Monday, March 10, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Crusades: The role of the Military Orders in the defence of the Crusader States

The success of the First Crusade in 1098/99 led to the establishment of the Crusader states centred around the kingdom of Jerusalem. Once Palestine had been conquered the majority of the crusaders made their way back to Europe. Fulcher of Chartres, a chronicler who recorded the events of the First Crusade and the events that followed, wrote that in 1099 only three hundred knights and the same number of infantry remained to guard Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Haife. However, these newly acquired territories on the frontiers of Christendom remained surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbours and needed far more troops to guard them than were usually available. Despite the seasonal influxes of armed pilgrims arriving in Outremer (the Frankish name for the region) each year, the core foundations of the new states rested on slender pillars. The annual arrival of knights on pilgrimage provided a constant trickle of much needed reinforcements, yet many of these visitors departed within a few months leaving only a limited pool of defenders for the states to drawn upon. Even at their height in the 1180s, the Latin settlements never numbered more than an estimated 250,000 Europeans. War and disease in the early years of the twelfth century had helped to prevent the emergence of a stable knightly class. It is in this context that the contribution of the military orders to the defence of the Holy Land must be examined.

The first military orders had their foundations as charitable organisations. The Templars were founded in 1118 to provide protection for travelling pilgrims. Their headquarters were based in the building identified by the crusaders as the Temple of Solomon. Within a few years of their establishment, the Templars had begun to go beyond merely protecting pilgrims and started to provide military forces against the Muslims. The Templars were formally approved by the Church at the Council of Troyes in January 1129 and their numbers and duties increased rapidly. Further privileges issued between 1139 and 1145 reinforced the papacy’s endorsement of the Templars. The order secured the right to elect its own master, the exemption from taxes payable to the local church and the right to collect revenues from their own lands.

The Hospitallers’ founding predates the First Crusade starting with the establishment of a hospice run by Italian traders from Amalfi who had arrived in Jerusalem around the mid eleventh century. The group followed a quasi-religious communal life and cared for sick pilgrims visiting the holy sites. In 1113 it became an independent order through a papal bull issued by Pope Paschall II. Finally in 1154, further papal privileges ensured that the Hospitallers would be free from the jurisdiction of local church authorities and received similar rights already granted to the Templars.
Other military orders such as the Teutonic knights and the Order of St.Lazarus would later join the Hospitallers and Templars in defending the Holy Land, but throughout the twelfth century it was the latter two who provided the most contributions in defending the Latin States.

The concept of the military order was a relatively new innovation to Christendom. It combined the concept of the physical prowess of the warrior knight with the spiritual discipline of the Cistercian monk. They were considered more effective as fighters because of this discipline and their monastic values. Like ordinary Cistercian monks, the brothers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Unlike regular knights, the new breed of warrior monks were unfettered by civic duties such as the dispensing of justice and therefore had more time to train and perfect their combat skills. There were strict regulations for conduct in camp reinforced by the threat of severe penalties for disobeying orders in the field. In all leading orders the punishment for disobeying commands in battles was expulsion. Templars who launched an attack without permission lost their habit for a period.

Nonetheless, the idea of a warrior monk needed to be justified to those who believed that the very idea was a contradiction in terms. St. Bernard of Clairvaux helped to establish the concept into the mainstream of medieval religious and intellectual thought. The De Laude novae militae explained argued that the Templars were a new kind of knight who fought evil in the world and, through their faith and physical efforts would preserve the Holy Land for Latin Christendom. He set out the errors of secular knights in contrast to the ‘Knights of Christ’. In comparison to the worldly knights lust for glory and greed for material possessions, the Templars were ideologically pure.

Their significance to the defence of the Holy Land continued to grow throughout the twelfth century. In turn, the orders were given control of key frontier castles and defences. These castles were either given to them or sold by rulers and nobles who lacked the manpower or resources to defend them adequately. Local lords often had to depend upon local resources and in many cases could neither spare the troops nor money to garrison vital defence strongholds. In 1144, Raymond of Tripoli gave the Hospitallers a group of strongholds including the famous ‘Crac des Chevaliers’ located on the eastern borders of the county. By 1180, the Hospitallers were responsible for the defence of twenty-five castles in the East. The Templars controlled roughly the same number. Unlike the majority of secular rulers who had handed them over, the Military Orders could afford to keep these castles defended. There were few institutions in Medieval Europe that could match the financial resources of the Templars and Hospitallers. In the decades that followed their founding, the military orders were able to build up institutions in both the Latin east and in Western Europe. The scale of endowments, donations and exemptions from ecclesiastical taxation meant that the both the Hospitallers and Templars had access to substantial resources across the West. The Hospitallers alone possessed 18,000 manors in Europe. In essence the military orders were able to exploit the resources of the West for the benefit of defence of the East.

The importance of the military orders to the overall political and defensive structure of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was ascertained by the presence of the Grand Masters of the Orders who held privileged seats in the High Courts of the Latin states. It is estimated that by 1180, the knightly orders provided 50% of the Kingdom’s defences. Together the Hospitallers could field six-hundred ideologically committed mounted knights. This gave the Grand Masters a huge influence over policy and personal access to the leadership of the Latin states. By 1187, the military orders were the chief landowners in Outremer. Such was their influence that princes acknowledged that their treaties with local Muslim rulers would not be valid without the approval of the Grand Masters.

However, the growing influence of the Orders was not well received by all. Papal bulls granted by the church combined with the large military and financial resources available to them meant they were under no obligations to follow the commands of the secular leadership of the kings of Jerusalem. The historian Stephen Runciman has argued that the independence of the Orders can be characterised as uncontrollable states within the state and therefore a contributing factor towards the weakening process that eventually led to the loss of the Crusader settlements. In 1159, the orders refused to contribute their resources towards a proposed attack against Egypt. As a result the attack had to be called off. On numerous other occasions, the rivalry between the Templars and Hospitaller disrupted military plans. William of Tyre also records several incidents of the Templars refusing to follow instructions from the secular authorities. In 1173 Templar knights killed Assassin envoys travelling under a royal safe conduct after negotiating a truce with King Amalric of Jerusalem. It seems that the Templars did not approve of such dealings with a Muslim power. The king was extremely angry and demanded that the perpetrators be handed over to him for justice. In this instance, King Amalric was able to use his authority to seize and imprison the ringleader. William of Tyre goes on to say that had the king lived longer he would probably have challenged the independence of the Order. He also describes an incident at the siege of Ascalon when a group of Templars breached the walls ahead of the main army and allegedly refused to let the rest of the army join them for fear of having to share the booty. The Templars were soon trapped in the town and eventually massacred for their efforts.

John of Salisbury, writing in the twelfth century was even more critical of the Templars rebutting Bernard of Clairvaux’s assertions and arguing that knightly and clerical functions were incompatible. He suggested that the Templars’ privileges encouraged pride and avarice. The monk, Issac of L’Etoile, expressed similar ideologically concerns of what non-Catholics might think of the Christian Church encouraging violence rather than gentleness. By engaging in military activities, the participants made themselves vulnerable to evil and sin.

Despite these criticisms it is clear that the Military Orders were widely feared and respected by the enemies of the Crusader states. The Arabic chronicler Ibn al-Athir described the Hospitaller castle of Crac des Chevaliers as ‘as a bone in the gullet of the Muslims’. Their strict training and vocation to fight Islam made them highly formidable battle-field opponents. It was therefore customary to kill Templars and Hospitaller captured after a battle. Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din described an incident after the Battle of Hattin in 1187 where the Sultan sought out knights captured from the both orders. ‘I shall purify the land of these two impure races’. He offered fifty dinars to every man who had taken one of them of them prisoner and immediately the army brought forward some one hundred captives. All were then beheaded. Saladin clearly viewed the Templars and Hospitallers as dangerous enemies to Islam and saw it as a crucial to kill as many of them as possible.

The orders were generally praised for their work in defending the frontiers of Christendom against the resurgence of Muslim strength in the latter half of the twelfth century. They took on the burden of defending numerous castles at no additional cost to the kingdom and often provided determined and stout resistance when attacked. The Hospitaller castle of Belvoir held out for more than a year after the Battle of Hattin and Saladin was also unable to take either the Crac de Chevaliers or Margot. William of Tyre also had to acknowledge the crucial role which the orders played in the defence of the kingdom. Even if the Templars and Hospitallers were determined to pursue their own policies, the purpose of their entire existence was tied up within the defence of Latin Christendom within Outremer. Practical necessity dictated that they be given large tracts of land that they were willing and able to defend. The combination of monastic lifestyle and warrior training gave them a formidable reputation. There was no doubt in the minds of both Islamic and Christian contemporaries that the orders fielded better soldiers than the average Western knight. Given the limited resources and manpower available to the Frankish settlers there can be little doubt that the military orders were crucial in maintaining and defending the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its successor states in the Latin east.


Alan Forey, ‘The Military Orders 1120-1312’ in The Oxford History of the Crusades ed.

Jonathan Riley-Smith (Oxford, 2002)

Jonathan Philips, The Crusades (Harlow, 2002)

Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (Cambridge, 2002)

Hans Eberhard Meyer, The Crusades (Oxford, 1988)

Jean Richard, The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge, 1999)

Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999)

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