The Knights of St. Johns and of the Temple

Among those extraordinary institutions which from time to time spring up in the world, rise to great prosperity, and in that state exist for centuries together, exercising the most important influence over the affairs of men, and then at last, either through the process of gradual decay or the operations of a more sudden agency, disappear altogether, and leave behind them, as the only traces of their existence, a few mouldering edifices for the antiquary to mourn over or to restore — among such institutions, conspicuous before all others, stand those of the famous Christian warriors, as they loved to designate themselves, the Knights of St. John’s and of the Temple. And never was there a more deeply interesting history given to the world than is embodied in the records that tell us of the growth of these Orders, of the picturesque amalgamation of the most opposite qualities of human nature required as the indispensable preliminary of membership, of the active bravery and passive fortitude with which the objects of the Institutions were pursued, of the curiously intense hatred that existed between the two great Orders, and of their fate, so sudden, terrible, and, in some respects, sublime in the one case, so protracted and comparatively undignified and commonplace in the other. In these pages we can only touch, and that briefly, upon the salient points of such a history. St. John’s may be called the oldest of the two Orders, since it dates back to the erection of the Hospital of St. John at Jerusalem, soon after the middle of the eleventh century, when it was founded for the accommodation of Christian pilgrims, in connection with the church of Santa Maria de Latina, built by the Christians of commercial Italy, with the consent of the Mohammedan governors of the Holy Land. But it was then no fighting community; to relieve the hungry, weary, houseless, and sick, of their own faith, whom piety had brought to that far-off land, was their especial vocation. But the kindly offices of the good monks were not limited by the boundaries of creed; the “Infidel” Arab or Turk was also welcome whenever necessity brought him to their doors; a state of things that contrasts powerfully and humiliatingly with the state that was to supersede it.

The influences that transformed the peaceful monks of St. John’s into the most turbulent of soldiers did not spring out of common occurrences. The wars of the Crusades broke out, the Saracens were driven from Jerusalem, and Godfrey of Bouillon elected its first Christian sovereign; but the Hospital of St. John remained essentially the same, more prosperous, but not more martial. It should seem, even, that the ambition that alone agitated the members at the time was that of enhancing the legitimate merits of their position, by becoming still more charitable in their charity, still more humble in their humility, still more self-denying in their religious discipline, for in 1120 the Serjiens or Servientes of the hospital formed themselves for such purposes into a separate monastic body under the direct protection of the Church of Rome. But about the same time a little band of Knights, nine in number, began to distinguish themselves by their zeal and courage in the performance of a duty self-imposed, but of the most dangerous and important character. They had devoted themselves, life and fortune, to the defence of the high roads leading to Jerusalem, where the Christian pilgrims were continually harassed and injured by the warlike onslaught of the Mussulmen and the predatory attacks of robbers. “Poor fellow-soldiers of Jesus Christ” they called themselves; and poor enough indeed they were, since their chief, Hugh de Payens, was constrained to ride with another Knight on the same horse: a memorable incident, which the Order, with noble pride, commemorated in their seal. Such services spoke eloquently to every one. Golden opinions were speedily won. The poor Knights soon became rich Knights. The little body began speedily to grow into a large one. As a special honour they were lodged, by the Church, on the site of the great Hebrew Temple, and the fame of the “Knighthood of the Temple of Solomon” began to spread through Christian Europe. Amid the general excitement of the Holy Wars this junction of the priest and soldier seemed but a most happy embodiment of the prevailing passions, duties, and wants of the age (Fig. 544). Thus, when Hugh de Payens himself set out on a tour with four of the brethren, in order to promulgate more distinctly the objects of the Society, and to seek assistance, great was the interest and excitement that prevailed wherever they came. They arrived in England in 1128, and were received with the deepest respect by Henry the First and his court. The result of these travels was, that when the four brethren returned to Jerusalem they brought with them in company three hundred of the best and bravest of European chivalry. The new Society was evidently moving the Christian world; what wonder that the monks of St. John felt themselves at last moved too—in the same direction. Within a few years after De Payens’ return, and during the spiritual rule of Raymond du Puy, they took up the lance, and rushed forth into the field in rivalry of the brotherhood of the Temple. And between the warlike merit of the two, the Knights who had become monks, and the monks who had become Knights, it would evidently be impossible to decide; both were the flower of the Christian armies, and the especial dread of the Saracen. The military annals of no country or time exhibit deeds that can surpass, few even that can rival, the prodigies of valour continually performed by these warrior monks. But with wealth, corruption, as usual, flowed in. When one Order (the Templars) possessed nine thousand manors, and the other nineteen thousand, in the fairest provinces of Christendom, it would be too much to expect that humility would long continue to characterize either. The first evidence of the evil spirit that was at work in their hearts was exhibited in their mutual quarrels, which at last grew to such a height that they actually turned their arms against each other, and even on one occasion, in 1259, fought a pitched battle, in which the Knights Hospitallers were the conquerors, and scarcely left a Templar alive to carry to his brethren the intelligence of their discomfiture. This was an odd way to exhibit the beauties of the faith they were shedding so much blood and expending so much treasure to establish among the Saracens, and scarcely calculated to convince the infidel even of the military necessity of acknowledging or giving way to it. The fact is that the decline of the Christian power in the Holy Land may be traced, in a great measure, to these miserable jealousies; it may be doubted whether the two Orders did not, on the whole, retard rather than promote the cause they espoused. But let us now look at their position in this country. The first houses of both were established in London, and nearly about the same time, the Priory of St. John at Clerkenwell in 1100, by Jordan Briset, an English baron, and his wife; and the Old Temple, in Holborn (where Southampton Buildings now exist), founded during the visit of Hugh de Payens, twenty-eight years later. As the Templars, however, increased in numbers and wealth, they purchased the site of the present Temple in Fleet Street, and erected their beautiful church and other corresponding buildings on a scale of great splendour. Both this church and the church of St. John, Clerkenwell, were consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, whom events of no ordinary nature brought to this country; events which threatened to involve something like the entire destruction of the Christians and their cause in the Holy Land, if immediate succour was not granted by some most potent authority. With Heraclius came the Masters of the two Orders; and the hopes of the trio, it appears, were centred on the King of England, who had, on receiving absolution for the murder of Becket, promised not only to maintain two hundred Templars at his own expense, but also to proceed to Palestine himself at the head of a vast army. At first all looked very encouraging. Henry met them at Reading, wept as he listened to their sad narration of the reverses experienced in Palestine, and, in answer to their prayers for support, promised to bring the matter before parliament immediately on its meeting. In that assembly, however, the barons urged upon him that he was bound by his coronation oath to stay at home and fulfil his kingly duties, but offered to raise funds to defray the expense of a levy of troops, expressing at the same time their opinion that English nobles and others might, if they wished, freely depart for Palestine to join the Christian warriors. Henry with apparent reluctance agreed; and “lastly, the king gave answer, and said that he might not leave his land without keeping, nor yet leave it to the prey and robbery of Frenchmen. But he would give largely of his own to such as would take upon them that voyage. With this answer the Patriarch was discontented, and said, ‘We seek a man, and not money; well near every Christian region sendeth unto us money, but no land sendeth to us a prince. Therefore we ask a prince that needeth money, and not money that needeth a prince.’ But the king laid for him such excuses, that the Patriarch departed from him discontented and comfortless; whereof the king being advertised, intending somewhat to recomfort him with pleasant words, followed him unto the sea-side. But the more the king thought to satisfy him with his fair speech, the more the Patriarch was discontented, insomuch that, at the last, he said unto him, ‘Hitherto thou hast reigned gloriously, but hereafter thou shalt be forsaken of Him whom thou at this time forsakest. Think on Him, what he hath given to thee, and what thou hast yielded to Him again; how first thou wert false to the king of France, and after slew that holy man Thomas of Canterbury; and lastly thou forsakest the protection of Christian faith.’ The king was moved with these words, and said unto the Patriarch, ‘Though all the men of my land were one body, and spake with one mouth, they durst not speak to me such words.’ ‘No wonder,’ said the Patriarch, ‘for they love thine, and not thee; that is to mean, they love thy goods temporal, and fear thee for loss of promotion; but they love not thy soul.’ And when he had so said he offered his head to the king, saying, ‘Do by me right as thou didst by that blessed man Thomas of Canterbury; for I had liever to be slain of thee than of the Saracens, for thou art worse than any Saracen.’ But the king kept his patience, and said, ‘I may not wend out of my land, for my own sons will arise against me when I was absent.’ ‘No wonder,’ said the Patriarch, ‘for of the devil they come, and to the devil they shall go;’ and so departed from the king in great ire.” (Fabyan.) Two years later Saladin had put an end to the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, generously dismissing to their homes his many distinguished prisoners, among whom was Heraclius, and granting to the Christians generally of Europe the possession of the sepulchre of Christ. His liberality experienced no suitable return. A third Crusade was set on foot, the one in which C\oeurde-Lion was engaged, to fail like the previous ones, to be again followed by others, with the same result. In 1291 Acre was besieged by the Sultan of Egypt, and taken, after a most terrible conflict, in which the two Orders were nearly exterminated: that event in effect may be said to mark the final defeat of the Crusaders in their long-cherished object of the conquest of the Holy Land.

The Knights of St. John, however, for about two centuries after this, found ample employment of a kind after their own heart; they obtained possession of the island of Rhodes, from whence they kept up continual war,—of a very piratical character, though, be it observed,—against the Turks; but in 1522 Solyman the Fourth, or the Magnificent, after a tremendous siege, in which he is said to have lost upwards of 100,000 men, completely overpowered the defenders, although they fought with a courage that won his respect, and induced him to consent at last that the Grand-master, L’Isle Adam, and his surviving companions, might depart freely whithersoever they chose. He visited his illustrious captive on entering the city, and was heard to remark as he left him, “It is not without pain that I force this Christian, at his time of life, to leave his dwelling.” The emperor Charles the Fifth then bestowed on them the island of Malta, which they fortified with works that render it to this clay almost impregnable, but where, after successfully resisting a most formidable attack from the Turkish troops of Solyman, they gradually fell into a mode of life very different from that which had previously characterized them, and which was suddenly brought to a very ignominious conclusion by the appearance of Napoleon, leading his Egyptian expedition, in 1798, and by his landing without opposition, through the mingled treachery and cowardice of the Knights; who, however, received their reward: the Order itself was then virtually abolished. It is not unworthy of notice, as evidence of the amazing strength of the place, as well as of the feeling of the French officers at so disgraceful a surrender, that one of them, Caffarelli, said to Napoleon, as they examined the works, “It is well, General, that some one was within to open the gate for us. We should have had some difficulty in entering had the place been altogether empty.” A Grand-master and a handful of Knights, it seems, do still exist at Ferrara, and possess a scanty remnant of the once magnificent revenue. The Templars experienced a more tragical, but also infinitely more honourable termination of their career, and one that redeemed a thousand faults and vices. Within twenty years after their conduct and misfortunes at the siege of Acre had entitled them to the sympathy of their Christian brethren throughout the world, they were suddenly charged in France with the commission of a multitude of crimes, religious and social, and to convince them that they were guilty, whether they knew it or not, tortures of the most frightful description were unsparingly applied to make them confess. One who did confess, when he was brought before the commissary of police to be examined, at once revoked his confession, saying, “They held me a long before a fierce fire, that the flesh was burnt off my heels; two pieces of bone came away, which I present to you.” Such were the execrable cruelties perpetrated on the unhappy Templars in France, where they were also sent to the scaffold in troops, and thus at last the Order was made tractable in that country. In England there was greater decency at least observed. If the torture was applied at all, it was but sparingly, and the confession obtained was at last reduced to so very innocent an affair, that no man would have been justified in sacrificing life and limb in resistance; so the Templars wisely gave way. All matters thus prepared, the Pope in 1312 formally abolished the Order; and then the world saw the truth of what it had before suspected, namely, that all these atrocious proceedings were but to clear the way for a general scramble for the enormous property of the Order, in which the chief actors were of course the sovereigns of France and England, and the Pontiff. They had tried to persuade themselves or their subjects that the rival Order of St. John’s was to have the possessions in question, and they were nominally confirmed to it; but about a twentieth of the whole was all that the Knights Hospitallers ever obtained.

Of the two churches consecrated by Heraclius in London, that of the Temple alone remains. St. John’s was burnt, with all the surrounding buildings of the Priory, by the followers of Wat Tyler in the fourteenth century, when the conflagration continued for no less than seven days. The Temple had been previously injured by them on account of its being considered to belong to the obnoxious Hospitallers. We see from Hollar’s view of the Priory in the seventeenth century (Fig. 541), that previous to the dissolution by Henry the Eighth it had recovered much of its ancient magnificence. But in the reign of Edward the Sixth the “church, for the most part,” says Stow, “to wit, the body and side aisles, with the great bell-tower (a most curious piece of workmanship, graven, gilt, and enamelled, to the great beautifying of the city, and passing all other that I have seen), was undermined and blown up with gunpowder; the stone whereof was employed in building of the Lord Protector’s house in the Strand.” The remains of the choir form at present a portion of the parochial church of Clerkenwell. But there is another relic of the Priory, the gateway (Fig. 542), which Johnson “beheld with reverence,” and which his successors can hardly look on without a kindred sentiment, were it on his account alone; for here it was that Johnson came to Cave, the publisher of the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ to seek and obtain employment, being at the time poor, friendless, and unknown; nay, so very poor, that he sat behind the screen to eat his dinner, instead of at the printer’s table, in order to conceal his shabby coat. The principal part of the gateway now forms the Jerusalem Tavern. The groined roof of the gate has been restored of late years. But we now turn to a remain of the rival metropolitan house of the Templars, which is of a very much more important character.

No one probably ever beheld the exterior of the Temple Church (Fig. 538), for the first time, without finding his curiosity at least excited to know the meaning of its peculiar form, that round—half fortress, half chapter-house like—structure, with such a beautiful oblong Gothic church body attached to it at one side. That the second was added to the first at a later period is sufficiently evident; but we are puzzled by the “Round” as it is called, till we begin to remember who were its founders: the men whose lives were spent in the Holy Land, in a continual alternation of fighting and devotion; whose houses there were one day a place of worship, the next of attack and defence. Such, no doubt, were the origin of the Round churches of England, of which we possess but three others.

The restoration of these fine old works of our forefathers promises to become a marked feature of the present time, and if so, there will be one especial labour of the kind, truly a labour of love to those who have been concerned in it, that will stand out from all the rest, as the grand examplar of the true spirit that should animate restorers. When the Benchers of the Temple began their noble task, they found nearly all that was left of the original building, walls only excepted, in a state of decay, and everything that was not original, without any exception, worthless. Thus the elaborately beautiful sculpture of the low Norman doorway, which leads from the quaint porch (Fig. 534) into the interior of the Round, was in a great measure lost; now we see it again in all its pristine splendour. The airy clustered columns of Purbeck marble, which, standing in a wide circle, support with their uplifted, uniting, and arching arms the roof of the Round (Fig. 535), were no longer trustworthy; so they had to be removed entirely, and new ones, at an immense expense, provided; and the ancient quarry at Purbeck, from which so much marble must have been drawn in the middle ages, for the erection of our cathedrals, was again opened on the occasion. Everything through the whole church was covered with coating upon coating of whitewash; consequently, all traces were lost of the gilding and colour that had been everywhere expended with a lavish hand; and which now again relieve the walls, in the forms of pious inscriptions in antique letters, which glow in the roofs of the Round and of the Chancel, and which gradually increase into a perfect blaze of splendour towards and around the altar (Fig. 532). The beautiful junction of the two parts of the entire structure was then concealed by a barbarous screen of the age of Charles the Second, that extended right across between them, and over which was placed the organ; now, once more, the eye ranges along without interruption from the entrance door up to the very altar (Fig. 531), through one of the most beautiful of vistas, and the organ has been removed into a chamber constructed expressly outside the central window of the chancel, on the north side; the window itself, by slight but judicious alterations, forming a beautiful open screen through which the chamber communicates with the church. Then again, the monuments of all kinds but the beautiful, which were formerly let into the very body of the pillars or placed in other equally incongruous positions, have been removed into the triforium or gallery of the Round; warm rich-looking tiles have replaced the wooden pavement; gorgeous stained-glass windows again diffuse their magnificent hues upon every object around, and tell in their “panes” the story of Him who died that all might live. In a word, the Temple church now presents, in most respects, an almost perfect example, on a small scale, of what the grand ecclesiastical structures of the thirteenth century were generally; that is, a consummate and most magical union of all the arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, and music, calculated at once to take man from the world, that they might guide him to heaven. With one individual feature of the Temple, we must now conclude our notice of it. On the floor of the Round lie the sculptured effigies of men who belonged to the period of ‘Old England,’ which we have at present under review, and which, as being undoubted originals, are among the most interesting pieces of sculpture we possess (Figs. 536, 537). They have lately been restored with remarkable success, by Mr. Richardson— having become seriously decayed—and now present to us, each in his habit as he lived—Geoffrey de Magnaville, that bold and bad baron of the time of Stephen, who, dying excommunicate, was for a time hung up on a tree in the Temple Garden here—the great Protector, Pembroke, who by his wisdom assuaged the divisions among his countrymen after the death of John—the Protector’s sons William and Gilbert, the former sheathing his sword; he had fought, and well, but his race was done; the latter drawing it in the service, as he intended, of God, in Palestine, when death stopped the journey—and among others De Roos, one of the barons to whom the bloodless field of Runnemede has given undying reputation; the exquisitely beautiful effigy, with the head uncovered, and the curling locks flowing about it, represent that nobleman. These pieces of sculpture were originally, like all the others in the Temple, painted and gilded. We cannot here avoid drawing attention to the head of a seraph, discovered on the wall between the Round and the oblong part of the church during the restoration. The expression is truly seraphic. Traces of colour are even now perceptible; the cheeks and lips have once borne the natural hues of life, the pupil of the eye has been painted blue, the hair gilded. In other heads, also original, the eyes were found to be of glass. How all this reminds one of the customs that prevailed among the Greeks, where some of the most beautiful works the world had ever seen, or would ever see, were thought to be enhanced by means like those we have described.