The Knights Templar, or Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon, or Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ, were founded by Hughes de Payens, a French knight who had taken religious vows upon the death of his wife. He is known to have been an austere man of deeply held spiritual values, humility, and uncompromising valor. He was nearly fifty when he founded the Order, a veteran of the First Crusade who had spent the previous twenty-two years of his life east of Europe.
Two of the most widespread accounts of the Order’s founding agree that in 1118 or 1119, Hughes, along with eight other knights, took vows of obedience to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, resolving to live in holy poverty and chastity, and to devote themselves to the care and protection of Christian pilgrims traveling through the Holy Land. King Baldwin II awarded them lodging in the al-Aqsa mosque near the Dome of the Rock, the original site of the Temple of Solomon.
The timing of the founding of the Knights Templar was critical. A group of seven hundred pilgrims had been attacked on the eve of Easter 1119. Three hundred were brutally massacred. Sixty more were taken prisoner, and all the possessions of the group were seized as booty. Despair swept through Jerusalem. The establishment of the Order was a prerequisite for the continued survival of Christendom in the Holy Land.
The Hospitallers, or Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (now the Knights of Malta) had been established around 1080 as a charitable group to provide medical care and shelter for pilgrims and had received papal recognition in 1113. During the 1130s, the Hospitallers became involved in military activities, although militarism was never the exclusive province of the Hospital as it was of the Temple. Jerusalem was virtually isolated from the rest of the European holdings in Palestine. Though symbolically and emotionally of the greatest importance to Crusaders, the city was surrounded by Muslims and in constant danger of attack. It was ruled jointly by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Latin king, and whichever particularly powerful crusading feudal lord might be in the area--a politically unstable situation that often led to breakdowns in communication and conflicts of interest.
The dangers to pilgrims were manifold as there was little control of the route between the port of Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem, some thirty-five miles as the crow flies--a two-day journey along a dangerous mountain road through fierce desert heat and arid terrain, surrounded by brigands, Muslim armies, and wild animals such as lions. The Holy Land endured a chronic shortage of stable military manpower. The port cities of Palestine were the only real centers of economic activity. Merchants from the Italian cities of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice conducted a brisk Mediterranean trade. The desire of King Baldwin I to build up the Western population of Jerusalem as a safeguard against the surrounding Muslim enemies motivated him to provide economic incentives to encourage people to move there.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Growth of the Order
The young Order was particularly vulnerable to any number of problems. The knights, having pledged themselves to poverty, wore secular clothing donated by the faithful. Their seal shows two knights riding a single horse, emblematic of the vow of poverty and their humble origins. Their quarters were described as somewhat dilapidated by a contemporary historian. Yet they were growing. Saint Bernard, who rose to become the most influential and politically powerful Catholic theologian of his time, took a deep interest in the fledgling Order. Bernard was the nephew of André de Montbard, one of the original knights of the Temple and later a Grand Master. Bernard was a member of the Cistercian Order and was chosen to be the first abbot of the Monastery of Clairvaux.
In 1126, André de Montbard and a Templar named Gondemar left Jerusalem for Europe. Baldwin II had written to Bernard, asking for his help in getting papal approval for the Templar Order and crafting a Rule to guide Templar conduct. Hughes de Payens traveled to Europe shortly thereafter to recruit new knights, solicit donations of land and money, and spread the word of the Order’s works.
Bernard was of enormous help to the Templars. He was uniquely qualified to synthesize the concept of a knightly religious order. Born in 1090, he had grown up intending to become a knight until he experienced a religious conversion at the age of twenty that forever changed his life. At age thirty-six, Bernard was approaching the height of his power. While chronic ill health made him physically frail, he radiated an immense spiritual vitality. His personal influence on the twelfth-century Church is incalculable by modern standards. He literally functioned as the conscience of Christianity. That which he supported flourished, that which he condemned withered. His energetic support of the Templars practically guaranteed their success.
Bernard had become a Cistercian monk in 1112, when the brotherhood was on the verge of failure. In 1115, at the age of twenty-five, he was chosen to become the superior of Clairvaux. Under his leadership the Cistercians grew from seven abbeys in 1118 to 328 in 1152. He was an extremely talented organizer who had a particular skill for hierarchical organization and the efficient structuring of power. He applied this skill to the Templars.
Bernard was also a highly developed mystic. He was a leading exponent of the cult of the Virgin Mary that began to flourish in the twelfth century. The ideal of the Virgin as mother and intercessor would inform the Templar Order. Bernard realized the tremendous emotional potential offered by the worship of the mother of Christ. He taught that a sincere, ardent, and sustained aspiration on the part of the seeker would result in a “sweet inpouring of the Divine Love.”