A Muslim army quietly set up camp on the Mount of Olives in 1152, preparing for a surprise attack on the city of Jerusalem. Victory seemed certain: Jerusalem’s Christian ruler, Baldwin, was away in Tripoli.

But during the night, the encamped Muslims were slaughtered in a surprise counterattack that reportedly left 5,000 dead. Who had so heroically saved the city of Jerusalem?

Brothers in a religious order, men who had vowed themselves to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

But these devout men came from new religious groups—military orders known as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. They had been commissioned by the pope to defend the Holy Land.

Christian History invited Mr. Michael Gervers to describe the three most prominent of these unprecedented religious orders.

The Templars:
Fabled Success, Sudden Fall

Founded in 1118 by the French knights Hugh de Payens and Godfrey de St. Omer, the Templars were also called “The Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” because they had been granted quarters on the site of Solomon’s Temple. Their mission was to protect Christians on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, but this protection soon expanded to include the land itself.

Nine years after their founding, the Templars gained the valuable support of Bernard of Clairvaux, who would draw up the order’s rule (guidelines for community life). Bernard composed a treatise, In Praise of the New Knighthood, championing the Templars’ Christian calling: “A new sort of chivalry has appeared on earth … that tirelessly wages … war both against flesh and blood and against the spiritual forces of evil. … Go forward in safety, knights, with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the cross of Christ.”

The Templars gained the favor of monarchs and popes and soon acquired large portions of land in exchange for their disciplined military services in the Holy Land and Europe. The papacy, in particular, extended privileges to the Templars, considering the order its military arm and making its members accountable directly to the pope. Because they traveled internationally, transported money, and owned land, the Templars soon became prominent bankers. Such status and wealth did not go unnoticed, however, and the Templars aroused the jealousy of detractors.

The knights’ strict discipline and battlefield effectiveness kept them in the forefront of crusading throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They held the fortress of Gaza—the gateway to Egypt—against the feared Muslim commander Saladin. In 1217, they constructed the Castle Pilgrim near Acre, from which the Fifth Crusade departed for Egypt a year later. They also rebuilt the Castle of Safad in 1240–43, making it the foremost Christian stronghold in the East.

Sometimes their valor was costly. In the Battle of Hattin in 1187, many Templars were killed in combat, and those taken prisoner were singled out for execution because of their membership in the order.

Despite their successes, the Templars eventually came to suffer the distrust of one-time patrons. Their privileged status, financial practices, and military might placed them at the center of crusading politics, especially in the Holy Land.

They were blamed for the fateful decision to attack Damascus (1148) that brought an end to the Second Crusade. The Templars also were criticized for their misguided advice to King Guy de Lusignan of Jerusalem—followed by tactical errors in the rout at Hattin—that led to the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. Even when the Templars played a crucial role in Louis IX’s expedition to Egypt in 1249 and 1250, the growing suspicions about them could not be assuaged.

A key source of contention came from rivalry with another military order, the Hospitallers. In an effort to stop the problem, the Council of Lyons in 1274 moved to combine the Templars and the Hospitallers into one order. Though the merger was successfully resisted, just three decades later King Philip IV—with an eye for the Templars’ enormous wealth and property—ordered the arrest of all Templars in France, speciously charging them with sodomy, blasphemy, and heresy.

The situation worsened in November 1307, when Pope Clement V ordered the arrest of all Templars in England, Aragon, Castile, and Cyprus. Then, in 1310, fifty-four Templars in Paris were burned at the stake. Finally, at the Council of Vienna in 1312, the Templars were officially disbanded and their property transferred to the Hospitallers. Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master, was burned at the stake in 1314.

The Hospitallers:
from Hospital to Army Base

“Take this sword; its brightness stands for faith, its point for hope, its guard for charity.” With these words, knights were inducted into the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem—also called the Knights Hospitaller.

Begun in Jerusalem around 1099 in the wake of the First Crusade, the order was confirmed by Pope Paschal II as a unique, noncloistered religious order to care for pilgrims and the sick in the Holy Land. However, within fifty years the Hospitallers became a military order of Christian knighthood.

The papacy granted the Hospitallers exceptional privileges. With that support, the Hospitallers would continue their benevolent and military operations for the next 600 years.

In 1291, Muslim forces conquered Acre, the final remaining crusader settlement in the East. The Hospitallers moved ultimately to the Byzantine island of Rhodes, which they conquered around 1309. There they became a Mediterranean seafaring power and a major European bulwark against the Ottoman Turks. They held Rhodes for more than two centuries, until finally overcome by the Ottomans in 1522.

The order reestablished itself on the Mediterranean island of Malta a few years later, and thus became known as the Knights of Malta. They defended European interests in the Mediterranean until in 1798 they were expelled from Malta by Napoleon.

The Knights of Malta have retained diplomatic status in Rome to this day. Their charter was renewed in 1961 by Pope John XXIII, permitting them to carry on religious and charitable activities as an international sovereign order. The English branch (reestablished as a Protestant order in 1888) today supports an eye hospital in Jerusalem as well as the St. John Ambulance Association and Brigade in the British Commonwealth. The order’s emblem is the eight-pointed cross known as the Maltese Cross.

The Teutonic Knights:
Border Guards

Early in the Third Crusade (1189–92), a group of German merchants formed a fraternity to care for the sick and the wounded during the siege of Acre. After the group established a formal hospital, it was recognized by Pope Clement III in 1191. Seven years later, when more German crusaders were needed in the Holy Land, the order was commissioned for military service.

The Teutonic Knights, who followed a rule like the Templars and Hospitallers, also received generous privileges from the church and soon acquired large regions of land. But the Teutonic Knights concentrated more on conquering pagan lands along Christianity’s eastern frontier.

The king of Hungary, in 1211, gave the Knights land in exchange for defending his borders. A dispute over the extent of the order’s autonomy led to its expulsion in 1225.

The Teutonic Knights were then invited to Prussia to civilize its lands. Soon after, Emperor Frederick II endowed the Teutonic Grand Master with the status of a prince, giving the order rights over lands it subjugated. By 1280, the Teutonic Knights had established supreme control over all of Prussia.

From this height, the group declined. In 1410, the knights lost much of their land to a combined Polish and Lithuanian army. In 1530, the Teutonic Order was incorporated into imperial Germany as an association of nobles. Finally, in 1805, the order was suppressed by Napoleon.

A group in Austria carried on the Teutonic tradition, however, and resumed its original work of running hospitals and other charitable enterprises. The Teutonic Knights’ headquarters in Vienna stands as a reminder that even though the crusades were launched nearly a millennium ago, their effects linger today.

Dr. Michael Gervers is professor of history at the University of Toronto and author of The Second Crusade and the Cistercians (St. Martin's, 1992).