A History of the Knights Templar in the Crusades:
A Basic Overview

compiled by Ron "Modar" Knight

Part I
 
         

To truly understand the origins of the Age of Crusades and the subsequent formation of the Knights Templar, one must first have a basic concept of the background affecting the religious and political climate that led up to the fateful day of Tuesday, November 28, 1095.

First, the Christian World considered the city of Jerusalem theirs by right. After all, Jerusalem was the Holy City of Christ and Christ was upon whom their One True Church was established. Even the common man in the street believed this. After all the religious leaders of the time had ordained it so.

Second, there was a split of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Out of this arose two major religious factions or churches. One church was the Greek Orthodox Church, also known as the Eastern Church, and it was based in Constantinople, the major city of the Eastern Roman Empire. The other church was the Roman Church, also called the Holy See, which was based in Rome, the major city of the Western Roman Empire, oft times referred to as the Holy Roman Empire. Each of the churches claimed to be the One True Church according to the will of God. And both had followers in Jerusalem. Needless to say, this would lead to centuries of conflict between the two.

Third, besides the Roman Church who followed the Pope and the Eastern Church who looked to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople as their spiritual leader, there were various "unorthodox heretical sects" around and within Jerusalem which did not acknowledge either the Roman or Eastern church. The largest three of these sects were the Nestorians, the Jacobites and the Copts. The Nestorians believed in a separation of Christ's human and spiritual natures. They were based in Syria but had missionaries as far east as India and China. The other two large sects, the Copts and the Jacobites, both derived from a 5th century "heretical sect" known as the Monophysites. Both stressed the spiritual nature of Christ, to the point of forgetting about his humanity. The only real difference between the two was that the Copts were based in Egypt while the Jacobites were based in Syria. Other smaller sects included the Armenians, the Gnostics and the Manichaeans. Then there were the major non-Christian faiths in the Holy Land, the Moslem religion of Islam and, of course, the Jewish faith. From this conglomerate, one can see that no one religion could in reality have authority or dominance, either as the One True Church or as rightful possessor of the Holy City of Jerusalem. This did not sit well with the Roman Church.

Fourth, western Christendom lost control of the city of Jerusalem in the 7th century when it was captured by a Moslem army. While this greatly upset the Roman Church, there was little they could do. As for the Eastern Church, they found they liked the new arrangement. As their symbol of Christian Unity lay with the Byzantine Emperor, not the city of Jerusalem, they were not as concerned with who was "landlord". Besides, they found that while the Moslems might be infidels, as rulers they were reasonable and just. Taxes actually became lighter than they had been when the city was under Christian domination. Also, Christians (of any sect) and Jews were given freedom of worship in accordance with the law of the Prophet Mohammed. The Roman Church might not have liked it, but Jerusalem ran fairly smoothly in non-Christian hands.

This established the status quo that would more or less dominate the next three and a half centuries. Despite minor skirmishes and persecutions, the various religions in the Holy Lands existed in reasonable tolerance with each other and life went on. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, tried to ignore the Western Roman Empire and began to grow, taking over Dalmatia, Syria and southern Italy.

As the 11th century began, life for the average European was a grim time filled with constant struggle. Serfdom still existed. The peasant class, although free men, were little better off than the serfs. Those people who were "of wealth" were not endowed with money, but merely had lots more of the same things the peasants had. Life was harsh and brutal. Existence was precarious. Settlements were small and far apart. Vast regions of forestland separated these settlements and travel between them was difficult and dangerous to say the least. Most people lived and died within the same village, and few ever traveled farther than 10 miles from the place of their birth. Only three things really concerned most people: 1) food; 2) duty to the landowner; 3) one's soul. At this time, for the majority of people, Christianity was a religion of guilt and God was considered a god of fury, wrath and terror, and most expected that with the millennium having occurred, Christ would descend for his second coming almost at any moment and take vengeance on a sinful world.

By the early 1050s, things had gotten better. It was apparent that God wasn't going to destroy the world immediately. A change in social structure had solidified and at least three social orders were recognized--the peasantry, the nobility and the clergy. Also, one of the basic needs of life was now being satisfied--everyone was getting enough to eat. With enough food to go around, the populace was beginning to build. However, peace was not in the picture. While the peasants worked and the clergy prayed, the nobility and their knights fought one another.

In an attempt to maintain a semblance of safety for the common man and to keep some vestige of order, the Church introduced two policies. One was the "Peace of God" which granted immunity from attacks to the peasants, clergy and sacred places. The second was the "Truce of God" which forbade fighting to occur on holy days and during Lent. However, not everyone was willing to forego a fighting advantage merely because of a certain day on the calendar and this policy went by the wayside.

Another major change was that people from all classes were becoming pilgrims. For the first time, there was an escape from the constricted existence that most people lived. A sense of unity and country was beginning to form in the common man.

Also, the conflict between the Eastern Church and the Roman Church had changed. All the Eastern Church wanted by now was to be left alone and allowed to worship God in its own way. The Roman Church, however, was not of the same mind. Still claiming to be the one, and only, True Church of God, they were continually making antagonistic actions against the Eastern Church. By the mid-1050s, each church had excommunicated the other.

Then, in 1073, a Cluniac monk named Hildebrand ascended to the Roman Church's Throne of St. Peter as Pope Gregory VII. He would continue the attitude of this century by bringing drastic changes, both to the Roman Church and the world.

Gregory was full of "righteous fire" and was determined to prove to all that he was the head of the True Church. To achieve this end, he began to put into effect a plan that would establish church rule over secular matters. (Religious matters were already under his control.) He began by officially restricting the title of papa or pope to the bishop of Rome (that is, for use by him exclusively), thereby refuting any claims by the Eastern Church.

He then made mandatory by ecclesiastical law the formerly voluntary act of respect by secular heads (princes/princesses, kings/queens) of kissing the foot of the pope upon meeting. He further stated via edict that the divine right of kings flowed from God to earthly rulers through the medium of Christ's vicar on earth, the pope. The pope therefore had the authority to bestow or remove rulership. A new and radical concept.

Gregory's decrees then reached down to directly affect the common man. As a monk, Gregory had taken a vow of celibacy and he believed in its correctness for all those with a religious vocation. Because of this belief, he repealed all former decrees allowing clerical marriages and stated that all current clerical marriages were to be set aside. This was not received well because, at this time, over fifty percent of all priests in Europe were married, and, up until now, marriage for priests had been encouraged. Because of the reluctance of the clergy to conform to this decree, Gregory attempted to encourage its acceptance by proclaiming that any married priests who did not set aside their wives were forbidden to exercise any priestly function. Furthermore, the laity (common folk) were threatened with excommunication if they did not shun priests who refused to conform with the decree. Then Gregory sent out legates to enforce these laws.

While Gregory was stirring up a hornet's nest, the Eastern Empire was having trouble of its own. The Turks had surged into Asia Minor and pushed back the Byzantine borders. At the same time, it lost its possessions in Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard. This takeover of Italy by the Normans was encouraged by Gregory because the lands they conquered immediately converted their allegiance from the Eastern Church to the Roman Church.

Michael VII, the Byzantium Emperor of the time, who had usurped the throne from his father, was having internal political strife already. Losing lands both in the east and the west was fueling even more political turmoil. He attempted diplomacy to stabilize the situation, by proposing that his infant son, and heir to the Empire, be betrothed to the child daughter of the Norman leader, Robert Guiscard. Pope Gregory was enthusiastic in his support of this as the future Empress of Byzantium would be a Roman Catholic.

While the move stopped the loss of more lands to the Normans, it did not cure the internal erosion and in 1078 a revolt led by a provincial governor named Nicephorus occurred. Michael didn't even put up a fight. Instead, he put aside his wife and retired to a monastery. His wife, being a practical lady, offered her hand to the new Emperor. He accepted and she continued being Empress. Pope Gregory's gift to the new couple was a decree of excommunication.

Within months another revolt took place within Byzantium, this time led by a Byzantium army general in league with the Turkish sultan Suleiman. The revolt failed, but resulted with Suleiman taking control of the sacred Christian city of Nicaea, less than 100 miles from Constantinople. Here, Suleiman established his new capital.

All of this led to even more internal strife within the Byzantine Empire and many factions surfaced. One of the more powerful of these was the Comneni faction, who had in its lineage several former Byzantine rulers. When things finally came to a head, Nicephorus was deposed and Alexius Comnenus of the Comneni faction was declared the new emperor. Pope Gregory immediately excommunicated him, too.

Pope Gregory continued to make changes designed to give him even more power and control. This time he would ban the practice of lay "investiture". This was the right of kings and noblemen to appoint bishops and abbots to the religious land holdings in their domains. As these holdings were usually quite large and in some areas took up as much as 40% of a domain's surface area, anyone who received such holdings would be extremely grateful to the bestower. Also, these appointees owed fealty to the bestower and the appointee would favor the bestower with benefices. Which came to mean, that the bestower would "sell" the appointment to the highest bidder. This became an important source of revenue for local rulers.

This practice, often called "simony" after Simon Magus, the first recorded purchaser of a spiritual office, offended Gregory. He declared that all appointments must be made by the Holy See, and not by any layman, be they even king. This rocked the temporal world with its assertion of papal power. The fact that the cleric recipients of such appointments would owe fealty to no one but the Pope and that there would be a tremendous loss of income to local rulers, was staggering.

It was shortly after this that Gregory was kidnapped from the altar at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. He was taken to a house in the Roman suburbs where he was beaten, insulted and threatened by unknown assailants, until he was located and rescued by citizens of Rome the following morning. However, this did not shake his convictions and he pronounced the ban on lay investitures in even stronger terms, stating that even the Holy Roman Emperor could not name so much as a subdeacon in his own territories. That power lay only with the pope.

Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, looked with disfavor upon this pronouncement. He had been cautiously watching Gregory's increasing growth of power and he wasn't about to give up any of his own traditional rights and powers to the pope. He ignored the papal decrees. Upon learning of this, Gregory wrote Henry demanding a written confession of his sins against the Church. Henry responded by calling a council at Worms and had Gregory declared deposed. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry, his followers and his subjects. Also, Gregory declared Henry a nonperson to which none should render allegiance or aid of any kind.

Henry preceded to ignore this and continued on, with no understanding of the impact that the excommunication would have on his people. Some of his bishops and nobles began to desert him. Finally, his people gave him an ultimatum--have the excommunication lifted or be abandoned by all his subjects. Henry immediately declared that he was leaving to go to Mantua, where he could meet with Gregory. It was near Mantua, at the castle of Canossa, where the incident that doomed Gregory was to occur.

On January 25, Henry arrived as a true penitent. Dressed only in sackcloth and bare feet, he climbed up to the castle in the biting cold, where he pleaded for audience with the pope. Gregory decided to teach him a lesson and had him left in the freezing courtyard for three days and three nights before granting him permission to enter the papal presence. In exchange for Henry publicly promising to obey the pope in all things, Gregory lifted the excommunication. Then, with great showmanship, Gregory stated that he would demonstrate for the gathered populace that he was only acting in accordance with the will of God. He took consecrated bread from the altar and called upon God to make the bread stick in his throat and choke him to death if he was guilty of any wrongdoing. When he swallowed the bread with great ease, the assembled people went ecstatically wild, as they had witnessed with their own eyes that God blessed the pope's actions.

Gregory assumed this would put Henry in his place. He was wrong. Apparently, while nearly freezing in the courtyard, Henry had been thinking of revenge. And it quickly arrived. As soon as he got home, Henry got rid of all those who had not stood with him under the pope's excommunication, began strengthening his army, then invaded Italy and laid siege to Rome. Gregory had to flee. He first took refuge in the papal fortress of Castel Sant'Angelo, which was originally a massive circular structure known as Hadrian's Mausoleum before it was reworked. From this temporary sanctuary Gregory was rescued by the Normans under Robert Guiscard. The Normans took Gregory south, but not before they took advantage of the situation to pillage the Holy City.

Alexius Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, feeling no love loss toward Gregory, arranged an alliance with Henry. Alexius closed all Roman Churches in the Eastern Empire and contributed funds to Henry's campaign against Gregory.

Henry then called a council to appoint a pope of his own choosing. Guilbert of Ravenna was installed in Rome as Pope Clement III. This became the shaky status quo for a few years until Gregory, who had been living in exile in Salerno died, in 1085. At this point, Cardinals still loyal to the belief that Gregory was the true pope, declared Clement III an anti-pope and elected the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino as Pope Victor III.

Victor was a frail, colorless and, by most accounts, quiet man. He had no chance to accomplish anything before his death of natural causes two years later, in September 1087. However, it did give time for anger to die down from the actions Gregory had imposed. It didn't totally disappear however, and Gregory adversaries still supported their own pope, Clement III. Whoever was chosen to succeed Victor would face many problems.

Indeed that selection would not take place until March of 1088. The cardinal-bishop of Ostia, Odo de Lagery, who was originally from Chatillon-sur-Marne, would be chosen to take authority of the Roman Church as Pope Urban II. He was known as a far-seeing man, both shrewd and charismatic. He would need all his skills in the future.

What Urban saw about him was total dishevelment. The strongest ruler of his own Empire was the strongest temporal enemy of the Roman Church and this enemy was in league with the Byzantium Emperor who was the leader of the Eastern Church, which was the strongest spiritual enemy of the Roman Church. Urban had few funds to work with, as revenues were still being sent to Rome where an anti-pope sat on the Throne of St. Peter. Urban had a lot of things to fix.

Determined to rectify the situation, Urban started working. Instead of seeking to achieve it in the arrogant manner that Gregory had, Urban tried a different tactic. He used persuasion, compromises and courteous, conciliatory suggestions. He gave respect without demanding devotion. In that day and age, such courteous, gentle behavior to obtain a goal was unheard of, and it put people off their guard. Through this means, he won the devotion and respect of many people.

One of his first acts was to absolve the excommunication imposed by Gregory on Byzantine Emperor Alexius. This elicited a very friendly response from Alexius and set the tone for a good relationship between the Roman Church and the neighboring empire. The final result was that the funds that Alexius had been supporting Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and the anti-pope Clement III with, dried up.

Gradually more and more support came Urban's way, both from rulers and clergy. Spain was completely behind him. All of the French clergy followed his lead. Even the Holy Roman Emperor's son, Conrad, supported him--so much so, that he revolted against his father. All of Christendom was beginning to fall under the influence of the "reborn" Roman Church. Urban had led the papacy through its "trial of fire" and it had survived to enjoy once again a position of respect. In 1093, Urban was able to return to Rome and take up residence in the Lateran Palace.

Urban avoided making aggressive claims like Gregory had, yet he shared the same view of the Roman Church having supreme control of all things, both spiritual and temporal. His approach to achieving this end was just different. It required waiting for the right time and situation, which was not long in coming. It arrived in the form of a letter from Byzantine Emperor Alexius.

Alexius needed help. A decade earlier he had gotten involved in a war with the "heretical" Seljuk Turks. The war had been going well, but while the Byzantium Empire was wealthy, it did not have the population base it needed to supply enough troops to protect all the Byzantine areas in the Balkans, the Danube territories and Asia Minor. To remedy this problem, Alexius had turned to hiring mercenaries. The need being so great, he had recruited from everywhere he could, including nomadic tribesmen from the steppes, Norman fighter-adventures and even Anglo-Saxon refugees from the conquest of England. Things had fared well until recently, when the Normans turned against him. Now, he desperately needed experienced fighting men. With nowhere else to turn, Alexius appealed to Pope Urban for aid.

Urban immediately saw an opportunity too great to miss and set into motion a plan that would eventually affect thousands of lives over a two hundred year span. The first thing Urban did was call his first council enclave in March of 1095, seven years after becoming pope, at Piacenza in northern Italy. Majorly two things occurred at the council. First, the anti-pope and his followers were formally excommunicated. Second, envoys from Emperor Alexius were allowed to appeal for aid in their war efforts. These envoys spoke of atrocities committed by the savage Turks: women and girls were abused like animals and forced into vile sexual acts; Christian boys were cruelly circumcised, then held so that their blood would fall into the baptismal font; captured Christian men of any rank were sodomised; and a never before heard of act of committing sodomy upon the persons of priests and bishops. The envoys implored in the name of humanity and Christianity that forces be sent to retaliate for such atrocities.

Following the Council of Piacenza, Urban began travelling throughout France, formulating his plan. He believed that by supporting a Holy War effort, he could solve several problems, including the constant fighting of nobles among themselves. By giving them a common enemy to fight, he could direct their aggression toward something worthwhile, instead of trying to curb their warlike nature, which could lead to further problems. Also, lesser sons of noble families could be sent there to gain land. This would not only increase the area of influence of the Church, but hopefully put an end to the near-banditry they were practicing to "amuse" themselves, as they had nothing to inherit now that the laws of primogeniture had taken hold. And, primarily, this Holy War would be a great chance to return the Holy City of Jerusalem to Christian control, this time under Roman Church rule instead of Eastern Church rule. Yes, he was for helping Alexius fend off the heretics, but more importantly, interested in helping his own cause while doing it.

Now one sees the ingenuity and theatrical showmanship that Urban possessed. As he traveled, Urban announced that a second council would occur that year in mid-November at Clermont in the Massif Central and that all should attend, as a matter of great import would be addressed there. Strangely, as Urban's tour progressed, more and more reports and rumors began to circulate of people claiming to have seen showers of stars, comets, the Aurora Borealis and other portents of major significance. No one knew what was going to happen at the council to come, but as the summer went on, anticipation of the event grew and grew.

On November 18, 1095 the Council of Clermont began. It was announced that on the 27th there would be a public session at which time the pope would make a momentous announcement. Until then, Urban and the 300-plus clergy present would hold enclave. For the next nine days, as hordes of people continued to arrive, the Council debated various issues and gave formal decisions. Anathema was pronounced against simony, clerical marriages and the retention of ecclesiastical benefits by lay people. All the things that Pope Gregory had been driven into exile over were heartily embraced because of Urban's persuasive manner.

By the 27th, the crowds in Clermont were so immense that there was no single building that could hold them. So the announcement was postponed a day while the site was moved from the local cathedral to the Champet, a large open space outside the church of Notre-Dame-du-Port on the city's eastern edge. There, a high platform was built to raise the papal throne above the crowd. Finally, on Tuesday, November 28th, Urban addressed the crowd.

Urban made it clear at the beginning of his speech that he was not speaking just to those assembled, but to all of Christendom. With persuasive eloquence, he spoke of Emperor Alexius' plea and the threat to their Christian brothers and sisters to the east. He went into much detail about the horrors being committed by the Muslims. Most likely he spent so much time describing the atrocities to stir up hatred, because, at the time, virtually no one in Europe (outside the Iberian peninsula) knew anything about them and had no reason to dislike them. By the time Urban finished, his audience hated the Muslims and were ready to kill. But then the crafty Urban sweetened the deal by declaring that anyone who undertook the venture to the Holy Lands would be absolved of all current sins and that should anyone die in this service, they were assured a place in heaven. To the lay person, who could never be sure where the state of his soul lay and usually hoped for purgatory, at best, upon death, the thought of having a place in heaven guaranteed to them, was staggering. Then, when Urban let it be known that nobles could claim and keep territory they gained in the Holy Lands, the younger noble sons were chomping at the bit to head for the Holy Lands.

When Urban concluded his inflammatory oration, a single voice in the crowd cried out, "Deus lo volt!" (God wills it!). Perhaps it was a planted accomplice, or one who had truly taken the message to heart. Whichever, the crowd quickly took up the chant. Almost immediately following this, Adhemar de Monteil, Bishop of le Pay, who almost certainly knew the contents of the oration in advance, was the first to kneel before the papal throne to plead for permission to go to the Holy Lands and fight for this cause. Urban reached into his inner robes and tore off a piece of red cloth that he formed into a cross which he gave to Adhemar, proclaiming that every man who took the vow to go to the Holy Lands was to wear a cross made of red cloth sewn to his surcoat as a public declaration of that vow. A stock of cloth crosses had been prepared in advance, to be sewn onto the clothes of those volunteering. By sunset the whole stock was depleted. By the end of the week, no red cloth could be found in the area. The first crusade had begun.


Go to Part II

Return to "A History of the Knights Templar in the Crusades: A Basic Overview" Index page

Go to the Baille of Sidon/Knights Templar page

Go to Modar's Templar Persona Page

1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Ron "Modar" Knight
Baron Modar Neznanich, CLM, CSH, CT, CCC, OPel
e-mail:
modar@everestkc.net

Permission to Print.