The Templars and the Defence of Outremer


WHILE THE KINGS of Germany and France blamed others for their failure at Damascus, and St Bernard blamed Europe for its sins, the burden of dealing with the Turkish threat fell squarely on the Franks of Outremer, particularly on the military orders, and most especially on the Templars. From the 1160s onwards, when it became clear that Outremer could not fight wars on several fronts at once, the call went out again and again to Europe for support in the form of manpower, finance and supplies, made necessary to defend against the almost limitless resources of the Turks, which they were able to draw from the vast areas of their conquests.

The problem was that the more the Franks of Outremer relied on Western subsidy and military aid, the more critical the West became if things went wrong; the enthusiasm was there, but defeat could mean a high price, not least in the morale of the West and the sense of having failed in God’s eyes.

Bernard of Clairvaux described the Templars as men whose bodies were protected by iron and whose souls were clothed in the breastplate of faith. Certainly the moral and spiritual strength of the Templars, let alone their ferocity in battle, was tested to the extreme as the jihads of Nur al-Din and then Saladin closed the ring round Outremer.

But meanwhile in Jerusalem the Turks still seemed far off. Confidence and optimism were greater than any sense of threat or doom, and Jerusalem celebrated its rebirth as the great goal of Christian pilgrimage with a series of remarkable building works.


The View from the Temple Mount

THE KINGS of France and Germany had sailed for home, and the Second Crusade was over when, late in 1149, Andrew of Montbard, the seneschal of the Temple, wrote to Everard des Barres, who had been raised to Grand Master of the Templars earlier that year but had since travelled back to Europe with Louis to rouse fresh support for Outremer. ‘After you left us our sins were such that they caused us to lose the prince of Antioch, killed in a battle with all his barons and men’. Nur al-Din had laid siege to the fortress of Inab, north of Antioch, on 29 June 1149, and Prince Raymond, the uncle of Eleanor of Aquitaine, had ridden to its defence with a small mounted force of Franks and their allies the Assassins.

Raymond’s boldness almost worked; believing that they were part of a much larger army, Nur al-Din at first retreated, but when he realised the truth he attacked. Greatly outnumbered, Raymond’s force was destroyed, Raymond himself was killed, and Antioch lay open to capture by the Turks. The situation was only saved, as Andrew of Montbard explained, by the rapid action of the Templars. ‘Our brothers joined up with the King of Jerusalem to go to the immediate help of Antioch, forming an army of 120 knights and up to a thousand well-armed squires and sergeants’, and now they were holding the city against the enemy, but ‘many of those who were in our army are dead [. . .] No matter how quickly you come we do not think you will find us alive, but come without delay; that is our wish, our message and our request.’ Calling on Everard des Barres to return to Outremer with knights, sergeants, arms and money, Andrew of Montbard concluded, ‘Although we understand that you will not arrive very soon, come nevertheless. It is time for us to honour our vows to God, that is sacrifice our souls for our brothers and for the defence of the Eastern Church and the Holy Sepulchre.’1

In the event the bravery and tenacity of the Templars saved Antioch from Nur al-Din, and in 1153 the Templars played a leading role in taking Ascalon from the Fatimids. There were voices in the West who said that without the Templars Jerusalem and all Palestine might have fallen to the Turks. Where kings and nobles gave uncertain leadership, the Templars were disciplined, experienced and determined; and they were ready to shed the last drop of their blood for the defence of the Holy Land. As it was, until the 1160s the inhabitants of the kingdom of Jerusalem were far distant from the war with the Turks. But the crisis remained as Nur al-Din continued to harass and penetrate the northern parts of Outremer, hacking away at the principality of Antioch and even making raids into the county of Tripoli.

Like his father, Zengi, before him, Nur al-Din armed himself with the cry of jihad. His triumph over the Franks at Inab, complete with the death of Prince Raymond of Antioch on the field of battle, was pumped for all it was worth. Throughout his domains Nur al-Din encouraged the founding of new mosques and madrasas where preachers, poets and teachers whipped up popular feeling and gave it unity and direction – but although the poet Ibn Munir urged Nur al-Din to fight against the Franks ‘until you see Jesus fleeing Jerusalem’,2 the force of Nur al-Din’s jihad was not so much against the Franks as against Shia Muslims in Aleppo, whose co-religionists, in the form of the Assassins, had sided with Raymond against the Turks; conformity in the form of Sunni Islam was imposed. But Nur al-Din also directed his jihad against Sunni Damascus, denouncing it for the injury it had done to the cause of Islam through its alliances with the Franks. In time Nur al-Din would turn his jihad propaganda against the Fatimids in Egypt too; like the Assassins, they were Ismailis, a dualist branch of Shia Islam, but most importantly, and like Damascus, their crime was that they stood in the way of his determination to make the Muslims of the Middle East subject to his rule. Whatever the degree of personal ambition and political cynicism behind Nur al-Din’s cry of jihad, over the years to come it would be used to create a growing sense of unity and even exaltation among Muslims and would justify in their eyes their attempt to impose themselves once again on the unwilling and overwhelmingly Christian population of Outremer.3 Meanwhile Nur al-Din was content with a symbolic gesture against the Franks; he sent the skull of Prince Raymond of Antioch set in a silver case to his impotent religious overlord the caliph at Baghdad.

The conflict had now reached a new stage. Unlike the Muslim conquests, the crusades were not a drive for world mastery but a limited endeavour with specific objectives. The Franks had pushed the Turks back, had liberated the Christians of the East from an alien yoke, had recovered the holy places and had created self-ruling Christian states. The kings of Jerusalem, the counts of Edessa and Tripoli, the princes of Antioch were not attempting to implement a universal vision; rather, they were typical feudal lords, eager to protect and develop their possessions in alliance with native Christians for whom the Turks were the common enemy. There was no grand plan, nor after the Second Crusade was there much zeal for holy war. The Turks, on the other hand, were transforming the Franco-Turkish conflict into a clash of civilisations, a war of Islam against Christianity. By uniting the Muslim world under their control the Turks were not only applying increased pressure against the Christian East; they were also turning the conflict into what it had been, under the Arabs, a renewed venture of Islamic imperialism. Throughout the twelfth century the Turks continued to press against the newly recovered Christian lands with all the gathering force of their great migration; again and again the Frankish chroniclers described the limitless hordes the enemy had at their disposal. Eventually the bewildering Turkish numbers would overwhelm the Frankish settlers in Outremer and all but destroy native Christian society as the Turks had begun doing in Asia Minor. But that time had not yet come.

Despite the setback at Damascus and the threat of Nur al-Din, as Outremer entered its third generation the mood in Jerusalem was confident and expansive. The city walls were repaired, new markets were constructed and many small churches were built to replace those destroyed during Muslim rule. The population increased to about thirty thousand, comparable to Florence or London, and was remarkably diverse. John of Würzburg remarked that the city was filled with ‘Greeks, Bulgarians, Latins, Germans, Hungarians, Scots, Navarrese, Bretons, English, Franks, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Georgians, Armenians, Jacobites, Syrians, Nestorians, Indians, Egyptians, Copts, Capheturici, Maronites and very many others’. 4 The Franks were bare-headed and clean shaven, the Greeks wore their beards long and the Syrians trimmed theirs; the fashion was for pointed lace-up shoes, and in season men and women wore furs. The pilgrimage was the most important factor in the revitalisation of Jerusalem, a revival owed principally to the military orders, to the Hospitallers who provided care and lodging for travellers and to the Templars who made the roads safe for pilgrims. Their costumes contributed to the varied scene, the Templars wearing unadorned white-hooded mantles bearing a red cross at the left breast, while the Hospitallers’ mantle was black and their cross white; both wore boots instead of fancy shoes. Nothing more expressed the energy and celebration of the times than the remarkable burst of architectural activity at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at the Hospital of the Knights of St John and, above all, at the headquarters of the Templars atop the Temple Mount.

The vast Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century had suffered numerous attacks, first by the Persians in 614 and later, several times, under Muslim rule. Each time the Rotunda rising above the tomb of Jesus was restored, and also the great basilica extending to the east, though in less imposing form. But when the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim ordered the total destruction of the church in 1009, the basilica was obliterated, the tomb of Jesus was hacked to smithereens, and the Rotunda was reduced to such a pile of rubble that any restoration was beyond the means of the impoverished and oppressed Christian community for many years. Christians had to count themselves fortunate, after al-Hakim’s death, to be allowed to worship even among the ruins. But thanks to funds from the Byzantine emperor the rebuilding of the church commenced, though on a reduced scale, and was focused exclusively on the Rotunda, which was completed by 1047. And so in July 1099, when the crusaders went in thanksgiving to the spiritual heart of Christendom, they found the rebuilt Rotunda with several apses set about it, and across an open court to the east the chapel of Golgotha marking the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, in all about a quarter in extent of Constantine’s original church.

As a matter of prestige as well as needing to cater to the great flow of pilgrims to Jerusalem, the Franks desired to build a new fine church on the ruins of the old basilica, although several decades passed before they had the wherewithal to do so. The moment came during the reigns of King Fulk, Queen Melisende and their son Baldwin III, who were the primary patrons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; this was the same moment as Zengi was destroying Edessa and Nur al-Din was menacing Antioch, yet Jerusalem felt secure. In 1149 the Franks dedicated new chapels decorated with mosaics on the fissured stone outcrop sanctified as Golgotha, and by 1153 they had built the new five-storey bell tower adjacent to the magnificent entrance façade, built in Romanesque style and decorated with local Eastern motifs. Also in Romanesque style similar to the great cathedrals built along the pilgrimage route across France and into Spain – Tours, Limoges, Conques, Toulouse and Santiago de Compostela itself – the Franks began their replacement for Constantine’s basilica in the 1130s, finishing it in the 1160s.

But the limited space available between the Rotunda and the chapels to the east marking various holy sites meant building to a unique plan. The nave was dispensed with, and instead the choir was built almost immediately east of the Rotunda, the two separated by a broad-aisled transept which served as a substitute nave. An ambulatory encircled the choir and was marked by the numerous chapels all the way round, allowing pilgrims in great numbers to circulate freely through the church and pause at the chapels for their prayers. The penultimate stop was Golgotha, where pilgrims left the crosses they had carried with them throughout their pilgrimage from home; then finally they prayed at the empty tomb of Christ at the centre of the Rotunda, the most important shrine of the Christian faith. Except for some depredations by Saladin and his successors, this is essentially the church one sees today.

At the same time as work was under way on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Hospitallers were building their new Hospital directly opposite, immediately to the south. Moreover, according to William of Tyre, it was ‘far higher and more costly than the church which had been consecrated by the precious blood of our Saviour’. Like the Templars, the Hospitallers were answerable to no one but the pope, and at Jerusalem, although their Hospital was located in the Patriarch’s Quarter, they maintained a strict autonomy which led to friction and eventually a rowdy dispute during which the Knights of St John rang all their bells to annoy the patriarch when he gave a sermon in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. ‘Whenever the lord patriarch went up to speak to the people, according to custom, from the place where the Saviour of mankind hung for our salvation’, wrote William of Tyre, ‘they endeavoured to hinder the celebration of the office entrusted to him. With intentional malice they set their many great bells ringing so loudly and persistently that the voice of the patriarch could not rise above the din, nor could the people, in spite of all his efforts, hear him.’5

Yet despite this behaviour the Hospitallers were well regarded – principally for their charitable works in the city. John of Würzburg, who visited Jerusalem in about 1165, described the Hospital ‘in which are gathered in various rooms a huge number of sick people, both men and women, who are cared for and refreshed daily at very great expense’. Two thousand people were looked after by the Hospital at the time of his visit, he said, and it ‘also sustains with its food as many people outside as inside’, quite apart from manning castles ‘for the defence of the land of the Christians against the incursions of the Saracens’.6

In writing about the Hospitallers, John of Würzburg made a significant comparison between them and the Templars, who also gave ‘a considerable amount of alms to the poor in Christ, but not a tenth part of that which is done by the Hospitallers’.7 A succinct explanation for this came from Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master, in a memorandum from 1305: ‘The Hospitallers were founded to care for the sick, and beyond that they bear arms [. . .] whereas the Templars were founded specifically for military service.’8 Whereas the Hospitallers had grown out of a breakaway group of Benedictine monks and continued to include sisters in their ranks, the Templars began as a company of secular knights. Initiates to both orders swore to be ‘serf and slave’, but for the Hospitallers that meant to the sick, while a Templar swore to be serf and slave to the order itself. For the Templars the defence of Outremer was their overriding priority, to which they gave their resources and their lives; for the Hospitallers warfare was an extension of their service to the sick and poor, and they correspondingly gave less of their resources to castle-building and military activities. As it happened, the Templars were much more representative of medieval society than the Hospitallers; membership of the Templars was open to everyone, from the richest noble to the poorest peasant, but they also drew a sharp distinction between their sergeants and their knights; unlike the Hospitallers, the Templars bestowed on their knights an elevated aura as a fighting elite, which set them apart. But the Hospitallers, in dividing their services between warfare and charitable services, kept one foot in the changing currents of medieval society, and that would help them to survive. The raison d’être for the Templars was to fight for the Holy Land, and if that battle was ever lost, the Templars too would fall.

Today nothing of the Hospital in Jerusalem survives – only the name, Muristan, meaning ‘hospital’, which is now applied to the late nineteenth-century Ottoman market that fills its place. After Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 various parts of the Hospital were converted into mosques and an Islamic college. By 1868 it was a heap of ruins. Nor does much evidence survive of the Templars after Saladin’s ‘purification’ of the Temple Mount – mostly fragments built into the Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, testimony to a workshop that stood at the southern end of the Mount, where a large quantity of exceptionally beautiful architectural sculpture was produced in a unique synthesis of Byzantine, Western European and Levantine styles.

But in the decades following the Second Crusade visitors to the Temple Mount were impressed with how it was being developed by the Templars. After prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its chapels associated with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus and the discovery of the True Cross, pilgrims walked to the Temple Mount, entering through the western gate near the south side of the Dome of the Rock, the Templum Domini, or Temple of the Lord, a church which, like the Holy Sepulchre, was under the guardianship of the Augustinian order. On the outer court the Augustinian canons and the Templars had built houses and planted gardens.

According to Theoderich, a German pilgrim who wrote about his visit to the Holy Land in 1172, the Temple of the Lord bore an inscription that read ‘The house of the Lord is well built upon a firm rock’, but as pilgrims were in the habit of chipping away bits of the holy rock, its surface had to be paved with marble and it was cordoned off by a tall and beautifully worked wrought-iron screen which was put up between the encircling columns. By choosing to identify the Dome of the Rock and also the Aqsa mosque with Solomon’s Temple and palace, the Franks incorporated them into the biblical heritage of Christianity; rather than destroy them, they preserved them by turning them to Christian use.

From the Temple of the Lord, continued Theoderich, the pilgrims made their way south to the Templar headquarters at the Aqsa mosque, or rather what he called the Palace of Solomon,

        which is oblong, and supported by columns within like a church, and at the end is round like a sanctuary and covered by a great round dome. This building, with all its appurtenances, has passed into the hands of the Knights Templar, who dwell in it and in the other buildings connected with it, having many magazines of arms, clothing, and food in it, and are ever on the watch to guard and protect the country. They have below them stables for horses built by King Solomon himself in the days of old, adjoining the palace, a wondrous and intricate building resting on piers and containing an endless complication of arches and vaults, which stable, we declare, according to our reckoning, could take in ten thousand horses with their grooms. No man could send an arrow from one end of their building to the other, either lengthways or crossways, at one shot with a Balearic bow. Above, it abounds with rooms, solar chambers, and buildings suitable for all manner of uses. Those who walk upon the roof of it find an abundance of gardens, courtyards, ante-chambers, vestibules and rain-water cisterns; while down below it contains a wonderful number of baths, storehouses, granaries, and magazines for the storage of wood and other needful provisions.

Clearly the Templars had considerably renovated what had been a truncated and dilapidated building. But they were doing far more.

        On another side of the palace, that is to say on the western side, the Templars have erected a new building. I could give the measurements of its height, length, and breadth of its cellars, refectories, staircases, and roof, rising with a high pitch, unlike the flat roofs of that country; but even if I did so, my hearers would hardly be able to believe me. They have built a new cloister there in addition to the old one which they had in another part of the building. Moreover, they are laying the foundations of a new church of wonderful size and workmanship in this place, by the side of the great court.9

The Templars had grandly transformed the southern part of the Temple Mount into the combined administrative, military and religious headquarters of their order, with a vast stable underneath. The Temple Mount was the nerve centre of the entire Templar order, not only for Outremer but for Europe too. France, England, Aragon, Poitou, Portugal, Apulia and Hungary each had a provincial master, who was responsible to the Grand Master. But the Grand Master, although he had considerable powers, did not rule as an autocrat. All major decisions taken by the Grand Master, such as whether to go to war, agree a truce, alienate lands or acquire a castle, required that he consult with the Grand Chapter, which was comprised of senior officials.

The Grand Master, who was elected by twelve senior members of the order, had his chambers here and was attended by his entourage, which included a chaplain, two knights, a clerk, a sergeant and a Muslim scribe to act as an interpreter, as well as servants and a cook. The Seneschal, the Marshal, the Draper and the Commander of the kingdom of Jerusalem were also here along with their attendants. The Seneschal was deputy and adviser to the Grand Master. The Draper was keeper of the robes; he also issued clothes and bed linen, removed items from knights who were thought to have too much and distributed gifts made to the order. The Marshal was responsible for military decisions, such as the purchase of equipment and horses, and he exercised authority over the regional commanders. These were the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, who acted as the order’s treasurer and within the kingdom had the same powers as the Grand Master; the Commander of Jerusalem, who within the city had the same powers as the Grand Master; and the commanders of Acre, Tripoli and Antioch, each with the powers of the Grand Master within their domains. In addition there were about three hundred Templar knights and a thousand sergeants on active service in the kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the native light cavalry, called Turcopoles, who were employed by the order, and numerous auxiliaries, including grooms, blacksmiths, armourers and stonemasons, and many of these would have been quartered on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount was a busy place. Yet at its heart it was as silent as any monastery, for the Templars followed the canonical hours like any Cistercian or Benedictine monk, and otherwise caring for their horses. The so-called Stables of Solomon were, in fact, a substructure of vaults and arches built by Herod to extend the platform of the Mount, and later reconstruction work was undertaken by the Umayyads and the Templars. The Templars indeed used this as a stable, but Theoderich’s claim that ten thousand horses could be stabled beneath the Mount is an exaggeration; other travellers estimated the capacity at about two thousand horses, and allowing space for squires, grooms and perhaps even pilgrims sleeping there, the number of horses stabled at any one time was more like five hundred. A gate constructed by the Templars in the southern wall of the Temple Mount gave direct access to their headquarters and to the stables.

These warrior monks were a powerful force in the Holy Land, whose defence since the Second Crusade fell increasingly on their shoulders. Vassals under the feudal system produced no more than 1,000 knights throughout the whole of Outremer, although the king of Jerusalem did have sufficient resources to hire mercenaries. Nevertheless, by the 1170s the Templars alone had 300 knights and another 1,000 sergeants based at Jerusalem, and a similar number distributed among Tripoli, Antioch, Tortosa and Baghras: in other words 600 knights and 2,000 sergeants in all. When the Hospitallers were included, the military orders provided the greater part of the military prowess of the Frankish states in the East.10

Far from being fanatics forever in search of battle with the infidel, as sometimes they are portrayed, the Templars were pragmatic and conservative in their approach to politics and warfare – if anything, more so than the counts and kings of Outremer, who were driven by personal and dynastic ambitions in the here and now. In becoming a Knight Templar each man surrendered his will to the order, as in the words of one recruit: ‘I, renouncing secular life and its pomp, relinquishing everything, give myself to the Lord God and to the knighthood of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, that, as long as I shall live, in accordance with my strength, I shall serve there a complete pauper for God.’11

Self-will was replaced with service to the order and its aims, and the Templars were playing a long game, dedicated to defending the Holy Land for all time. In any case, conflict in the Middle Ages tended to be more about sieges of cities and castles than battle in the open field, which was unpredictable and risky even under the most favourable circumstances. And in Outremer patience had its rewards, as it was usually only a matter of time before the uneasy Muslim coalitions against the Christians fell apart. And so it was with confidence that the Templars looked out from their headquarters atop the Temple Mount upon Jerusalem and the future that lay beyond.

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