The Templars would have vanished, entirely forgotten, into the Jerusalem sands without the intervention of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux. A visionary genius with a manic zeal for organisation and negotiation, Bernard de Clairvaux was known as the Pope-Maker, and even in some circles as the Second Pope. He was at the heart of the young Cistercian monastic order, and almost solely responsible for its exponential growth. He was also well-connected politically, with blood ties to many rulers, including those of Champagne and Palestine. His religious and political pull combined with his charisma, energy and organisational genius to make him an almost unstoppable force in the Catholic church. For decades, he literally decided who sat on the Papal throne.
Bernard also had strong links to the Templar band, however. His uncle, Andre de Montbard, was one of Hughes de Payens’ Templar Knights. In a characteristic flash of inspirational genius, Bernard clearly saw the near-unlimited potential of the rag-tag Templar band. Here was a group of pious knights who had sworn themselves to poverty and taken on the most thankless and dangerous job in all of Christendom, protecting the Pilgrim trail. No job could fit them better for Papal accolades. The knights were unimpeachable, precisely because of their obscurity. With a little effort behind the scenes, Bernard knew that his influence could turn the Templars from a small pack of tired warriors into a mighty force, loyal only to the Pope. The Pope, in turn, would be loyal to him.
When another relative from the Champagne nobility – Hugh, Comte de Champagne – donated his estates to the Cistertians in 1126AD, Bernard saw to it that De Payens welcomed him into the group. With King Baldwin II of Jerusalem having already named de Payens as the Master of the Mount, the group officially controlled the entire Temple Mount, a huge area. This not only gave them plenty of room for expanding into a mighty headquarters, it also meant one of the most holy sites known to Christendom, Judaism and Islam was under Templar guard. With Hugh de Champagne’s heavyweight presence in their number, everything was ready to take the Templars to an entirely new level.
When a Papal council convened in Troyes, capital of Champagne, in 1128, Bernard de Clairvaux smoothly hijacked the meeting. The Templars were already in place back in France, officially on a conveniently-timed fund-raising trip. Bernard called them to Troyes, introduced them to the council, and painted them as the most valiant defenders of the faith ever known. The Pope was already in debt to the Cistercian genius, and with the council taking place in Champagne, Bernard’s home, he could hardly challenge his pronouncements without risking grave offence to the Duke of Champagne. By the end of the council of Troyes, the Templars had become the first ever official Militant Church Order, with a code of conduct based on Bernard’s own Cistercian vows.
Bernard wrote the new Templar Order a glittering letter of praise and recommendation, and tales of the heroic knights and their incredible prowess quickly spread. The European nobles, eager to curry favour with the Pope-Maker, fell over themselves to donate sons, lands and gold to his new order. De Payens returned to Palestine with a host of knights, a whole horde of support staff, and a generous amount of cash. Within a year, the order had substantial estates and properties across Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and was already working on constructing fleets and standing armies.
It wasn’t long before Bernard’s tame Popes had exempted the Templar Knights from all worldly authority save that of the Pope himself. They were answerable to no law, free to cross borders without hindrance, paid no taxes and were even entitled to build and run their own churches, tithing for their own profit. Their numbers mushroomed: by 1146 AD, seven hundred knights were garrisoned in Jerusalem alone, with 2,400 servants, and across the known world, the order owned almost three and a half thousand castles.
The heart of the order were the Knight Brothers, the expert heavily-armoured cavalry we think of as Templars today. Making up as little as 10% of the overall membership of the order, the Knights were the officer elite. Under them, the Sergeant Brothers and Turcopoles were auxiliary troops, mounted and lightly armoured, but with just one horse each (Knights owned three) and no squire to assist. Any man could become a Sergeant Brother in theory, whilst Turcopoles tended to be local militia on assignment. Chaplain Brothers took care of the order’s spiritual needs. The lowest-ranking members were the Farmer Brothers, who provided all the order’s physical support functions – not just farming, but also stabling, building, cleaning, cookery and so on.
The Knights were undoubtedly terrifying warriors. Drawing on their beginning as a group of seasoned veterans, the Templars ensured that each new Knight Brother was a dangerous soldier. Forbidden to waste time hunting or jousting, and not allowed to even leave the order house without permission, there was little for the Knights to do but practice their skills. Training took place en mass, Knights mixed in with Sergeants and Turcopoles, an innovation unheard of at the time that greatly contributed to the overall martial prowess of the order. Their code and beliefs added to their ferocity – surrendering or retreating whilst the standard still flew was a major crime against the order, whilst death in battle guaranteed full absolution and entry into heaven. For the Knights, it was better to die than to retreat. With their unshakeable morale, rock-hard faith and unparalleled fighting skills, the Templars were regarded with the same sort of awe that modern armies have for the British SAS and other near-legendary super-elite units.