Hugues de Payns, the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar order, was born around 1070 in the land of Payns, near Troyes. He was a French nobleman who fought in Jerusalem during the First Crusade (1095–99), which turned into a two-hundred-year conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East over control of Jerusalem and Palestine.
Hugues seemed to be an important person in the court of Count of Champagne during that time. There is no written assurance whether Hugues de Payns participated in the First Crusade or not. However, it is quite surprising that his name is absent until the return of the first Crusaders. By looking at all the historical material provided by the scholars, we can say that Hugues accompanied the Count of Champagne on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1104. He returned to France the following year and revisited the Holy Land in 1114 with other secular knights, supported by the Count of Champagne. Hugues and his companions entered the service of the Holy Sepulchre Canon to protect pilgrims who came to meditate in Jerusalem.
Hugues de Payns, like Saint Bernard and many of the early Templars, came from the Champagne region of France, near the important market town of Troyes. Exact details of how he came to create the Knights Templar and become its first Grand Master are very scant. Hugues probably joined the First Crusade and when his liege lord, the Count of Champagne, returned to France, he stayed behind. But in a very short period, Hugues had established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon or Templars, for short.
In 1129, he went before Pope Honorius at the Council of Troyes. Doing a double act with Saint Bernard, they sold the notion of the Templars to a very receptive church audience. He assured them that his knights lived according to monastic vows. They prayed regularly. They took no wives. They lived modestly. Pope Honorius was convinced and the Templars would enjoy papal protection for nearly two centuries.
Bernard of Clairvaux had the support of Hugh of Champagne during the war at the Holy Land. A Templar commanding headquarters was eventually built at Payns. Some scholars claim that Hugues came from the Vivarais (the district of Viviers in the modern département of Ardèche).
For twenty years, Hugues tirelessly built the Knights Templar until his death in the Holy Land in 1136. Then the order was led by its second Grand Master Robert de Craon. Its richest and most glorious days were still ahead of it. But Hugues must be credited with developing the concept of an order of monastic knights and turning it into a bright and shining reality.
The Historian Charles Addison recounts the life of de Payns in his book, “Knights Templars", in the following glowing terms:
“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.” As Grand Master, Hugues de Payns commanded the Order for almost twenty years until his death in Palestine, helping to establish the influential military and financial institution. Hugues founded their first Templar House in London and another near Edinburgh at Balantrodoch, now known as Temple Midlothian. In 1129, The Latin Rule laying down the way of life of the Order was confirmed, which was attributed to Hugues de Payns and Bernard of Clairvaux.
In 1130 Hugues returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem with his new forces from France and England, where he was assisted by King Baldwin II, who died the following year. The Order became wealthy as funds and land continued to come into their possession in Europe. The Order gained more independence after 1136, becoming answerable only to the Pope. During the Second Crusade (1147–49), the Templars were given a new set of duties when the French king was forced to accept a loan from the wealthy order. They soon became international bankers, whereby pilgrims could deposit their money in a Templar house in Europe, and a coded letter would be given to the order upon their arrival in Jerusalem, allowing them to collect the amount they had left behind in Europe. This banking role flourished over time and eventually led to our current banking system.
Hugues de Payns died in Palestine in 1136. The circumstances and date of his death are still not clear in any chronicle; though the Templars commemorate him every year on May 24, the day of his death. The reason for his death is probably assumed as old age. According to the 16th century historian Marco Guarini, he was buried in the Church of San Giacomo at Ferrara.