Above: Bernard of Clairvaux
by Alan Butler
Born Fontaine de Dijon France 1090
Died Clairvaux, near Troyes, Champagne France August 20th 1153
Bernard of Clairvaux may well represent the most important figure in Templarism. In our opinion past researchers have generally failed to credit St Bernard with the pivotal role he played in the planning, formation and promotion of the infant Templar Order. Whether an ‘intention’ to create an Order of the Templar sort existed prior to the life of St Bernard himself is a matter open to debate. (See ‘The Templar Continuum’ Butler and Dafoe, Templar Books 2,000).
The son of Tocellyn de Sorrell, Bernard was born into a middle-ranking aristocratic family, which held sway over an important region of Burgundy, though with close contacts to the region of Champagne. There is some dispute as to whether Bernard’s father had fought in the storming of Jerusalem in 1099, and indeed whether he died in the Levant. The question appears to be easily answered for in the small Templar type Church in St Bernard’s birthplace there is a marble plaque that states the Church was built by St Bernard’s mother in thanks for the safe return of her husband from the Crusade.
St Bernard was a younger member of an extremely large family. He appears to have received a good, standard education, at Chatillon-sur-Seine, which fitted him, most probably, for a life in the Church, which, of course, is exactly the direction he eventually took. Many stories exist regarding Bernard’s early years – his visions, torments and realisations. All of these were attributed to Bernard after his canonisation and therefore must surely be taken with a pinch of salt. What does seem evident is that Bernard was bright, inquisitive and probably tinged with a sort of genius. Certainly he was a fantastic organiser and possessed a charisma that few could deny.
St Bernard enters history in an indisputable sense at the age of 23 years, when together with a very large group of his brothers, cousins and maybe other kin, (probably between 25 and 30) he rode into the abbey of Citeaux, Dijon. This abbey was the first Cistercian monastery and had been set up somewhat earlier by a small band of dissident monks from Molesmes. Much can be found elsewhere in these pages relating specifically to the Cistercians. At the time of St Bernard’s arrival the abbey was under the guiding hand of Stephen, later St Stephen Harding, an Englishman.
Bernard announced his determination to follow the Cistercian way of life and together with his entourage he swamped the small abbey, swelling the number of brothers there to such an extent that it was inevitable that more abbeys would have to be formed.
Only three years later St Bernard, still an extremely young man, (25 years) was dispatched, together with a small band of monks, to a site at Clairvaux, near Troyes, in Champagne, there to become Abbott of his own establishment. It is known that the land upon which Clairvaux was built was donated by the Count of Champagne, based at the nearby city of Troyes.
St Bernard was a visionary, a man of apparently tremendous religious conviction. He could be irascible and domineering at times, but seems to have been generally venerated and well liked by those around him. Bernard suffered frequent bouts of ill health, almost from the moment he joined the Cistercians. This continued for the remainder of his life and may have demonstrated an inability on the part of his digestive system to cope with the severe diet enjoyed or rather endured by the Cistercians at the time.
Bernard’s influence grew within the established Church of his day. With a mixture of simple, religious zeal and some extremely important family connections, this little man involved himself in the general running, not only of the Cistercian Order, but the Roman Church of his day. Bernard was instrumental in the appointment of GREGORIO PAPARESCHI, Pope Innocent II in the year 1130, despite the fact that not all agencies supported the man for the Papal throne. Bernard walked hundreds of miles and talked to a great number of influential people in order to ensure Innocent’s ultimate acceptance. His success in this endeavour marked St Bernard as probably the most powerful man in Christendom, for as ‘Pope Maker’ he probably had more influence than the Pontiff himself.
This appointment should not be underestimated, for it was Pope Innocent II who formally accepted ‘The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon’ (The Knights Templar) into the Catholic fold. This he did, almost certainly, at the behest of Bernard and possibly as a result of promises he had made to this end at the time Bernard showed him the support which led to the Vatican.
To understand St Bernard’s importance to Cistercianism it is first necessary to study the Order in detail. In brief however it would be fair to suggest that Bernard’s own personality, drive and influence saw the Cistercians growing from a slightly quirky fringe monastic institution to being arguably the most significant component of Christian monasticism that the Middle Ages ever knew.
In addition to this St Bernard consorted with Princes, Kings and Pontiffs, even directly ‘creating’ his own Pope, BERNARDO PAGANELLI DI MONTEMAGNO (Eugnius III) who became Pontiff in 1145. This man had been a noviciate of St Bernard at Clairvaux and was, in all respects, St Bernard’s own man. From this point barely a decision was made in Rome that was not influenced in some way by St Bernard himself.
Much could be written about the ‘nature’ of St Bernard. He was a staunch supporter of the Virgin Mary, a visionary and a man who had a profound belief in an early and very ‘Culdean’ form of Christianity. This is exemplified by the short verse he once wrote.
‘Believe me, for I know, you will find something far greater in the woods than in books. Stones and trees will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters.’
St Bernard staunchly supported what amounted to an utter veneration of the Virgin Mary for the whole of his life and was also an enthusiastic supporter of a rather strange little extract from the Old Testament, entitled ‘Solomon’s Song of Songs’.
How and why St Bernard became involved in the formation of the Knights Templar may never be fully understood. There is no doubt that he was blood-tied to some of the first Templar Knights, in particular Andre de Montbard, who was his maternal uncle. He may also have been related to the Counts of Champagne, who themselves appear to have been pivotal in the formation of the Templar Order.
For whatever reason St Bernard wrote the first ‘rules’ of the Templar Order. He may have undertaken this task personally and they were based, almost entirely, on the Order adopted by the Cistercians themselves. The Templars were officially declared to be a monastic order under the protection of Church in Troyes in 1139. Bernard went further and insisted that Pope Innocent II recognised this infant order as being solely under the authority of the Pope and no other temporal or ecclesiastical authority. It is a fact that the Templars venerated St Bernard from that moment on, until their own demise in 1307. St Bernard’s influence on the Templars is therefore pivotal to the whole of the movement’s aims and objectives and in our opinion no researcher should ever underestimate Bernard’s importance with this regard.
St Bernard travelled extensively, negotiated in civil disturbances and, surprisingly for the period, was instrumental in preventing a number of pogroms taking place against Jews in various locations within what is present day France. A staunch supporter of an Augustinian view of the mystery of the Christian faith, St Bernard was fiercely opposed to ‘rationalistic’ views of Christianity. In particular he was a staunch opponent of the dialectician ‘Peter Abelard’, a man whom St Bernard virtually destroyed when Abelard refused to accept Bernard’s own criticism of his radical ideas.
Although travelling extensively on many and varied errands during his life, St Bernard always returned to his own abbey of Clairvaux, which it seems (to us at least) had been deliberately built in a location that allowed free travel in all directions. It is suggested that Clairvaux was peopled with all manner of scholars, some of whom may well have been Jewish scribes. It is also true to say that if Citeaux remained the ‘head’ of the Cistercian movement during the life of St Bernard, Clairvaux lay at its heart. Clairvaux became the Mother House of many new Cistercian monasteries, not least of all Fountaines Abbey in Yorkshire, England, which itself was to rise to the rank of most prosperous abbey on English soil.
St Bernard died in Clairvaux on August 20th 1153, a date that would soon become his feast day, for St Bernard was canonised within a few short years of his death. Space here does not permit a full handling of this extraordinary man’s life or his interest in so many subjects, including architecture, music and (probably) ancient manuscripts. After his death a cult of St Bernard rapidly developed. At the time of the French Revolution St Bernard’s skull was taken for safekeeping to Switzerland, eventually finding its way back to Troyes. It is now housed in the Treasury of Troyes Cathedral and can be seen there, together with the skull and thighbone of St Malachy, a friend and contemporary of St Bernard.
A much fuller and more comprehensive detailed biography of St Bernard’s life can be found in ‘The Knights Templar Revealed’ Butler and Dafoe, Constable and Robinson – 2006.
TemplarHistory.com was started in the fall of 1997 by Stephen Dafoe, a Canadian author who has written several books on the Templars and related subjects.
Read more from our Templar History Archives – Templar History