How good were the Knights Templars as fighters?
Season two of Knightfall sees King Philip IV of France take on the Knights Templar, with a massive assault on the temple at Chartres. It’s a move that mirrors the real-life confrontations the Templars had to deal with during their long tenure as the famed warrior-monks of the Holy Land. But what battle tactics did the real Templars use, and just how good were they really?
Well, to answer the second question first: they were very good indeed. In the words of an unnamed 12th Century Christian pilgrim:
‘They are the first to go and the last to return… As one person, they strongly seek out the units and wings of the battle, they never dare to give way, they either completely break up the enemy or die.’
Templars charge their adversaries as though they consider enemies to be sheep
The key phrase here is ‘as one person’, which highlights the Templars’ frighteningly effective tactic of attacking in rigid formations. Think walls of cavalry fighters, tightly packed side by side, bearing down on the enemy. Sitting astride their horses, clad in chainmail and padded leather jackets, wielding swords and lances, the knights formed the shock, attack troops of the Crusader armies, their job being to smash into the enemy ranks and leave them vulnerable to the other Christian fighters coming in their wake.
‘Templars charge their adversaries as though they consider enemies to be sheep, not fearing a bit the savagery of the Barbarians or the size of their army,’ wrote St Bernard of Clairvaux. This fearlessness was literally part of the job description. In the Templar Rule, which lays out the obligations of the order, it states that no Templar can ‘leave the squadron because of cuts or wounds without permission; and if he is so badly hurt that he cannot obtain permission, he should send another brother to get it for him.’
The squadrons were arranged prior to the battle by the field commander, known as the Marshal. Once this Marshal divided the knights into their separate squadrons, they were under strict instructions never to break ranks during the battle itself. As mentioned above, even sustaining an injury was no excuse. The one and only allowable reason for leaving formation would be to help another Christian in peril. In this scenario, a knight was allowed to rush off to help, but was then expected to return ‘quietly and in silence’ to continue the original squadron charge.
By today’s standards, the Templars could arguably be considered religious fundamentalists
As long as the battle standard, or flag, of the Templars, was held aloft, the knights were expected to carry on fighting – even if they were hopelessly outnumbered or their brothers were slain all around them. Even if their standard fell, the Templars would still be expected to fight on if any other Christian standards, such as those belonging to the Knights Hospitaller, were visible.
These were stringent, uncompromising requirements, underscoring how crucial their Christian faith was to their zeal on the battlefield. By today’s standards, the Templars could arguably be considered religious fundamentalists – holy warriors more than happy to die in the struggle against the unbelievers. This religious fervour, together with the immense wealth they gathered from powerful patrons, made the Templars some of the most effective fighters of the medieval era.
One of their most celebrated victories came at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, when they helped the army of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem take on the far larger forces of the great Muslim leader, Saladin. As chronicler Ralph of Diss wrote:
‘Spurring all together, as one man, they made a charge, turning neither to the left nor to the right. Recognizing the battalion in which Saladin commanded many knights, they manfully approached it and immediately penetrated it, incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed. Saladin was smitten with admiration, seeing his men dispersed everywhere… everywhere given to the mouth of the sword.’
The trouble was, the Templars’ bravery could sometimes be a liability. Take the Siege of Ascalon of 1153, when Crusaders tried to take down an Egyptian fortress. According to one account, the Templars breached the defences and insisted on having ‘first dibs’ on the treasures that lay within, forbidding other Crusaders from following them. The greedy knights were then massacred by the enemy soldiers who lay in wait within the fortress.
Scholars generally agree this account is inaccurate, and that it’s more likely the Templars rushed rashly through the breach in the wall without waiting for reinforcements, because… well, they were Templars, and going in first was what they did.
As medieval historian Helen Nicholson suggests, ‘the other Christian attackers either did not realise they had broken through or were reluctant to follow them to probable death’ and later tried to save face by falsely claiming the Templars wanted to go in alone to steal booty for themselves. If this is true, it’s an example of how the Templars’ boldness and fearlessness could sometimes be their undoing.
The presence and might of the Templars was also no guarantee of success. The Battle of Hattin is the great example of how the Crusaders could be crushed by the superior strategies of the enemy. Here, Saladin cunningly lured the Crusader forces – including many Templars – out to a sun-scorched plain where the Christians were cut off from water supplies and had to do battle while suffering extreme thirst and exhaustion.
Not only did Saladin win, but the Templars’ reputation meant the POWs were put to death because it didn’t make sense to let such skilled warriors live to fight another day. As an onlooker wrote, ‘Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison.’
All this being said, the Templars victories are certainly as legendary as their defeats, and they were often every bit as formidable when they were on the defensive. One legendary confrontation took place in 1190 at the castle of Tomar, the Templar headquarters in Portugal. Here, the knights found themselves besieged by the forces of the Almohad Empire of north Africa.
The leader of the Templar garrison was Gualdim Pais, a veteran soldier in his 70s. Yet, despite his advanced age, and despite being massively outnumbered by the attackers, the knights held out for days on end, repulsing the Almohad attempts to breach the castle walls and ultimately fighting back to such a lethal extent that the entrance to Tomar became known as the ‘Gate of Blood’.
This awesome victory illustrates how the Templars’ castle-building skills, along with their dogged determination to win no matter the odds, meant that taking down their lairs was a tall order for any army. Whether on the offensive or on the defensive, these holy warriors were always a terrifying force to be reckoned with.