Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

B4. Heroism of the Templars and Hospitallers

Battle of Hittin—Crusade of Richard of England and Philip of France—Corruption of the Order—Pope Innocent III. writes a Letter of Censure—Frederic II.—Great Slaughter of the Templars—Henry III. of England and the Templars—Power of the Templars in Moravia—Slaughter of them by the Hospitallers—Fall of Acre.

The fall of the Christian power in the East was now fast approaching, and it was not a little hastened by the enmity of the rival orders. The truth of the old sentence, that the Deity deprives of sense those whom he will destroy, was manifested on this as on so many other similar occasions; and while the great and able Saladin was consolidating his power and preparing for the accomplishment of the object which, as a true Moslem, lay nearest his heart, the recovery of the Holy City, discord, enmity, and animosity, prevailed among those who should have been actuated by one soul and by one spirit.

Yet the two orders of religious chivalry had not derogated from their original valour, and the last days of Jerusalem were illumined by some noble feats of prowess. On the 1st of May, 1187, when Malek-el-Afdal, the son of Saladin, was returning from an expedition into the Holy Land, which he had undertaken with the consent of the Count of Tripolis, regent of the kingdom, the Masters of the Temple and of the Hospital, having collected about 140 knights and 500 footmen, met the Moslems, who were 7,000 in number, at the celebrated brook Kishon. They immediately charged them with the utmost impetuosity; the Turks, according to custom, turned and fled; the Christian knights pursued, leaving their infantry unprotected. Suddenly a large body of the Turks emerged from a valley, and fell on and slaughtered the footmen. Their cries brought back the knights to their aid, but, impeded by the narrowness of the ground, they could neither lay their lances in rest nor run their horses against the enemy, and all fell beneath the weapons of the Turks, with the exception of the Master of the Temple and three of his knights, who were saved by the fleetness of their horses. The Master of the Hospital was among the slain. In this unfortunate fight, James De Mailly, the marshal of the Templars, and a Hospitaller, named Henry, especially distinguished themselves. After all their brave companions had been slain around them, they still maintained the conflict; the Turks, filled with admiration of their valour, repeatedly offered them quarter, but in vain; and they fell at last, overwhelmed with darts flung from a distance, no one venturing to approach them. The historian, Vinisauf, tells us that De Mailly was mounted on a white horse, which, joined with his relucent arms and white mantle, made him appear to the infidels to be St. George, and they exulted greatly in having slain the tutelar saint of the Christians. He adds, what is not an unlikely circumstance, that the Turks covered his body with dust, which they afterwards powdered on their heads, thinking thereby to acquire some portion of his valour.

At the fatal battle of Hittin, where 30,000 Christians lost their lives, where the king and all his princes became captives, and where the Latin power in the East was broken for ever, the Master of the Temple, Gerard of Ridefort, and several of his knights and those of the Hospital, were among the captives. Saladin, who bore a particular hatred to the spiritual knights, would spare them on no condition but that of their renouncing their faith. To a man they gallantly refused; and, with the exception of the Master, the heads of all were struck off. Many who belonged not to the orders, smit with desire for the glory of martyrdom, cast the mantles of Templars around them, and went cheerfully to death as such. One Templar, named Nicolaus, evinced such joy and impatience for this glorious fate, that, according to the ideas of those times, heaven was believed to testify its approbation by a visible sign, and during three nights a celestial light illumined the unburied corpse of the Christian martyr.

It was indeed rare for a Templar to renounce his faith: prejudice, or honour, we may style it, or a better principle, always kept him steady in it, whatever the irregularities of his life might be. We recollect but one instance of a brother of the Temple abjuring his faith, and he was unhappily an English knight, named Robert of St. Albans. From some unassigned cause, he flung away the dress of his order, broke his vows, went over to Saladin, and became a Musselman. The sultan gave him one of his female relatives in marriage, and the recreant knight appeared before Jerusalem at the head of an army of the infidels. He had promised to Saladin to reduce the Holy City; but her hour was not yet come; and after wasting all the country from Mont-royal to Jericho with fire and sword, he was forced to retreat before the chivalry of Jerusalem, who came forth with the holy cross, and gave him a signal defeat. This event occurred in the year 1184; and the apostacy of this Templar caused extreme dismay among the Christians, and excited great ill-will against the order in general.

It had hitherto been the maxim of the order, not to redeem any of their members out of captivity with any higher ransom than a girdle, or a knife, or some other insignificant matter, acting in this on the same principle with the old Romans, who never redeemed prisoners. The Master, Ado de St. Amando, had died in captivity; but to redeem Gerard de Ridefort, no less a ransom was given than the city of Ascalon.—Gerard died of a wound received in battle the following year.

During the memorable crusade of Philip of France and Richard of England to the Holy Land, which their rivalry and animosity rendered utterly ineffectual, we find the Hospitallers on the side of the king of England, and of course the Templars the warm partizans of the king of France. Yet, when Richard was on his return to Europe, he sent for the Master of the Temple, and said to him, that he knew by many he was not loved, and that he ran great risk of his life on his way to his kingdom; he therefore besought him that he would permit him to assume the dress of the order, and send two of the brethren with him. The Master readily granted the request of so potent a monarch, and the king went on board in the habit of a Templar. It was probably on account of the known enmity of the order to him, that King Richard adopted this expedient, thinking that no one would ever suspect him of being with the Templars. His brother John, we may here observe, was, on the contrary, a great favourer of the order, to whom he gave Lundy Island, at the mouth of the Bristol Channel. Throughout his reign, this odious prince attached himself to the Templars as the faithful servants of his lord the pope, reckoning on their aid against his gallant barons, who would not leave the liberties of the nation at the feet of a faithless tyrant. It was now very much the custom for monarchs to deposit their treasures in the Temple houses; and in the year 1213 we find King John demanding 20,000 marks which he had committed to the Templars to keep. We meet with no instance of breach of trust on the part of the knights.

The Templars shared in the common dishonesty of the church with respect to false miracles, and they felt no scruple at augmenting their wealth by deceptions calculated to impose on the ignorance and zeal of the laity. In the year 1204 it was given out that an image of the Virgin, in a convent not far from Damascus, had become clothed with flesh, and that there issued from its breasts a kind of juice or liquor of wondrous efficacy in removing the sins of pious pilgrims. As the place was distant, and the road beset with danger, the knights of the Temple took upon themselves the task of fetching the mirific fluid to the part of the coast still held by the Latins, and accommodating pilgrims with it, and the coffers of the order were largely replenished by this pious traffic.

Though, like all other proprietors in the Holy Land, the order of the Temple had been losers in consequence of the conquest of it by Saladin, their possessions in the West were so extensive that they hardly felt the loss. At this very time we find the number of their possessions of various kinds in Europe, stated at 7050, principally situated in France and in England. Their arrogance and luxury naturally kept pace with their wealth; and, though writers of the twelfth century, and even the Troubadours—the satirists of the age—always speak of the knights of the Temple with honour, there was a secret dislike of them gaining ground, especially with the clergy, in consequence of the great privileges granted to them by the bull Omne Datum Optimum, and the insolent manner in which these privileges were exercised.

Accordingly we find, in the year 1208, the great Innocent III. the most ambitious of popes, and one who was a steady friend to the order, under the necessity of passing the first public censure of them, and endeavouring to set, by authority, a limit to their excesses. In his epistle to the Master on this occasion, the holy father says that they abused the privilege of having mass celebrated in places which were under interdict, by causing their churches to be thrown open, and mass to be said every day, with loud ringing of bells, bearing the cross of Christ on their breast, but not caring to follow his doctrines, who forbids to give offence to any of the little ones who believe on him. He goes on to state that, following the doctrines of demons, they affixed the cross of their order on the breast of (i.e. affiliated) every kind of scoundrel, asserting that whoever, by paying two or three pence a year, became one of their fraternity, could not, even though interdicted, be deprived of Christian burial; and that hence, known adulterers, usurers, and others who were lying under sentence of interdict, were honourably interred in their cemeteries; "and thus they themselves, being captive to the devil, cease not to make captive the souls of the faithful, seeking to make alive those whom they know to be dead." The pontiff laments, that instead of, like religious men, using the world for the sake of God, they employed their religious character as a means of indulging in the pleasures of the world. Though, on account of these and such abuses, they deserved to be deprived of the privileges which had been conferred on them, the holy father will not proceed to extremity, relying on the exertions of the Master to effect a reformation.

In this epistle we have all the charges, which, as will hereafter appear, could be at any time brought with justice against the order, whose corruption proceeded in the ordinary course of human nature, and no otherwise,—privileges and exemptions producing insolence and assumption, and wealth generating luxury and relaxation of morals. It was the lavish generosity of popes, princes, and nobles, that caused the ruin of the Templars.

The Templars bore a distinguished part in the expedition to Egypt and siege of Damietta, in 1219, as the chief commander on that occasion was the papal legate, whose conduct, under show of obedience, they chiefly directed. But when, in 1228, the Emperor Frederic II., then under the sentence of the church, undertook the crusade which he had vowed, he found nothing but opposition and treachery from these staunch adherents of the pope. Considering the spirit of the age, their opposition is, perhaps, not so much to be blamed; but no principle will excuse the act of their writing to inform the Egyptian sultan of the plans of the emperor. The generous Moslem, instead of taking advantage of this treachery, sent the letter to Frederic, to the confusion of its authors. Frederic checked his indignation at the time, but on his return to Europe he took his satisfaction on those who were most guilty, and he seized the property of the order in Sicily and his Italian dominions. Though he was excommunicated again for so doing, Frederic persisted in his enmity both to them and the Hospitallers; and though, perhaps, the least given to superstition and illiberality of any man of his age, he did not disdain to make friendly intercourse with the Moslems a serious charge against them. "The haughty religion of the Templars," writes he, "reared on the pleasures of the native barons of the land, waxes wanton.... We know, on good authority, that sultans and their trains are received with pompous alacrity within the gates of the Temple, and that the Templars suffer them to celebrate secular plays, and to perform their superstitious rites with invocation of Mahommet."

The hostility between the Templars and the Hospitallers still continued, though the Christian power was now nearly restricted to the walls of Acre. The Templars were in alliance with the prince of Damascus: the Hospitallers were the friends of the sultan of Egypt. The Templars extended their enmity against the emperor to the Teutonic knights, whom they deprived of their possessions in Syria. The appearance of a new enemy, however, brought concord for a time among them. The Turks of Khaurizm, on the east of the Caspian, were now in flight before the hordes of the Mongols, and 20,000 of their horsemen burst into the Holy Land. They took and plundered Jerusalem, which was unfortified and open, and then united themselves with the troops of Egypt. The Christians applied to the prince of Damascus for aid, who forthwith sent the required troops, and their combined forces went in quest of the foes. In the battle the Templars and the militia occupied the centre; the Hospitallers were posted on the left wing, the light horse on the right. The battle lasted two days, and ended in the total defeat of the Christians, a result which is ascribed, though probably with injustice, to the treachery of the Damascenes. The Master of the Temple and the whole chapter, with the knights, in all 300, were slain; only four knights and fourteen esquires escaped.

The improvident and needy Henry III. of England, in general such a dutiful son of the holy father, who, for a share of the spoil, usually aided him in the pious work of robbing his subjects, summoned courage in 1252 to speak of seizing some of the property of the church and the military orders. "You prelates and religious," said he, "especially you Templars and Hospitallers, have so many liberties and charters, that your enormous possessions make you rave with pride and haughtiness. What was imprudently given, must be therefore prudently revoked; and what was inconsiderately bestowed must be considerately recalled.... I will break this and other charters which my predecessors and myself have rashly granted." But the prior of the Templars immediately replied, "What sayest thou, O king? Far be it that thy mouth should utter so disagreeable and silly a word. So long as thou dost exercise justice thou wilt reign; but if thou infringe it, thou wilt cease to be a king!" These bold words appear to have checked the feeble king, who next year besought the two orders to become his security for a large sum of money which he owed. They refused his request, and Henry thenceforth did them all the injury in his power.

There occurred an event in Moravia in 1252, which may serve to show the power of the order in Europe. A nobleman, named Vratislaf, who had been obliged to fly from that country, became a Templar in France. He made over all his property, among which was the castle of Eichhorn in Moravia, to the order. But his elder brother, Burian, took possession of his property, as having fallen to himself as head of the family. King Winzel, on being applied to, decided in favour of the order. Burian, however, still kept possession. The next year the Templars collected some thousands of men, and marched, under the command of their Great Prior, to take the castle. Burian, assembling 6000 men, 900 of whom he placed in the castle, advanced to give them battle. The engagement was bloody; 1700 men, among them the Great Prior of the Templars, lay slain, when night terminated the conflict. A truce was made for three days, at the end of which Burian and his men were driven into the castle, which they defended bravely, till king Attocar sent to threaten them with his wrath if they did not give it up. Burian surrendered it, and Vratislaf, returning to Moravia, became Prior of Eichhorn, in which thirty Templars took up their abode.

Though the Templars were so extremely numerous in Europe, they were little disposed to go out to the East to encounter toil and danger, in the performance of their duties. They preferred living in ease and luxury on their rich possessions in the West; and the members of the chapter alone, with a few knights, and other persons attached to the order, abode in Syria. It would even seem that the heads of the society were meditating a final retreat from the East, where they probably saw that nothing of permanent advantage was to be achieved. The Hospitallers, on the other hand, whatever may have been the cause, appear to have been more zealous in their calling, and to have had a greater number of their members in Syria; and it is, probably, to this cause, that we are to assign the total defeat which they were enabled to give their rivals in 1259: for the animosity between the orders had come to such a height, that, in this year, they came to open war. A bloody battle was fought, in which the Templars were defeated, when, such was the bitterness of their enmity, that the victors made no prisoners, but cut to pieces every Templar who fell into their hands, and scarce a Templar remained to carry the intelligence to Europe.

From this period till the capture of Acre and final destruction of the Latin power in the East in 1291, after a continuance of nearly two centuries, the annals of the Templars are bare of events. The rivalry between them and the other orders still continued; and in the opinion of some historians, it was their jealousy that hastened the fall of that last remnant of the Christian dominion in the East. Not more than ten knights of the Temple escaped in the storm of the town, and these, with the remnants of the other orders, and the garrison, sought a retreat in Cyprus.

We have now traced the history of the order from its institution to within a few years of the period of its suppression. Of this most important event we shall delay the consideration for some time, and shall occupy the intervening space with an account of the internal organisation of the society, its officers, its wealth, and various possessions. This will, we trust, prove no slight contribution to our knowledge of one of the most curious portions of the history of the world—that of the middle ages—and gratify the reader by the display of manners and institutions which have long since passed away.