The Rise and Fall of the Knights Templar (Part I)

The Rise and Fall of the Knights Templar (Part I)

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Taking vows, the Knights Templar

In the Beginning

On a beautiful spring day, driving through the backwoods of northern Burgundy I found myself, about a mile and a half from home, in a small village called l’Hôpital. As I passed through depths of yellow rapeseed, what we Californians so often mistakenly label “mustard seed” because of its resemblance to the yellow flower of Dijon fame, I wondered how on earth such a small village could ever have housed a hospital. It hadn’t, but to learn why, the answer would one day take me another 35 miles north of my village of Venizy and a thousand years back in history.

Located eight miles east of the city of Troyes [pronounced traw] in the Aube department, the small village of Payns [pronounced “pan”] would probably go unnoticed by a visitor if history hadn’t decided otherwise. Nothing of its red terracotta tiled roofs or beige houses distinguishes it from the other villages of France. But Payns is the birthplace of a certain Hughes de Payns II (1070?-1136) a young noble who, like many of his youthful friends, decided early in life to embrace the one job guaranteed to assure “his future.” He became a monk. He would go on to found an order called The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known today as the Knights Templar.

When it comes to Champagne, we usually think of Reims [pronounced Rance] with its cathedral and vineyards, but the Champagne region actually stretches from the Belgian border past Paris and all the way down to its junction with northern Burgundy. When the Roman Empire fell, barbaric tribes began invading the entire Gaul kingdom. All through these “Dark Ages” the local populations did their best to survive the chaos of war, famine and disease with little choice but to “place their faith” in the feudal system and in the Church to protect them from the invaders’ merciless struggle for power.

At the request of the Emperor of Byzantine, the Church would launch nine crusades in all between 1129 and 1270 to try and fight off Islamic domination of the Byzantine Empire. The first crusade was called up by Pope Urbain II and lasted from 1096 to 1099. A small army of knights accompanied the group. The Pope asked that women, the elderly and any ill people, as well as monks, refrain from participating, but the promise of a better life (and afterlife) plus the Pope’s persuasive oratory capacities sent over 15,000 people on their way, joined by more and more determined devotees as they progressed east, each with a wooden cross sewn to their clothing and one determined cry, “It’s God’s will!”

 

The Commandary in Paynes (l’Aube) and the Hughes de Payns museum.

The expedition would “win” back Jerusalem, but their suffering along the way would also cause them to slaughter local Jewish populations and their arrival in Byzantine found a court totally overwhelmed and unable to either feed or survey the ensuing crowd. In the end, none of the nine crusades ever managed to hold the Holy Land for long and, when each one would fail, it was said it was because of the “sinful” behaviour of the participants!

Hughes de Payns didn’t participate in the first crusade, but, as a vassal, he accompanied his overlord, the Count of Champagne, to the Holy Land twice and got to know the terrain first hand. Pilgrims had been travelling to Jerusalem for centuries, but Islam was becoming more and more organized and the journeys as perilous as those of the pioneers crossing the plains to California. Payns and his family’s genius would come from their management skills. While in the Holy Land they put together a plan to avoid the errors learned from the first crusade.

The creation of the militia group itself took place in two steps. With backing from a certain Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153), a prominent Cistercian figure in the Troyes region, a Council in Jerusalem (1120) recognized something called The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon order, allowing Payns and five of his companion to return to Troyes and set out in 1127 on a three year tour of France and England, gathering donations and an army of knights. The trip also allowed them to convince the Pope to formally recognize the order at a council in Troyes in 1129. The Knights Templar was born and Payns and his small group were able to return to the Holy Land with both an army of men and logistic support. It was Clairvaux who, on the steps of the famous Burgundy basilica in Vezelay, would call for the second Crusade in 1145 to try and prevent the Egyptian leader, Saladin the Great, from invading the entire Byzantine Empire.

From hospital to hospitality

If we picture the Templers as just a band of audacious knights on the battlefields of history, we’ll misunderstand where their real power lay. For each knight it took three times the number of vassals to accompany them and to keep them equipped, but it also took bridges, buildings to protect the pilgrims on the roads running across France, fortresses in the Holy Land, hospitals to treat the ill, food, clothing and all the other supplies missing during the first crusade. To avoid being robbed along the journey, the pilgrims entrusted their wealth to the Templars in exchange for a sort of list of credit drawn upon whenever in need and handed back over upon arrival in the Holy Land. Since the Pope agreed to absolve crusading pilgrims of all of their sins, there was no problem finding willing participants and large numbers of those who didn’t actually take part in the crusades, offered or willed their land and belongings to the Order. All over France monks flocked to open monasteries and manage the donations of vineyards, farms, castles and other resources.

But to really understand the rest of the story that follows, we need to add that the Templars weren’t the only monks to see an advantage in offering their “hospitality” to those who were ill or otherwise in need of protection. The Order of the Knights Hospitaliers of St John (1126) later to become the Order of the Cross of Malta, created in France in 1126 even before the Council of Troyes formally recognized Payns’ order, were also a militia group that would play an important part in our story. But, for now, let’s go back to our little village of L’Hôpital.

 

Champagne region Templars’ Commandary (XII century)

It was in l’Hôpital that the Templars built their local “Commandary”around 1140. While the Templar community made a part of their revenue through a tax called the “dîme”, one tenth of a peasant’s crops, our local Count also offered them several water mills that crushed grain to make bread in Venizy (Little Venice) where I lived. The village got its name, by the way, from the two small streams that ran through the village center and powered the mills.

Furthermore, the Templars in l’Hôpital raised farm animals including some 300 pigs that were given permission, by a papal bull dated February 5th, 1180, to graze on the acorns in our forests, but there was a condition. The animals had to wear a small cap made of cloth with a wooden cross that hung between their ears! The guardians also had to wear the same symbol, but the decree doesn’t specify where it was to be placed. After the fall of the Templers, the Commandary would burn to the ground twice in the XIV century and never be rebuilt, but the church in Turny would be considered as belonging to the Templars right up to the French Revolution in 1789.

Coming soon: Part II (The fall)

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