This article is an edited transcript of The Templars with Dan Jones on Dan Snow’s History Hit.
The Knights Templar were a paradox. The idea of a crusading order, of a military order, is a weird thing if you think about Christianity, full stop. But back in the era of the Crusades there was a sort of vogue for setting up military orders. So we have the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights, the Sword Brothers of Livonia. There’s a lot of them. But the Templars are the ones who have become most famous.
What is a military order?
Imagine a sort of monk – well, not technically a monk, but a professed religious person – who also happens to be a trained killer. Or vice versa, a trained killer who decides to devote his life and his activities to the service of the church. That’s what the Templars were effectively.
They fought on the front line of the Crusades against the “enemies of Christ” in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, the Spanish kingdoms, Portugal and so on, all the areas where crusading was going on during the 12th and 13th centuries.
But the concept of such orders was a peculiar thing and people at the time did note that it was odd that a trained killer could say:
“I’m going to continue killing, maiming, injuring, fighting people, but instead of it being homicide it will be ‘malicide’. It will be the killing of evil and God will be super happy with me because I killed some Muslims or pagans, or any other non-Christians, whereas if I were killing Christians it would be a bad thing.”
The birth of the Templars
The Templars came into being in 1119 or 1120 in Jerusalem, so we’re talking 20 years after the fall of Jerusalem to the western Christian Frankish armies of the First Crusade. Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands but in 1099 it fell into Christian hands.
The Templars were effectively trained killers who had decided to devote their lives and their activities to the service of the church.
Now, we know from travel diaries written by pilgrims in the 20 years that followed that lots of Christians from the West, from everywhere from Russia to Scotland, Scandinavia, France, all over the place, were going to newly Christian Jerusalem on pilgrimage.
The travel diaries recorded the ardour and the hardship involved in that journey, but also just how dangerous it was. These pilgrims were walking into a very unstable countryside and if they went to Jerusalem and then wanted to take a trip to Nazareth, to Bethlehem, to the Sea of Galilee, to the Dead Sea or where ever, then they all note in their diaries that such trips were incredibly dangerous.
As they walked along the roadside they would come across the bodies of people who’d been attacked by brigands, had their throats slit and their money taken. The roads were too dangerous for these pilgrims to even stop and bury these bodies because, as one pilgrim writes, “Anyone who did that would be digging a grave for himself”.
So around 1119, a knight from Champagne called Hugues de Payens decided that he was going to do something about it.
He and some of his buddies – one account says there were nine of them, another says there were 30, but, either way, a small group of knights – got together, hung out at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and said, “You know, we should do something about this. We should set up a sort of roadside rescue service to guard pilgrims”.
As they walked along the roadside they would come across the bodies of people who’d been attacked by brigands, had their throats slit and their money taken.
There was already a hospital in Jerusalem, a pilgrim hospital, run by people who became the Hospitallers. But Hugues de Payens and his associates said that people needed assistance on the roads themselves. They needed guarding.
So the Templars became a kind of private security agency in hostile terrain; that was really the problem that the order was set up to solve. But very quickly the Templars expanded beyond their brief and became something else entirely.