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Templars Change the Face of Knighthood; a treatise on their rise and fall

Updated on August 28, 2014
Templar and Hospitallier standing together
Templar and Hospitallier standing together | Source

Introduction

Before the Knights Templar as they are commonly known were formed they had to struggle to find a purpose, rule, and approval. This process was a lengthy one but would prove to change the face of knighthood and chivalry. Indeed they would rise to become the most wealthy and powerful of all the orders of chivalry; but this would lead to their demise. Greed of money and power coupled with governmental envy would damper the once illustrious order. Even though they have been disbanded for centuries; their legend and legacy has continued to thrive.

Key Discussion Points

  • The Start up
  • Changing the face of Chivalry
  • Decline and Downfall

Interesting Facts

  • They were declared heretics but later cleared of that stigma
  • They were permanently disbanded
  • many other orders were formed of disbanded knights in different countries like England and Spain.
  • Because of the slowness in which information traveled; rumors and false legends were promulgated.
  • Templars have nothing in common with Masons (free-masons) and the two are not really related. Masons were an invention of the 1700's

Source

Humble Begginings

The Templars or formally known as the Order of Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici) was a concept of Hugues de Payens around the later part of 1120's. Payens was a French knight and had the idea of setting up a monastic order of fighting knights. The idea was approved by Jerusalem King Baldwin II and their mission was to protect the pilgrims in the Holy Land during the Crusades. They were initially a small group of nine members and had limited to no resources for their missions; and thus they were called "poor". In their own humility their seal was formed and took the form of two knights on one horse to illustrate their meager start.

They had secular approval to start their functions as protectors of pilgrims but because they added the element of monasticism they would need Church approval. In order to that they needed a rule. A rule would set the guidelines for their practices and would allow for them to show what type of spiritual works they would hold themselves responsible for carrying out in addition to their role as combatants. Barbra Frale in her works on Templars explains that on a rule fot the order it was necessary to have one that was not only suitable to the dignity of a religious order (of monks) but compatible with the necessity of waging war (37). This developed into the idea of having to be as meek as monks but as hard as a warrior, thus finding a middle ground and bridging the gap between those two functions. Indeed this was not an easy concept; however the initiates were well versed in the Catechism and in fact turned to St. Bernard of Clairvaux for help.

St. Bernard took a long look at this "new" knighthood and responded with a letter now known as the "in praise of the new knighthood" which would set out as a spokes-piece for this new and different idea of an order of knighthood not common during this period of time. Bernard had experience in setting up the Cistercian order of monks and would indeed bring this experience to the table. We have to understand that even though a military career was regarded with little favor in the eyes of clergy this new idea of merging the two together was quite significant. Now the order was seen as engaging in a fight against evil, not just of flesh and blood enemies but against true evil. Frale explains that they were seen as defenders of the defenseless, taking upon themselves a just mission, serving God with their arms to obtain remission of their sins (42). With this reconciliation of the two concepts of monasticism with militarism they were able to bring the fight to a whole new level. They were not considered the killers of men but the killers of evil.

seal of the order
seal of the order

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The Rule

Templars had to submit themselves to the authority of their supervisors; they no longer had the freedom of freewill. They were subjected to a regimen of total and absolute obedience via strict discipline. Their rule would set this tone. Frale explains that the rule expressly required them to be a visible example of holiness and moderation(56). They were required to do this by restricting the amount of meat they were to eat every week; and would only be able to eat meat for two or three days out of the week. This shows how disciplined a knight of the order would have to be. It's hard for me to turn down a steak as it is; but with discipline this is just a minor example of what they were able to achieve on a daily basis. They were to pray, a lot; after all they were monks. A lot of misconceptions have grown that they were priests; however this is not the case. They were monks, there were priests present around them and they were even separated into three different groups Knights, Sergeants and Chaplains.

The knights were the group that is most commonly revered and known by the white mantle. They were already knights and of the nobility. The Sergeants wore black or brown and were not knights and typically of non-noble birth. The Chaplains were priests and they cared for the spiritual needs of the order; they did not fight and were already ordained prior to being attached to the order.

The rule was initially comprised of up to 72 clauses at first then expanding as time went on, it defined everything knights were responsible in fulfilling. Their clothing was dictated to be simple as well as their weapons. They could not have any jewels or gilding or the like. They eat in silence and were forbidden any physical contact with women; not even their mothers. They were required to take vows of poverty, chastity, piety and obedience.

This importance of having a monastic rule was necessary to have Church approval. Edward Burman explains that it was of vital importance in becoming an approved Order and that it meant they were far more than an organization or corprate body and they filled a place in Christian polity. The warrior class was now an ordo with an officium or office and was central to the ethos of the Templars (29). Indeed the rule helped them to establish a system of practices that meet with approval and after about ten years or so Pope Innocent II gave them papal blessings and put them under his charge. This would prove to be a downfall because they were exempted from local laws and answered only to the pope at that time. No other order had that privilege.


Changing the Face of Chivalry

Chivalry or Knighthood at its start was a secular function of feudal government. A knight would swear allegiance to a local lord and would pledge his military service in turn for money, lands, wealth, titles and so on. This would extend up the social ladder to the kings as well. The knights of this system were indeed rough and tumble and hard. They were known to pillage and plunder and exert their might at the whims of the lords who were vying for bigger and better positions. The central concept was that of service but they definitely were not the romantic, rescuing damsels in distress type that we all grew up watching on television. They were the very antithesis of this perception. So with this it is easy to understand why the Church was hesitant of such a lot. However the Rule of the Templars and the example they were able to present created a new Christian knighthood, in ideal and in action. Frale uses Gerald of Aurillac as an example whereby he used his social status to defend the defenseless people of Christ, not for plundering and pillaging (40) not as knights before. Thus with the Templars the master became God, not a local lord and in so doing changed the face of Chivalry.

Frale explains that the Templars combined meekness and humility with courage and noble intent and represented the perfect achievement of that ideal combination of physical force and inner strength(49). Indeed they were to possess all of the knightly virtues of courage, loyalty and physical strength that is required of a warrior but they were able to truly bridge the gap between monk and soldier and thus the ideal knight.

It is known that knights were feared in their time because they were under the control of the nobility. But with this new style of knighthood brought on by Templars. So how did this change the ideals of knighthood? We can go back and look at how real knights during that time would begin to write on ideals of knighthood and chivalry like Geoffry de Charny and Ramon Llull. Charny was in fact a Templar, himself.

Llull explains to us that a knight should first defend his faith and protect the Holy Church, then his lord and protect the weak including women, widows, orphans... keep himself ready for action by continuous exercise.. With this we are able to see that service indeed is a central point but now God and Church takes precedence over king and lords.

We are able to learn from Charny a great many things about the ideal practice of knighthood and chivalry. He explains that the most worthy and adept warrior is a knight with noble intentions, unwavering, virtuous, loyal and chivalrous; one who fears and loves God. He ceaselessly wages a two-fold war against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens. Through this we are able to see the change in ideology and the importance that is being placed on not just service but in being cognizant of not only the fight against one's bodily enemies but the enemies of the soul. Charny goes on to explain that it is chivalry that is the guarantor of good and of a peaceful governance. In order to be a good knight there was the need to be a good Christian. This is of the most importance because they were in constant peril, and to be in the proximity of death meant to be in a constant state of grace which is hard to do for even the most religious. Charny explains that it is wise for a knight to think less about bodily pleasure and more of his soul and honor (32). This is a new and devout way of looking at the inner perception of a warrior and indeed still rings true today with all warriors. Charny goes on and insists in this that a good knight can wear his armor as purely and devoutly as a priest his vestments and should keep his conduct as honest as any priest. It is in this way of thinking we are able to see that knighthood was a system that could be made pleasing to God; it just had to submit itself to His will; which was being a good Christian and applying the vocation of a knightly warrior with that of a good Christian. This was a novel idea.

These concepts would not only be enforced by Christian teaching via Holy Mother Church; but by the Rule of the Order. That is why the rule was so important as well. Not only were they subject to Church authority but also to the authority of the Order. It would follow the polity of Christian society where the hierarchical structure was mimicked in the Order. Authority would flow from God to Church to King to Man to Family to Vocation. In this sense the vocation being that of Knighthood. So without these principles of knightly Christian virtues the way we have grown to perceive knights today would have been strikingly different in comparison and indeed quite harsher.

Decline and Downfall

We have already seen a trend where they were given immunity from local laws, they became answerable to the pope alone; but they also were able to amass great wealth not just by the amount of donations they had received but by starting a "credit" service for pilgrims. They held the money of pilgrims and issued credit to them so that they didn't have to worry about being robbed for their money. This was a novel and creative idea. But it seems to have lead the Templars even deeper in pride.

Templars were seen as untouchable; they could go from country to country without hindrance. This coupled with their financial wealth lead to an across the board hatred of the Order. Members are said to have grown more and more arrogant of the fact that they were the strongest of the orders and that when they were suggested to merge with the Hospitalliers after they lost the Holy City neither grand masters could agree on anything.

Towards the later half of their existence there began to form animosity between the fighting division and the "financial" division which formed out of the Order. This was a deviation from their original concept. Frale conveys a good point by explaining that an order would not survive if it lost sight of it's original values of penitence and spiritual poverty; the innate arrogance of knighthood would need to be tempered by the inflexible practice of personal humility (43). The order fell victim to its growing "business-like" metamorphosis into the banking industry. Their wealth is widely known to be a target of King Philip of France, and a motivation for the all out assault that would befall the Order.

Trumped up charges were brought on the Order charging them with heresy and other crimes against the crown. These accusations came mostly from their initiation which was secret. Prospects had to spit on a cross and it was suggested that they were commanded to kiss the posterior of a commanding officer and the worshiping of idols particularly the head of St. John. After the aftermath of civil torture and burning at the stake and being deemed heretics they were revered for their courage literally under fire. They were cleared of heresy by Pope Clement but because the worldwide scandal that occurred with the French monarchy they were permanently disbanded.

In essence the main factors that ended the order was a deviation from original concept, growing hatred for the order, internal divisions and secret and questionable practices.

Resources

Edward Burman, Templars

Barbra Frale, The Templars

Ramon, Llull, Book of the Order of Chivalry

Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry

Geoffri de Charny, A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry

Conclusion

The Templars made a great impact on the ideals of Chivalry and Knighthood. Indeed Burman explains that they were looking back to some imagined form of lost perfection, an ideal order of Chivalry just as those who look back to the Templars (30). They were able to maintain their selves until they began to lose sight of their original concepts. Greed, envy and the like fueled the civic authority against the order. Even after their demise everyone has remained enthralled and amazed by the Templars which sparked numerous rumors and legends around the order. There is no shortage of mystery, awe and enthusiasm when it comes to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon leaving with it an ever-inventive legacy.

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