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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templar 8: The Templars and the Emperor

Continuing with the series on the Knights Templar, Dr. Schrader today looks at the Templar relations with Frederick II Hohenstaufen, known in his lifetime as the Stupor Mundi -- the Wonder of the World -- during the Sixth Crusade.


The so-called "Sixth" Crusade was undertaken by a man under a ban of excommunication and against the explicit orders of the pope.  Yet most modern commentators consider the crusade "successful" and ridicule the medieval opponents of Frederick Hohenstaufen -- including the Knights Templar -- as bigots and fanatics. The situation was in fact highly complex and the Templar opposition to the Hohenstauffen was far from groundless. 

Frederick II Hohenstaufen first “took the cross” and vowed to lead a new crusade to regain Christian control of Jerusalem at his coronation as “King of the Romans” in Aachen on July 25, 1215.  Five years later at his coronation in Rome as “Holy Roman Emperor” he renewed his crusading vows. However, a Muslim insurrection on Sicily turned out to be more difficult to supress than anticipated, and Frederick got bogged down in the fighting until 1223 ― by which time the Fifth Crusade, which he had promised to support was irretrievably lost. The Pope showed understanding, however, and agreed he could postpone his crusade until 1225.

When 1225 came, Frederick still did not set off on crusade, but he did marry the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Yolanda (also sometimes referred to as Isabella II). This marriage meant that in addition to the spiritual motive of restoring Christian rule over Christendom’s most sacred site, Frederick now had a personal and dynastic interest in Jerusalem: he wanted to make his new kingdom as large, strong and prosperous as possible ― or that was what people presumed.  

In the summer of 1227, Frederick at last assembled a large army ― only to see this decimated by an epidemic disease that started killing the crusaders before they even embarked. Under threat of excommunication if he did not depart, Frederick doggedly set sail despite being ill. While at sea, the most important of Frederick’s subordinate commanders, the Landgraf of Thuringia, died of the disease. Frederick decided that he too was too ill to command a crusade. While ordering the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and other galleys under the Duke of Limburg to proceed, he returned to Brindisi. The Pope, the vigorous and uncompromising Gregory IX, promptly excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor.

Under the circumstances, the excommunication was hardly justified. Rather, the excommunication was Pope Gregory’s opening volley in an all-out attack on what he viewed as the unacceptable infringement of papal authority by the Holy Roman Emperor. It was the opening act of a power-struggle that would last for decades and pitted conflicting philosophies about the respective role of sacred and secular leadership.

That struggle is not the subject of this essay, but the impact of the communication on Frederick’s authority is.  Effectively, with the excommunication, Frederick’s campaign to the Holy Land lost papal blessing (whether fairly or not), and his campaign could not officially be viewed as a “crusade.”  Furthermore, the excommunication gave his many internal opponents and rivals an excuse for insubordination and rebellion, and meant that Fredrick’s Italian domains were soon being stolen from him by troops with papal support. Most important from the Templar point of view: as Christians and vassals of the pope, they were now prohibited, at the risk of the souls, from having contact with the Holy Roman Emperor. It was, to say the least, a very awkward situation!

The situation was further complicated by the fact that in May 1228, Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem died of the complications of childbirth. She left an infant son Conrad as heir to the throne of Jerusalem. As a result, Frederick could no longer call himself “King of Jerusalem;” at best he could claim the regency for his infant son.

Under the circumstances, Frederick would have been justified in abandoning the campaign to the Holy Land altogether and focusing on defending his birthright. Then again, when fighting an intransigent pope, what better way to undermine papal authority than to liberate the Holy City? The liberation of Jerusalem was bound to appear in the eyes of many (or so Frederick appears to have reasoned) as divine favor and vindication. Furthermore, Frederick had good reason to believe he would liberate Jerusalem because he had already been approached by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, who offered to deliver Jerusalem to him in exchange for the Emperor’s support in his war against his brother the Sultan of Damascus al-Mu’azzam.

So Frederick II went ahead with his plans for a crusade and in June 1228 set sail with his army, arriving in Tyre on September 3 and Acre later the same month.  Here he was welcomed ― at least according to some accounts ― as a savior by both the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. (Roger of Wendover, Vol II, p. 351) If so, his relations with the military orders, particularly the Templars, soon soured.

The tensions either started or surfaced when the Holy Roman Emperor laid claim to the Templar castle on Athlit, just south of Haifa, called “Castle Pilgrim.”  This castle had been built at great expense by the Templars just ten years earlier. It was the Templar equivalent of Krak de Chevalier ― a massive castle that proved completely invincible and never fell to siege or assault. (It was abandoned when the Christian cause became hopeless.)  It could accommodate 4,000 defenders and its walls enclosed not just fighting platforms, accommodation, chapels and storerooms, but pastures and fishponds, orchards and gardens, salt-mines, a shipyard, and freshwater springs. 

Castle Pilgrim Today - Photo Courtesy of Shalom Holy Tours

By what right the Holy Roman Emperor believed he could lay claim to this castle remains mysterious. He was not King of Jerusalem (his infant son was) and even had he been recognized as regent, the Kings of Jerusalem did not have any legal authority over the Knights Templar. Barber notes that Frederick had a policy of “monopolizing castles in the Kingdom of Sicily.” (Barber, p. 133) Which is all very well and good, but still does not justify confiscation of a castle held by an independent order in a Kingdom with completely different laws (as Frederick was soon learn).

The Templar response to the Emperor’s arrogant attempt to lay claim to something that was not his was predictable: they closed the gates and manned the walls. Frederick II was forced to recognize he could not possibly take the castle by force and resumed his “crusade” instead. Meaning, he unimaginatively followed the same plan as Richard the Lionheart by taking his army down the coast to Jaffa. The difference was that while Richard the Lionheart had to fight his way forward every mile of the way against the aggressive and well-led armies of Saladin, Frederick II faced no Muslim opposition at all. The Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil was too busy besieging his nephew (his brother had since died) in Damascus.

Furthermore, while the Templars and Hospitallers had willingly submitted to the leadership of Richard the Lionheart, acting as his vanguard and rearguard respectively, the militant orders could not submit to Frederick II, who was excommunicate. Yet they could not allow Frederick (and the Teutonic Knights) to march without them either. Robinson puts it like this: “Could the Templars live with themselves if they allowed Christians to be butchered while they simply stood by? And what if Frederick, either through battle or bargaining, could actually regain the Holy City?” (Robinson, p. 262) The Templars and Hospitallers (commanded, incidentally, by two brothers Pedro and Guerin de Montaigu) elected to “follow” the Emperors army a day’s march behind. By the time the armies reached Arsuf a compromise was devised: the Holy Roman Emperor issued orders in the name God or Jesus Christ rather than his own.

The fragile rapprochement was shattered, however, when on February 18, 1229 Frederick announced a truce negotiated in secret with the Sultan al-Kamil. This truce, hailed by many modern commentators as a work of genius, a master-stroke, and more, was condemned soundly by Frederick’s contemporaries ― and for good reasons. First, it did not (as most accounts today claim) restore Christian control of Jerusalem ― rather it loaned them control of the city for a set period of just ten years and ten months. Second, it prohibited the fortification of Jerusalem ― to ensure that control would return to the Muslims at the end of the ten year truce (loan). Third, it forbade the military orders from reinforcing or improving their great castles in the county of Tripoli, e.g. Krak de Chevaliers, al-Marquab, Chastel-Blanc and Tortosa. Fourth, it prohibited the Christians from attacking al-Kamil in his home base of Egypt. Finally, most infuriating for the Knights Templar, it denied them access to their traditional headquarters in the “Temple of Solomon” because the entire Temple Mount was reserved for the Muslims.

The Christian world was shocked by the Emperor’s duplicity in negotiating away their interests without so much as consulting them. When the Holy Roman Emperor announced his intention to wear his crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher the Patriarch of Jerusalem put his own city, the Holy City of Jerusalem, under interdict.

That did not interest Frederick Hohenstaufen in the least. After all, he’d already be excommunicated. He went ahead and placed his crown on his own head while the loyal Master of the Teutonic Knights eulogized him in a speech. The other militant orders, however, respected the interdict and were not present any more than the local barons and citizens were.

The Holy Roman Emperor’s mentality is further revealed by the following incident recorded by the Muslim contemporary historian ibn Wasil and related in Abulafia’s biography of Fredrick as follows:  

…after Frederick’s first night in Jerusalem the emperor is said to have complained to [his host] Shams ad-Din saying “O qadi, why did the muezzins not give the call to prayer in the normal way last night?” To which Shams ad-Din replied: “This humble slave prevented them, out of regard and respect for your Majesty.” But Frederick is supposed to have said: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the Muezzin, and their cries of praise to God in the night.” (Abulafia, p. 185)

If that weren’t enough, Friedrich next reproofed a priest for carrying a Bible while visiting the Temple Mount and threatened with death anyone who followed this priest’s example. This behavior gave credence to the Pope’s hostility, making more and more people believe that Frederick’s “crusade” had been a sham from the start and that Frederick was indeed a godless atheist.

The Temple Mount Today - Photo by the Author
His behavior did not even win him friends in Muslim circles. As Abulafia puts it:

…the Muslim sources, greatly confused by Frederick’s behavior, saw him as an emperor whose interest in the recovery of Jerusalem was rather meager, and whose sympathy for his own religion was surprisingly ― indeed scandalously ― slight… For the Muslims, ‘it was clear that he was a materialist and that his Christianity was simply a game to him.’ This they found offensive, on the Islamic principle that adherents of each Religion of the Book must observe its prescribed principles correctly. (Abulafia, p. 185-186)

After just two nights in Jerusalem, the Holy Roman Emperor returned to Acre ― only to find the Templars and the Patriarch of Jerusalem trying to gather troops for a new crusade on the grounds that Frederick’s truce was a personal one between himself and al-Kamil (as indeed it was!) and that they were not bound by it ― any more than the supporters of the Sultan of Damascus were.  (Who, incidentally, saw the truce in the same light: as an insult that he did not have to respect.)

Fredrick at once went on the offensive against the Templars. In addition to railing against them publicly, he started a slander campaign that echoed down the ages to this day. He may also have ordered the kidnapping of the Master of the Temple with the intent of taking him back to Sicily in chains. This, at any rate, is the allegation of the contemporary historian Philip of Novare, who was an eye-witness of this curious crusade, albeit a staunch partisan of the Ibelins. (The latter had fallen fowl of the Holy Roman Emperor and were to lead a successful revolt against his rule in Outremer.)  Novare writes the following:

The emperor was by now unpopular with all the people of Acre, especially was he disliked by the Templars; and at this time there were many valiant brothers of the Temple, and the master was Brother Peter de Montaigu… The emperor did much that seemed evil, and he always kept galleys under arms, with their oars in the locks, even in winter. Many men said that he wished to capture the lord of Beirut, his children…[and]the master of the Temple … and that he wished to send them to Apulia. On one occasion they said that he wished to kill them at a council to which he had called and summoned them, but they became aware of it and came in such strength that he did not dare do it. (Novare, pp. 89-90)

Through his own propaganda machine, Frederick made counter claims that the Templars and Hospitallers wanted to assassinate him.  It is impossible at this distance of space and time to know the truth. Undisputable, however, is the fact that Frederick laid siege to the Templar castle in Acre at the end of April 1229. He also allegedly posted cross-bowmen at strategic places to cut off the Templar’s communication with the outside world. The emperor’s action against the Temple at Acre was as unsuccessful as his attempt to seize Castle Pilgrim.

On May 1, Frederick Hohenstaufen left Acre to sail back to his homeland, which was under attack by papal forces led by father-in-law, the former King of Jerusalem John de Brienne. To reach his galley in the harbor, he chose to pass down the Street of the Butchers. It was a mistake. As the Holy Roman Emperor passed, the common people of Acre pelted him with refuse and offal.

Back in his Kingdom of Sicily he took his revenge by confiscating all the properties of the Templars and Hospitallers within his domains. Although the Pope negotiated the return of these properties to the respective orders in the Treaty of San Germano, July 1230, the properties had still not been returned by 1239, and this was one of the reasons given for a second ex-communication of Frederick in that year. Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, the Templars supported the baronial opposition to Frederick’s authoritarian government throughout the next fifteen years.


Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.

Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Translated by John Le Monte. Cambridge University Press, 1936.

Pernoud, Regine. The Templars: Knights of Christ. Translated by Henry Taylor. Ignatius Press, 2009.

Robinson, John J. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O’Mara Books, 1991.

Roger of Wendover. Liber qui dicitur Flores Historiarum, Vol. II Edited by H.F. Hewlett. London, 1887.

Next week I will discuss the Templars relationship with King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and the Seventh Crusade.  

Meanwhile, the Templars are present to a greater or lesser extent in all my novels set in the Holy Land: 

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and in:

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templar 7: A Lost Opportunity

Continuing with the series on the Knights Templar, Dr. Schrader today looks at an episode that is on one hand ignominious and on the other hand tragic: the brief and catastrophic Templar occupation of the Island of Cyprus during the Third Crusade. 

The Cypriot Coast from the Byzantine Castle of Kantara
In the summer of 1191 Richard I of England, cognizant of his inability to govern Cyprus, made the strategic decision to sell the island to the Knights Templar. It was a wise decision because he was fully engaged in a struggle to regain the Holy Land itself and also had a vast empire back in Europe that would inevitably require his attention sooner or later. By selling Cyprus to the Knights Templar for 100,000 gold bezants, Richard not only replenished his war-chest to ensure adequate resources for the task at hand (the war against Saladin for the Holy Land), he also ensured that the strategically critical island of Cyprus was in the hands of Christians fanatically devoted to the cause of securing and defending Christian control of Holy Land in the long run. It seemed like a perfect solution.

Professor Malcolm Barber in one of the best books on the Knights Templar ever written (The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 1994), notes that this was an opportunity for the Order to “establish their own independent state,” something later achieved by the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Hospitallers on Rhodes/Malta. It goes without saying, that had the Knights Templar controlled Cyprus from this date onward, they would have concentrated their treasure and forces there and so have been better positioned to withstand Philip IV’s attack on them in 1307. Cyprus is an island encompassing nearly 10,000 square kilometers of mostly fertile land including extensive forests. It has ample water resources, significant mineral deposits, notably copper, and a mild Mediterranean climate. It is located 65 km south of modern Turkey and 95 kilometers from the Syrian coast. Given its wealth and location, it the Templars had established themselves here in a sustainable manner the Order might still exist today. 

However, far from establishing a strong, independent state, the Knights Templar returned the island to Richard of England less than a year after they had purchased it. Barber explains their failure with the fact that “the project proved too ambitious,” (p. 119) while another historian of the Templars, John Robinson (Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books, 1991) noted that the Templars “totally committed to an active military campaign [on the mainland], could spare only a few men….” (p. 187). All sources agree based on common primary sources that the Templars committed only 14 knights, while George Hill (A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432, Cambridge University Press, 1948) adds that the knights were supported by 29 sergeants and 74 infantry. But the Templars didn’t just give up; they were driven from the island by a rebellion.

Given the fact that Richard of England had taken the island so rapidly in May 1191 (see Conquest of Cyprus I and II) largely because of widespread support from the population, an uprising against Templar rule was anything but inevitable.  Although he’d expropriated for himself half the royal revenues of the island, along with all the personal treasure taken from the self-styled “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus (who was widely viewed as a “tyrant” if not also an “usurper”), the English King's regime was not viewed as “oppressive” ― at least not in the very brief period he spent on the island. This may have been because he had promised a restoration of the laws as they had been under the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus.

It is possible that after the euphoria of defeating “the tyrant” had worn off, the inhabitants of Cyprus began to resent foreign domination. The population was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox by faith, and had been part of the Byzantine Empire for since 330 AD, with only sporadic periods of Muslim rule. An indication of possible popular disaffection is the fact that, at least according Hill, there was one uprising against Richard’s administration by a Greek monk, related to the deposed tyrant.

However, it appears that Richard’s men (and only two knights are ever listed as being left on the island by him, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham) were able to put this rebellion down very easily, hanging the pretender, without any losses or apparent bloodshed. This rather suggests that the pretender had virtually no support. This is hardly surprising when we consider that Richard’s two knightly administrators would not have been in a position to institute any widespread changes in the laws and taxes of the island, but rather had been tasked to restore the laws of widely respected Manuel I.  Since Camville and Thornham could hardly have known what these Byzantine laws entailed, they would have been compelled to depend upon the existing bureaucracy to collect traditional taxes owed the monarch. In short, from the point of view of the population of Cyprus, Richard the Lionheart’s rule was a restoration to the period of good governance that had preceded the usurpation of power by the tyrant Isaac Comnenus and there was truly little to rebel against.
Cyriot Coast - "The Birthplace of Aphrodite" - on a calm day.

That was not the case under the Templars. On the contrary, when rebellion broke out on April 5, 1192 it was apparently supported by such a large number of people that the most effective fighting force in the Holy Land, famous for their discipline in attack and retreat and for overwhelming the best professional soldiers of Islam, took refuge from the angry mob in their commandery in the city of Nicosia. Furthermore, an offer to surrender the entire island in exchange for a safe-conduct to a port, was rejected by the mob. This strongly indicates that the Templars were not just unwelcome ― they were hated.

Clearly something had changed. So what exactly had they done?

Barber suggests the Templars “alienat[ed] the population with their heavy taxation and arbitrary rule.” (p.119). Robinson is more colorful (as usual) saying: “Their arrogance in taking whatever they wanted, and their insulting treatment of the local barons and people, had generated increasing animosity….” (p. 191.) Hill argues that the Templars imposed fresh dues on the markets, in addition to the existing taxes, in order to pay the balance of the 100,000 bezants still owed to Richard of England. But people have a tendency to find ways to evade taxes, especially when the tax-collectors are in cahoots with the taxpayers as would have been the case here, given the small size of the Templar garrison and the continued need to rely on the existing bureaucracy.

Turning to one of the most credible primary sources, one based in part on the contemporary chronicle by a resident in Outremer, The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, (Peter Edbury’s translation published by Ashgate as The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade), we find a far more graphic and compelling reason for a revolt. Namely: “[The Templars] thought they could govern the people of the island in the same way they treated the rural population in the land of Jerusalem. They thought they could ill-treat, beat and misuse them….” In short, the Templars attempted to impose new taxes not traditional to the period of Manuel I (and so representing a breach of Richard’s promise), and more important treated the Greek Orthodox population (and one suspects their priests) as if they were Muslim peasants. 

What happened next has unfortunately become very distorted in some modern accounts. While sober accounts like that of Barber refer only to a “desperate charge” to free the Templars trapped in Nicosia, Robinson adds that they engaged in a “fierce attack on the local population.” Hill, an otherwise serious historian, indulges in a dramatic account, claiming:

On Easter Sunday morning, therefore, having heard mass, they sallied forth, completely surprising the Greeks, who had never suspected so small a force of so audacious an enterprise. The Latins slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; the mounted Templars rode through the town spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood….The Templars rode through the land, sacking the villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains. (Hill, p. 37)

Really? With 14 knights and 29 sergeants? Against a population that had successfully hemmed them into their commandery in the first place? And then, despite this complete and utter victory they gave the island up? Obviously not. This is sheer hyperbole, and significantly Hill does not provide a single source for his dramatic and exaggerated account. It appears more a device to set up the island as ripe for the arrival of Guy de Lusignan.

Turning instead to The French Continuation of William of Tyre we find an account that without whitewashing or minimizing the violence of the Templars nevertheless keeps things in perspective. Namely:

When Brother Reynald Bochard who was their commander and the brothers realized that the Greeks would have no mercy, they commended themselves to God and were confessed and absolved. Then they armed themselves and went out against the Greeks and fought them. God by His providence gave the victory to the Templars, and many Greeks were killed or taken. They immediately came to Acre and explained what had happened to the master and convent. They took counsel among themselves and agreed that they could no longer hold island as their property, but…would return it to King Richard in exchange for the security that they had given him. (Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusde. Ashgate, 1998. p. 112)

This account makes clear that the Templar sortie was a hard-fought battle (not a slaughter of “sheep”), and while the Templars managed to cut their way out at considerable cost to the Greeks, they headed straight for the coast to take ship for Acre and wash their hands of the entire island! The Templars did not leave behind a “desolated” and depopulated island, with the inhabitants cowering in the mountains. They left behind an island in the hands of the local elites. This is a very significant point and one to keep in mind when examining the establishment of Frankish rule on Cyprus under the Lusignans. 

However, there is also an element of tragedy in this short episode in the history of the Knights Templar. Had they handled the situation in Cyprus better, the Knights Templar would not have been vulnerable to King Philip IV's machinations just over a century later.  Although Templars might have been arrested  and properties confiscated in France, the Order itself would have survived -- just as the Hospitallers did from their independent bases of Rhodes and then Malta -- to decay at its own pace. The nonsensical conspiracy stories and allegations of heresy etc. would never have taken root, and, who knows, perhaps the Templars would have proved  a stronger bastion against the Ottomans. 

Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.University of Cambridge Press, 1994.

Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998.

Hill, George. A History of Cyprus: Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432.  Cambridge University Press. 1948.

Robinson, John J.. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1994.

The facts depicted here are the basis for the novel "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin and a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: