By Steve Tibble
Not surprisingly, the crusades were full of headstrong and heavily armed soldiers who were hard to police.
More surprisingly, however, even monks were not always easy to control. The Church was ideologically pacifistic, at least in theory, and went to great lengths to try to keep violence under control.
But there were profound tensions – and nowhere was this more true than in the Latin East, where, somewhat ironically, the Church bore much of the burden of financing the defence of the frontiers.
Christianity might abhor violence, but the lives of the Frankish settlers and the native Christian communities depended to a very large extent on the effectiveness of militarised monks. Three main monastic orders – the Templars, the Hospitallers and later the Teutonic Knights – had been established to help defend the Holy Land. In the absence of standing armies, they quickly took on the responsibility for looking after large stretches of vulnerable frontier lands for the crusader states.
For these military orders, violence was an essential and fundamental part of their very existence. Their behaviour was often inflamed by a unique and occasionally toxic combination – the testosterone of active military service, the normalising, desensitising and disinhibiting nature of the violence which they frequently encountered, and the frustrations of celibacy.
For warriors such as the Templars, for instance, where violence was tightly directed but simultaneously glorified, the tensions this presented proved particularly difficult to sustain. The possibility of murder, and perhaps even the existence of a predisposition towards it, was recognised in the ordinances of the Templars. ‘If a brother kills a Christian man or woman’, the Rule of the order states at one point, ‘or causes them to be killed, he will be expelled from the house’. And reference to this law was repeated several times – so often, in fact, that one suspects the frequency of its appearance bore a direct relation to the frequency of offences.
Case law cited in the statutes of the order gave examples of what this might mean in practice. One case recalled that ‘it happened in Antioch that a brother who was named Brother Paris and two other brothers who were in his company, killed some Christian merchants’. When they were accosted about their crimes, the warrior monks had no real answer. When ‘they were asked why they had done such a thing…they replied that sin had made them do it’. Perhaps they were drunk. Or perhaps, Templars often being of noble stock, their arrogance just got the better of them.
Noble or not, the punishments were appropriately severe. The offending brothers ‘were sentenced to be expelled from the house and flogged throughout Antioch, Tripoli, Tyre and Acre’ – that is, they were dragged through all the main Templar regional headquarters in order to act as a visible example to anyone who might have similarly murderous impulses. ‘Thus they were flogged and cried ‘see here the justice which the house exacts from its wicked men’, and they were put in life imprisonment at Château Pelerin and died there’.
Even that was not enough to prevent a repetition, however. Soon afterwards the Templars admitted that ‘in Acre a similar thing [ie the murder of a Christian perpetrated by a Templar] happened to another brother’. Stopping hot headed young men from reaching for their swords was a never-ending process.
But when it came to murder, even the Templars faced fierce competition from the Hospitallers, their long-standing rivals as military monks. Their professional violence was impressive and essential. There were times in the late fourteenth century when the Hospitaller garrison on Rhodes were almost single-handedly leading the defence of Christendom in the Eastern Mediterranean. But the fearsome monk-knights still found time for bitter and occasionally violent fighting amongst themselves.
By the late fourteenth century the Hospitaller order on Rhodes was riven with politics, criminality and disputes. The island was the last main Frankish outpost in the East, but its effectiveness as a bulwark against further Muslim expansionism was being severely undermined by corruption and in-fighting.
Matters came to a head in 1381. Brother Bertrin of Gagnac was stationed at the Hospitaller’s castle on the island. He was a rich French knight and a leading member of the order. But his reputation was highly dubious. The senior knight of the Spanish brothers at Rhodes had recently been found dead, drowned on the shore. Rumours were circulating that Brother Bertrin was implicated in the affair, and was possibly even the murderer himself.
Bertrin complained about the gossip, and in April 1381, in an effort to divert attention away from his own behaviour, he tried to implicate the local master and his agents in the murder instead. Insufficient evidence could be gathered, however, and the case had to be dropped. But the affair, like a bad Agatha Christie novel, rumbled on – ominously unresolved.
As if that was not enough, the unstable and litigious Brother Bertrin went to court yet again a few weeks later, in May 1381 – this time he claimed that he should be given control of the affluent Hospitaller Priory of Toulouse, with, cynics noted, all the possibilities this would open up to him for personal enrichment.
But he had gone too far. In the course of the dispute, it emerged that he had already committed several other serious offences, including deserting his post in Cyprus, much to the detriment of his command. As a result of the accusations that had arisen in the process of pursuing Brother Bertrin’s claims to Toulouse, an enquiry was set up to examine his conduct. Things quickly escalated. Bertrin was suspected of having embezzled large sums of money while he was serving on Kos – and, at the end of June, the accounts of Kos were audited to identify any shortfalls.
More and more evidence of his criminality emerged over the coming months. On 2 November 1381 an assembly of the brothers was convened on Rhodes to try Bertrin ‘for certain grave excesses and crimes he had perpetrated’. The evidence was overwhelming. He was eventually found guilty – extremely guilty.
The brothers gathered together in the castle’s main chapel, the church of St John the Baptist at Rhodes. The punishment was that he should be expelled from the order of the Hospitallers and, as a symbol of this expulsion, that he should be very publicly stripped of his cloak.
As the knot of the cloak’s cord was being untied, however, Bertrin ‘rushed at the Master [of the Hospitallers] with a knife, which he drew from his own sleeve, with intent to kill him. The Master, using all his strength, repulsed him with his hands to avoid being struck, but Bertrin with his knife wounded the Master in the thumb of his left hand’. Bertrin continued to try to kill the aged master (he was about 70 years old at this point). But while the fracas continued, several of the other brother knights ‘rushed to the defence of their superior and master, slaying the said Bertrin there within that church.’
None of the participants came out of this incident well. The Master, Fernandez of Heredia, defended himself well in the fighting but, like Bertrin, he was certainly no saint – apart from this episode, he was mainly famous for having enriched himself at the expense of the order and had amassed huge wealth during his career. He was also known as a ladies’ man – his greed was largely driven, so it was said, by the many illegitimate children he had to support, as well as by a long line of money-hungry relatives who beat a path to his door.
Bertrin of Gagnac was even more corrupt. He seems to have been guilty of embezzlement, ‘grave excesses’ and, even more vaguely, ‘various crimes and defects’. Far more importantly, he had been implicated in the murder of the leader of the Spanish brethren – and, given his later behaviour, his guilt seems increasingly likely. The fact that he had a knife hidden up his sleeve that day in court shows that he had another murder in mind as well. It was only the master’s surprisingly quick reflexes which prevented a further tragedy.
A rogue crusading monk was just as dangerous as any other serious criminal.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His history of ‘The British Templars’ (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023.
The Rule of the Templars – The French Text of the Rule of the Order of the Knights Templar, translated by J.M. Upton-Ward, Woodbridge, 1992.
For murder (and attempted murder) amongst the warrior monks of Rhodes see:
Luttrell, A., Intrigue, “Schism, and Violence among the Hospitallers of Rhodes: 1377-1384’,” Speculum, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1966), pp. 30-48.
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