“The Picked Troops of God”

Andrea Miniatures 54mm Templar

by Damian Coburn



Seven hundred years ago, on Friday 13th October 1307, the one-time heroes of Christendom, the Templars of France were arrested on trumped-up charges by Philip IV “the fair” of France.  Thus was set in train the violent abolition of the order.

The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Templars, originated in 1119 when eight knights went to see King Baldwin II of Jerusalem with a proposition that they be supported to form a military-religious order to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem had been captured from the Seljuk Turks in 1099, during the first crusade. Baldwin agreed, giving them quarters in his palace, for which he had appropriated the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The building was called “the Tem6ple” because it was believed to have been built on the site of the Temple of Solomon; hence the nascent order’s name.

The group had the benefit of support of St Bernard of Clairvaux, a popular arbiter of public views at the time – today he would probably get a job as a talkback host.  He generally propagandized for them including writing the document “In Praise of the New Knighthood”, from which the title of this article is taken.  The Templars quickly gained official Church recognition and, more importantly, were given dispensation from any religious or secular authority other that of the Pope himself.  The Templars became one of the three largest orders military orders together with the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights.

Before their fall, the Templars became known for two things: excellence in fighting, and excellence in wealth creation and management. 

As fighters, the Templars together with the Hospitallers formed the backbone of the military strength of the crusader states, as well as playing roles as diplomats and - sometimes in opposition to the Hospitallers - kingmakers.   They were tough, brave to the point of fanaticism, and unremitting. 

Early in the 1187 invasion by Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (Saladin), 90 Templars and Hospitallers, with 40 other knights and about 300 sergeants, rode out to meet the invading army of 7,000.  Three of the crusaders escaped; the remainder were killed on the battlefield or executed after capture.  Shortly afterwards followed the battle of Hattin.  This was an utter disaster for the crusader states, presaging the loss of Jerusalem and the beginning of the end for Christian rule in mainland Syria.  After the battle, captured Hospitallers and Templars were offered conversion or death: all chose death, carried out by decapitation in front of Salah al-Din (and to the applause of the audience for particularly dexterous swordstrokes).  These included 230 Templars. 

In 1213, at the end of the year-long siege by crusaders of Damietta, the inhabitants of the city sortied and routed the entire crusader army – except the Templars, who held their ground until the army regrouped and took the city.  Finally, in 1291, for 10 days the Templars held, alone, the last tiny corner of the crusader states – just their fortress, jutting into the harbour at Acre, after the rest of the city (and the states) had fallen to military Islam.  After episodes involving massacre of envoys by both sides, all were killed when their fortress collapsed due to mining and siegeworks.  This followed, however, the disgraceful behaviour of their Grand Master, Gaudin, who snuck out with all the portable wealth, abandoning his charges to their deaths.

The Order came to possess and manage vast wealth.  They took individual vows of poverty but the form of the vow did not affect the order as an institution.  It became the vogue for kings and nobles to shower the Templars with gifts including vast estates throughout Europe; donations were also a way of avoiding personally joining the crusades. The order became as wealthy as kings, and became in effect an international banking corporation.  They introduced – or perhaps reintroduced, noting Roman banking – the bank cheque to Europe.  A Pilgrim could make a deposit at a Templar hold in Europe, and redeem the receipt for cash in the crusader states.

Being like bankers, the Templars became major creditors, including of kings.  Among other things they loaned money to be used for crusades – which may strike one as like borrowing to make a donation to the bank.

Philip IV’s motivations are argued by historians.  At one point he had been excommunicated because of his attempts to assert his authority in France over that of the Papacy; but by 1305, he had his own creature elected Pope as Clement V, and installed in Avignon in France, under Philip’s thumb – in Philip’s view, anyway.

To the non-historian, though, one sees in Philip a vain, terminally broke (and indebted to the Templars), power-seeking individual, both afraid and covetous of the stupendous wealth, power and independence of the Templars on his home turf.  At this point, it must be noted, the fall of the mainland crusader states, plus a declining enthusiasm in the west for crusading, undercut the Templars’ reason for being. The Hospitallers had taken Rhodes and had established themselves as the eastern flank of Christendom and the Teutonic Knights had an ongoing business in Eastern Europe; all the Templars had left were their estates spread across Christian western Europe.  Perhaps Philip was afraid that the Teutonic Knights’ carving out their own state in Prussia might be an attractive example for the Templars of France.

In 1306 Philip asked Clement to invite the Grand Masters of the Templars and the Hospitallers to come to Paris to discuss a merging of the orders.  This had been on some ecclesial agendas for some time.  However, the request also asked them to bring all their portable wealth, but leave their bodyguards at home.  The Hospitaller Grand Master declined to attend, presumably smelling a rat.  The new Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, who as we shall see was made of sterner stuff than his predecessor Gaudin, obeyed the call but brought an entourage of 60 knights. 

De Molay arrived in early 1307, and begun several months of administrative disputation with Clement.  Philip, impatient, collected accusations and perjurers, and struck.  With astonishing coordination given medieval infrastructure and communication, he arranged for bailiffs to arrest every Templar in France on 13 October 1307.  No Templar resisted. Philip also seized the Templar property, but Clement – in a rare moment of resistance to Philip – ordered that the wealth be transferred to the Hospitallers.

The accusations were colourful, and grew over time, including idolatry, witchcraft, homosexuality, heresy, and that staple of medieval accusations, killing and eating babies.  Particular attention was paid to supposed initiation rites, which over the years of the trials were asserted to include more and more idolatrous, satanic and homosexual practices.

The Templars were given a grim choice – confess or die.  Twelve days of torture in Philip’s dungeons failed to extract any confessions.  Then the real experts were called in: the Dominicans, the instruments of the Inquisition.  Over the next several weeks 36 of 140 knights died.  Many knights confessed, including de Molay.

Overseas, things were different.  In November 1307 Clement ordered the arrest of Templars everywhere, but in England Edward II (the son of Edward I “Longshanks”, and caricatured as an effete in the movie Braveheart) refused to believe the accusations.  He agreed to trials in local ecclesiastical courts (thus not accountable to the Pope) and prohibited torture.  There were no confessions.  Similar arrangements held, or the demand for arrest was ignored, in Portugal, the Spanish kingdoms and in Germany. In 1308 Edward wrote to his brother kings, exhorting them not to believe the accusations against the Order.

Nonetheless in 1308 Clement ordered Edward to seize the Templars’ property.  This he could not resist, keeping it for himself rather than handing it over to the Hospitallers.

In France, those who had confessed eventually were freed, but many immediately renounced their confessions. This infuriated Philip, who in 1310 initiated a program of re-arrests. This time many of the knights stuck to their protestations of innocence, and burnings at the stake began.

In the same year Clement ordered Edward to use torture.   Under pressure from his own clergy, he agreed.  All the English Templars confessed and were freed, except the Grand Master of England and the Grand Preceptor of France (who had been captured in England) who died in imprisonment.

In 1312, Clement ordered the formal disbandment of the order, and wearing of the templar robe and cross was subject to excommunication – in other words, a sentence to hell.

Among the French Templars who renounced their confessions was de Molay.  In 1314, at age 70, weakened by seven years of torture and imprisonment, he offered to settle the matter by trial by combat.  No one would face him.  On March 14, 1314, de Molay and three others were taken out for public execution.  Two confessed and were released.  De Molay and de Charney, Grand Preceptor of Normandy, both maintained their innocence.  Fearing the crowd, Philip had the execution moved to a private place.  Instead of burning wood, hot coals were used to prolong their deaths as long as possible.

So ended one of the saddest, most grotesque and venal tales in history.

According to legend, at the stake, de Molay cursed Clement and Philip, saying both would die within a year.  Both did, Clement surviving de Molay by barely a month.

As to the other Templars and orders: in Castile, Aragon and Portugal, their kings just rebadged the locals Templars as other orders, albeit taking for themselves the roles of Grand Masters and thereby gaining access to the local Templars’ wealth.  The Hospitallers strenuously and successfully defended the Mediterranean, first in Rhodes and then in Malta, but eventually became essentially civic administrators of Malta and were disbanded by Napoleon.  The Teutonic Knights took vigorously to the sword in Prussia and neighbouring areas, but in 1525 took up Lutheranism and secularised. The last of the Grand Masters and the first Duke of Prussia was of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled Prussia, and then later Germany, until Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918.

Both the Hospitallers and the Templars were subject to creation of various false orders – basically scam artists selling prestige and knighthoods under spurious claims of connection to the defunct orders.  In England in the late 19th century, one of the false Hospitaller orders actually began to take their principles seriously, and so we have the St John’s Ambulance organizations today.  The Templars had not even that dignity, their name (but not much else) being appropriated by various secret organizations including at one point some European freemasonries.  Today they exist largely in fantasy, especially around grail legends, either in pseudo-alternative religion or entertainment such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail; Foucault’s Pendulum; and of course The da Vinci code.

The figure

I am an avid reader of history of any kind, and at any time there will be a pile of books next to my bed (until the pile gets so large as to block my partner’s wardrobe, and I have to move them), generally chosen from what looks interesting in the newly-returned pile at the local library.  Just about everything I read leads me to think of modeling subjects.  Normally I resist because of the self-knowledge that by the time I’ve read the instructions for the newly-inspired project I’ll be reading something different and seized, like Toad of Toad Hall, with a new enthusiasm .  In this case, however, I came across a passing reference to the anniversary of the arrest of the Templars, and so deliberately went and did some reading, and succumbed to the temptation to model something a bit different. 

The figure is in 54mm from the Andrea range (AMSMF22), delivered by fast jet from Peter Nathan Toy Soldiers in Sydney.  It is a Knight Templar c. 1200: that is, at the beginning of the terminal decline of crusading in the east.

It is quite a few years since I have painted a 54mm or larger (ie non-wargaming) scale figure and, well, I guess I haven’t slipped straight back into the saddle, but I’m quite happy to have it on my shelf.  The figure was very easy to assemble, with minimum cleaning up and just a little cyanocrylate run into the two joins needing filler.  The parts breakdown was very logical, at joins in clothing or armour.  Fit of the arms was good enough to allow them to be painted separately and attached without any filling or touching-up. 

The paintjob was, as you can see, simple, which together with the anniversary was an attraction to having a go at this particular figure.  I used various acrylics – Vallejo and Games workshop, and Jo Sonja titanium white mixed with other paints for the robe. Though sold as a craft product, Jo Sonja paints have fine pigment and I find them to be a useful addition to the modeling paint collection.  I used Jo Sonja retarder to keep the paint workable, though ultimately acrylic is a different (and more difficult) medium compared with artists’ oils.


Bernard of Clairvaux (Conrad Greenia tr.) 12th C. “In Praise of the New Knighthood”  in the Online Resource Book for Medieval Studies http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/religion/monastic/bernard.html accessed 9 October 2007

Sanello, F. (2005).  The knights Templar: God’s warriors, the devil’s bankers.  Taylor Trade Publishing, Maryland.

Tyerman, C. (2006).  God’s war: a new history of the crusades.  Allen Lane, London.