A Very Brief History of the Founding of the Knights Hospitaller

A Very Brief History of the Founding of the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar, and Their Relevance to Freemasonry.

With the popularity of films and books about the Knights Templar over the last 30 years or so, I have heard some people express the opinion that the Hospitallers and the Templars were the same organisation.

That’s nonsense! That’s like saying that Manchester City and Manchester United are the same team! OK, so they both have the word Manchester in their names, they come from the same place and they both operate in the same sport. But we all know that they are different teams.

Both sets of knights are known as Crusader knights, but the Hospital in Jerusalem existed before the first Crusade. It was founded in the grounds of the abbey of St. Mary of the Latins in about 1080 by Brother Gerard. The purpose of the Hospital was to look after the sick and injured pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem. This was a time in history when all Christians were exhorted and expected to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the benefit of their souls. It may sound strange to us now, in the 21st century, but the Muslim faith today makes the same demand on it’s believers. Thousands of Muslims make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca every year for exactly the same reason.

The First Pilgrimage was instigated by Pope Urban 2 in November 1095, when he responded to an appeal for aid from the Byzantine Empire. All classes of society in Christendom took up the cause, especially the ‘powerful and honoured men, proud in the belt of secular knighthood’. By July 1099, the Crusader army conquered Jerusalem.

During the siege of Jerusalem, Brother Gerard managed to get bread out of the city to feed the besiegers. When the victorious Crusaders entered the city, Brother Gerard’s hospital tended to their wounds, and offered a billet for many of the army. The conqueror of Jerusalem, Godfrey de Bouillon, endowed the Hospital with land in the new feudal state. Kings and nobles followed suit. In a few years the Hospital possessed rich properties in the Christian lands bordering the Mediterranean.

By 1113 Brother Gerard had set up 7 hospices in southern France and Italy, which acted as points of departure for pilgrims, and for essential supplies for the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land. The Hospital also had a supply of experienced soldiers who had stayed in the Holy Land when the Crusade was over. In this year, 1113, Pope Paschal 2 issued a ‘bull’ giving recognition to the Hospital. The Benedictine monks who run the Hospital thereby became the Hospitallers of St John.
But they were not knights yet.

The soldiers could therefore take vows, and become monks, or just stay in Jerusalem, but all would protect the pilgrims on the road from the coast to Jerusalem. And the pilgrims came in ever increasing numbers, on the ships owned by the Hospital, to see the famous Hospital itself.

Brother Gerard died in 1120, leaving behind a wealthy and well set up organisation that was to be central to survival of the Crusader States for almost 2 centuries.

In around 1118 or 1119, a group of perhaps only 7 or 9, knights led by Hugh de Payens, arrived in Jerusalem and asked the King, Baldwin 2, for quarters. Whether they asked to be placed in the palace, on the Temple Mount, or it was chance, we will never know. The ruins of King Solomon’s Temple were believed to be under the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built on the Temple Mount. The new order took the name of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or “Templar” knights. They were poor, and their emblem was 2 knights riding on one horse. They were supposed to protect pilgrims on the road from the coast, but there is no record of them making more than one or two such acts.

They seemed to disappear from view, perhaps literally by going underground into the Temple Mount. They stayed there until 1128, apparently doing nothing. What they found there, if anything, again we will never know. It is a matter of historical record that Hugh de Payens was a vassal of Hugh, the Count of Champagne. Count Hugh was a powerful and influential nobleman in the French Court. In 1124 this Count became A Templar knight, with Hugh de Payens as Grand Master of the Order. An interesting turn of events.

One of Hugh de Payens’ knights was related to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a French Abbot primarily responsible for the founding of the Cistercian Order. He was inspired to create a ‘Rule’ or constitution for the Knights Templar. In 1128, Hugh de Payens travelled to Troyes, France, where Saint Bernard held a council which conferred this monastic Rule on the Order. Now, for the first time in Christian history, soldiers would live as monks.

I would really love to know what knowledge Hugh de Payens had that convinced such powerful men to submit to his will. The first of the legends about the Knights Templar was already being created.

With the Knights Templar officially approved and endorsed by the Church, Hugh de Payens went on a recruitment campaign around France and the rest of Christendom, with staggering success. There was a massive influx of recruits and immense donations of money and property. They very rapidly overtook the wealth of the Hospital.

Not that the Hospital had been idle during this time. The number and quality of the armed soldiers at its disposal had meant that Knights from the Hospital fought in the King’s army at Ascalon in 1128, and were sent to fight in Spain in 1129/1130. By the year 1206 the Rule of the Hospitallers included the ranks of Knight, Sergeant and Priest for the first time. Now they really were Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem.

So, the 2 orders of Knights had different origins and different primary purposes, but one common factor, being the defence of the Christian Kingdoms in the Holy Land against the infidel and the Muslim.
Now as we all know, or should know, the Knights of St. John were stationed here, in Malta, where they continued their crusader aim of fighting the infidel and the Muslim, now represented by the Ottoman Turks. They not only survived the Turkish invasion and siege of Malta, but they survived the French and British occupation of Malta, and now still exist in the 21st century as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

So what, if any, is their influence on Freemasonry? Nothing direct, is the answer. Indirectly, by defeating the Turks in the year 1565, they stopped a Turkish Muslim invasion of southern Europe which could have extended from Turkey in the east, to Spain in the west, and who knows how far north into mainland Europe? St. Peters in Rome would definitely be a mosque. Would Christianity have survived, creating the society in which we live, and where Freemasonry was born and flourished?

So, how was Freemasonry born, and who, so to speak, were the parents? Amazingly, we have to turn to the Knights Templar for that answer. Possibly.

It is historical fact the Templars used the images of the Square, Gavel or Maul and Dividers on their gravestones. These gravestones can be found all over Europe, but carvings in stone cannot be accurately dated. The early gravestones do not bear dates, and are in graveyards that were in use for, sometimes, hundreds of years. There is one, however, that is in a Templar Castle in the Holy Land. This is the Castle of Athlit, which was only abandoned in 1291, when the Order were defeated at Acre, and they, along with the Knights of St. John, were expelled from the Holy Land.

If we accept that this gravestone takes its rise from before 1291, then the first link in the chain has been established.
It was in 1307, Friday 13th of October that the French King had ordered the Knights Templar to be arrested. Because of their contacts within the Court of Phillipe IV, they probably knew what was going to happen. Many of the French Knights Templar withdrew from the Temple before that date, and it was recorded as being a ‘wise’ decision. As the order to arrest them had the Pope’s backing, the Knights Templar had to find a safe place to live. Although most Kings in Christendom were reluctant to obey the orders to begin with, the Knights knew that when their fabulous and legendary wealth was not to be found in Temple property across those lands, arrests and searches would increase.

In Scotland, Robert the Bruce was king, but he had assumed the throne after a macabre and ritualistic murder. Robert’s rival to the throne was John Comyn, and they both had a very strong claim to the Kingship. They met in the church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries and settled the claim in a true Celtic manner. They fought with daggers, and Robert killed John Comyn in the church. When the Pope was informed that a consecrated church had been desecrated in such a fashion, Robert the Bruce was excommunicated. This was in the year 1306.

Robert the Bruce was outside of the church, and therefore Papal influence, as were the Knights Templar in 1307. It seems quite plausible that the Knights would take the road to Scotland, and reach a safe haven.
Robert the Bruce was fighting a war with England at the time, and was not being successful. The arrival of the best trained soldiers in Christendom could not have been more welcome to Robert. Their arrival did present a diplomatic problem, as Robert’s only ally in Europe was King Phillipe IV of France, the man who had ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar. So it is no surprise that the arrival of the knights was a very well kept secret.

By the year 1310, when Edward II launched a new invasion of Scotland, the Scottish army were better disciplined than in 1307, and used different tactics. They did not meet the English in a head on battle, where they would be outnumbered and probably defeated. They used light cavalry charges and infantry armed with bows and arrows in hit and run tactics. Tactics used by the Saracens in the Holy Land against the crusaders. Is this an interesting coincidence or evidence of martial training?
By the way, the Order of the Temple was officially dissolved by papal decree 22nd March 1312, and the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake in March 1314.

Although there are no official records of what happened to the Knights Templar who settled in Scotland, there is circumstantial evidence of their presence. After the dissolution of the Temple in 1312, almost all of their properties across Christendom were given to the Knights Hospitaller. In Scotland, the records of the Knights of St. John show that the Temple properties were kept separate from Hospital properties, and were listed as ‘Terrae Templaria’. This was continued until the late sixteenth century, which is a period of over 250 years. The conclusion is that the Knights Templar still existed for that same period of time.

So how did they survive? The Knights were all of noble families from across Christendom. They were now at the centre of politics and power in the court of King Robert the Bruce. A position they were used to when they were in the Holy Land. It was exactly where they operated at their best. With the Temple being officially dissolved, were the vows they had taken still binding on them? Vows which had been regularly broken in the past?

I would not be surprised if some of them married into the prominent families who supported Robert the Bruce. Families such as Cockburn, Cunningham, Hamilton, Hay, Montgomery, Seton, Sinclair and Stuart.

Over the next century the Scottish royal family married members of the French royal family. During this period, Scottish soldiers fought in the wars between France and England with their now expected expertise and bravery. When the French finally defeated the English, thus bringing the Hundred Years War to an end in about 1445, the King, Charles VII, had reason to create a standing army to keep the peace in his war ravaged country. The premiere company of this army was the Scottish Company, whose commanding officer had authority over the whole French Army. The Scottish Company drew its men and officers only from Scotland, and the same prominent families are in the records as officers and commanders.

This company was based on the previous King’s Guard and King’s Bodyguard. Scotsmen protecting the French King, in units of 13 men. A system that was continued in the Scottish Company. This company placed the Scottish nobles at the centre of politics and power in France, a position that sounds familiar. The Scottish Company were in this position within France until 1559, when the commander of the company killed the King, Henry II, in a joust. It was an accident, of course. But the commander resigned, and the company was disbanded.

The Scottish noble families had became one repository of Templar traditions. The Scottish military became another, thus ensuring that the traditions did not disappear. The traditions and secrets may have become corrupted over the years, some 250 years when the Scottish Company was disbanded. By being present in France for over 100 years, these traditions and secrets became added to other esoteric material. The combined legends and traditions were to return to Scotland some 200 years later, and became the foundation of modern Freemasonry.

Part of this esoteric knowledge was the idea that architecture was the supreme application and actualisation of geometry. It was thus that structures based on geometry, with no embellishment to distract or deflect the mind, God’s presence was to be accommodated and worshiped. This was present in both Judaism and Islam, and is why both synagogues and mosques are decorated with geometrical patterns. There are no images of the human form, or anything else in nature, to be found in Judaic or Islamic places of worship, or in their art.

If this is what the Templars found in the Temple Mount, or in their discussions with Jews and Muslims, it answers a few of the questions usually asked about the Templars. It would explain the use images of stone masons’ tools on the gravestones, indicating the purity of the devotion of the Knight to God. Perhaps it explains why the Templars built round churches, as the circle represents the eternal and unchanging God. There are legends that the Templars wanted to unite the 3 great religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam in peace and harmony.

The Templars were open to such ideas in the twelfth century, way ahead of the thinking allowed by the Church. It was this very attitude which was at the foundation of modern Freemasonry in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

So the legacy of the Templars in modern Freemasonry is twofold. Firstly, approach the world and its ideas with an open and enquiring mind, which is one of the basic tenets of Freemasonry. Secondly their traditions and secrets were preserved within both a social and military context. As we meet here, in the Abercorn Lodge, which was consecrated as a military Lodge, I find that conclusion very apt and satisfying.

I would really like to think that some part, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, of our ritual would be recognised by one of the Knights, and that we truly are preserving and continuing the secrets and mysteries of the fabulous and legendary Knights Templar.

Author: VW Bro John Fenech

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