to wear black, to adopt lighter armor in the form of panceria or light mail. In any case, the iconic white surcoat of the Templars was possibly the monastic capae – as referred to by Pope Gregory IX in circa 1240 AD. 

And lastly, befitting their status as the heavy cavalry of the military order, the Knights Templar invested in additional protection for the head. So over the mail coifs (that were used like hoods), the knights wore helmets or helms, initially open-faced but later on adopting the closed-faced variety (with riveted iron-plates, eye-slits, and ventilation holes). By the 13th century, few of the knights and most mounted sergeants (sergents) possibly adopted the chapeau de fer, the kettle hat-shaped iron helmet with a wider brim for potentially deflecting enemy blows.  

The Weapons of the Knights Templar –

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Source: Kim (Flickr)

It is highly probable that the knights from the Templar Order fought with similar arms that were used by the contemporary ‘secular’ knights in the Holy Land. For example, swords were perceived as very important weapons by medieval European knights – partly because of their forms that insinuated Christian symbolism. Simply put, the typical broadsword resembled the cruciform with the crossguard cutting a right angle across the grip which extends into the blade. Such imagery must have played its psychological role in bolstering the morale of many spiritual Crusaders.

The Knights Templar were also issued with the ubiquitous lance (preferably made of sturdy yet flexible ashwood, with lengths of around 13 ft), three types of knives (including a combat dagger and a bread knife), and uniquely a ‘Turkish’ mace (grudgingly adopted from their Muslim foes) – possibly inspired by the armor-shattering capacity of such heavy weapons. Some codified statutes also hint at the use of rather ‘exotic’ non-knightly weapons such as crossbows – that were fired from both horsebacks (in a stationary position) and on foot.

The Tight-Packed Charge of the Knights Templar –

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The ‘tour de force’ of the Templars arguably related to their capacity for fighting and organizational skills during the early medieval Crusades. But oddly enough, there were no specific instructions dedicated to martial training and pursuits in the Templars’ Rule (a codified statute approved by the Pope himself). This was probably because the warrior-brothers who joined the Knights Templar ranks were already expected to have some experience in fighting and tactics – be it in horse-riding, wielding swords, couched lances, and maneuvering spears from horseback (or dismounted positions).

Interestingly, as we mentioned before, some regulations also allude to the use of rather non-knightly weapons such as crossbows. Furthermore, the Templars also employed mercenaries like the famed Turcopoles (derived from the Greek: τουρκόπουλοι, meaning ‘sons of Turks‘), who were mainly lightly armed cavalry and horse-archers usually comprising the local forces of Levant, like the Christianized Seljuqs and the Syrian Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Now beyond training and mercenaries, it was the devastating charge of the Templars that brought them renown throughout the Holy Land. Many then-contemporary literary sources write about how the Knights Templar were masters of forming the tight-packed eschielle (squadron) and charging into their enemies in wedged formations. Now while this maneuver seems simple in theory, the scope must have required expert levels of discipline and organizational skill to actually make it work on a battlefield against a formidable foe.

In fact, such degrees of discipline contrast with their secular Western European counterparts, who were more prone to individualistic glory on the battlefield as opposed to dedicated team-work. To that end, it can be hypothesized that the Templars were more organized simply because of their reactionary measure to counter the superior mobility (and tactics) of the Muslim armies. Moreover, it should also be noted that many of the knights who joined the Order were already experienced veterans when it came to military careers.

Yes, There Were Female Members of the Templar Order –

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In the earlier entry, we talked about the knights and the sergeants. Other than those ‘fighting’ members, the Templars also inducted priest-brothers for spiritual support of their communities. These ‘chaplains’ performed the various religious functions within the order, including the conducting of prayers, the celebration of masses and even hearing confessions. And quite intriguingly, some Templar chapters present in Europe also included female members among the ranks.

These ‘sisters’ were housed in facilities that were segregated from the main chapter house. And while they were obviously not expected to fight in battles, many of the nuns actively took part in the spiritual side of affairs – by helping the priest-brothers in their praying tasks and even offering psychological counseling to warriors. Furthermore, there were associate female members (along with males) who made donations and other contributions to the Order, in spite of not taking the full monastic vow required from regular members.

Varying Motivations For Joining the Templars –

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It naturally begs the question – why did knights leave the apparent opulence of their ‘lordly’ lives to join an austere order that advocated simple living and sexual abstinence? Well, the reasons were many, with some joining the ranks of the Knights Templar to escape their personal tragedies over at home, like the death of their loved ones. Others joined the Order as penance for their presumed sins, while some of the knights also seriously believed in the ‘core’ cause of the Templars – to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land from the ‘non-believers’.

Relating to an odd parcel of Templar history, there were also instances when criminal (or excommunicated) knights were enlisted into the order as punishment for their deeds; though in a practical scenario this method also served as an effective conscription technique for bolstering the Templar ranks with experienced warriors. In that regard, we can comprehend the inspiration behind the Night’s Watch featured in The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) novel series by G.R.R. Martin.

The non-knightly members of the Templar Order had more varying reasons to join the reclusive ranks. Usually hailing from poorer sections of the society, many joined to simply provide themselves with timely meals on a daily basis, while others desperate (and illiterate) folks took the gamble to be ‘martyrs’ – pertaining to a glorious death on the battlefield against the ‘infidels’.

According to their beliefs, aided by propaganda, this would release them from their uncertain lives (that in middle ages were usually cut short by diseases or starvation), and gain them ‘direct access’ to heaven. Intriguingly enough, in spite of such fanatical belief systems, the Templars were renowned in contemporary times for their apparent long lives when compared to the average medieval life expectancy (25 – 40 years).

Recent research into this seemingly paradoxical scope provided a hypothesis that the Templars on average lived longer due to their controlled diets and better hygiene. In any case, reverting to the motivations, one shouldn’t also overlook the significant percentage of people who simply joined the Order to justify their belief in the core principle of the Templars – defending the pilgrims and other Christians in the Holy Land (unfortunately, such values later morphed into bloodthirsty punitive actions). Many of the brothers were probably pilgrims themselves and were later inspired by the fighting prowess (or at least the ‘advertised’ prowess) of the Templars in Outremer.

The Downside of ‘Fanaticism’ –

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Unfortunately for the Templars, as noted by Prof. Nicholson, a ‘right’ charge was not always conducive to winning the battle, especially since this aggressive battle tactic required other Christian forces to exploit the gaps in the enemy ranks brought on by the heavy cavalry assault. So in many practical scenarios, these supporting forces (derived from the Frankish kingdoms of Outremer) were not sufficiently drilled to take the dynamic advantage in the battlefield, thus leaving the Templars stranded and surrounded by the agile Muslim foes.

These baleful situations were even more exacerbated for the Templars in the earlier Crusades because most of them were executed on being captured without mercy – as was the bloody scene after the Battle of Hattin (circa 1187 AD). Such extreme actions on the part of the Muslims were probably instigated by bouts of savagery displayed by the Templar Order itself in various battles. Sometimes the Muslims were even portrayed as soldiers of Antichrist, and as such many (illiterate) brothers believed in the ethnic or religious cleansing of the adherents of the Islamic faith – so as to prepare the Holy Land for the advent of Christ’s kingdom.

Beyond just misleading narratives (as was the case in most medieval societies, including Islamic ones), their uncompromising principles, like not surrendering until the red cross of martyrdom had fallen in battle, also added to unwarranted afflictions on the battlefield. In that regard, many contemporary works allude to the fanaticism displayed by the Templars, like in the case of a few knights who were imprisoned until their ransom demands were met.

But instead of paying ransoms, the Order just sent knives and belts to the captors – thus symbolizing how fighting was their ransom, and on being captured the knights would rather die than be paid for. However, as time went on, the practicality of military requirement triumphed over zealotry, and thus by the late 13th century, some high-ranking Knights Templar were indeed ransomed successfully.

The Politics-Induced Fall of the Knights Templar – 

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Now in spite of the martial ability and prowess of the Christian military orders, by the late 13th century it was becoming increasingly clear that the Crusaders were fighting a losing battle (discussed here at length) in the Holy Land. The fall of Acre in 1291 AD rather underlined such a precarious geopolitical situation for the Christian polities in the Levant. However, as opposed to a complete military defeat by their Muslim foes, the Knights Templar were dissolved and almost destroyed by a Christian monarch – namely King Philip IV of France.

According to some hypotheses, King Philip IV was possibly in debt to the Templars (we already discussed the financial power of the Templar Order in continental Europe) due to his wars with the English. Consequently, the French king may have decided to outlaw the Templars in a bid to remove his debts – and thus he ordered the arrest of many Templars, including their Grand Master Jacques de Molay, on 13 October 1307 AD (which fell on a Friday, thereby possibly rise to the superstition of Friday the 13th). The king also managed to either convince or pressurize Pope Clement to issue a Papal Bull that called for the arrest of all Templars residing in other parts of Europe beyond France.

There were numerous charges laid down during the mass arrests, ranging from the sensational like idol worship, forced spitting on the crucifix during initiation, indecent kissing amongst themselves (basically acts of homosexuality) to the conventional like fraud, corruption, and even secrecy. Some of the arrest warrants had religious overtones with phrases like: “Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume” [“God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the kingdom”]. Subsequently, many of the Templars were forced to confess under torture and duress. And while a good many of them later recanted their confessions, including the Grand Master, the Pope was coerced to disband the entire order, after King Philip IV threatened to go to war over the issue. 

As a result, many senior Knights Templar, like the Grand Master and Preceptor of Normandy, were sentenced to death on charges of heresy – and they were unceremoniously burned at the stake in Paris, opposite Notre Dame in 1314 AD. A great many members from around Europe were also detained and arrested (although without adequate charges), but most of them were either absorbed into other military orders or allowed to live peacefully with pensions. And officially, the property of the Knights Templar was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller.

Official Proof of Innocence?

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Source: Reuters

Divine judgment or pure coincidence? During his execution, Grand Master De Molay’s recorded words were – “Dieu sait qui a tort et a péché. Il va bientot arriver malheur à ceux qui nous ont condamnés à mort” [“God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death”]. Incidentally, Pope Clement died only a month later while Philip IV died later that year (1314 AD). As for the other remnants of the Knights Templar, some were given refuge in the Kingdom of Portugal (their remaining properties were also left untouched in the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile). 

And while the Templar Order was officially dissolved by the Catholic Church, in the course of just five years, bolstered by the shelter and aid provided in Portugal and parts of Spain, the Knights Templar simply adopted a new name and constitution – Military Order of Christ (Ordem Militar de Cristo – secularized in 1769) and also a parallel Supreme Order of Christ of the Holy See. Both of these organizations are functional, albeit in a limited capacity, even in our modern era. 

Interestingly enough, in the year 2001, historians found evidence of the record of the final trial of the Templars from the Vatican Secret Archives. Known as the Chinon Parchments, these documents and letters outline how the Pope not only absolved the Templars of their alleged heresies but also had the ones who confessed their heresy (under torture) “restored to the Sacraments and to the unity of the Church”, in 1308 AD.

Honorable Mention – The Enigmatic Symbol

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The mystery had always played a part in the cryptic aura of the Templars, so much so that one of the charges made against them in 1307 AD entailed ‘secrecy’. Now a later analysis of the events have revealed that the Templars were probably innocent of most of the charges, and thus were just victims of monarchical politics in the early 14th century. But on the ‘puzzling’ side of affairs, there was (and still is) some degree of mystery pertaining to the third Templar seal, which depicted two knights sitting on a single horse.

Now the most common (though possibly incorrect) explanation relates how two knights on a single horse symbolized the state of poverty advocated by individual Templars. Another explanation talks about the representation of ‘true’ brotherhood, wherein one knight rescues the other knight whose horse is probably injured. Intriguingly enough, there is a plausible commentary regarding two soldiers on a single horse, written by Saladin’s chronicler Bahaed-Din Ibn Shaddad (referenced from Knight Templar 1120 – 1312 By Helen Nicholson) –

On June 7, 1192, the Crusader army marched to attack the Holy City, (then occupied by Saladin). Richard’s spies reported a long-awaited supply train coming from Egypt to relieve Saladin’s army…when Richard received information that the caravan was close at hand…a thousand horseman set out, each of whom took a foot soldier (on his horse) in front of him…At daybreak, he took the caravan unawares. Islam had suffered a serious disaster…The spoils were three thousand camels, three thousand horses, five hundred prisoners and a mountain of military supplies. Never was Saladin more grieved, or more anxious.

*The article was updated on 30 July 2019.

Book References: Knight Templar 1120 – 1312 (By Helen Nicholson) / God’s Warriors: Crusaders, Saracens and the Battle for Jerusalem (Edited By Helen Nicholson and David Nicolle) / Knights Templar Encyclopedia (By Karen Ralls)

Online Sources: Provincial Priory of Hampshire and Isle of Wight / BibliotecaPleyades / Knight-Templar (link here)/ DominicSelwood / Britannica

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