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Military Orders of the Crusades |
The fighting monks of Outremer

Military Orders of the Crusades is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 35, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Feared and hated by the Muslims, the Hospitallers and Templars fast became the standing Christian army of the Holy Land but bitter rivals of one another

Military Orders of the Crusades - The fighting monks of Outremer

Military Orders of the Crusades - The fighting monks of Outremer
This painting of Hugh de Payns, founder of the Order of the Knights Templar, is from the Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France, and was commissioned in 1841. The painting is by Henri Charles Lehmann.

When a Cistercian abbot proposed founding a monastery in the Holy Land after the Crusaders had captured Jerusalem, the twelfth-century church reformer Bernard of Clairvaux scoffed aloud. “The necessities there,” he declared, “are fighting knights, not singing and wailing monks.”

Bernard, a devout monk himself, was keenly aware of the harsh realities in Outremer, where any Christian life was at risk beyond the walls of a fortified castle. But suppose, he mused, you could combine in one man the spiritual purity of a monk with the valor and skill of a knight? Such a warrior-monk was what the Holy Land really needed.

Thus, in 1129 Bernard persuaded the pope to recognize a new type of order: armed monks. They were to be called the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, the last a reference to their residence in Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, believed located above the site of Solomon’s Temple.

A tiny band at first, known as “the Templars,” they fulfilled the vision of the French knight Hugh de Payns. They had begun ten years earlier under the Benedictine Rule, dedicated to the protection of pilgrims on the roads leading to Jerusalem. But soon the desperate shortage of professional soldiers spurred them to become an autonomous order reporting directly to the pope. Founder Hugh scoured Europe for donations and for recruits, who would don the order’s distinctive white mantle with a large red cross.

Meanwhile, another group of monks devoted to the care of pilgrims had already been at work for about ten years in the Holy Land. This was the Order of St. John of the Hospital, another subset that adhered to the Benedictine life.1 Founded by a veteran of the First Crusade known to history only as “Brother Gerard,” they ran a hospice for pilgrims and traders at Jerusalem that by 1113 could accommodate two thousand people. When their founder died seven years later, he was described in his epitaph as “the most humble man in the East and the servant of the poor.”

By 1113 the Hospitallers, as they became known, also gained papal recognition as an independent order dedicated to assisting the poor and sick. But what pilgrims needed as much as a hospital was physical protection. So under a new leader, Raymond du Puy, they added soldiering to their hospital services. Their knights wore a white cross on a mantle of red or black.

The Templars and Hospitallers became popular charities and bitter rivals as both expanded rapidly and grew rich throughout the twelfth century. At their height the Templars had fifteen to twenty thousand members, about ten percent of them fighting knights. The Hospitallers, with some eight thousand knights and scores of general members, became even larger and richer.

Both acquired a reputation for extraordinary courage and fighting skills. They were widely admired throughout Christendom and feared and hated by the Muslims. Initially their members were esteemed for pursuing an ascetic lifestyle that included vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Rule of Benedict augmented by their own customs. The Templars slept fully dressed in dormitories lighted round the clock (both to remain ever prepared for battle and to discourage homosexual liaisons). Each order was headed by a grand master. Templar soldiers included knights, who were of noble birth, and sergeants, who were not. The Hospitallers made no such distinctions in social class.

Gradually, however, resentment and suspicion began to surround the orders, particularly after a papal bull in 1139 exempted them from taxes. Both orders set up businesses across Europe that ranged from banking to millworks to shipping companies. They bought and managed vineyards, were active in mining, constructed churches and castles, ran import and export businesses, and had their own fleets of ships.

The Templars acquired more than six thousand manors and estates that employ-ed thousands of lay workers as well as monks. Such activity was common to most monasteries, though the spectacular scale of the Templar operations attracted particular attention. In fact, many Templars who had volunteered to fight for the Holy Land never left Europe. Within Outremer the Hospitallers held seven great fortresses, including mighty Kerak des Chevaliers in Tripoli, and another forty fortified towers and one hundred and forty estates, while at their peak the Templars had nearly forty fortresses, with the strongest at Acre, on the Mediterranean coast west of the Sea of Galilee.

But the secrecy surrounding their operations raised questions about their true purposes and their use of the resources given them to secure the Holy Land. This suspicion focused more on the Templars than on the Hospitallers because the latter never did abandon their compassionate role. They maintained their hospice and hospital in Jerusalem, erected similar pilgrim facilities in Europe’s port cities, and distributed alms daily to the poor. The Templars displayed few humanitarian concerns and scant generosity. However, they did make pilgrimage safer and easier by inventing checks so that travelers could avoid carrying large sums of money. In trade they also developed a close relationship with Muslim merchants, which angered crusader allies.

None of these diversions, however, was allowed to eclipse their military role. Together they formed, in effect, the only standing army in the Holy Land and became crucial in almost every military campaign. At Montgiscard in 1177, for example, an ambush by five hundred Templars routed Saladin’s army of twenty-six thousand and saved Jerusalem from imminent capture.

But the rivalry of the two became a deepening problem. In one Egyptian campaign led by the king of Jerusalem, the Templars refused to aid the Hospitallers, who consequently lost two hundred and ninety-seven of three hundred knights in battle. When Jerusalem negotiated a treaty with the Assassins, the Templars scuttled the deal by killing a Muslim envoy so that they would not lose the annual tribute the Assassins were paying them.

Christians in the Holy Land slowly fractured into two competing factions. The Hospitallers, combined with second- and third-generation Outremer barons, tended to cooperate with surrounding non-Christian neighbors and were opposed to military risks. The Templars, allied with newly arrived European nobles and adventurers, leaned toward more aggressive tactics. Their rashness eventually led to disaster. At a crucial moment the Templars prevailed on a weak king of Jerusalem to make a move that proved fatal to Christian Jerusalem (see chapter 3).

The two orders maintained the crusaders’ toehold in Outremer through to the late thirteenth century. Driven out, they both reestablished headquarters on Cyprus. By then, however, jealousy of their wealth and power had grown irrepressible, bringing the Templars to a sad end (see sidebar, page 224). But the Hospitallers survived to conduct on the island of Malta in the year 1565 one of the most spectacular and heroic victories the Christians would ever record against Islam. That story will be told in volume 9. n

This is the end of the Military Orders of the Crusades category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 35, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Military Orders of the Crusades from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at