Hugues de Payens – The First Grand Master

Traditional history tells us that Hugues de Payens and Geoffrey de St. Omer arrived at the palace of King Baldwin II with the desire to defend Christian pilgrims from the attack of the infidels. While this is a romantic notion, there seems to be strong evidence that de Payens was already in the holy land and in fact may have served in the army of Godfroi de Boullion during the First Crusade.

John J. Robinson, in his book, “Dungeon Fire and Sword,” makes the claim that de Payens was 48 years of age when he became the first Grand Master of the Order having already served in the Levant for 22 years.

One of the earliest chroniclers of the Order, Archbishop William of Tyre, who wrote about the Templars some several decades after the formation tells of the formation of the Order in the following words:

“In this same year [1118] certain pious and god-fearing nobles of knightly rank, devoted to the Lord, professed the wish to live perpetually in poverty, chastity and obedience. In the hands of the patriarch they vowed themselves to the service of God as regular canons. Foremost and most distinguished among these men were the venerable Hugh de Payens and Godfrey de St. Omer. Since they had neither a church nor a fixed place of abode, the king granted them a temporary dwelling place in his own palace, on the north side of the Temple of the Lord. Under certain definite conditions, the canons of the Temple of the lord also gave them a square belonging to the canons near the same palace where the new order might exercise the duties of its religion.”

Little is actually known of de Payens youth other than that he was a knight from the area of Champagne in Burgundy. His lord was Hugh count of Champagne who had granted lands to the young Bernard of Fontaines (later to be canonized St. Bernard) to build Clairvaux abbey and latterly joined the Order himself.

Relying on tradition once again we are told that this fledgling operation consisted of but nine knights who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at the feet of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. While most accounts insist on the total being nine members, the recorder history counts eight. Along with Hugues de Payens and Geoffrey de St. Omer, were Payen de Montdidier, Archambaud de St. Agnan, Andre de Montbard, Geoffrey Bisol, and two knights recorded only by their Christian names of Rossal and Gondemar. The ninth member remains unknown although some have suggested that it was Hugh Conte de Champagne.

Perhaps most important of these additional knights is Andre de Montbard who was, despite being younger than Bernard of Clairvaux actually his uncle. De Montbard would later become Grand Master of the order himself. It is the addition of de Montbard and the Count of Champagne that begins to paint interconnectedness to the order that cannot be a mere coincidence.

It is said de Payens and his men accepted no new members for the first nine years. While theories as to why this is generally tend to run rampant with recent authors speculating everything from the order finding the Holy Grail to the severed head of Christ Himself, the truth of the matter may be somewhat simpler.

Desmond Seward in his book, The Monks of War, puts forth the theory that the order was on the verge of dissolving due to the lack of members. Seward contends that Hugh sought out Bernard for his support to save the failing Order.

Whether this is true or not remains to be conclusively proven, but what remains essentially true is that de Payens and company left the Levant for Europe in order to solicit funds and recruits. At the Council of Troyes on January 13, 1129, the Templars would receive a Rule of Order penned in part by Bernard of Clairvaux himself. Latterly Bernard’s letter of exhortation would propel the Order of the Temple to dizzying heights of fame and fortune.

Hugues de Payens would see the order through nearly 20 years until his death in 1136. The Historian Charles Addison recounts the life of de Payens in his book, “Knights Templars” in the following glowing terms:

“1130. Hugh de Payens, having now laid in Europe the foundations of the great monastic and military institution of the Temple, which was destined shortly to spread its ramifications to the remotest quarters of Christendom, returned to Palestine at the head of a valiant band of newly-elected Templars, drawn principally from France and England. On their arrival at Jerusalem they were received with great distinction by the king, the clergy, and the barons of the Latin kingdom.

“Then the days of Hugh de Payens drew to a close. After governing the Order for twenty-one years, and seeing it rise and hold the highest position among the warrior bands of Palestine under his care, and the continued patronage of St. Bernard, who never failed, while writing to the East, to mention it with honor, and to recommend it to the notice of kings and nobles, this gallant soldier of the Cross died in 1139. Everything that is estimable in man is to be discovered in the character of de Payens; no word of calumny has been breathed by the noble and the just upon this truly great man; and though some later writers have attempted to blacken his fair fame. There can be little doubt that no dishonorable action sullied his life, and that he descended to the tomb, as he had lived, without reproach.”

– Charles Addison – Knights Templars


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