Amid all the different theories about the beginning of the Templars there is one constant. The founder of the order was a certain Hugh de Payns, knight.
Some say he and a few comrades first approached the patriarch of Jerusalem, asking to live a monastic life in the city. Others report the men went to Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem. Still others suggest that it was Baldwin who asked Hugh and his friends to act as protectors to the many pilgrims coming from the West to Jerusalem.
In all of these, the main constant is Hugh.
But who was Hugh? Where is Payns? What was his background and who were his family? What could have led him to devote his life to fighting for God?
Despite his importance, even in his own day, a contemporary biography of Hugh has never been found. Nor has any medieval writer even mentioned reading one. I find this interesting because it indicates to me the uneasiness people felt about the idea of warrior monks. Other men who founded orders, like Francis of Assisi or Robert of Arbrissel, had biographies written about them immediately after their deaths. The main purpose of this was to have an eyewitness account of their saintliness in case they were suggested for canonization. Of the little that was written about Hugh, nothing was negative, but there
Hugh de Payns and Godfrey of St. Omer before King Baldwin II. (Bibliotheque
does not seem to have been any sense that he was in line for sainthood.
So how do we find out more about this man who started it all?
The first clue we have is from the chronicler William of Tyre. He says that Hugh came from the town of Payns, near Troyes in the county of Champagne.1 William also mentions Hugh’s companion, Godfrey of St. Omer, in Picardy, now Flanders. These two men seem, in William’s eyes, to be cofounders of the Templars, but it was Hugh who became the first Grand Master. This may have been through natural leadership, but it also may have been because Hugh had the right connections.
Payns is a small town in France, near Troyes, the seat of the counts of Champagne. It is situated in a fertile farmland that even then had a reputation for its wine. It’s not known when Hugh was born, or who his parents were. The first mention of him in the records is from about 1085-1090, when a “Hugo de Pedano, Montiniaci dominus,” or Hugh of Payns, lord of Montigny, witnessed a charter in which Hugh, count of Champagne, donated land to the abbey of Molesme.2 In order to be a witness, our Hugh had to have been at least sixteen. So he was probably born around 1070.
Over the next few years, four more charters of the count are witnessed by a “Hugo de Peanz” or “Hugo de Pedans.” Actually, the place name is spelled slightly differently each time it appears.3 It is also spelled “Hughes.” Spelling was much more of a creative art back then. However, it’s fairly certain that these are all the same man. These show that Hugh was part of the court of the count of Champagne, perhaps even related to him.
The last of these charters in Champagne is from 1113. The next time we find the name Hugh de Payns, it is in 1120 in Jerusalem. This is highly suggestive, as Hugh is witness to a charter confirming the property of the Order of St. John (the Hospitallers).4 So now we have confirmation of the story that Hugh was in Jerusalem in 1119-1120 to found the Templars outside of later histories. However, it is not until five years later that Hugh witnesses a charter in which he lists himself as “Master of the Knights Templar.”5 In between, he is witness to a donation made in 1123 by Garamond, patriarch of Jerusalem, to the abbey of Santa Maria de Josaphat. Here Hugh is listed only by the name “Hugonis de Peans.” There is no mention of the Templars and Hugh is near the end of the list of witnesses, showing that he was not one of the most important people present.6
How did Hugh get to Jerusalem? What happened in those five years between witnessing a charter as a layman and becoming Master of the Templars? We can guess, but unless more information appears, we can’t know for certain.
The most likely reason for Hugh to have gone to the Holy Land was in the company of Count Hugh. The count made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his second, in 1114.7 There is no list of his companions, but it would fit that Hugh de Payns would have been in his company. Hugh was already among those at court often enough to be a witness to the count’s donations and therefore one of his liege men. But he must have been released from his obligation to his lord for, when Count Hugh returned home, Hugh de Payns remained in Jerusalem.
Again, Hugh hasn’t left anything to tell us. Was it as penance for his sins? Most pilgrimages were intended as a quest for divine forgiveness. Many people have insisted that knights only went to the Holy Land for wealth, either in land or goods looted from those they conquered. But in Hugh’s case, once he decided to remain in Jerusalem he resolved to live the life of a monk, owning nothing.
It is even more surprising because Hugh apparently left a wife and at least one young child behind. His wife was named Elizabeth. She was probably from the family of the lords of Chappes, land quite close to Payns.8 Their son, Thibaud, became abbot of the monastery of La Colombe.9Hugh may have had two other children, Guibuin and Isabelle, but I don’t find the evidence for them completely convincing. 10
In principle, any married person wishing to join a religious order had to have the permission of his or her spouse and that spouse was also to join a convent or monastery. In practice, however, this didn’t happen that often, especially among the nobility. When Sybilla of Anjou, countess of Flanders, remained in Jerusalem to join the nuns at the convent of Bethany in 1151, her husband, Thierry, returned to Flanders and continued his life.11 Sometimes, the spouse remarried. It is not known what happened to Elizabeth. Perhaps she died before Hugh left Champagne.
Hugh did not abandon the place of his birth. When he returned to Europe to drum up support for the Knights of the Temple, he received his greatest support in Champagne. It was at the Council of Troyes, only a few miles south of Payns, that the order received official papal approval.
There were also several Templar commanderies near Payns. One of them, at least, was founded by Hugh. Donations continued to the Templars of Payns until the early fourteenth century, just before the arrest of the Templars.12 Many of the “donations” are clearly sales under another name, as when in 1213, a knight named Henri of Saint-Mesmin gave two fields near the preceptory to the Templars of Payns. In return, the Templars gave Henri fourteen livres. In another case, Odo of Troyes “gave” the Templars some mills. Odo was about to leave on Crusade and so the Templars gave him forty livres with the promise of twenty more when (or if ) Odo returned.
However, after founding the commandery, it appears that Hugh donated nothing more to it. He returned to Jerusalem, probably around 1130, and died in 1136. May 24 is the traditional date.
The records we have from the early twelfth century give no more information on Hugh de Payns. Of course, much has been lost over the years. Some of the Templar records in Europe were destroyed after the dissolution of the order at the Council of Vienne. This doesn’t seem to have been because the information was secret or heretical, simply that it was no longer needed and the parchment could be scraped and reused.
The main Templar archives, which might have had more information on Hugh, were not in Europe, however, but in Jerusalem. They were moved to Acre and then Cyprus, where they were in 1312. War and conquest ensured that anything left was scattered or destroyed.
Perhaps there was once a biography of sorts of Hugh de Payns. It seems to me that someone would have wanted to tell the world more about him. What we can deduce from his actions is that he must have been a strong-willed man, very devout and with the ability to convince others to see and follow his vision. He does not seem to have been particularly well educated. Nothing in his life or background would indicate that he was involved in anything of a mystical nature, nor that he founded the Templars to protect some newly discovered treasure or secret, as modern myths state.
Hugh de Payns was most likely a deeply devout layman who wanted to serve God by protecting His pilgrims and His land. Hugh used his wealth, such as it was, and his family and social connections to make this possible. Nothing more.
1 William of Tyre, ed. R. B. V. Huygens, CCCM 63 12.7.6 (Brepols, Turnholt 1986) “Inter quos primus et precipui fuerunt viri venerabiles Hugo de Paganis et Gaufridus de Sancto Aldemaro.”
2 Thierry Leroy, Hughes de Payns, Chevalier Champenois, Fondateur de L’Ordre des Templiers (Troyes: La Maison du Boulanger, 2001) p. 194. Cartulaire de Molesme, n. 230 p. 214.
3 Leroy, p. 194. Charters listed are for abbeys all in the area of Troyes.
4Henri-François Delaborde, Chartres de Terre-Sainte Provenant de l’Abbaye de N.-D. de Josaphat. B.E.F.A.R. 29. (Paris: Ernst Thorin, 1880) no. 101.
5 Leroy, p. 194. Cartulaire de Saint Sépulcre no. 105, “magister militium Templi.”
6Chartres de Terre-Sainte Provenant de l’Abbaye de N.-D. de Josaphat, ed. H-Francois Delaborde, (Paris, 1880) p. 38. Charter no. 12.
7 Michael Bur, La formation du comté de Champagne (Université de Lille III, 1977) p. 275.
8Leroy, p. 98. Despite several popular modern books of fiction and some that say they are nonfiction, there is no truth to the tale that Hugh’s wife was named Catherine St. Clair.
9Thibaud was elected abbot in 1139. “Thibaud de Pahens, filius Hugonis primi magistri temple Jerosolymitani.” Quoted in Leroy, p. 95.
10Leroy, pp. 95-114. Neither of the children is listed as son or daughter of Hugh. They might be from another branch of the family who took over Payns after Thibaud entered the monastery.
1111 Karen Nicholas, “Countesses as Rulers in Flanders,” in Aristocratic Women in Medieval France, ed. Theodore Evergates (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) p. 123.
1212 Leroy, p. 120.