The British Templars: A new warrior elite

The Knights Templar were renowned for their extraordinary feats of bravery in defence of the Holy Land. But the British contribution to their story is often overlooked, argues Steve Tibble.



The dry heat caught the stench of blood and death and held it close to the earth – the fear was palpable and, for many, overwhelming. The men, already severely dehydrated, were almost finished. Even the dying had little energy left for screams, just animal sounds of pain and muttered, delirious talk of mothers – but whether this was directed at their own or the Virgin Mary, even they probably did not know.

Most of their horses were already dead – some, very visibly, from numerous arrow wounds, and others from the heat and lack of water. The remaining Templar cavalry formed up in a thin, all-too-fragile line. Next to them were the men of the other main military order, the Hospitallers, and the last survivors of the crusader knights from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Templar knights at the time of the crusades. According to Saladin, they were ‘fiercest fighters of all the Franks’. Image: Alamy

There were fewer than 200 men in these dusty, ragged ranks. Preparing to charge an army of perhaps some 30,000 men, they knew that they were going to lose. But the Templars were arguably the best heavy cavalry in the world. And, more to the point, they were out of options. This was the bravery of despair.

Complete silence fell in the ranks for the last few seconds. Time stood still. Then the standards signalled the order to charge. The tiny crusader squadrons lurched forwards, heads down as they careered into a storm of arrows.

Against all the odds, even this forlorn charge, and another which followed it, were enough to cause concern among their enemies. But bravery was not enough against such odds. As the Templars and their comrades charged, they took more and more casualties. Eventually too few horses remained for the men to be able to fight mounted. The brother knights set up tent ropes and overturned wagons as obstacles. They carried on fighting on foot for as long as they could.

But there was only one realistic outcome.

The crusader army was forced to surrender. The dazed survivors were bound and taken into captivity. The courage of the Templars had made a huge impact on their enemies. There was one final and unwelcome backhanded compliment. Saladin – the great leader of the Muslim military effort against the four Catholic crusader states set up in the Levant after the First Crusade – decided that the British Templars and their comrades from the other European provinces must die. The reason? Because they were the ‘fiercest fighters of all the Franks’.

The prisoners were executed on the battlefield.

A new model army

Almost a century before the events described above, the First Crusade (1096-1099) was always an unlikely expedition. The squabbling crusader armies, with only the most primitive logistical support, had marched across Europe and on through the Byzantine empire. But somehow it all worked. It was an astounding, some would say miraculous, success.

On 15 July 1099, Jerusalem, the Holy City and spiritual birthplace of Christianity, was liberated. But it was immediately obvious that it could not be held indefinitely. The city was sited inland and desperately underpopulated. It was a military disaster just waiting to happen.

 A 19th-century map shows the four Catholic crusader states (also known as Outremer) set up in the Levant after the First Crusade, including the County of Edessa (1098-1150), the Principality of Antioch (1098-1287), the County of Tripoli (1102-1289), and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291).

The First Crusade had been able to recover large parts of the Christian Middle East, albeit as much by luck as by judgement. But as a means of funnelling troops out to defend these new frontiers of Christendom, further crusades were a far less effective mechanism. Such random interventions by military tourists could never be a substitute for a standing army – the crusader states seemed doomed to be quickly overrun.

That’s where the Templars came in. They were founded in c.1119 in Jerusalem as a hybrid military-religious order, and soon became the nearest thing the crusader frontiers had to a standing army.

We do not know exactly when British knights began to join the Templars in any great number. But it is certain that in 1128, Hugh of Payns – the order’s co-founder and first Grand Master – had a very productive recruitment drive in England and Scotland. British volunteers for the new warrior elite rallied to the Templars’ famous piebald banner.

These new Templar troops were never a fully ‘professional’ army in the way that we would use the term. But for the next two hundred years, whenever we see military innovation, we find the Templars at the forefront of change.

When radical new castles were being built in the Holy Land, it was the warrior brothers who led the way in design. As Turcopole archers (locally recruited light cavalry) were brought in to deal with enemy horsemen, it was again the Templars who were in the forefront. And as professional crossbowmen began to be recruited into crusader armies during the 12th century, so the order became a major employer of their services.

From their headquarters on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the Templars took the lead in the defence of the Holy Land. Famously, of course, whenever a determined and coordinated charge was called for, the brothers were there. They led by example, and – ironically, given their supposed fanaticism – whenever restraint was most called for, the Templars were there too. Only they had the discipline needed for the most dangerous of tasks.

Master and commander: Gilbert of Lacy

The British members of the Templar order were a central part of this fast-tracked military evolution, and came to prominence because of their discipline and military skills.

Many of the order’s English patrons were active volunteers and went on crusade to join the great struggle. Gilbert of Lacy, son of the Anglo-Norman nobleman Roger of Lacy, was a particularly generous and prolific patron. He gave the Templars major estates in Gloucestershire, including property in Winchcombe and Holeford and much of the land that later formed the Templar estate at Guiting. More importantly, Gilbert went out to fight in the Latin East and, at some point after 1157-1158, even became a brother knight himself.

Gilbert was a devout warrior, enthusiastic in the defence of the Holy Land. He clearly saw the Templars as being at the forefront of this fight and felt that joining the order was the best way in which he could help the cause. He rose quickly through the ranks. By 1160, he was in a position of authority and acted as one of the witnesses for the peace treaty between King Louis VII of France and Henry II. His distinguished career in the order culminated in him becoming master of the Templars in the County of Tripoli (the crusader territory which encompassed much of what we now call Lebanon).

As a senior military leader in the area, Gilbert commanded the army that in 1163 heavily defeated the forces of Saladin’s predecessor, Nur al-Din, at a place ‘commonly known as La Boquea [La Boquée]’. Even the normally critical chronicler William of Tyre described the English Templar in glowing terms. Gilbert was, he wrote, ‘a nobleman of high rank, an experienced warrior and commander of the Knights Templar in these parts’. Nur al-Din himself was said to have been lucky to escape with his life: he fled, leaving his baggage train and personal goods behind. The English commander and his men could regroup, confident in the knowledge that they had bought some more time to shore up the frontiers.

Gilbert of Lacy was the archetype of how a British Templar should behave: he was brave, committed, and effective. But not all followed his example.

The crusaders wrongly believed that the al-Aqsa Mosque, on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, was the biblical Temple of Solomon. As well as providing them with a base, it gave members of the new order their original name of ‘knights of the Temple of Solomon’ – later shortened to Templars.

Renegade: Robert of St Albans

The year was 1185. A time of extreme danger for the crusader states. To make matters even worse, one of the British Templars serving in the East went rogue. He became an apostate – rejecting his Christian faith – and was recruited by Saladin to become a commander in the armies of Islam.

His story was an extraordinary one. The chronicler Roger of Howden records that he was an English knight from St Albans (‘Robertus de Sancto Albanus’) who had joined the Templars. But his career in the order had come to an explosive end. He had a massive falling out with his comrades.

The reasons for this are no longer clear. Roger did not say what they were, so presumably he did not know, either. Perhaps Robert found the life too tough, and the discipline of the Templars too harsh. Perhaps he was passed over for promotion once too often. Or perhaps he had a nervous breakdown of some kind. But while the cause remains unclear, the outcome was undeniable: Robert snapped. And in the most emotionally and physically violent way.

He fled towards Muslim-held territory – if he was based in one of the Templars’ many border castles, this would have made his escape all the easier. Once beyond Christian control, he volunteered his services to the authorities of the Ayyubid dynasty. This must have been something of a coup for Saladin, the Sunni Muslim dynasty’s founder, and Robert eventually ingratiated himself sufficiently to be given a wife – a wife, it was even said, who was one of the sultan’s nieces.

In 1187, the Muslim leader Saladin destroyed the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin.

The 1180s were characterised by constant warfare in the Holy Land. Saladin’s armies invaded the crusader states, and particularly the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, almost every year. From July to September of 1185, Muslim troops rampaged across Galilee and the Transjordan in enormous strength.

According to Roger of Howden, Robert was given command of a large cavalry force – one that had been dispatched to destroy the lands around Jerusalem. It was suggested that Robert had personally lobbied Saladin for the mission and had promised that he could even recover the Holy City, if only he were given sufficient men for the job.

 An illuminated manuscript depicts Saladin ravaging the Holy Land.

The apostate Templar launched himself enthusiastically into the task. The city’s garrison had been stripped down to create a field army with which to meet Saladin and the main Muslim army down on the southern borders at Kerak. Unlikely though it seems with hindsight, it is possible that Robert really thought that Jerusalem, with few defenders and the element of surprise on his side, might be captured.

The last Templar defences were eventually mined, and collapsed some ten days after the rest of the city had fallen.

In the event, it was all over-egged – a massive anti-climax. Robert led his men raiding around the outskirts of Jerusalem. Killing civilians in the surrounding villages was easy, but when he arrived outside the walls of the city itself, things began to unravel. In a high- risk but bold move, the local militia and what remained of the garrison of Jerusalem gathered around the crusaders’ secret weapon – the True Cross (that is, the remnants of the cross believed to have been used at the crucifixion of Jesus). They rushed out of one of the city’s concealed gates, carrying the Cross before them, and defeated the renegade’s army. Robert himself barely escaped with his life.

What became of the British Templar is not known. But hollow boastfulness exposed, his stock with Saladin presumably plummeted.

The Siege of Acre in 1291 saw the fall of the final crusader city in the Levant.

The unknown soldier: heroism and defeat

As the years went by, the military situation facing the hugely outnumbered crusader states went into terminal decline. But the British Templars were called on for one final act of sacrifice.

On 18 May 1291, the early morning calm in the besieged city of Acre was broken by visceral screams. Death and fear were in the air. Panic spread almost instantaneously – Mamluk troops (hardened military slaves) had broken through the outer walls.

The 21st Templar Grand Master, William of Beaujeu, responded as quickly as he could. He gathered his men. They needed to seal the gap in the wall – fast. But their numbers were pitifully few. There was no army left, just a few brave soldiers. The Templar cavalry were no more than ‘ten or twelve brethren and [William’s] own household troops’.

There was no chance of success. They all knew it. But the Templars would not go down quietly. Their duty was clear. They had to buy time for the civilians to retreat to the citadel. The doomed band charged down the dry moat between Acre’s two sets of walls and headed for the St Anthony Gate, where the enemy troops were pouring in.

James of Molay was the 23rd and last Grand Master of the Knights Templar (above). He was burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, following the formal dissolution of the order by Pope Clement V (below).

The Mamluk assault teams lined the walls and rained death down on the crusader cavalry below. Shockingly for those on the receiving end, they also threw clay hand grenades full of naphtha, or ‘Greek fire’. This was a particularly vicious form of medieval napalm. It stuck to its victims and burnt ferociously. Casualties among the brother knights were appalling.

There were British Templars in those last brave moments. The chronicler known as the Templar of Tyre – William of Beaujeu’s secretary and a member of his household – was an eye-witness. He left a moving account of the horrors he saw that day – and there was one incident in particular that he found too hard to forget.

An English squire had his horse killed under him. As he struggled to get up, pots of Greek fire exploded all around him, spraying his head and his clothing. He was so badly hit ‘that his surcoat burst into flames. There was no one to help him, and so his face was burned, and then his whole body, and he burned as if he had been a cauldron of pitch, and he died there.’

The last Templar defences were eventually mined, and collapsed some ten days after the rest of the city had fallen. Appropriately enough for such a mutually destructive end, the final tower ‘collapsed outwards towards the street, and crushed more than two thousand mounted Turks’ when it did so. There were no survivors from this final, desperate garrison of Templar diehards.

The brother knights had given their all – but it was not enough. The last remnants of the crusader states collapsed soon after the fall of Acre. The order was redundant. The Templars were eventually accused of spurious charges of heresy and formally dissolved in 1312. An extraordinary story of sacrifice and heroism had come to an end – only to be replaced, many centuries later, by a bizarre descent into the world of modern conspiracy theories and computer games.

The British Templars deserved far better.

Steve Tibble is the author of a new book, Templars – the knights who made Britain (Yale University Press, £25). His earlier works include The Crusader Strategy (Yale, 2020) and The Crusader Armies (Yale, 2018).

All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated