History’s Fiercest Fighters

History’s Fiercest Fighters

After Christian forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Europeans began making pilgrimages to the Holy Lands by the droves. On the way, they were often attacked by bandits. To protect travelers and help defend the new Christian states in the Middle East, a small group of fighters formed The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar.

Here are a few astonishing facts about these holy knights:

They created a brand-new model of holy warrior

In the earlier part of the Middle Ages, knights were seen as thugs, overrunning the countryside and looting villages to line their own pockets. The Knights Templar created a different model in which members were monks, sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and committed to fighting “infidels” in the Holy Land. Promising to serve the Christian cause, they received papal recognition at the council of Troyes in Champagne in 1129.

They didn’t joke around when it came to discipline

Under “The Rule of the Templars,” a detailed code governing everyday behavior, the knights were required to live austere lives. They could have meat only three times a week, except on special holidays, since eating flesh was understood to corrupt the body. Fur and fancy clothes were forbidden. So were pointed shoes and shoe-laces, since “these abominable things belong to pagans.”

Of course, chastity was a must, and Templars were forbidden to kiss any woman, even their own mother. Breaking the rules could mean getting a beating, being banished from the brotherhood, or having to eat meals on the floor.

They refused to ever surrender

During the Crusades, some Christian forces were ragtag armies with minimal training. Not the Knights Templar. They were highly trained, and became known as fierce fighters. They acted as the advance force in a number of battles of the Crusades, including the Battle of Montgisard, when they helped greatly outnumbered Christian forces defeat an army led by the great Muslim commander Saladin.

A part of that fierceness probably came from religious devotion, which allowed them to see breaking their vows as a fate worse than death. The Rule of the Knights Templar called for them to never retreat, surrender, or charge without being ordered to do so—excellent features for any army that needs to remain disciplined.

They were strategic thinkers as well as zealous fighters

While they were known for their piety and their readiness to fight for the spread of Christianity, the Knights Templar sometimes counseled their fellow Crusaders against rash action. European Christians reaching Jerusalem for the first time often wanted to do battle with Muslims as quickly as possible.

The Templars, who had been in the area for years and had some friendly relationships with local Arabs, sometimes had to explain that picking a particular fight wasn’t a great idea. “It would not be unlikely that the Templars at times seemed insufferably know-it-all to those who had just arrived from the West,” according to Ann Gilmour-Bryson, a historian at the University of Melbourne. Of course, that didn’t make the Knights Templar any sort of pacifists. They just wanted to build up bigger armies so that they could effectively crush the Muslim forces.

For poor knights, they were unbelievably rich

While they were individually sworn to poverty, the Order as a whole became astonishingly wealthy. It helped that a Papal Bull issued by Pope Innocent II exempted them from paying any taxes. The Templars collected donations from all over Europe. Kings and queens gave them huge estates—Alfonso I of Aragon left them a third of his kingdom in his will. Regular people also made donations in their wills, leaving the Order small plots of land that added up.

The knights ended up owning castles, farms, and a whole fleet of ships, as well as the entire island of Cyprus. They didn’t just hang onto these possessions. They used them to generate more wealth, trading crops, wool, and wine across Europe and renting land to tenants.

They were a full-service financial services group

The initial purpose of the Knights Templar was to guard pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, so they were well aware of the danger that robbers posed on the long journey. So they set up a system to help. Travelers could deposit cash at Temple Church in London and receive a letter of credit that they could redeem in Jerusalem. They also provided many other financial services for monarchs and elites.

In the 1200s, they received the English Crown Jewels as security on a loan. And when King Henry III wanted to buy the island of Oleron, the Order not only brokered the deal but also collected installment payments from the king. The French Treasury also used the Templars as a sort of subcontractor for many of its functions.