The Rise and Fall of Christianity’s Warrior Monks

Guy de Lusignan and Saladin in BattlePhoto:
Guy de Lusignan and Saladin in Battle / Mathew Paris, c.1250
Medieval Ms ­/ Acoma, Wikimedia

The Templars are Born –

After more than nine centuries of historical scrutiny, the Knights Templar, Europe’s first order of warrior monks, are still a formidable mystery. They were founded shortly after the First Crusade in 1119 by the Burgundian knight Hugues de Payens and Godeffroi de St Omer, a knight from northern France. Their first mission was to protect pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem and they built a chain of forts to guard the pilgrimage route to Palestine. Baldwin II, ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, allowed the Knights Templar to set up headquarters on the southeastern side of the Temple Mount which is inside the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Templars at Temple of Solomon in JerusalemPhoto:
Baldwin II cedes Temple of Salomon to Hugues de Payns and Gaudefroy de
Saint-Homer in 1119 / Guillaume de Tyr, 13th century

Histoire d’Outre-MerPHGCOM, Wikimedia

Long sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Temple Mount is reputed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon where the Ark of the Covenant may have been hidden. It may also be the legendary Mt. Moria where Abraham believed that he had to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Dome of the Rock at the Al Aqsa Mosque was built by the 7th century Caliph Abd al-Malik to house the rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive Islamic prayers. The crusaders had made the Al Aqsa Mosque into the Temple of the Lord from which the Order of the Knights Templar take their name.

Temple of Solomon – altars / JerusalemPhoto:
Temple of Solomon – altars / Jerusalem
19th century engraving ­/ Blumenberg Associates LLC

Templars raised significant amounts of land and money. An early patron was the powerful intellectual abbot and Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote a treatise that overcame the initial objection to killing in the name of Christ. New members had to take a vow of poverty and hand over all their material wealth to the Order. Nobles wishing to join a Crusade, but not sign on with the Knights Templar, could deposit their wealth with a Templar bank that would safeguard it and issue an encrypted Letter of Credit. At other Templar institutions, funds could be withdrawn against this LC. As the Templars became powerful bankers, their funds were available to the kings of Europe. Europe’s first order of warrior monks would soon challenge the banking powers in Europe and be perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of France.

Military Orders / Christian warrior monksPhoto:
Military Orders / Christian warrior monks
Artist /­ Marc Carrie (c) 2007

In 1128, the Council of Troyes sanctioned the Knights Templar. In 1139, the Pope, with Bernard of Clairvaux as advisor, issued a Papal Bull that formally declared the Templars were beholden to no authority but his own, owed no taxes and could freely cross any border. The much feared Templar knights were now able to move unimpeded throughout Europe.

The Rule of the Templar Order contains a wealth of military information. Different ranks of knights are described in detail with their privileges, obligations, and conduct on and off the battlefield. The number and care of horses that attend each rank are clarified, and there can be no doubt about the priority given to mounted warriors.

Templar Knight / LevantPhoto:
Templar Knight / Levant
Artist /­ Marc Carrie (c) 2007

The Templars were now charged with protecting the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At most, the Templars could bring 3-400 knights to the battlefield where the size of the Muslim armies confronting them might number over 20,000. Factor in the brilliant leadership of Saladin whom the crusaders often confronted, and the odds on the battlefield frequently did not favor the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the crusaders.

On the battlefield, the importance of the Templar banner cannot be underestimated. Amidst the chaos of the melée, the banner could be used to communicate and direct strategy. The Standard Bearer of the Templars, known as the Confanonier was always present in battle.

Knights Templar symbolPhoto:
Two Templar knights (cf poverty) on one horse
Chronica Majora, Mathew Paris, c.1215

Medieval ms ­/ Acoma, Wikimedia

As a small elite force, the Templars joined larger armies and then took on the most difficult missions. Templar knights trained long and hard but the majority of Templars did not fight. For most brothers, the mission was to fund and equip the small numbers of elite mounted knights. Horses were trained to kick and bite enemy horses in combat. Templar knights believed death in battle was a glorious martyrdom. Their code forbade retreat unless outnumbered 3:1 and ordered to retreat by their commander; or if the Templar flag went down on the battlefield.

The Ferocious Charge –

Knights in BattlePhoto:
The Melée 1 / Knights in Battle
18th century print, medieval ms /­ Medieval Warfare, Blumenberg Associates LLC

First and foremost, every brother had to obey those in rank above him. In peace and war, knights rode in squadrons led by a Confanonier with the banner who was guarded by ten knights. As the battle approached, Templar knights took their positions in the line; their squires with lances and shields were before them. It was forbidden to break ranks, or charge without permission, or turn a horse’s head to the rear in order to fight or react to an alarm. Exceptions were allowed: a knight could ride a short distance to adjust saddle and harness, or rescue a Christian under attack. If a knight retreated, he would be humiliated by being forced to walk.

Knights in Battle 2Photo:
The Melée 2 / Knights in Battle / Advantage Left 1
18th century print, medieval ms ­/ Medieval Warfare, Blumenberg Associates LLC

With his body guard as close by as possible, the Marshall would charge. The ensuing melée quickly developed and casualties were usually light. Therefore, the Régle advised immediate and ferocious pursuit. Reserves were to be close by so they could enter the fray as soon as needed, and/or provide a fresh attack if the first line needed to retire for rest and possibly new mounts. The sergeants were to hold back an enemy that had taken the advantage and/or follow an enemy that was in pursuit of Templar knights. The squires likewise had to be immediately close because they would have fresh horses for their knights.

Knights and foot infantry in battlePhoto:
The Melée 3 / Knights and foot infantry in battle
18th century print / medieval ms ­ Medieval Warfare, Blumenberg Associates LLC

Templar training developed precision techniques by which to achieve a horrifically intense “ferocious charge” of mounted knights that would take on a numerically superior enemy. Templar adherence to the strict Rule of the Order was an attempt to catalyze the manifestation of a supremely disciplined warrior whose fighting stance derived from strict adherence to protocol and superior self control.

Seljukid Turk ArcherPhoto:
Seljukid Turk Archer
Artist ­/ Marc Carrie (c) 2007

Battle of Montisgard –

The Battle of Montisgard in 1177 is a fine example of successful Templar ferocity on a large battlefield. The crusader army of several thousand included 475 knights, most of them Templars. Saladin commanded a force of ~30,000 but they were spread out, disorganized and looting nearby villages on their way to Jerusalem. As the Crusader army slowly approached and the Templar knights were sighted, panic spread amidst the Muslim troops who struggled to form battle lines.

Leprosy in the future Baldwin IVPhoto:
Discovery of leprosy in the future Baldwin IV /
William of Tyre’s “Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum”, c.1250

Estoire d’Eracles / Andrew Dalby, Wikipedia

At the head of this Crusader army, which appeared to be superbly disciplined and barely made any noise, was the young King of Jerusalem. Baldwin IV was only 16 years old and dying of leprosy. He was a young king of extraordinary character and strength, who was much loved by his army and people. With obvious courage although very weak, the leper king was on horse at the head of his army, his hands covered in bloody bandages. Attendant knights were at his side throughout the day and physically supported him when necessary. Templars and the Leper King all in one afternoon; that would unsettle anyone, even the great Saladin.

St Helena finds the True CrossPhoto:
St Helena finds the True Cross / N. Italy, 825 AD
Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli / Jdsteakley, Wikimedia
St. Helena was consort of Emperor Constantius, and mother of Emperor Constantine I. She has traditionally been assigned the discovery of the True Cross and nails of the crucifixion.

The Christian army grew silent. Baldwin IV prayed before a relic of the True Cross and then his army gave out a great shout. They charged cross the sands with the ferocious Templars in the lead. Everyone fought courageously and the Crusaders achieved a total victory. Baldwin’s army had 1100 killed and 750 wounded. The legendary Saladin was surprised and almost captured by the Templars at Jerusalem. He barely escaped on a racing camel and his personal Mamluke body guards were killed. Saladin’s army was annihilated with the loss ~27,000 men, 90% of his original forces.

The Battle of Cresson –

Sea of Tiberius / Sea of GalileePhoto:
Sea of Tiberius / Sea of Galilee
Panoramic Photo / Gugganij, Pitert, Wikimedia

The warfare between Saladin and the Crusaders with their Knights Templar now encountered the life of Jesus as it moved to the Sea of Galilee. In the decade since his defeat at Montisgard, Saladin had achieved a superior position. Appointed vizier of Egypt in 1169, he was soon ruling the country as Sultan. He imposed his rule over Damascus, extended it to Aleppo in 1176 and Mosul in Persia by 1183. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was now surrounded by a dangerous Islam that was united by one ruler who had a superior mind for the strategies of war. Saladin the Great would return to the battlefield and not repeat the strategic mistakes of Montisgard.

On Mat 1, 1187 at the Springs of Cresson, a small mounted contingent from the Kingdom of Jerusalem faced an Ayyubid army of 7,000. The crusader cavalry was made up of 80 Templars and 10 Knights Hospitaler including their Grand Masters, 40 royal knights, and 300 mounted sergeants. Gerard de Ridefort and Roger de Moulins (Grand Master of the Hospitalers) were the commanders for Christendom.

Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee)Photo:
Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee) / Polenov, 1888
Painting ­/ Polenov, User Alex Bakharev, Wikimedia

Saladin’s son, Al-Afdal ibn Salah al-din led the Muslim forces who were seeking revenge for an attack on a Muslim caravan by Raynald of Chatillon. The small mounted crusader army was massacred. Only the Templar Grand Master, two brother knights and two Templar squires at the rear of the fighting survived.

Saladin and the Templars at the Battle of Hattin –

On July 3, 1187, the Battle of Hattin became a turning point in the Crusades and is wrongly described as a Templar defeat. Hattin has a complicated siting and great military and commercial significance because it is connected by mountain passes to the plains of lower Galilee. These plains, with numerous east-west passages, served as routes for commercial caravans and military invasions.

Landscape at HattinPhoto:
Palestine (Israel) / Hattin Landscape
Photo ­/ Almog, Wikimedia

Gerard de Ridefort was once again the Marshall and in charge of strategy with Raynald de Chatillon. The crusader army was led by Guy of Lusignan (main army), Raymond III of Tripoli (vanguard), Gerard de Rideford, and Balian of Ibelin (rearguard). Saladin’s army was 30,000 strong with 10,000 cavalry. The Crusader army numbered 20,000 with 1200 knights within which an overbearing reliance would again be placed upon the Knights Templar. At times it seemed that all of Christendom believed that Templar ferocity alone would forever secure the Holy Land and Kingdom of Jerusalem. The most arrogant of the Templar leadership believed this as well.

Saladin believed that he could only defeat the crusaders in an open field battle, and his choice in the summer of 1187 AD was at or near Tiberias. In spite of many Muslim victories, the crusaders always seemed to regroup and have an army ready to charge and fight again and again. Saladin respected his European foe for their tenacity and relentlessness. As the crusaders left Sephoria on July 3, Guy led the main army ostensibly heading for Tiberius.

Crusaders at Battle of HattinPhoto:
Crusaders at Battle of Hattin, 1187 / fr “Estoire d’Eracles” (Amiens), edition 1400-1450
Medieval ms /­ Guillaume de Tyr, User Acoma, Wikimedia

Muslim harassment began immediately and by noon the crusaders had made only 6 miles to the village of Tu’ran. Inexplicably, they did not stop at the springs to take on water for men and horses. King Guy’s decision was a major tactical error because he was not aware of the vast size of the Muslim army. Saladin had enough men to hold the ridge and also send contingents elsewhere.

Battle is WonPhoto:
The Battle is Won
18th century print / medieval ms /­ Medieval Warfare, Blumenberg Associates LLC

Two wings of Saladin’s army went around the Franks, seized the spring at Tu’ran and thereby blocked a crusader retreat. Continuous attacks forced the crusader army with Templars to halt and camp on the plateau without food or water, and without any possibility of resupply or reinforcements. Saladin set smoky fires that evening which blew into the crusader camp and made them miserable, and he also pelted them with arrows during the night. Guy advised that battle lines and an attack should be organized. Then five of Raymond’s knights defected and gave Saladin an accurate picture of conditions with the crusaders. Thirsty and demoralized the crusaders broke camp and moved towards the springs of Hattin. Two charges for the Sea of Galilee failed and most of the army had moved on to the Horns of Hattin.

Crusaders fighting the TurksPhoto:
Crusaders fighting the Turks
Medieval ms /­ Marc Carrie (c) 2007

Saladin deliberately waited until the heat was at its worst. Guy ordered tents to be pitched on higher ground. The Horns of Hattin provided some protection for crusader archers and a superior highest position. But without infantry protection, horses were killed by Muslim archers and mounted knights were forced to fight on foot. Three desperate attacks by the crusaders from the Horns of Hattin attempted to reach Saladin’s tent and the Muslim army on lower ground. They momentarily frightened Saladin but were beaten back.

The Templars were no longer a factor, no longer the supreme weapon. Without horses there could be no ‘Ferocious Charge’ and Guy refused to send the Templar and Hospitaler knights any relief. Before long, Saladin allowed Raymond and Balian of Ibelin to escape. To look at the Battle of Hattin as a Templar defeat misses the mark entirely. Without horses, the Templars had been negated and removed from the battlefield as the superior fighting force. Finally the red tent of King Guy of Lusignan fell and Muslim victory was assured.

Reliquary Case for the True CrossPhoto:
Reliquary Case for the True Cross /
Byzantium, Meuse Valley, ca. 1160–1170

Medieval artisan /­ Jastrow, Wikimedia

The Muslims also captured the True Cross which the Bishop of Acre had carried in battle. Control of the True cross may have been the final blow, the factor that destroyed crusader morale more than anything else. The list of prisoners captured by Saladin reads like a Who’s Who of Templar leadership. Perhaps 3,000 Christians survived to tell their tales.

Guy de Lusignan at Saladin’s TentPhoto:
Battle of Hattin 1187 / Guy de Lusignan at Saladin’s Tent
Painting ­/ Emír Balduin Hallef Omar Ali al-Adid bin Abú Sharee al-Kerak, Wikipedia

At his tent, Saladin gave Guy a glass of iced water which Guy passed to Raynald. Saladin accused the 60-year-old warrior of being an ‘oath breaker’ to which Raynald admitted by replying “ Kings have always acted thus.” Saladin then beheaded Raynald himself and Guy fell to the ground in terror. Saladin then bade him rise, saying “ True kings do not kill one another.” The True Cross was tied upside down to a lance and sent to Damascus.

Two days later a few of the captured Templars and Hospitalers accepted an offer to convert to Islam. A few of the others went off with some of the Muslim elite as slaves. In an extreme act of solidarity, many captured crusaders claimed to be Templar knights so that they would be beheaded as well. These decisions reveal the extreme awe in which the Templars were held by other crusader knights. Islamic mystics asked Saladin for permission to kill an infidel. Saladin would build the Dome of Victory at Hattin to commemorate the victory; a few scattered remains of its structure survived into the 20th century.

Saladin beheads Renaud de ChatillonPhoto:
Saladin beheads Renaud de Chatillon after Battle of Hattin, 1187 /
Guillaume de Tyr, “Historia” – 12th century

Manuscript Painting ­/ Guillaume de Tyr, User Odejea, Wikimedia

Guy was taken to Damascus and eventually ransomed. Raymond of Tripoli escaped the battle and died of pleurisy later in the year. Saladin told Gerard that he would be freed if he could convince a Templar fortress in Gaza to surrender and this he did. Although in disgrace because he did not fight to the death, Gerard then went to Tortosa upon his release where he led the defense of this castle. He also seized money sent by Henry II which was held in Tyre.

The Régle de Templar could not overcome arrogance and blind conceit. Within a year, Jerusalem had fallen and the French withdrew their support of the crusades to retake Jerusalem. Even Richard the Lion Heart’s charisma could not turn the tide for Europe. By the mid 13th century, Templar losses in battle were often 90% in both men and horses. (Turkish bowmen were ordered to first shoot at Templar horses.) The financial costs were staggering but the Templars were for some time equal to that challenge. In both Europe and the Middle East, they owned vast tracts of land, castles, churches, farms, vineyards, a fleet of ships, and for a time the entire island of Cyprus.

Siege of Acre, 1291Photo:
Siege of Acre, 1291 /
Hospitaler Master, Mathieu de Clermont defends the walls / D.Papety c.1840

Painting /­ PHGCOM, Wikimedia

The fortress city of Acre fell on May 18, 1291 after a six week siege, although the Templars held out in their quarter for another ten days. The remaining crusader cities in the Levant fell by mid-August, 1291. The Templars relocated to Cyprus and attempted to continue their military adventures. They acquired fleets and attacked Egypt and Syria but failed to establish themselves on the Island of Ruad in the Tortosa which they held only briefly. Recruits were everywhere, and individual motivation remained religious salvation.

Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master took office in 1292 and toured Europe to garner support for the Knights Templar. Pope Boniface VIII granted the Templars the same privileges on Cyprus that they had in the Holy Land. Edward I of England and Charles II of Naples were particularly sympathetic but the last Templar fortress in Antioch fell in 1299.

Philip IV of France plots the Templar Downfall… to be continued

Military defeats in the Holy Land aside, the Templars remained extremely powerful because of their pan-European banking system and the vast estates and tracts of land that they owned. The Templars’ fatal mistake proved to be refusing a loan request from the French King Philip IV for his war with England. A forthcoming article for EG will look at the relentless persecution of the Templars by Philip IV in France, their survival in Portugal and how the Templars catalyzed Europe’s Age of Discovery. A longer and more detailed version of this article is online elsewhere.

Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9