The Templars, poor fellow-soldiers of Christ  


Knights Templar. A brief look at the history of the Crusades exposes some of the contradictions faced by the Templars and the other military religious orders. There are lessons for our own challenges balancing our religious and spiritual growth with the pressures of everyday worldly tasks.  It’s also provocative to reflect on the way latter-day incarnations of these orders have resolved some of the world vs. spirit contradictions.  And since we welcome some Masons this morning, I think it will be fun to look at some of the spiritual roots of the order.


Let’s begin with the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor in 800 AD.  Between that time and the Millennium the Christian priority was to convert the pagans of Northern and Eastern Europe:  People didn’t think of themselves as German, English or French, but as Christians.  This intra-European fighting had consumed the continent.  Suddenly they faced an external enemy. Islam had conquered North Africa, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily, Turkey, The Balkans, and had now moved into France.  In 846 the Saracens, as they came to be called, sacked Rome itself while the Pope hid behind the walls.


Also, the Greek Byzantine Eastern Church and the Roman Church split about this time.  The Byzantines were strong, and held off the Muslims until a very tough band of Turks from the Asian Steppes took up the sword of Islam.  They defeated the Byzantine Christians.  At the end of the 11th Century the Byzantines turned to the West for help.


The Roman Christians had their own issues.  They were concerned about the safe passage of pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Harassment was common.  The Pope, Urban II was also concerned about the rise of a warrior class of quarrelsome knights.  Their upkeep – horses, chain mail tunic, steel caps -- was considerable, and they self-financed by raids on their neighbors and other violence.  The Popes tried to restrain these people, especially to keep their hands off Church property, but without much luck.


Then in November of 1089, Pope Urban II had an inspiration.  He convened a council at Clermont and preached Crusade.  He told of the reverses of the Byzantines and their sufferings at the hands of the Turks, he described the oppression of the Christian pilgrims, painted visions of Zion, he reminded them of the example of Charlemagne.  He urged them to stop fighting one another and to turn their weapons instead on the enemies of Christ.  The crowd cried out, “DEUS LE VOLT” God wills it.  In a dramatic and well-rehearsed event, the bishop of Le Puy went down on his knees before the Pope and asked to be allowed to join this Holy War.  Some have suggested this was the first example of Spin Doctoring.


Then a surprise.  Instead of the knights moving out, the first response was from the poor. Peter the Hermit led an army of badly equipped and undisciplined poor people off to vanquish the Turks and liberate Jerusalem. Peter the Hermit’s army was wiped out by the Seljuk Turks as they crossed the Bosphorus. The knights and gentry arrived a few months later and had better luck.  But the barons squabbled over who would loot and own each conquered city.  This squabbling almost sunk the crusade, a pattern repeated throughout the 200 years of the crusade era.  In 1099, they finally took Jerusalem, slaughtered the inhabitants and set up the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Then the armies headed home, leaving the pilgrim routes no safer than before. 


A proposal was made to establish a community of Knights that would follow the Rule of a religious order but devote themselves to the protection of pilgrims.  Hugh of Payns and eight other knights founded the Templars in 1119.   They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and called themselves “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ.”  They were given benefices – incomes – and   space in a palace made out of the al-Aqsa mosque on the southern edge of the Temple Mount, known by the Crusaders as the Templum Salomonis, the Temple of Solomon.  Thus, their name. The were known successively as The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ and the Temple of Solomon, The Knights of the Temple of Solomon, The Knights of the Temple, the Templars or simply, The Temple.  The Templars were legitimate knights who took on Benedictine rule and became celibate monks.  But, they were fighting knights first, and monks second. They observed the daily office, and in all respects, even when in the field, they were a religious order. Their numbers were kept quite small in those early years on the Temple Mount. Their ceremonies and rites were quite secret, befitting a military order in enemy territory.


A few years earlier the Order of the Hospice of St. John had been founded in Italy to take care of pilgrims before the first crusade.  This became known as The Hospital, or the Hospitallers.  These two military orders were rivals throughout the next 200 years.


The monastic life in general then was quite mainstream.  It was often a career for second sons who couldn’t inherit the estate or, a first son, who wanted to opt out of warfare.  The Templars tended to attract sons from the second rank of families, rather than the first. There was a popular romantic side associated with the Temple.  Unrequited love, a serious crime in one’s past, or just the male thrill of danger and adventure were good reasons to join up. In this the Templars were much like the Foreign Legion.  But quite unlike the Foreign Legion, the Templars were a religious order.


The symbol of the Templars was two knights riding a single horse, symbolizing their poverty.  The Templars dress uniform was dramatic, and has come to symbolize the crusades.  The Templars uniquely “took the cross” and wore a red cross on a white tunic. You’ve seen this in the movies and art galleries.


At first the Templars stuck to their mission; guarding the pilgrim routes through Asia and the approaches to the Holy land.  They built fortresses and castles on the routes and passes in Syria and Antioch and the Holy Land.  And the masonry skills to build and maintain these forts were crucial to the Templars.  There was even a rule about the wearing of gloves:  Only chaplains and masons were allowed to wear leather gloves; the chaplains because they held the body of the Lord in their hands, and the “mason brothers because of the great suffering they endure and so that they do not easily injure their hands; but they should not wear them when they are not working.”


Because of their position defending pilgrimage routes, and guarding critical trade routes, they were in position to extract money from trade.  They called this, as was the custom in those days, tolls and fees.  We use similar euphemisms today. The Templars, while generally illiterate as Knights were, became quite sophisticated in International Trade Finance, and quickly became an international bank. 


They were favorites of the bishops and kings and were given donations large and small all over Europe.  Donations might be as small as the rent on a small parcel of land or as large as gifts of land or concessions to hold markets or run mills.  Gifts came from the Duke of Brittany and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Henry I in England loved them and gave them extensive landholdings in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.  This meant they raised sheep for wool they exported to the weavers in Flanders.  The norm for the Templars and Hospitallers in England became estate management rather than military service in Palestine.  In essence, people were happily donating to an early multinational corporation.


As the Order grew in wealth and power it offered a career comparable to the Church. The Masters of the Military Orders became significant figures.  They had big money, and rivaled the highest peers in the realm.  They also had a reputation for honesty and good judgment, which made them the trusted counselors of Popes and Kings.


Islam did not sit still.  In 1144, Muslim counterattacks took major cities.  A second crusade was preached.  This second crusade was a disaster.  The leadership argued over strategy and who would get the booty from which city.  In the end, Muslim armies prevailed and the humiliated Christian army limped back to Galilee.  Scapegoating became the order of the day.  Another crusade was immediately preached but didn’t get off the ground. 


So accommodation with Islam had to reached by the Christian forces still in the Holy Land.  At this time, around 1150, the Templars had 300 knights and 1,000 sergeants in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In addition, there were armorers, grooms, blacksmiths, sculptors and stonemasons.  In this uneasy period of accommodation, the Templars participated in an extraordinary building boom in the Holy Land; fortresses, palaces and churches, including the new Church of the Holy Sepulcher and a redo of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 


Meanwhile, the Muslims were not a united bloc; but had great intrigues and rivalries and their own shifting alliances.  The Templars and Hospitallers often joined in the alliances, shoring up their own defensive positions by cutting a deal with one Islamic party or another.  The Templars even cut a deal with the Assassins from Syria.  Occasionally the Temple and the Hospital found themselves pitted against each other because of conflicting alliances


Everything changed in 1176 with the rise of Saladin, who united the Muslims, and particularly targeted the Military Orders.  At The Battle of Hattin, a disaster for the Christians, Jerusalem was lost to Saladin and the Muslims.  The Temple surrendered to Saladin, and they were ousted from their palace in the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount.  The Templars and Hospitallers withdrew to the coastal cities, principally Acre.


Then a new Crusade.  Richard the Lionheart impetuously took the cross.  Until now the crusaders had been principally French.  In 1189 Barbarossa, the German Holy Roman Emperor himself joined in.  Unfortunately, after a victory over the Turks he fell into a river and drowned, dragged down by his armor.  The army continued on, and a new German military order was formed to care for their sick and wounded with a rule similar to the Templars.  They took the same white habit as the Templars, but marked it with a black cross.  This was the Order of Teutonic Knights.  Now there were three military orders, but the Christian hold on the Holy Land was basically over.


The Crusaders were in trouble.  Resentment against the Temple grew.  Even the Popes were troubled by the Templars wealth and independence.  Because they were responsible to and financed by the Pope they were threatening to the kings.  They were exempt from taxes and tithes and had huge incomes from their properties and activities. 


Resentment against the Temple was also fueled by their secrecy.  In the Holy Land, secrecy made good military sense.  But back home in Europe, such secrecy was suspect.  A telling charge was that while all Templars claimed the exemptions from taxes, tithes and feudal justice, very few actually took up arms against the infidel.  Most were administrators of the 9,000 manors that had been given them over the years.  Another cause for resentment.


We can see a snapshot of how secular spin caused the Temple to be viewed by the public in those days. In Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the 19th Century novel written about crusading times, the bad guys were Knights of the Temple.


We don’t have the time to explore all the layers of intrigue and betrayal, greed, pride and personal emotions that started and finished this early imperialistic period in the history of Western Europe.


The fall of Acre marked the end of the crusades.  And also marked the final retribution of the French King, Philip IV on the Templars. When Philip the Fair wanted to avenge the fall of Acre and mount a new crusade, he was counseled to combine the military orders into a single new unit and change the leadership – he proposed himself and his son for this job, or else eliminate the Military Orders completely.


Jacque DeMolay, the last Grand Master of the Templars stubbornly resisted, proud of the Templars’ history and mission.  Philip IV, more powerful than the Pope, launched the full force of the French Inquisition against the Templars.  They were charged with “unspeakable crimes and blasphemies and devil worship.” Sounds like an investigation by the Press and Congress, except the Inquisition could resort to physical torture and burning at the stake.  Mass arrests, torture, confessions, recantations, re-confessions resulted in the final dissolution of the order. Philip the Fair carried the day.  The Templars were wiped out by earthly politics.  Jacques DeMolay, the last Master of the Temple was burned at the stake.  The remaining knights were turned out to pasture -- never more than two former knights to a monastery. The Church and the European Kings squabbled over appropriating the Temple’s property and wealth. Except in Spain, the Church won, but Philip recovered most by charging the Pope taxes and Inquisition expenses. End of the Templars. 


What happened to the other military orders?  The Order of Teutonic Knights turned their attentions to conquering and enslaving the pagan Lithuanians.  In the 15th Century the King of Poland defeated them.  Those left alive became Protestants. Eventually they disbanded but re-established in Austria late in the 19th century and came to be known as the Junkers.  Their military legacy of the Teutonic Knights was revived when the German military adopted their symbols in the 20th Century; notably the black iron cross.


The Hospitallers declined, and after the loss of Rhodes were confined to the Island of Malta and came to be known as the Knights of Malta.  Today they function as they were originally founded, a body of devout Roman Catholics whose aristocratic members work to help the poor, the sick and the dispossessed.


Now some personal reflections: We’ve all heard the one-line version of Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good.  It may be the same with arms and charity.  All through the period between the crusades and modern times, Christian theologians questioned the moral value of the crusades.  Looking at the epilogue to the military orders raises an even more interesting question.


The motives of the military orders were clear: to mix the spiritual and the worldly for a spiritual aim.  The goal was to defend a pilgrim’s ability to visit shrines.  Over the years, however, the use of arms for political purposes and the financial support of the institution of the order became the dominant priorities of the orders.


So, the question arises; can the worldly and the spiritual mix, even with the best of intentions?  Will the secular aims of an organization inevitably drive out the spiritual goals?  The answer, I think, is “not necessarily.”  But we do have to be very careful of our motives in what we do.  We need to take care not only as we start an activity, or join a group, or even a church activity, but time and time again.  The press of everyday life and the stress of accomplishing real world goals, however kindly, can be a constant threat to the original purity of our motives.


The Templars, the Knights of St. John and the Germanic Teutonic Knights, were all Orders dedicated to firming up Christianity’s hold on physical geography and physical places.  They also gathered great wealth to ensure their continued existence.  Based on the story of the Templars, we can see there is a corruption that goes along with this.  All of the Crusader orders fell victim to this.  It happened.


But, the Order of Masons, for example, carries on the spiritual traditions of the Templars in their allusions to the transformation of the individual person through right principles and hints and parables.  The Masons, from what little I know of them, are masons of the spiritual temple.  Unlike the original Templars who used lance and sword to capture and defend the earthly Temple, the Masons have focused on the true spiritual principle of transformation of each Christian into the Temple of the Lord. 


So let me finish with this reflection:  the true Master, Jesus, teaches us to seek not the earthly Jerusalem, but the heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem, which is a state of being.  The contentious Crusades showed how the original spiritual mission warped into seeing the physical world as the goal and object of life.  The Christian path is one of renunciation of the importance of material, sensory things.  Not necessarily to throw them away – we each have talents and responsibilities to others -- but to carry the possession of wealth or property lightly, not giving our heart to the material.  Each of us is the true Temple, and we are all called to be builders of the Temple.


Now, in the time we have left I’m happy to moderate any questions or discussion of the Templars, the mysteries of what happened to their wealth, rumors of relics, Temples in Scotland, etc…