The final fall of the Knights Templars

The final fall of the Templars may have started over the matter of a loan. The young Philip IV, King of France (also known as “Philip the Fair”) had needed cash for his war with the English and asked the Templars for more money. They refused. The King assigned himself the right to tax the French clergy, and he tried to get the Pope to excommunicate the Templars, but Pope Boniface VIII refused, instead issuing a Papal Bull in 1302 to reinforce that the Pope had absolute supremacy over earthly power, even above a king, and excommunicated King Philip instead. The king responded by sending his councillor, Guillaume de Nogaret, in a plot to kidnap the Pope from his castle in Anagni in September 1303, charging him with dozens of trumped-up charges such as sodomy and heresy. This outrageous incident inspired Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy: the new Pilate has imprisoned the Vicar of Christ. The people of Anagni rose up and rescued the aged Boniface VIII, but he died only a month later from shock due to the ill treatment.

Pope Boniface’s successor, Benedict XI, lifted the excommunication of Philip IV but refused to absolve de Nogaret, excommunicating him and all the other Italian kidnap co-conspirators on June 7, 1304. Benedict died just eight months later in Perugia, perhaps from poisoning by an agent of Nogaret. There followed a year of dispute among the French and Italian cardinals as to the next Pope, before deciding on the non-Italian Bertrand de Goth (Clement V), a childhood friend of Philip, in June 1305. Clement withdrew the Papal Bulls of Boniface VIII which had conflicted with Philip IV’s plans, created nine more French cardinals, and, after a failed attempt to unite the Templars and the Hospitallers, agreed to Philip IV’s demands for an investigation of the Templars. Pope Clement also moved the papacy from the Italian Anagni to the more palatable (and controllable) French Avignon, initiating the period called the Avignon Papacy.

King Philip had other reasons to mistrust the Templars, as the organization had declared its desire to form its own state, similar to how the Teutonic Knights had founded Prussia. The Templars’ preferred location for this was in the Languedoc of southeastern France, but they had also made a plan for the island of Cyprus. In 1306, the Templars had supported a coup on that island, which had forced King Henry II of Cyprus to abdicate his throne in favor of his brother, Amalric of Tyre. This probably made Philip particularly uneasy, since just a few years earlier he had inherited land in the region of Champagne, France, which was the Templars’ headquarters. The Templars were already a “state within a state,” were institutionally wealthy, paid no taxes, and had a large standing army which by papal decree could move freely through all European borders, but had no presence in the Holy Land, which left the army with no battlefield. These factors, plus the fact that Philip had inherited an impoverished kingdom from his father, and was already deeply in debt to the Templars, were probably what led to his actions.

At dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars were simultaneously arrested by agents of King Philip, later to be tortured in locations such as the tower at Chinon, into admitting heresy in the Order. Over 100 charges were issued against them, the majority of them identical charges to what had been earlier issued against the inconvenient Pope Boniface VIII: accusations of denying Christ, spitting and urinating on the cross, and devil worship. The main interrogation of the Templars was under the control of the Inquisitors, a group of experienced interrogators and clergy who circulated around Europe at the beck and call of any European noble. The rules of interrogation said that no blood could be drawn, but this did nothing to stop the torture. One account told of a Templar who had fire applied to the soles of his feet, such that the bones fell out of the skin. Other Templars were suspended upside-down or placed in thumbscrews. Of the 138 Templars (many of them old men) questioned in Paris over the next few years, 105 of them “confessed” to denying Christ during the secret Templar initiations. 103 confessed to an “obscene kiss” being part of the ceremonies, and 123 said they spat on the cross. Throughout the trial there was never any physical evidence of wrongdoing, and no independent witnesses; the only “proof” was obtained through confessions induced by torture. The Templars reached out to the Pope for assistance, and Pope Clement did write letters to King Philip questioning the arrests, but took no further action.

Despite the fact that the confessions had been produced under duress, they caused a scandal in Paris, with mobs calling for action against the blaspheming Order. In response to this public pressure, along with more bullying from King Philip, Pope Clement issued the bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets. Most monarchs simply didn’t believe the charges, though proceedings were started in England, Iberia, Germany, Italy, and Cyprus, with the likelihood of a confession being dependent on whether or not torture was used to extract it.

The dominant view is that Philip, who seized the treasury and broke up the monastic banking system, was jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power, frustrated by his debt to them, and sought to control their financial resources for himself, by bringing blatantly false charges against them at the Tours assembly in 1308; it is also likely that, under the influence of his advisors, he actually believed many of the false charges to be true. It is widely accepted that Philip had clearly made up the accusations and did not believe any of the Templars to have been party to such activities. In fact, he had invited Jacques de Molay to be a pall-bearer at the funeral of the King’s sister on the very day before the arrests.

The arrests caused some shifts in the European economy, from a system of military fiat back to European money, removing this power from Church orders. Seeing the fate of the Templars, the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and of Rhodes were also convinced to give up banking at this time.

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