|The burning of Jacques de Molay and Guy de Charnay|
On March 18th 1314, an old man in his mid-seventies appeared before a French ecclesiastical court to once again answer to charges first laid against himself and the men he represented seven years previously. The old man had nothing to lose. He knew he was almost certainly destined to burn for his alleged heinous crimes, which included denying Christ and the apostles, blasphemy and sodomy among other unsavoury practises which were frowned upon in Medieval Europe. All these charges were either incredibly trumped-up or completely false, concocted out of thin air by some very powerful enemies. The old man was Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, better known to history as the Knights Templar. De Molay's show-trial was to be the final grand spectacle of a campaign intended to bring down the Templars who, in happier times, had once been the untouchable darlings of Western Christendom.
By the time of his 1314 trial, de Molay had already confessed to his made-up crimes several times in the hope that doing so might save him from torture and an eventual death at the stake, the traditional final destination for heretics. He was deeply ashamed about his false admissions but the authorities were determined to keep piling on the humiliation. Following his hearing before the Bishops in Paris, de Molay was transported to the Cathedral of Notre Dame where was required to reaffirm his confessions before the assembled crowd from a public scaffold specially erected for the purpose. Once there, however, de Molay at last found the courage that had so far eluded him. He said the following words to the astonished onlookers:
"It is only right that at so solemn a moment, when my life has so little time to run, I should reveal the deception that has been practised and speak up for the truth. Before Heaven and Earth and all of you... I admit that I am guilty of the grossest iniquity. But the iniquity is that, to my shame and dishonour, I have suffered myself... to give utterance to falsehoods in admitting the disgusting charges against the Order... I declare, and I must declare, that the Order is innocent... I disdain to seek wretched and disgraceful existence by grafting another lie upon the original falsehood."
De Molay's recantation sent the assembled crowd into a frenzy. He was immediately dragged from the scaffold along with his supporter Guy de Charney, a fellow Templar who served as Preceptor of Normandy. The pair were then taken to the Île aux Javiaux, an island in the River Seine, and there they were put to death at the stake. De Molay and de Charnay died with dignity, becoming martyrs in the eyes of those more sympathetic to their plight. Even before the remains of the pyre had gone cold, onlookers were fishing out blackened bones and taking them away as religious relics.
The deaths of Jacques de Molay and Guy de Charnay could not save the Templars, however, and the writing was already on the wall for the Order. Other senior Templars such as Hugues de Rairond and Geoffrey de Gonneville immediately tried to limit the damage and save their own skins by publicly distancing themselves from their late Grand Master but it was no use. The Order had already been effectively wound-up by papal decree two years previously and Philip IV of France, the man behind the false allegations against the Templars, was determined to snuff out the last remaining knights. It was a sad and humiliating end for the Knights Templar, an organisation whose story had begun almost two centuries earlier.
The Templars' Beginnings
The Knights Templar were one of several military and religious orders founded for the purpose of managing the Christian conquests in the Holy Land after the First Crusade (1095-1099). A request by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I for western military aid against the Seljuk Turks led to Pope Urban II calling upon all Latin Christians to join a war against the Muslim infidel. As armies of French and Norman knights flooded east, however, the situation quickly developed into a wider struggle for control of Palestine and Syria, which had been under Muslim control since the 7th Century and were of deep religious significance to both sides. The First Crusade was immensely successful for the Christians, who captured Jerusalem on July 15th 1099. Four so-called "crusader kingdoms" (Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa) were established in the region by the victors.
These new Christian conquests needed to be administered and defended effectively if they were to survive and prosper in such a hostile region. It was decided that the best way to achieve this would be to establish Christian military orders based on the principles of chivalry and religious duty. Several such orders were set up after 1099, each being given a specific task to undertake. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, were specifically tasked with guarding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been built on the alleged site of Christ's crucifixion and subsequent burial prior to the resurrection, making it arguably the holiest Christian site in the world. Also set up around this time was the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, known informally as the Knights Hospitaller, whose job it was to provide care for poor, sick and injured pilgrims.
|Temple Mount, Jerusalem|
It was the safety needs of these pilgrims, who came from Europe to visit the holy sites of Jerusalem and other places, that necessitated the creation of the Templars. Travelling through the Holy Land in the early 12th Century was a dangerous business for outsiders. The crusaders had managed to secure the cities but bandits continued roamed the near-lawless Palestinian countryside, looking out for vulnerable travellers to rob, murder or capture for sale into slavery. It was decided that another military order was needed to protect pilgrims on their journeys from the coastal ports of Jaffa and Acre to the various holy sites. In 1118 the Order of the Temple of Solomon, named after their headquarters on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was founded for this purpose.
All Templar knights were of noble birth and most, like the Hospitallers, were French. During the initial period of the Order's history, it was dominated by men from the powerful noble families of eastern France. The first Grand Master was Hugues de Payens, a cousin of the powerful and wealthy Count of Champagne, who was himself an enthusiastic patron of the Order. Despite their privileged backgrounds, knights were expected to live lives of self-imposed poverty, chastity and humility in order to emphasise their spiritual purity and set a good example to people (their original full name was "The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon"). With their combination of devout faith and formidable fighting prowess, the Templars successfully cultivated an image of themselves as model Medieval European knights.
The success of the Knights Templar was dependant on the Crusades. With Christendom riding high after the successes of the First Crusade, the Order's members became celebrities, capturing people's imaginations with their embodiment of the crusading zeal. With this newfound fame inevitably came power and wealth, which meant that they soon forgot about their old commitments to poverty and humility.
The increasing amount of support that the Templars gained from Europe's rich and powerful guaranteed that they would not remain "Poor Knights of Christ" for long. By the time the Order was twenty years old, many noblemen were joining up and gifting vast sums of money. One such noble was Fulk, Count of Anjou (who also reigned as the fourth Crusader King of Jerusalem from 1131 to 1143), who joined the Order and donated thirty pounds of silver per year for its coffers. The Order also benefited massively from a rule of membership which stipulated that member knights were not allowed to own property. This meant that any well-endowed nobleman who joined up often simply gifted all his lands to the Order, which quickly acquired an extensive property portfolio.
At the height of their power, the Knights Templar owned land in England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Cyprus and the Italian states, along with the various fortresses that they had built and occupied in the Holy Land. In 1139 the Order became even more powerful when it was given papal protection by Pope Innocent II, protection which made it exempt from any church or secular jurisdiction. On top of that, Templar property was not taxed and members were declared exempt from paying church tithes. By the middle of the 12th Century, the Templars were effectively a law-unto-themselves, independent of any church or state authority.
The Templars' newfound power and prosperity allowed them to branch out into other areas besides their military duties. They were perhaps most famous as the money men of the Middle Ages, a status which was possible due to the Order having gained papal exemption from the ban on usury. No other Christian was allowed to engage in the sinful practice of lending money at interest and the only others who could, the Jews, were often targeted for religious persecution. This meant that the situation was incredibly favourable to the Templars and they quickly took advantage, setting up banks and financial institutions throughout Europe. Aspects of banking that we are familiar with today, such as current accounts, safety deposits, loans and credit, international money transfers (Templar knights were used to guard money in-transit) and trustee services were first instituted by the Order during the 12th and 13th Centuries. The Knights Templar were renowned for their honesty and efficiency when handling people's money. Even some prominent Muslims trusted them with theirs.
With their vast land holdings complimented by their near-total dominance of the emerging financial sector, the Templars became even richer still. It was inevitable that they would soon start to make people jealous, especially those who had borrowed from the Order and were now in debt to it. The Order still had its popularity to fall back on but that popularity was dependent on the continued success of Christian forces in the Crusades. The major turning point came with the Third Crusade (1187-1192), which was triggered by the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin's Saracen Muslim forces in 1187. In response, Christian armies led by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Philip II Augustus of France and Richard the Lionheart, King of England and ruler of the mighty Angevin Empire in Western Europe, were dispatched to take back control of the holy city. They failed to achieve that goal and, as a result, Islam gained the ascendancy in the Holy Land.
During the course of the 13th Century, Christianity gradually lost ground in Palestine and Syria as Muslim forces, first the Saracens and then the Egyptian Mamluks, encroached upon what remained of the crusader states. In Europe, the once-irresistible crusading zeal more-or-less died out as rulers concentrated more on matters at home, reducing the likelihood of any further major expeditions to the Holy Land. As a result, the popularity and influence of the military orders went into decline. The Templars in particular suffered as they came under increasing scrutiny for their lack of success and excessive wealth.
|The Siege of Acre|
In 1291 the Muslims captured Acre, the last Christian-held city on the Palestinian mainland, expelling the crusaders from the Holy Land and bringing the era of the Crusades to a humiliating conclusion. The Knights Templar remained in control of the Island of Raud (now known as Arwad), three kilometers off the Syrian coast, until September 1302. Criticism of the military orders, especially the Templars, became even more intense after the fall of Acre, with Christians believing that their cause had lost God's approval and that the Devil was trying to subvert the Church by corrupting the orders. By the time Jacques de Molay became Grand Master in 1295, his organisation was weathering a storm of serious accusations (for the time), which included glorifying wealth, living in excessive luxury in contravention of their vows of poverty, and indulging in the sins of pride and arrogance.
A King's Vendetta
As previously mentioned, the mastermind behind the accusations against the Templars was the King of France, Philip IV (r.1285-1314). Philip's reasons for doing this were threefold. Firstly, he was incredibly jealous of the Templars' vast wealth, properties and power in France. Second, he was heavily in debt to the Order and bringing them to heel could potentially mean not having to pay back his loans. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Philip saw attacking the Templars as a way of damaging another institution that he didn't get along with, the papacy (and indeed attacking the papacy as a way of damaging the Templars).With the military orders in decline and the Pope struggling to suppress the growing self-confidence among Europe's secular leaders, Philip IV seized the opportunity deal with both.
Having set events in motion by smearing the Templars with his false accusations, Philip launched his assault on the papacy in 1303. That September, the elderly Pope Boniface VIII, who two years earlier had declared defiantly that "God has set Popes over Kings and kingdoms", was relaxing at his papal retreat at Agani near Rome. On September 7th Boniface's holiday was rudely interrupted when Philip IV's chief minister, Guillaume de Nogaret barged his way into Agani with an escort of French soldiers. De Nogaret demanded that Boniface step down from his post but the 86-year-old pontiff steadfastly refused. What happened next is not clear but the most fanciful accounts allege that Boniface was beaten up by de Nogaret and threatened with execution. Whatever happened, Boniface was released from French captivity after three days but the experience must have had a profound impact on his frail constitution. A month later, on October 11th, he died.
|Philip IV of France|
The events at Agani effectively amounted to a hijacking of the papacy by the King of France. In 1305 the Frenchman Raymond Bertrand de Got was elected to the papacy as Pope Clement V. With the Pope now little more than Philip's puppet, the Templars were dangerously vulnerable and Philip knew it was time to move decisively against them. Two years later, with the full support of Clement V, Philip IV went public with his assault on the Knights Templar, making reference to their "abominable work" in his royal proclamation denouncing the Order:
"A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an excrable evil... Unreasoning beasts in their astonishing beastiality [and] exposed themselves to all supremely abominable cries which even the sensuality of unreasoning beasts abhors and avoids..."
This was a masterpiece of negative PR by Philip, one which played masterfully on the Medieval mind's various superstitions and fear of sexuality. He drew particular attention to the Order's initiation ceremonies for new members, the details of which were kept totally secret from outsiders. Therefore it was easy for Philip to convince people that there was some kind of ungodly or satanic rituals involved. By the Summer of 1308 Philip's accusations were finalised, claiming that the Order of the Temple of Solomon was a hotbed of blasphemy, sodomy, paedophilia, infanticide, witchcraft, the dark arts and devil-worship.
On October 13th 1307 Philip's men on the ground began the process of bringing down the Knights Templar. 15,000 Templar knights and associate members were seized in a wave of arrests across France while the Church sent out friars to give sermons denouncing the Order from every parish pulpit. Despite the high number of arrests, they only amounted to around one in twenty senior members of the Order. Jacques de Molay was among those arrested, however, falling from his position high in royal favour where he had been just a matter of days previously.
Even before de Molay and other leaders of the Order were in his custody, Philip had wasted no time in having the Templars' property surveyed and was quick to redistribute it. One thing he was not able to do, however, was get his hands on the Order's records and paperwork, which he had hoped would give an element of truth to his accusations. The records were either destroyed by the Templars or sneaked out out of the country by fifty knights who had escaped via the port of La Rochelle.
The French authorities may have been denied their chance to get hold of any hard documentary evidence regarding what the Templars got up to in their spare time but in practice this didn't matter. Medieval prosecutions often relied on confessions which could extracted from the accused. False witnesses were also used extensively, with Philip sending out agents to find dissident Templars willing to speak out against their superiors. Two such men, Jean de Folliaco and Etienne de Troyes, claimed that they had been forced by the Order to deny Christ. Another was a purported former Templar named Esquin de Floyran. His evidence was taken in good faith despite his shady criminal past and the fact that he nursed an obvious grudge against the Order (another debtor, perhaps?).
In the prevailing atmosphere that was enveloping the invistigations of Templar activity, accusation on its own was often enough to confirm a person's guilt. If that was not enough then torture would be used to extract confessions (often just the threat or prospect of torture was enough, as de Molay's later confession would show) following the application of psychological pressure through sleep deprivation and/or deliberate starvation. Many Templars, threatened with torture or tempted by offers of freedom, willingly confessed only to subsequently find themselves thrown in jail.
For the most senior captives like de Molay, they would have to endure the humiliation of a public tribunal. This would inevitably lead to public confessions of wrongdoing and result in a propaganda coup for Philip IV, who was effectively portraying himself as a Christian champion valiantly fighting the evil and corrupted Templars. The only person who could now theoretically prevent him from destroying the Templars entirely was Pope Clement V, for the Templars were still technically under the protection of the papacy. Unfortunately for the Order, however, in 1309 Clement confirmed his position in King Philip's pocket by transferring the papal court from Rome to the city of Avignon in the south of France, where it would remain for the next 67 years. That same year, Clement withdrew his protection of the Knights Templar and formally condoned the persecutions after receiving threats from Philip, who was determined to fix the outcome of the trials.
|Pope Clement V|
It was in the Spring of 1310 that the executions began. On May 12th 54 Templars were burned on heresy charges outside Paris at the Pont de St Antoine de Champs. 64 more were burned before that month was out. The trials of all Templars barring the most senior (including de Molay) were completed by June 1311. The final act in the 194-year history of the Order of the Temple of Solomon came in early 1312 when it was officially suppressed and dissolved by Clement V's papal bull Vox in Excelso, the text of which read:
In view of the suspicion, infamy, loud insinuations and other things which have been brought against the other... and also the secret and clandestine reception of the brother of this Order; in view, moreover, of the serious scandal which has arisen from these things, which it did not seem could be stopped while the Order remained in being, and the danger to faith and souls, and the many horrible things which have been done by the very many of the brothers of this Order, who have lapsed into the sin of wicked apostasy, the crime of detestable idolatry, and the execrable outrage of the Sodomites... it is not without bitterness and sadness of heart that we abolish the aforesaid Order of the Temple, and its constitution, habit and anme, by an irrevocable and perpetually valid decree; and we subject it to perpetual prohibition with the approval of the Holy Council, strictly forbidding anyone to presume to enter the said Order in the future, or to receive or wear its habit, or to act as a Templar.
Following the final dissolution of the Knights Templar in 1312, most of the Order's lands in France went to the Knights Hospitaller, with Philip keeping 10% as his personal commission. In other counties where the Templars had been active, their lands were divided up similarly between secular rulers, the Church and the other military orders. In England, their lands were seized by King Edward II, who then proceeded to gift them to his notorious male favourite, Piers Gaveston. After Gaveston was murdered by his opponents in June 1312, the old Templar properties reverted to the English Crown but Edward, pressured by the same men who had killed his friend, was soon forced to transfer them to the Hospitallers, which he did in November 1313.
The trial of Jacques de Molay began in December 1313 and lasted for three months, ending in March 1314 with his recantation and subsequent execution. Philip IV did not live long to enjoy his victory over the Templars, however. Just eight months after the execution of de Molay, Philip died from a cerebral ictus.