The Living Stones of the Templars in Aisne

Land of Woods and Stones, of Forests and Cathedrals Rising to the Sky, the Aisne is a Land of Natural, Historical, and Spiritual Heritage.

The extraordinary adventure of the Templars in the Aisne is illustrated through exceptionally well-preserved remnants. From Laon to Montigny-l’Allier in the south of the department, they form living stones on the Templar trail, allowing us to retrace the incredible history of these warrior monks.

THE TEMPLARS, IDEAL OF KNIGHTHOOD

The history of the Templars has fueled imaginations since the dissolution of their order and the execution of their leaders by Philip the Fair in 1314. Yet, they embodied the ultimate ideal of knighthood, maintaining equal parts of courage, a spirit of adventure, and spirituality. When Jerusalem was captured in 1099, its new sovereign, Godfrey of Bouillon, son of the Count of Boulogne, and his descendants had to organize its governance and protection. However, with the departure of the knights who had helped conquer it, wandering bands began to threaten pilgrims and the new kingdom’s borders. Thus, it occurred to a Champagne lord, Hugues de Payns, and his companion from the Hauts-de-France, Godfrey of Saint-Omer, to found a militia dependent on the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, combining monastic and military life. This militia was soon installed on the esplanade of the Temple of Jerusalem and, after its official recognition at the Council of Troyes in 1129, became the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Inspired by the monastic rule of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who was close to them, they were also excellent land managers through commanderies established for this purpose. In the current territory of Aisne, donations to the Templars poured in, resulting in the establishment of at least fifty houses and commanderies. The presence of the Templars is still evidenced by numerous places named “le Temple” or streets named “rue du Temple.”

THE COMMANDERY OF MOISY-LE-TEMPLE

Chapel of the Templar Knights' Commandery of Montigny in Aisne near Brumetz

At the extreme south of the department, the commandery of Moisy-le-Temple at Montigny-l’Allier is the first stop on the Templar trail that traverses the Aisne from south to north. Nestled in a loop of the Ourcq and Clignon rivers, surrounded by flowering meadows on gentle slopes, this commandery is, above all, a surprise at the end of a dusty path. Its rectangular shape is accented by the imposing corner tower of a Renaissance manor and, especially, by the extraordinary Gothic chapel, whose large lancet windows alternate with tightly spaced powerful buttresses, creating an impression of elevation further enhanced by the spire of the staircase turret. Olivier and Noëlle François, the commandery’s owners, have patiently restored it, returning the splendor conferred by the centuries.

At the extreme south of the department, the commandery of Moisy-le-Temple at Montigny-l’Allier is the first stop on the Templar trail that traverses the Aisne from south to north. Nestled in a loop of the Ourcq and Clignon rivers, surrounded by flowering meadows on gentle slopes, this commandery is, above all, a surprise at the end of a dusty path. Its rectangular shape is accented by the imposing corner tower of a Renaissance manor and, especially, by the extraordinary Gothic chapel, whose large lancet windows alternate with tightly spaced powerful buttresses, creating an impression of elevation further enhanced by the spire of the staircase turret. Olivier and Noëlle François, the commandery’s owners, have patiently restored it, returning the splendor conferred by the centuries.

The François family has a passion for heritage deeply rooted in them: Noëlle François, a historian by training, grew up in a Romanesque abbey, while Olivier François is the Secretary General of the Association La Sauvegarde de l’Art Français, which works to safeguard endangered heritage. The commandery comes from a donation by the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes Abbey in Soissons, and the chapel was built around 1180, explains Olivier François. It was divided into two poles: the monastic pole with the chapel and chapter house, now replaced by the Renaissance manor, and the agricultural pole, which stored the wealth of the land, a veritable “Treasure of the Templars” that so fascinated King Philip the Fair and mystery enthusiasts after him.

After the fall of the Templars, the commandery was attached to the Order of Hospitallers, who already owned a nearby fief in Brumetz. In the 16th century, the Hospitallers’ Grand Prior at the time, Pierre de la Fontaine, transformed the chapter house into the beautiful mansion seen today, with mullioned windows and finely sculpted dormers. The chapel, superbly restored by the François family, retains its original trompe-l’œil wall paintings and a beautiful network of ribbed vaults with double rolls, whose keystones are polychrome and adorned with human heads and acanthus leaves. In the choir and facade oculus, the restored stained glass proudly displays the blood-red Templar cross. “We got carried away by the work,” jokes Olivier François, noting that the chapel was filled with scaffolding for a year and a half, much like Notre-Dame. The stone chosen for the restorations, like at Notre-Dame de Paris, comes from Bonneuil-en-Valois in the Oise, about twenty kilometers away. An amusing anecdote, a famous French military song, “La Complainte des Templiers,” mentions the commandery:

It was in the month of May that I was knighted
At the commandery of Montigny L’Allier
On that clear day my joy could only compare
To that of lovers whose hearts are full.

THE CONVENT OF CERFROID, A WORK OF CHARITY RETURNING FROM THE CRUSADES AND THE SECOND STAGE OF OUR JOURNEY

In the Aisne, the forest is never far away, and it is in a hollow of the Brumetz woods, two kilometers from Montigny, that the Cerfroid Convent is located, the mother house of the Trinitarian Order, present today worldwide with over 600 religious members. Its history is also connected to the Crusades. Returning from the Second Crusade, Saint Felix of Valois decided to become a hermit in the dense, abandoned Brumetz woods. He was joined by Saint John of Matha, and together they formed the project of establishing a religious order dedicated to redeeming Christian captives fallen into slavery in the Land of Islam. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was one of the most famous captives redeemed in Algiers by the Trinitarians. Barely founded, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives received the land of Cerfroid from Margaret of Blois in 1194, explains Father Thierry Knecht, a learned religious guide among the ruins. The rich convent was destroyed during the Revolution, and the ruins that emerge from the lawns and bushes present a romantic aspect that Delacroix himself would not have disdained. The ruins of the chapel date from the 19th-century reconstruction halted by the 1870 war, and the 18th-century cloister ruins were restored by the Trinitarians.

Underground vaults of the Cerfroid Abbey, the base of the Trinitarians in Brumetz in the Aisne

Under the convent buildings, a spectacular entirely vaulted Gothic cellar collects water from eighteen different springs emerging from the ground, gathering it in basins. Walking on the glistening cobblestones, one feels truly transported out of time. Everywhere, the red and blue cross of the Trinitarians is displayed, originating from the cross seen by Saint Felix and Saint John between the antlers of a deer that came to drink from a spring. This clear water spring still exists in the convent park. It can be seen under the trees, emerging from stones covered with centuries-old moss and flowing, clear over large slabs, likely stones from the Bastille recovered during the restoration of the Pont de la Concorde in 1985, explains Father Thierry. A wink of history.

Heading north towards Laon, one passes through the former Templar commandery of Mont de Soissons in Serches. Perched in the center of a plateau, it offers a vast panorama, a strategic location full of the spiritual elevation dear to the Templars. Although smaller than Montigny, the commandery chapel is of the same order, with its large lancet windows and powerful, tall buttresses surrounding the apse, emphasizing its verticality. The dovecote and barns, more recent, testify to the presence of the Hospitallers who succeeded the Templars here.

Chapel of the Commandery of the Knights Templar in Serches in the Aisne

FINAL STOP, THE COMMANDERY OF LAON, FORTRESS OF THE ORDER

Finally, after a journey through meadows and woods, the fortified plateau of Laon appears in the distance, a true fortress whose tall towers of the cathedral and the former abbey of Saint-Martin seem like fingers reaching towards the sky, a defiance of the horizontality of the surrounding fields as much as a fervent spiritual aspiration towards the heavens. A strategic city par excellence, Laon was one of the great strongholds of the Templar Order. The commandery is accessed from the cathedral, passing under the sleeping arch of the Templar alley. Although the secular buildings are now transformed into a museum, the chapel is of unparalleled antiquity and beauty. The Romanesque building attests that the Laon commandery was one of the oldest in France. It consists of a hexagonal rotunda, opened by a porch topped with a bell tower wall pierced with two large bays and an apse adorned with a cornice of triangular arches and a fantastic bestiary. The lauze roof, made of flat limestone stones, reinforces the impression of antiquity emanating from the chapel.

Chapel of the Commandery of the Knights Templar in Laon in the Aisne

The original hexagonal plan must be related to the citations from the Holy Land: the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the hexagonal Dome of the Rock, a Templar stronghold, but also the rotunda of the Temple Church in Paris. However, it also had a funerary vocation for these warrior monks, the hexagonal plan recalling Roman funerary monuments and the symbolism of the number 8, the eighth day, an image of the resurrection. Under the imposing vault composed of eight ribs, an agnus dei bearing a cross, symbol of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, watches over the tombstones, some of which are still in place, as if to say, “sic transit gloria mundi,” thus passes the glory of the world.

WORK IN RELATION TO THE COLLECTIONS OF THE THEOPHANOS GALLERY

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