At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II called for a crusade of western Christians to take up arms and help the Byzantines recapture the Holy Land. It had fallen to Islamic expansion over the previous three centuries but by 1099, Jerusalem was back in Christian hands.
Rejoicing in the news, there started a pilgrimage of Christians from all over western Europe to the Holy Land but many were attacked, robbed and killed as they crossed through Muslim-controlled regions.
Hearing word of their plight, French nobleman Hughes de Payens met with King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1119 offering to protect the travellers through the creation of a new monastic order. Originally consisting of nine of de Payens’ relatives and friends, the king gave them lodgings in the Temple of Solomon – from where they got their name – and protect the travellers they did.
At first, no-one knew what to make of this new set-up. This was a paradox without precedent. Never before had deeply religious men who had taken solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience tooled up and taken the fight to the enemy. They were criticised by many of Europe’s religious leaders but from 1129, what was really nothing more than a glorified street gang got organised.
They received endorsement, first from the highly influential French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and then by the Pope himself. A fascinating code of conduct known as the Templar Rule was written and in 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull – Omne Datum Optimum – which gave the order unprecedented and extraordinary protections including not having to pay tithes or taxes and the retention of all spoils from Muslim conquests:
‘As for the things that you will receive from the spoils, you can confidently put them to your own use, and we prohibit that you be coerced against your will to give anyone a portion of these’
And this was the game changer. With Papal protection, the Templars effectively answered to no-one but the Pope; not princes, kings, nor even Holy Roman Emperors.
Without anyone understanding quite how big the worms were in this freshly opened can, the power-balance of Western Europe had changed fundamentally. A new force had been created. Over the next 200 years it would lead to violence, death and destruction – not only in the Holy Land but at home in Europe as well.