Heroes From History: Hugues de Payens

Recently, I have been reading more about historical knights and their great deeds. This month of October, I also found there to be several important historical events involving knights and other prominent warriors of Christendom. This month marks the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. Yesterday was also the 1289th anniversary of the Battle of Tours on October 10, 732. This month, I will write a series of blog posts focusing on the history of prominent knights, other Christian warriors, and historical battles important to them. I would like to begin with Hugues de Payens, the founder of the Order of the Knights Templar.

The Birth of a Legend

Hugues de Payens, also known as “Hugh de Payens,” was a French nobleman who became a knight and formed the Order of the Knights Templar, eventually taking the title of the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar as the Order expanded. He was born around the year 1070. Exactly when and where he was born is unknown, but he is believed to have been born in either Champagne or Burgundy, France.

Hugues de Payens.
An artist rendition of Hugues de Payens.

Hugues is said to have fought in the First Crusade to capture Jerusalem after it had been lost long ago. It is uncertain if this was before or after he married a woman named Catherine Saint Clair and fathered three sons with her. However, sometime after the death of his wife, Hugues gave up all that he owed and swore himself to a life in service of God. He had seen many Christian pilgrims being attacked on their way to worship at sites across the Holy Land from his time serving in Jerusalem during the occupation. Disheartened by these attacks on innocent civilians, he decided to devote himself to protecting the pilgrims who would not or could not defend themselves.

However, this was not a task he could accomplish on his own. As skilled of a warrior as he may have been Рand by all accounts, he was a renowned fighter in his day РHugues knew he was just on man, and one man could quickly be overwhelmed by a group of trained attackers. As such, he would need a team of men he could rely upon to accomplish this task. Fortunately, he knew of others who were willing to take up the cause. The original nine members of the Knights Templar were Hugues de Payens himself, Godefroy de Saint-Omer, Andr̩ de Montbard, Hugues I, Geoffroi Bisol, Archambaud de St. Amand, Payen de Montdidier, Rossal, and Gondemar. We will explore the origins and what is known on each of these knights at a later date.

Hugues de Payens went to the patriarch of Jeruselum – the head of the church at the time – and swore himself to a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity. He would own nothing, seek nothing, and live only to serve God and protect His innocent followers from harm. He asked only for support in the form of the means to carry out this mission. Moved by Hugues de Payens and his plea, the nine were granted the authority to escort pilgrims arriving from the port of Jaffa to the city of Jeruselum where they would visit different sites around the Holy Land including the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem, and the Jordan River. The countryside was dangerous and full of Islamic marauders hunting Christian pilgrims, but Hugues de Payens and his men were effective at chasing them off and saving many lives.

Humble Beginnings

Originally, the Knights Templar were a truly impoverished order. With their original nine members, it is said they could only afford one horse for Hugues de Payens and Godefroy de Saint-Omer to share. In fact, they had an official seal which showed two knights riding one horse because of this. However, the Order eventually grew in prominence due to word of their success traveling far, spread by the lips of many grateful pilgrims who had been spared death by the courage of the knights. They were granted a house, funding, and support to grow the Order. The red cross on a white shirt became a recognizable symbol across space and time from the heroic deeds of the Knights Templar.

Knights Templar Coat of Arms
The simple coat of arms of the Knights Templar includes a red cross on a white background.

Hugues de Payens himself became an accomplished knight whose legacy ripples across the ages. He studied the Quran and learned about Muslim languages, customs, and values. At first, he did so to better understand the enemy he faced, but in time, these studies helped him to become a wise diplomat capable of negotiating peace with the Islamic forces and avoiding bloodshed in some situations. The true embodiment of a knight, he was skilled both in making war and forging peace. Many lives were spared due to the efforts of Hugues de Payens.

The Knights Templar eventually gained in prominence to the point where they were officially recognized by the Pope, Honorius II. Hugues de Payens and several other Knights Templar traveled from Jerusalem to Rome for this honor. They were put into official records as an order of warrior monks in the service of God and all of Christendom. They were also granted the Temple of Solomon as their official station. Hugues de Payens traveled across Europe looking for support and establishing other stations in many countries.

A Life Well Lived

Hugues died in 1136 at the age of 66. By that time, the Order of the Knights Templar was well-established as an official fighting force of fearsome protectors who went on to carry the legacy Hugues de Payens had dedicated his life to building. Eventually, the Order strayed into a role of international banking, perhaps after becoming so large and wealthy that they lost sight of their founding vision of a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God. Fortunately, Hugues de Payens did not live to see this change and the ultimate demise of the Knights Templar in the 14th Century.

Despite the ultimate fate of the Order, Hugues de Payens created an enduring legacy through the timeless legends of the heroic deeds performed by the Knights Templad in its early days. Through his determination, skill, and life of service, Hugues de Payens serves as a timeless beacon of inspiration echoing throughout human history. What he built and what he accomplished are a testament to what humans can achieve when they dedicate themselves fully to so noble a cause.

Statue of Hugues de Payens
A statue of Hugues de Payens in Dijon, France.

What do you think of Hugues de Payens and his story? What about the other original nine members of the Order of the Knights Templar? Are there any other knights you would like to see mentioned here? Feel free to share you thoughts, and please, share this post with others who may enjoy it.


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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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