top of page

Knights of Christ? The Templars, Hospitallers and other military orders in the eyes of their contemp

The ORB: On-line reference for Medieval Studies-2016

What were the military orders? The Templars and Hospitallers are the best known of the military orders. These were religious orders, similar to monastic orders in their way of life, but with the special functions of protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land from Muslim attack, and providing for pilgrims` needs. They were Catholic Christians, and closely bound to the papacy.

The first military order was the order of the Temple, which - according to Archbishop William of Tyre - was founded in Jerusalem around 1119 by a group of knights who had come to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and Patriarch Warmund of Jerusalem commanded them, `in remission of their sins', to defend the pilgrim routes from bandits. The brothers were given some land next to the Lord`s Temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the ajoining royal palace in the former al-Aqsa Mosque. The Latin Christians had erroneously identified the Al-Aqsa mosque as the Temple of Solomon, so the brothers became known as the knights of the Temple of Solomon. By the 1140s the nickname `Templar` started to appear.

William of Tyre tells us [Book 12, chapter 7] that even nine years after the order's foundation there were only nine Templars, when some of the brothers set out for Europe to seek papal approval of their order at the Council of Troyes, in Champagne, in north-eastern France. William is our major source for the history of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, although as he did not begin writing his history until the 1160s his information on the Templars may be coloured by hindsight. At the Council of Troyes in January 1129 the brothers were called: `The poor knights of Christ of the Temple which is in Jerusalem`. After the Council the order became very popular with western European donors, attracting generous donations and new recruits.

The Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem had existed in Jerusalem before the first crusade, but purely as a hospital which cared for pilgrims. During the 1130s, however, the Hospital was employing mercenaries to protect pilgrims from bandits, and by 1136 it was also taking on the defence of part of the frontier against the Muslims. Historians disagree over how and when the Hospital became a military order, but it was certainly militarized by the 1160s, when Knights Hospitaller took part in the expeditions against Egypt (see Forey, 'Militarisation').

German crusaders founded a hospital for Germans at Acre in 1190, during the third crusade. This was relaunched as a military order in 1198, during the German crusade, and became known as the Teutonic order. Its full name was `The Hospital of St. Mary of the Teutons in Jerusalem.` It owed a great deal of its development to the patronage of the Staufen emperors, and in the Holy Land it was never as powerful as the orders of the Temple and Hospital. From the 1230s it was also in the front line of the `Christianization` of Prussia and the Baltic States.

Other military orders were founded, such as the order of St. Lazarus and the English order of St. Thomas of Acre, as well as various national orders, in Spain, Prussia and the Baltic States. These did not attract as many donations as the Templars and Hospitallers, never became as influential or famous and were seldom mentioned by writers outside their own regions.

Initial reactions to the concept of the military order. Historians disagree over how the concept of the military order first developed, but Alan Forey has argued that it was a natural development (Forey, 'Emergence'). Early Christians had held mixed views on violence, for while Christ had instructed his disciple to put away his sword 'for all who take the sword will perish by the sword' (Matthew's gospel, ch. 26 v. 52), John the Baptist had not told soldiers to stop fighting (Luke's gospel, ch. 3 v. 14). The North African bishop Tertullian, writing in the beginning of the third century, recorded that Christians did fight, although he believed that Christians should not fight. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, writing in the early fifth century, argued that in certain circumstances warfare could be just, acceptable and necessary. In the crusade, of course, those who fought were promised remission of their sins and instant admission to Heaven if they died in action, and the fighting brothers of the military orders were promised the same reward. So the title `Knights of Christ', which originally meant monks, came to refer to crusaders, and then to the military orders.

Although the concept of the military order was very popular in regions with a frontier to the Muslims or pagans, a few of the clergy elsewhere expressed doubts as to whether a military order could be a valid religious order.

Most of the clergy were very enthusiastic about the new form of knighthood. The most famous enthusiast was Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, now St. Bernard and best known for the dogs indirectly named after him. Bernard was one of the most influential international figures of his day. He had been present at the Council of Troyes when the order of the Temple received official Church approval, and Hugh of Payns, the first master of the Templars, approached him to write an encouraging sermon for the knights. Bernard eventually wrote them a letter `in praise of the new knighthood`. He declared that the brothers` desire was to die for Christ against the infidel. They lived a simple life, peaceful at home, fierce in battle, and were both monks and knights.

His letter circulated widely, and seems to have been used by many other contemporary writers. Orderic Vitalis, an English monk living in Normandy, called the brothers `admirable knights` who `face martyrdom daily'. Otto, bishop of Freising, writing in the mid 1140s, imitated Bernard in calling the order `a new kind of knighthood', as did Richard of Poitou, a monk of Cluny, writing in 1153. Anselm, an Augustinian canon and bishop of Havelburg (in north eastern Germany), wrote in similar terms but called the brothers `holy laymen'. But he added that the pope had confirmed that the new order was of equal merit to monks and regular canons.

Reading between the lines, it appears that not everyone agreed with these opinions. Bernard seems to have been refuting accusations that the brothers were murderers, because they killed Muslims. Another letter written by one 'Hugh the sinner' (probably Hugh de Payns, the first master of the order) to encourage the Templars in the 1130s mentions accusations that the Templars` vocation was invalid, a sin, and an obstacle to spiritual advancement.

Whoever these critics were, their criticism has not survived at first hand. But we can deduce where such criticism came from. Some arose in long-established abbeys such as Cluny, a powerful and influential Benedictine abbey in Burgundy. Cluny was proud of its tradition, and not surprisingly, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, and some of his monks objected to this new, radical order. The brothers of the Temple were not monks, Peter wrote, only knights, whose vocation of fighting the Muslims to protect pilgrims was less important than suppressing bandits in Burgundy.

The pacifist argument was almost unheard. In the 1180s Walter Map, satirist, raconteur, courtier and later archdeacon of Oxford, remarked that Christ had forbidden Christians to use force, and by using force the Templars had lost all the territory that the apostles had won by peaceful preaching. But he may have been joking, as he often was. The most fervent preachers of Christian pacifism were the Cathar and Waldensian heretics. James of Vitry, bishop of Acre from 1216 to around 1228, condemned the pacifist argument. If it were not for the military orders, he believed, the Muslims and heretics would have devastated the whole of the Church.

However, there was a more widespread belief among clergy that because they shed blood, and because they could not fast or keep vigils as constantly as other religious orders, the military orders were inferior in observance to other religious orders, although superior to ordinary layfolk. Hence, whenever a brother asked for papal permission to transfer to a stricter order, the pope would grant it. In the Hospital, the tension between the hospital and military functions of the order came to a head in the late 1160s and early 1170s when the order was almost reduced to bankruptcy as a result of its heavy involvement in King Amaury of Jerusalem's Egyptian campaigns. Pope Alexander III (1159-81), wrote to instruct the Hospitallers that they should give up fighting and remain in their original vocation, following the customs laid down by their forefathers, for love and mercy to the poor was a better defence than strength of arms. In other words, serving the poor and sick in a hospital was spiritually superior to defending them with weapons. It was not that Alexander condemned holy war, but the Hospitallers' first vocation had been best, and they should not change it. (Cartulaire gÈnÈral de l'ordre des Hospitaliers, nos. 391ter, 527.)

The laity had no such doubts. As we would expect, the knightly class especially approved of the new type of religious order. In 1133 or 1134 one Laureta gave all she possessed in the village of Douzens (in the extreme south of France) to: `The knights of Jerusalem, living together in one mind in Solomon`s Temple and following the gospel by manfully waging daily war against the unexpected attacks of the Saracens, against the most impious who try to destroy God`s law and the faithful servants of God.` (Cartulaires des Templiers de Douzens, A no. 40, p.51.)

Assuming that Laureta dictated this charter and that it was not compiled by one of the order`s scribes, she clearly believed that the brothers of the Temple were fighting Christ`s battles, that they were literally knights of Christ.

At around the same time Roger, viscount of Beziers gave the order a village and some land with the words: `To the Jerusalem knighthood of the Temple of Solomon and the brothers fighting for God there for the guard and defence of the holy city of Jerusalem and holy Christianity' Cartulaires des Templiers de Douzens, A no. 115 [114], p. 107).

When one Azalais gave herself to the order of the Temple in 1133 she did so from traditional religious motives, to serve God under obedience to the master of the order, in poverty `because my Lord deigned to be poor for me.` (Cartulaire gèÈnÈral de l'ordre de Temple, no. 68, pp. 51-2.) Although the Rule of the order forbad the acceptance of women, this does not seem to have prevented Azalais serving God in the Order, nor have deterred the Order from accepting her. The brothers obviously believed that a pious woman could be admitted to their order whatever the Rule said.

Numerous other charters survive which indicate that most lay donors believed that the military order was just as virtuous as a monastic order. In fact, it could be suggested that as knights the brothers seemed to the laity more trustworthy and accessible than the monks and many of the higher clergy.

Yet most donors made no mention of their specific motives for choosing a military order. They seem to have taken for granted that a military order was pleasing to God, and worthy to receive a donation in alms. As there were many religious orders and other charitable institutions to which one could give and receive prayers for one`s soul in return, donors would not `waste` their charity in giving to a spiritually second-class order.

Later views of the concept of the military order. How had views changed by the late thirteenth century? By this time, some commentators on the state of the Church regarded the military orders, especially the order of the Temple, as having been among the best of all religious orders. Before 1278, John Peckham (a Franciscan friar, later archbishop of Canterbury) had set the Templars alongside the order of Grandmont as examples of good religious orders which had declined. A century earlier, Walter Map had declared that the order of Grandmont was the only pure order still in existence. If they reckoned the Templars as equal to the Grandmontines, then John Peckham, and his expected audience, held a very high opinion of the spirituality of the order of the Temple.

In 1289, a Flemish poet, Jacquemart Gielee, depicted the Temple and Hospital as the last bastion of spiritual purity. His poem, Renart le Nouvel, `the new Reynard,` was based on the popular fables of the fox (whose name meant craftiness, but had come to mean everything corrupt and dishonourable). Renart is depicted taking over everything in society, from the king to the friars. Only the hermits escape. At last even the military orders are corrupted - implying that hitherto they had been pure. Their fall marks the final triumph of evil in the world.

In the 1290s Hugh of Trimberg, schoolmaster of Bamberg, lamented the decline of `even the high order of the Temple,` again implying that until recently this order had been the best of all.

Donations to the military orders had fallen off during the thirteenth century, but this was not surprising. In western Europe donations to all religious orders were falling during this period, due to changes in religious attitudes from an emphasis on public religious observance to an emphasis on private religious observance, and a change in the socio-political structure which meant that donations to religious orders were no longer so useful in obtaining political allies and influence as had been the case in earlier centuries. What is significant is that in western Europe donations to military orders did in fact continue, albeit at a much reduced level, and the orders continued to be given generous donations of land in eastern Europe, where religious orders were valued as colonisers. In other words, even when the trend was against religious donations, the military orders were still receiving some donations.

The concept of the military order, then, met with some initial resistance, but this faded as the orders proved their worth in the Holy Land and became part of the religious establishment, and in time they were regarded as highly as any other religious order. Attitudes towards the activities of the military orders.

(1) Praise. Praise falls roughly into two categories. There was praise of the brothers as knights of Christ, that is, as warriors fighting on behalf of Christendom, and of their courage and discipline. And there was praise for their spirituality and religious activity. Because of this they were also praised as trustworthy, reliable officials and servants. Of course praise was mixed with criticism, but for the purposes of this paper they will be treated separately.

(a) In battle. The brothers were often described as laying down their lives for their brothers; that is, their brothers within their orders, and also their brother Christians. Initially they were fighting to defend Christian pilgrims from Muslim bandits, but by the 1130s they were also defending the frontiers of the Holy Land from the Muslims. Jacquemart GiÈlÈe`s Templar, in 1289, actually claims that his order is responsible for the defence of the whole of Christendom, and that if his order has to give up the defence of the Holy Land the Muslims will conquer it and also invade and conquer Europe. This little speech does appear to be what the Templars really claimed, and some writers did credit them with being solely responsible for the defence of the Holy Land - forgetting the Hospital and Teutonic order and the king and his barons (Nicholson, (1993), p.127).

Presumably the Templars were seen as being most important because their order was the first military order; for this reason, they could even be regarded as representing all military orders. If this was the case, this would help to explain why most of the praise of the military orders` prowess in battle was aimed at the Templars: it was not that the other orders were not as brave, but that they were seen as less significant. The occasional passage survives which describes the Hospitallers` prowess, but these are few in comparison with those describing the Templars.

For instance, Ralph of Diss, otherwise known as Raduphus de Diceto, dean of St. Paul`s cathedral in London in the late twelfth century, records in his history the battle of Montgisard of 1177 between King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Saladin. King Baldwin has just a few knights of the Temple and Hospital with him and a very small army. Ralph says: "Odo the master of the Knighthood of the Temple, like another Judas Maccabaeus [a great Biblical hero], had eighty-four knights of his order with him in his personal company. He took himself into battle with his men, strengthened by the sign of the cross. Spurring all together, as one man, they made a charge, turning neither to the left nor to the right. Recognising the battalion in which Saladin commanded many knights, they manfully approached it, immediately penetrated it, incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed. Saladin was smitten with admiration, seeing his men dispersed everywhere, everywhere turned in flight, everywhere given to the mouth of the sword. He took thought for himself and fled, throwing off his mailshirt for speed, mounted a racing camel and barely escaped with a few of his men." ('Ymagines Historiarum', 1, pp. 423-4.)

But what were the Hospitallers doing? We are not told.

Again, on 1 May 1187 the Templars and Hospitallers fought a battle against Saladin`s forces near Nazareth. Again, most of the sources centre on the order of the Temple. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum (`The Pilgrims` Journey`) praises the prowess of the Templar Brother Jacquelin de Mailly and compares him to St. George. The chronicle attributed to Ernoul, who was a squire in the Holy Land at the time, also praises Jacquelin de Mailly. Both merely mention that the master of the Hospital was killed in the battle. We have to go to another, shorter source, the `Book about the capture of the Holy Land by Saladin,` (Libellus de Expugnatione de Terre Sanctae per Saladinum) to learn that the Hospitallers fought extremely bravely and for a lengthy description of the prowess and martyrdoms of the master of the Hospital and of Brother Henry of the Hospital.

Two months later, the Christians of the Holy Land were heavily defeated by Saladin at Hattin. Hospitallers were also present at this battle, but, again, their presence was only mentioned, while chroniclers spent much more time describing the deeds of the Templars.

This continued to be the case throughout the thirteenth century. Although by the fifth crusade (1217-21) writers were saying a good deal more about the deeds of the Hospitallers, the Templars still received a better press and more space. The Teutonic order would receive a mention but no more. Oliver, schoolmaster of Cologne cathedral, who was present on the crusade, tells us a good deal about the Hospitallers` deeds, but more about the Templars. Describing one of the great defeats of the crusade, he informs us that some of the Hospitallers ran away, whereas the Templars were first in the engagement and last in the retreat ('Historia Damiatina', pp. 214-5).

It was not until the final loss of Acre to the Muslims in 1291 that other military orders finally won the limelight. Even so, most of the sources describing the last battle stated that the deciding factor was the death of the master of the Temple, William of Beaujeu, and that if he had not been killed the city would not have fallen. Only one source, Thaddeo of Naples, had great words of praise for the Teutonic order: Like energetic warriors of Christ they persisted in the labour of the contest, and thought not of physical but spiritual gain, remembered their vows, trusted not in their own strength but in God`s. Even when exhausted they did not wish to turn their backs and flee from fear, but the boldness of the mind of faith persisted in the proposition of dying for Christ. They were annihilated by the impious swords and like victors, laurelled with the laurel of victory, they were taken up to the joys of eternal restoration (p. 24).

The best-read and most copied version of the disaster, however, `On the destruction of the city of Acre` (De excidio urbis Acconis), gave a different slant to events. The master of the Temple and his men arrived late and achieved nothing. The real hero of the last defence of the city was Brother Matthew of Claremont, marshal of the Hospital. `Rushing through the midst of the troops like a raging man... he crossed through St. Antony`s gate beyond the whole army. By his blows he threw down many of the infidel dying to the ground. For they fled him like sheep, whither they know not, flee before the wolf...` (p. 781).

Matthew continues until, in the middle of the city, his horse exhausted and unable to continue, he makes a stand, and is hit by a lance and falls to the ground, where he is transfixed with lance heads. `Thus this faithful warrior, knight of Christ, gave up his soul to the Creator' (p. 782).

This writer apparently considered that the Templars had made a complete hash of their guardianship of the Holy Land, were more interested in quarrelling with the Hospitallers and saving their treasure than in protecting Acre, and deserved no credit at all. The Hospitallers were the heroes of the defeat. This is worth bearing in mind when we wonder why the order of the Temple was destroyed by Philip IV of France, while the Hospital escaped. The Temple must have been more vulnerable, because the brothers had claimed to be so vital for the defence of the Holy Land, but had so obviously failed.

Little praise of this sort survives for the Teutonic order in the Holy Land, and none at all for the lesser military orders. In the Holy Land, the Teutonic order and the smaller orders were very much overshadowed by the two great orders of the Temple and Hospital, which received most of the donations, held most of the power, and sent most of the newsletters back to Europe, so that their patrons could read about their brave deeds. In Prussia and Livonia, however, the Teutonic order was fighting alone against the pagans, and it would be reasonable to expect that German chroniclers at least would have recorded some stirring descriptions of their prowess in battle. But in fact they only supply the briefest notices of the Teutonic order`s victories or defeats. There are stirring descriptions in the Livonian rhymed chronicle, but as this was produced for the Teutonic order itself it does not assist in gauging outsiders' views of the order.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that in the Holy Land the Muslims regarded the military orders as their worst enemies. They were the heart of the Latin Christian army; if they could be destroyed, then the whole military force of the Christians would be defeated. After the battle of Hattin (4 July 1187) Saladin executed every Templar and Hospitaller he could get his hands on, saying: 'I will purify the land of these two impure orders'. His secretary 'Im,d al-DÓn declared: 'What evils he cures in harming a Templar!' and described the military orders' fortresses - such as Hospitaller Kaukab and Templar Baghras - as inaccessible strongholds set high up in the clouds, all but unattainable, nests of evil and lairs of wild beasts. Over a century later, Abû' l-Fid, described the Hospitaller's fortress of Marqab as being of such elevation and strength that none of the predecessors of Sultan Kalavun had even dreamt of attacking it. This sultan succeeded in capturing the castle in May 1285: 'In this memorable day were revenged the evils caused by the house of the Hospitallers, and the brightness of day replaced the shadows'. Whatever doubts some western European writers might have about the military orders' enthusiasm for holy war, the Muslims had no doubts on the matter.

(b) Spirituality . There was a great deal of praise of the Hospital for its care for the sick and poor, and some for the Teutonic order. However, as some of the charters for the Hospital at least seem to be `standard form` charters, produced by the order for donors` use, it is hardly surprising that they praise the order.

Sometimes individual members of a military order attracted particular praise for their personal holiness. William of Tyre described Bertrand de Blancafort, master of the Temple from 1156 to 1169, and Raymond du Puy, master of the Hospital from 1120 to 1160, as religious men who feared God. William the Breton, praising the reign of King Philip Augustus of France, compared Philip`s vice chancellor and counsellor Brother Garin of the Hospital to St. Sebastian: `who, although he was distinguished in the palace, concealed a knight of Christ under the screen of his cloak, in order that he might opportunely help Christians and comfort their hearts' (Chronique, 175). But some other observers, such as the anonymous chronicler of BÈthune, thought that Garin the Hospitaller had become rather worldly and his actions were unbecoming to a man of religion (p. 766).

Perhaps a better example is Brother Arnold of the Swordbrothers of Livonia. Henry of Livonia, one of the Christian missionary priests in Livonia, describes Arnold as one of those `carried over into the brotherhood of martyrs. He was an extremely religious man and was always praying. He found, as we hope, that for which he prayed` (p. 273; p. 106 of Brundage's translation).

The military orders obviously did attract some very pious recruits. Two members of the order of the Hospital were canonized during this period (that is, they were officially recognised as saints), one a sister from Pisa, and the other a brother from Genoa; no fighting brothers, however. Otherwise, James of Vitry records a number of tales of the piety of individual Templars, including one of a brother who became so weak from fasting that he kept falling off his horse in battle. Caesarius of Heisterbach, one of the preachers of the fifth crusade, recorded a tale of how a group of Templars at prayer were attacked by the Muslims. They continued praying, and angels repulsed the Muslims. It seems that the order of the Temple made a point of recording and repeating stories like these to strengthen the order`s spiritual self-image, but that the Hospital did not, as no neat anecdotes of this type survive for the Hospital during this period.

Other evidence of the military orders` spiritual image can be found in the fictional literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is always difficult for historians to judge how far literature can be used as a guide to contemporary views and opinions. It is clear that the military orders did have a distinctive image in the literature of this period, but it is much more difficult to deduce a connection between this and their reallife images, or to explain why they appear in some literary works and not in others. The military orders sometimes appear in works where the author or the patron of the work had a particular interest in crusading, but not invariably. It may be that they were included by authors who wanted to add realism to the story they were inventing.

When the military orders appeared in literature during this period, their spirituality was never stressed, but it was always assumed. In particular, the Templars sometimes appeared in roles where the audience would usually expect to find a hermit, that is, giving hospitality to wandering knights, acting as guides or burying dead knights. In the romances of the late twelfth and thirteenth century, the figure of the hermit acted as a vital link between the wandering knight and God, giving spiritual advice and direction, and showing sympathy to the knight and his weaknesses where the established Church only condemned. So it is interesting that the Templars were sometimes portrayed as the equivalent of hermits. But the Templars were never cast as spiritual guides for Christians; they only provided knights` physical needs.

It was usually the Templars who appeared in romances and epics. The Hospitallers appeared far less often and in a smaller variety of roles, and the Teutonic order only began to appear towards the end of the thirteenth century, and then only in German works. In the same way as in the reports of battles I described above, the Templars seem to have caught the imagination of writers to a greater degree than the other military orders. It is probable that this was because they were the first military order, and the only international military order which had not evolved out of a hospital. While the work of hospitals in caring for the poor and sick was very spiritually commendable, it did not give much scope for the imagination. When writers wanted to romanticize or scandalize, they were more likely to use the Templars than one of the hospitaller orders.

Praise of the military orders remained much the same throughout our period, although it might be directed towards different military orders, depending on which orders were in the limelight at the time. However, the criticism changed.

(2) Criticism. As I have already mentioned, in the twelfth century there were some doubts among the clergy as to whether a military religious order could be valid, but these faded as the orders became an established feature of the religious landscape. In the late twelfth century the major criticism was of the orders` privileges, but during the thirteenth century much of this criticism was redirected on to the Friars. There was criticism of the military orders' political stance, depending on which ruler they were supporting or offending at any particular time; and there was general moral criticism of them as religious orders, including complaints that they were failing in their vocation. There were many other accusations, but I shall consider only these major sources of criticism in detail. It is essential to remember that all religious orders were criticized by their contemporaries. It is easy to forget this, but the Cistercians and the Friars were criticised even more savagely than the military orders (e.g., Graves, pp. 45-55). In the 1180s a wonderful collection of libellous stories against the Cistercians was recorded by Walter Map, who has been mentioned above criticising the Templars for fighting.

In the thirteenth century, Matthew Paris, chronicler of St. Alban`s abbey, could sometimes bring himself to praise the courage or integrity of the Templars and Hospitallers, but he never had a good word for the Friars. Meanwhile, in fiction, the scurrilous farces of the time, known as fables, depict the Friars as greedy seducers, but I have yet to find one which criticises any of the military orders. As most of the fables deal with sexual misdemeanours, this indicates that the military orders were not regarded as loose livers.

(a) Privileges. As with other religious orders, the most widespread complaint raised against the military orders was that they had too many privileges, and that they abused them. Religious men, it was felt, should not have so many privileges, and certainly should not abuse and fraudulently extend them. The Templars and Hospitallers, and later the Teutonic order, were granted very extensive privileges by popes and kings alike. For instance, the pope exempted them from paying certain tithes on their lands. He also allowed them to admit laypeople to a `confraternity` or associate membership, whose members were likewise exempt from paying certain dues and, when they died, could be buried in consecrated ground even if their parish was under interdict, provided they were not themselves personally under interdict or excommunicated. The orders were also allowed to send out almscollectors who could go once a year to parishes under interdict, open the churches and celebrate mass for the purpose of collecting alms.

At the Third Lateran Council of 1179 the clergy complained bitterly that the Templars and Hospitallers were abusing these privileges. They were flouting the bishops` authority, burying people who had died under personal interdict, giving their privileges to those who were not full members of their confraternity, and opening churches under interdict more than once a year. The pope, Alexander III, declared himself shocked, and said that he had not previously been aware of the problem. This is very unlikely, but the pope`s position had been extremely shaky throughout most of his pontificate, and the Templars and Hospitallers, with the Cistercians, were his main supporters. He therefore could not afford to offend them, and although the Council issued a decree against the Templars` and Hospitallers` abuses Walter Map complained that as soon as the Council was over their privileges were confirmed as strongly as ever.

By the end of the twelfth century monarchs were also beginning to notice that the privileges and extensive possessions of the Templars and Hospitallers were undermining their authority. This was the inevitable result of their ancestors` great generosity towards them. Monarchs had granted lands, dues, rights and exempted the orders from fines. For instance, Henry II of England pardoned the Templars for clearing two thousand, one hundred and sixty-four acres of royal forest in various parts of England, for which a heavy fine was normally payable. Later monarchs regretted that their predecessors had been so generous, as the military orders had become too powerful and were absorbing more of their kingdom's revenues than the kingdom could afford. They had similar complaints against other religious orders. The most famous reaction against the privileges and possessions of a military order occurred in Hungary. In 1211 King Andrew had given the Teutonic order extensive territory and privileges in Burzenland, on his south-eastern frontier, hoping that the order would colonize the area. The brothers did this very successfully, going beyond the terms of the original donation, so that in 1225 the king drove them out of his territory.

Reactions also took place on a less spectacular scale throughout Europe; and it was not only monarchs who complained about the orders` privileges.The military orders` privileges also caused considerable complaint among lesser landowners and merchants. There are numerous examples of disputes throughout our period, but some of the best examples come from the Hundred Rolls, begun in 1274-5 by order of Edward I, to discover where royal rights had been usurped. At Routhinton, Warwickshire the Templars and Hospitallers were criticized for their papal privileges, `which impede and subvert all common justice and excessively oppress the people' and the Hospitallers were criticized for the same at Wirksworth, in Derbyshire. The problem here was that the military orders were claiming that they could not be tried in the king's court and were not answerable to the bishop, but only to the pope, and that they had papal privileges which effectively allowed them to choose their own judges in the church courts. This could make it very difficult for those with a legal grievance against the military orders to get justice, unless they were persons of status and wealth. At Plympton and Dartsmouth in Devon, the burghers complained about the Hospitallers` exemption from toll, which they claimed was `in prejudice of the Lord King', but which also damaged their own trade.

(b) Wealth. Another major cause of criticism was the orders` wealth. Clearly the orders did have considerable assets, but arguably they needed them to support their military activities in the East. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there two schools of thought on this question. One, expressed by William of Tyre in particular, was that the military orders` extensive possessions had made them proud, and this was why they had become defiant of royal and episcopal authority and caused so much disruption in the Holy Land rather than protecting it. Walter Map and Guiot of Provins (a poet who became a Cluniac monk) thought that the Hospitallers` wealth had caused them to lose their charity and become proud. Generally, the complaint was that good religious orders should not be so wealthy. The other school of thought was that although the military orders were obviously extremely wealthy, for everyone knew how extensive their possessions were and that they paid no tithe or tax (or so people believed) they must be using their resources very inefficiently, because they were always claiming to be poor. Matthew Paris expressed this opinion most forcibly in around 1245: The Templars and Hospitallers... receive so much income from the whole of Christendom, and, only for defending the Holy Land, swallow down such great revenues as if they sink them into the gulf of the abyss....(Chronica Majora, 3, pp. 177-8).

Richard Mepham, dean of Lincoln, summed up the general royal attitude to the order`s wealth at the second council of Lyons in 1274. This council had been convened by Pope Gregory X to plan a great crusade for the relief of the Holy Land. Richard Mepham claimed to speak for many kings and princes. He stated that the military orders already had extensive possessions. If these were turned into cash, they would be enough for the defence of the Holy Land, and there was no need for the pope to ask for still more money.

Following the loss of Acre in 1291, Pope Nicholas IV summoned church councils in every province, to advise on how the Holy Land could be recovered (Registres, nos. 7626, 7628, 6794, 7381). In 1292 the archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the pope to report on the decision of the council at London: The properties of the Templars and Hospitallers were originally conferred on them by the generosity of kings and princes and others for the defence of the said land in pious devotion, and it is truly believed that many thousands of strong men could be permanently stationed in the Holy Land and suitably supported from them... The common assertion is that these incomes will suffice to recover the Holy Land and preserve it against the enemy`s attack, so long as Christ`s warriors hold themselves humbly and devotedly towards God... (Councils and Synods, 2 part 2, p. 1112).

The archbishop believed that the military orders had not been using their wealth effectively in the defence of the Holy Land. It had also made them proud, so that God allowed them to be defeated. This brings us to accusations that the orders had failed to live up to their religious vocation, because they were proud, greedy and quarrelsome.

c) Failure to live up to their religious vocation . Some of this criticism was clearly prompted by political interests. Matthew Paris` major complaint against the Templars and Hospitallers, for instance, was that they had refused to co-operate with the emperor Frederick II in the Holy Land during his crusade of 1229, thus undermining the security of the Holy Land. William of Tyre, as chancellor of the kingdom of Jerusalem, saw that the Templars` and Hospitallers` refusal to obey the king`s authority had fundamentally weakened the kingdom. The emperor Frederick II criticised the Templars in 1244 because they refused to agree to his policy of alliance with Egypt, preferring to ally with Damascus. Although their opposition was political, each of these expressed their complaints in moral terms, accusing the Templars and Hospitallers of being proud and greedy. The orders` greed made them advance their own cause in preference to the interests of Christendom, and their pride made them rash, rebellious and jealous of any competitors, including the emperor Frederick II and each other.

Some criticism stemmed from general dissatisfaction with the state of the whole Church. This is interesting because it shows how quickly the military orders came to be seen as established religious orders rather than as something new and radical. At the end of the twelfth century, Roger, parson of Howden, a former king`s clerk, recorded in his `Chronicle` an anecdote of King Richard I of England responding to a rebuke by the famous preacher Fulk of Neuilly. Fulk had advised the king to marry off his three daughters, Pride, Greed and Sensuality. Richard retorted that he would marry Pride to the Templars, Greed to the Cistercians, and Sensuality to the bishops (Chronica, 4, pp. 76-7).

The Hospital did not appear in such criticism until the 1220s. I suggest that this was not because the Hospital was more virtuous but because it took longer than the Temple to develop a stereotyped image, because it was less in the public eye. In a song written by the troubadour Peire Cardenal sometime after 1222, criticising the whole of society, the Templars and Hospitallers were criticised for their pride. According to the so-called `Satirical Will` attributed to the emperor Frederick II on his deathbed (1250), Frederick bestowed pride on the Templars and Hospitallers, discord to the Friars Preacher and Minor, avarice to the Benedictines and sensuality to the Cistercians (Acta Imperii inedita, p. 370, no. 437). Clearly, pride became a stock criticism of the Templars and Hospitallers. Other evidence indicates that they were proud, but this was a particularly knightly vice so it was only to be expected. Criticism of this sort does not indicate particular dislike of the Templars and Hospitallers. Yet the troubadour Daspol, writing in 1270, makes the criticism more specific. According to him, because the Templars and Hospitallers have become proud and greedy and do evil instead of good, they are unable or unwilling to defend the Holy Land against the Saracens.

There were other criticisms of the spirituality of these orders which were not stereotyped and do indicate specific and genuine criticism. Around 1220 Hugh, lord of BerzÈ, in a survey of the whole Church, praised the self-sacrifice of the Templars and Hospitallers but criticised their quarrels and their privileges, which undermined the rule of law in the Holy Land. He was only one of many who criticised the Templars and Hospitallers for quarrelling between themselves (the Teutonic order was also involved, but seems to have escaped blame). Matthew Paris cited the orders` quarrels as one reason why their reports should not be believed, and Pope Gregory X, rebuking the Hospital on this matter, pointed out that these quarrels harmed the Holy Land (Cartulaire gÈnÈral de l'ordre des Hospitallers, no. 3581). They not only sapped the Christians` military strength and resources but angered God, as Christians should not quarrel. Modern historians have demonstrated that in fact the Templars and Hospitallers went to great lengths to ensure peaceful relations between their brothers, and often co-operated (Riley-Smith, 150-1, 469, 443-50; Bulst-Thiele, 235, 282, 291-2), but their contemporaries did not notice. After the final loss of Acre in 1291, the pope, Nicholas IV, suggested that the military orders` quarrels had been a contributory factor in the defeat, and many chroniclers and churchmen agreed (Registres, nos. 7626, 7628, 6794, 7381).

In the mid thirteenth century, an English critic, writing in Anglo-Norman, surveyed the whole of society in a poem entitled 'Sur les Ètats du monde', and concluded that if the clergy were saved despite their vices - especially their sexual laxity - then he must be saved as well. His remarks on the Templars and Hospitallers are at the very end of the manuscript:

The Templars are most doughty men,

And they certainly know how to provide for themselves,

But they love pennies too much.

When prices are high

They sell their wheat

Instead of giving it to their people.

Nor do the lords of the Hospital,

Have any desire for buying women`s services

If they have their palfreys and horses,

I don`t say it for any evil...

At this point the manuscript breaks off.

I observed above that the military orders were not seen as loose livers, and clearly the Templars were not - in a poem where the author seems determined to prove the sexual depravity of every religious man in the country, the Templars were only accused of being too fond of money. The author's view of the Hospital, however, is quite different. One wonders in what respect the Hospitallers' horses and palfreys could replace the hire of women's services; clearly horses could not wash the brothers' hair or do their laundry, the usual tasks of women servants. Women could, however, be 'ridden' in bed, and hence the obvious interpretation for this passage is that the Hospitallers did not need to hire women to ride as long as they had their fine horses; remarkably fine horses, as the author of the even more scurrilous 'L'ordre de Bel Ayre' was aware, as well as the 'Ministrel de Reims' who recorded Saladin's legendary sejourn at the Hospital of Acre, when (the story said) the sultan, pretending to be ill, asked to eat the right fore foot of the master's warhorse (pp. 106-7) - their horses being what the Hospitallers valued most. The disingenous disclaimer in the last line seems only to reinforce the impression that the poet certainly did intend his remark to be taken 'the wrong way'.

There was one similar accusation against the Hospitallers in March 1238, when a French crusade was preparing to depart for the Holy Land. Pope Gregory IX wrote a rather extraordinary letter to the Hospitallers in Acre. He had heard that the brothers kept harlots in their villages, owned private property (forbidden by their vows) and, among other crimes, that several of the brothers were suspected of heresy. He gave them three months to reform themselves, before he sent the archbishop of Tyre to reform them (Cartulaire gÈnÈral de l'ordre des Hospitaliers, no. 2186).

There is no other evidence for such accusations. Their spitefulness is rather reminiscent of the emperor Frederick II. It is possible that Frederick had told the pope that he would not give the crusaders assistance, as the pope had asked, because the Hospitallers were so corrupt that the crusade was doomed to failure. On the other hand, shortly after this letter was written, the Hospitallers introduced a ruling to prevent brothers from revealing the proceedings of the order`s chapter meetings. So it is possible that such abuses had come up in chapter and had reached the pope`s ears, and that the order was determined to prevent this from happening again.

(d) Lack of enthusiasm for waging war on Muslims or winning converts for Christ. One of the reasons given for this accusation was that the orders were in alliance with the Muslims. This was quite true, and plenty of evidence survives for alliances and friendships between the military orders and the Muslims. However, the chroniclers also claimed that the Muslims exploited the brothers` greed. There was a legend in circulation which recounted how the Christians had been prevented from capturing a Muslim fortress because one or more of the Christian leaders had been bribed with Muslim gold to raise the siege. The gold later turned out to be copper. This story appeared in various forms and with various parties in the role of the dupes from the mid-twelfth century. By the early thirteenth century the dupes had become the Templars, and by the mid-thirteenth century the Templars and Hospitallers. The fortress became first Harenc in 1177, then Tibnin in 1197, and finally Damascus in 1148. In fact this is a very old story and versions of it appear in Gregory of Tours` History of the Franks and the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion.

Many accusations that the military orders were unwilling to attack the Muslims were due to a misunderstanding of the true situation in the Holy Land. The Templars were criticised for refusing to help the Third Crusade besiege Jerusalem in 1191-2, but the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi shows clearly that they did not believe that the city could be held after the crusaders had departed, and that it would be better to attack Egypt. Again, in 1239 the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic knights were criticised for refusing to accompany some French crusaders on an expedition which led to an overwhelming defeat at Gaza. Their reason was that they believed the expedition to be rash, which of course turned out to be correct (see Nicholson (1993), p.68). But eager crusaders were often greatly irritated by the military orders` caution. The most famous instance of this occurred at Mansourah in 1250 in Egypt during King Louis IX`s first crusade. The Templars and Hospitallers advised Count Robert of Artois not to attack the Muslims, but he accused them of sloth and wishing to impede the Christian cause and advanced. The military orders accompanied him, rather than be accused of cowardice, and, as they had predicted, the Christian army was cut to pieces. (See Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, 5, pp. 148-54.) It was a terrible defeat, but something of a propaganda coup for the orders. Their conduct during the battle had been irreproachable, they had fearlessly died for Christ, while the blame for the defeat fell on the count of Artois. Very few derogatory stories were recorded of the orders after 1250.

In contrast, other critics complained that they were too eager to fight. Some writers felt that this rashness was foolish and irrational, not worthy of reasonable men. This was particularly the case by the thirteenth century, when the image of the rational knight who only fights when he has to, became popular in the romances. Some of the clergy believed that the orders` love of violence and domination impeded or prevented conversions. This accusation was made against the Templars by Walter Map (De Nugis Curialium, pp. 60-2) and against the Teutonic order by some unknown critics and by Roger Bacon.

In 1258, letters reached Pope Alexander IV from Duke Semovit of Masovia, in Poland, and the Franciscan friars of Thorn, in Prussia, defending the Teutonic order against certain accusations. Each claimed to be writing independently and without having been asked to do so, but the letters are so similar that they were probably dictated by the Teutonic order. They deny that the brothers had been forbidding the preaching of Christianity, or that they had prevented the priests from stamping out incest and adultery among the Prussians, or that they had forbidden oratories to be built or priests instituted there. It was untrue that the brothers had destroyed old churches, or impeded the sacraments of burial, confession, baptism, eucharist and so on, or that they were enslaving the new converts, since they had been giving the Prussians the liberty of Christ, even when they didn`t want to receive it (Preussisches Urkundenbuch, 1.2, nos. 62, 65).

Walter Kuhn has suggested that these accusations were brought by the Polish princes Kasimir of Cujavia and Boleslaw of Krakaw-Sandomir, who were hoping to gain part of Prussia for themselves. In any case, similar accusations appear around ten years later in the writing of Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar in prison in Paris for his radical views. Roger was not against the use of force, but he claimed that the military orders, by using force against the Saracens, had made them resistant to the Christian faith. In particular, the Prussians would have been converted long ago if it wasn`t for the violence of the Teutonic order, because the pagan people have many times been prepared to receive the faith in peace following preaching. But those of the Teutonic house do not wish to allow this, because they wish to subjugate them and reduce them to slavery, and by subtle persuasions they have already for many years deceived the Roman Church. (Opus Maius, pp. 121-2.) Yet, although Roger's writings show that such accusations were still around in the 1260s, he was the only writer in western Europe to record them during this period, and his views can in no way be regarded as typical.

(e) Criticism after 1250. The peak of criticism of the military orders came around 1250. After this they faded from the chronicles and critical writings. Many critics of the Church did not mention them at all. Others show very little actual knowledge of them. Although there was a vast number of newletters coming from the Holy Land, so that chroniclers could hardly have been underinformed on events, they seem to have chosen to ignore them. News was almost invariably bad, and they probably believed that the loss of the Holy Land was only a matter of time. Perhaps they preferred to think of the Holy Land as a land of romance and legend, rather than a real place with real problems.

As a result, after 1250, the image of the military orders expressed in the chronicles and other writing shows a relative improvement. This does not mean that the military orders had become more popular, but that chroniclers and satirists had other more pressing matters to worry about, and that the military orders' activities were far from the top of their list of problems. For day-to-day relations between the military orders and their neighbours and the authorities were usually peaceful. Bishops` registers, royal administrative records, and the records of the nobility where these survive, show that although there were disputes, generally the military orders were obedient subjects and reliable servants. As Walter Map remarked, whatever the Templars did in the Holy Land, in England they lived peacefully enough. Even Walter Map had more to say against the Cistercians than against the military orders; by the late thirteenth century, a satirist was more likely to complain about the friars than the military orders.


Did the military orders` contemporaries during the period 1119-1291 view them as knights genuinely serving Christ, knights of Christ? No one doubted that they served Christ. Only once during this period did a pope suggest that some of the Hospitallers were guilty of heresy, and the accusation was never repeated or elaborated. The Templars and Teutonic knights and the other military orders were never accused of error in their religious beliefs

Although there was plenty of criticism that the brothers had put money before their service of Christ, or had proved themselves unworthy in other ways, they could still be redeemed. After the final loss of Acre, when Pope Nicholas IV asked the Church for suggestions as to how the Holy Land could be recovered, his bishops made many suggestions as to how the military orders could be reformed to make them more efficient, but no one suggested that they be abolished. The concept of the military order remained unquestioned, and they were still expected to spearhead the recovery of the Holy Places which they had fought so long to protect.

I shall end this survey with one of the earliest European accounts of the fall of Acre, written in the summer of 1291, from the chronicle of St. Peter`s abbey in Erfurt, in eastern Germany. This sums up the military orders' most pervasive image, both during the twelfth and thirteenth century and in modern times: pious warriors, fearlessly laying down their lives in God's cause.

It is said that a good 7,000 men fled together to the house of the Templars. This house, because it is located in a strong part of the city by the sea shore and surrounded with good walls, defended itself manfully for perhaps twelve days after the capture of the city by the Saracens. But when the Templars and the others who had fled there saw that they lacked supplies and had no hope of receiving human help, with devoted prayers and after confession, making a virtue of necessity, they committed their souls to Jesus Christ, rushed out strenously on the Saracens and strongly threw down many of their adversaries. But at last they were all finally killed by the Saracens. ('Cronica S. Petri Erfordiensis Moderna', ed. O. Holder-Egger, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores, 30, pp. 424-5.)

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page