Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

B3. Return of the Templars to the East

Exoneration and Refutation of the Charge of a Connection with the Ismailites—Actions of the Templars—Crusade of Louis VII.—Siege of Ascalon—Sale of Nassir-ed-deen—Corruption of the Hospitallers—The bull, Omne Datum Optimum—Refusal of the Templars to march against Egypt—Murder of the Ismailite Envoy.

In the year 1129 Hugh de Payens, accompanied by 300 knights of the noblest families in Europe, who had become members of the order, and followed by a large train of pilgrims, returned to the Holy Land. Shortly after his arrival, the unlucky expedition to Damascus above narrated, was undertaken, and the Templars formed a portion of the troops which marched, as they fancied, to take possession of that city. As has been observed, this is the first occasion on which we find the Christians in alliance and connection with the Ismailites; and as Hammer, the historian of the last, makes the grave charge against Hugh de Payens, of having modelled his new society on the plan of that deadly association, and of having been the chief planner and instigator of the treacherous attempt on Damascus, we will suspend the course of our narration, to discuss the probability of that opinion, though in so doing we must anticipate a little respecting the organisation of the Order of the Temple.

Hammer argues an identity between the two orders, as he styles them, of the Ismailites and the Templars, from the similarity of their dress, their internal organisation, and their secret doctrine; and as the two societies existed in the same country, and that of the Ismailites was first instituted, he infers that this was the original, and that of the Templars the copy.

First, with respect to the outward habiliment, the dress of the order. Nothing, as appears to us, can be weaker than to lay any stress on so casual a circumstance as similarity of forms or colours, more especially when a true and distinct cause for the assumption of them on either side can be assigned. The colour of the khalifs of the house of Ommiyah was white; hence the house of Abbas, in their contest with them, adopted black, as their distinguishing hue; and hence, when the Abbassides were in possession of the supreme power, all those who, under pretence of supporting the rights of the family of Ali, or on any other pretext, raised the standard of revolt against them, naturally selected white, as the sign of their opposition. Hassan Sabah, therefore, only retained the use of the colour which he found already established. When he formed the institution of the Fedavee, or the Devoted to Death, what more suitable mark of distinction could he assign them than a red girdle or cap, which indicated their readiness to spill their own blood or that of others? With respect to the Templars, the society of the Hospitallers was already existing when Hugh de Payens and his companions resolved to form themselves into a new association. The mantle worn by the members of the Hospital was black: what colour then was so natural for them to adopt as its opposite, white? and when, nearly thirty years after their institution, the pope appointed them or gave them permission to wear a cross on their mantle, like the rival order, no colour could present itself so well suited to those who daily and hourly exposed themselves to martyrdom, as that of blood, in which there was so much of what was symbolical.

With respect to internal organisation, it will, we apprehend, be always found that this is, for the most part, the growth of time and the product of circumstances, and is always nearly the same where these last are similar. The dominion of the Assassins extended over large tracks of country; hence arose the necessity of appointing lieutenants. In like manner, when the Templars got large possessions in the West and the East, they could not avoid, after the example of the Hospitallers, appointing persons to manage the affairs of the society in different countries. Hence, then, as the Ismailites had their Sheikh-al-Jebal, with his Dais-al-Kebir of Kuhistan and Syria, so the Templars had their Master and their Priors of different provinces. The resemblance is so far exact, but, as we see, easily accounted for. That which Hammer goes on to draw between the component parts of each society is altogether fanciful. To the Refeek, Fedavee and Lazik of the Ismailites, he sets as counterparts the knights, esquires, and serving-brethren of the Templars. It is needless to point out the arbitrariness of this comparison. The chaplains of the Templars, we may see, are omitted, and it was, perhaps, they who bore the greatest resemblance to the Refeeks, while neither knights nor esquires had the smallest similarity to the Fedavee.

As to a secret doctrine, we shall hereafter discuss the question whether the Templars had one or not. Here we shall only observe, that the proof of it, and of the ultimate object of the Templars being the same with that of the Ismailites, namely, the acquisition of independent power, adduced by Hammer, is by no means satisfactory. He says that it was the object of both societies to make themselves masters of the surrounding country, by the possession of fortresses and castles, and thus become formidable rivals to princes; and he sees, in the preceptories or houses of the Templars, the copies of the hill-forts of the Ismailites. That such was the design of this last society is quite apparent from the preceding part of our work; but what resemblance is there between such formidable places of defence as Alamoot and Lamseer, and the simple structures in which a few knights and their attendants dwelt in the different parts of Europe, and which were hardly, if at all, stronger than the ordinary baronial residences? and what resistance could the Temple of London or that of Paris offer to the royal strength, if put forth? Hammer has here again fallen into his usual error of arguing too hastily from accidental resemblances. The preceptories of the Templars were, as we shall show, the necessary consequence of the acquisition of property by the order, and had nothing hostile to society in their nature.

When we reflect on the character of the first crusaders, and particularly on that of the first Templars, and call to mind their piety, ignorance, and simplicity, nothing can appear more absurd than to ascribe to them secret philosophical doctrines of impiety, imbibed from those whose language they did not even understand, and whose religion and manners they held in abhorrence, and to suppose that the first poor knights of the Temple could have had visions of the future power of their order, and have looked forward to its dominion over the Christian world. "But this is a common mistake with ingenious men, who are for ever ascribing to the founders of empires, religions, and societies, that attribute of divinity which sees from the beginning the ultimate end, and forms all its plans and projects with a view to it. It is thus that some would fain persuade us that Mahommed, in his solitary cave at Mecca, saw clearly and distinctly the future triumphs of Islam, and its banners floating at the Pyrenees and the Oxus; that Cromwell, when an obscure individual, already in fancy grasped the sceptre of England; and that Loyola beheld the members of his order governing the consciences of kings, and ruling an empire in Paraguay. All such results are in fact the slow and gradual growth of time; one step leads to another, till the individual or the society looks back with amazement to the feeble commencement."

The Templars and the Ismailites are mentioned together by history in only one more relation, that is, on occasion of the tribute paid to the former by the Syrian branch of the latter, and the murder of the Ismailite ambassador above related. As this act was very probably committed by order of the Master of the Temple, who, it might be, doubted the ability or the future inclination of the king to pay the 3000 byzants a year, it testifies but little for any very friendly feeling between the Templars and the Ismailites. Yet Hammer opines that the 3000 byzants were paid, not as the tribute of the weaker to the stronger, but by way of pension for the secret services which the Templars were in the habit of rendering their cause; such, for example, as refusing on one occasion to join in the expedition against the khalif of Egypt, the great head of the society of the Assassins.

To narrate the various exploits of the knights of the Temple, would be to write the history of the Crusades; for, from the time that the order acquired strength and consistency, no action with the Infidels ever was fought in which the chivalry of the Temple did not bear a distinguished part. Their war-cry was ever heard in the thickest of the fray, and rarely was Bauseant seen to waver or give back in the conflict. The knights of St. John fought with emulative valour; the example of the rival orders stimulated all parts of the Christian army; and to this influence may be, in great measure, ascribed many of the most wonderful triumphs of the Cross during the twelfth century.

In the year 1147, when Pope Eugenius III. came to Paris to arrange the proposed crusade with Louis VII., both the pope and the king honoured with their presence a general chapter of the order of the Temple, which was holden at that place. It was probably on this occasion that the supreme pontiff conferred on the order the important privilege of having mass said once a year in places lying under interdict. The newly-elected Master of the Temple, Eberhard de Bar, and 130 knights, accompanied the king on his march for the Holy Land; and their valour and their skill greatly contributed towards the preservation of the crusading army in their unfortunate march through Lesser Asia. The siege of Damascus, which was undertaken after the arrival of the French and German kings in the Holy Land, miscarried, as is well known, through treachery. The traitors were doubtless the Pullani, as the Latins of Syria were called, who were at this time capable of every thing that is bad. Some writers most unjustly charge the Templars with this guilt; but those who are the best informed on the subject make no accusation against them. The charge, however, while it shows the power and consideration of the Templars at that time, may be considered to prove also that they had degenerated somewhat from their original virtue; for otherwise it could never have been made.

The Christian army laid siege in 1153 to the town of Ascalon, which the Saracens still held, and would have taken it, but for the cupidity of the Templars. A large heap of wood had been piled by the besiegers against a part of the wall, and set fire to. The wind blew strong towards the town during an entire night, carrying the smoke and heat into the town, so that the garrison was forced to retire from that quarter. The Christians fed the flames with pitch, oil, and other inflammable substances, and the wall next the pile, cracked by the heat, fell down, leaving a considerable breach. The army was preparing to enter at this opening when Bernard de Tremelai, the Master of the Temple, taking his station at it with his knights, refused all ingress. It was the law of war in those days, among the crusaders, that whatever house or spoil any one took when a town was stormed, became his property. The Templars, therefore, were eager to have the first choice; and having kept off all others, Tremelai, with forty of his knights, boldly entered a strongly-garrisoned town. But they paid the penalty of their rashness and cupidity; for the garrison surrounded and slew them all, and then closed up the breach.

One of the most disgraceful acts which stain the annals of the Templars occurred in the year 1155, when Bertrand de Blancford, whom William of Tyre calls a "pious and God-fearing man," was Master of the order. In a contest for the supreme power in Egypt, which the viziers, bearing the proud title of Sultan, exercised under the phantom-khalifs, Sultan Abbas, who had put to death the khalif his master, found himself obliged to fly from before the vengeance of the incensed people. With his harem, and his own and a great part of the royal treasures, he took his way through the Desert. A body of Christians, chiefly Templars, lay in wait for the fugitives near Ascalon; the resistance offered by the Moslems was slight and ineffectual; Abbas himself was either slain or fled, and his son Nassir-ed-deen and the treasures became the prize of the victors. The far larger part of the booty of course fell to the Templars; but this did not satisfy their avarice; and though Nassir-ed-deen had professed his desire to become a Christian, and had begun, by way of preparation for that change, to learn the Latin language, they sold him to his father's enemies for 60,000 pieces of gold, and stood by to see him bound hand and foot, and placed in a sort of cage or iron-latticed sedan, on a camel, to be conducted to Egypt, where a death by protracted torture awaited him.

The Hospitallers were at this time become as corrupt as the Templars; and in this same year, when the patriarch demanded from them the tithes which they were bound to pay him, they treated the demand with scorn; raised, to show their superior wealth, stately and lofty buildings, before the humble church of the Holy Sepulchre; and whenever the patriarch entered it to exhort the people, or pronounce the absolution of sins, they rang, by order of their Master, the bells of the Hospital so loud, that, with the utmost efforts, he could not succeed in making himself heard. One day, when the congregation was assembled in the church, the Hospitallers rushed into it in arms, and shot arrows among them as if they were robbers or infidels. These arrows were collected and hung up on Mount Calvary, where Christ had been crucified, to the scandal of these recreant knights. On applying to the Pope Adrian IV. for redress, the Syrian clergy found him and his cardinals so prepossessed in favour of their enemies,—bribed by them, as was said,—that they had no chance of relief. The insolence of the Hospitallers became in consequence greater than ever.

In fact, as an extremely judicious writer observes, valiantly as the knights of the spiritual orders fought against the heathens, and great as was their undoubted merit in the defence of the helpless pilgrims, it cannot be denied that these knights were, if not the original promoters, at least active participators in all the mischiefs which prevailed in the Holy Land, and that they were often led to a shameful dereliction of their duties, by avarice and thirst after booty.

The year 1162 is conspicuous in the annals of the Templars, as the date of the bull Omne Datum Optimum, the Magna Charta of the order, and the great key-stone of their power. On the death of Adrian IV. two rival popes were elected,—Alexander III. by the Sicilian,—Victor III. by the Imperial party. The Templars at first acknowledged the latter; but at a synod, held at Nazareth, in 1161, they took the side of his rival. Alexander, who came off victor, was not ungrateful; and on the 7th January, of the following year, the aforesaid bull was issued. By this document, which would almost appear to be the dictation of the order, the Templars were released from all spiritual obedience except to the Holy See; they were allowed to have peculiar burial-grounds at their houses, and to have chaplains of their own; they were freed from the obligation to pay tithes, and could, with the consent of the bishop, receive them. It was also prohibited to any one who had once entered the order, to leave it, unless it were to enter into a stricter one. These great privileges necessarily awakened the envy and enmity of the clergy against the Templars and the Hospitallers, which last were equally favoured by the pontiffs; but these artful prelates, who were now aiming at universal power, knew well the advantage which they might derive from attaching firmly to them these associations, which united the valour of the knight to the obedience of the monk, whose members were of the noblest families in Europe, and whose possessions were extensive and spread over all parts of the Christian world.

In 1167 occurred one of the few instances of cowardice, or rather, we might say, treachery, which the annals of the Templars present. Almeric, king of Jerusalem, had committed to the Templars the charge of guarding one of those strong fortified caverns which were on the other side of the Jordan. Here they were besieged by the Turks, and, though the king was hastening to their relief, they capitulated. Almeric, incensed at their conduct, though he was a great friend of the order, and particularly of the Master, Philip of Naploos, instantly had twelve of the cowardly or treacherous knights hanged, and he experienced no opposition whatever on the part of the order. Philip, we may observe, was the first Master of the Temple who was a born Syrian; but he appears to have been a man of fair and honourable character. He was lord of the fortresses of Krak and Montreal in the Stony Arabia, which he had obtained with his wife. It was not till after her death that he became a Templar. Alter holding the dignity of Master for three years he resigned it. The cause of his resignation is unknown; but he was highly honoured and respected during the remainder of his life, and was employed on various important occasions.

It was during the mastership of Philip of Naploos, that King Almeric, at the instigation of the Master of the Hospital, and in violation of a solemn treaty, undertook an unprosperous expedition into Egypt. The Templars loudly protested against this act of perfidy, and refused to take any share in the war, either, as William, the honest Archbishop of Tyre, observes, "because it was against their conscience, or because the Master of the rival order was the author and projector of it." The prelate seems to regard the more honourable as the true cause. Perhaps we should express ourselves correctly if we said that in this, as in many other cases, duty and prejudice happily combined, and the path which was the most agreeable was also the most honourable.

In the mastership of Ado of St. Amando, the successor of Philip of Naploos, occurred the treacherous murder of the Ismailite envoy above narrated—an act which brought the Templars into great disrepute with pious Christians, as it was quite manifest that they preferred money to winning souls to Christ.