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The Sad History of the Knights Templar

On a raw March afternoon in 1314, a scaffold stood in the shadow of Notre Dame. The people of Paris knew what macabre show was imminent. Seven years before, the King’s constables had stormed all the Templar estates in France and arrested 5000 knights of the order, much to the astonishment of the people. Now the curtain was about to drop on a bizarre tragedy, one scripted by the king himself.

King Philip the Fair—grandson of St. Louis of France—had engineered the election of the pope and the relocation of the papal court to Avignon. Although the papacy may have been in the ambitious king’s pocket, one of the most powerful and wealthy institutions of the day was not: The Order of the Temple. Philip knew its vast wealth and schemed to seize it.

The arrests of the Templars in France was easy: The fighting men of the order were then on the bloody border with Islam, in Spain, and on Cyprus. The Templars in France were aged veterans of the Crusades, well into their second childhood.

The things the knights confessed under torture defied belief: trampling and urinating on the Crucifix, secret rites of obscene kisses, sodomy, usury, treason, idolatry, heresy. After the arrests came seven years of inquisition, then hundreds and hundreds of public executions by burning. In the end, Pope Clement V abolished the order.

As a large crowd closed around the scaffold, the last Master of the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, 70-year-old Jacques de Molay, stood alongside three of his brothers in arms, listening as the papal legate read their crimes in horrible detail. But mercy would yet be theirs if they repeated to the people of Paris the guilt they had confessed before the inquisition. Five stakes piled high with brushwood and faggots awaited them if they did not.

Two of the knights, eyes cast downward, mumbled their guilt. Then de Molay and Geoffrey de Charney of Normandy stepped forward.

“On this terrible day,” shouted de Molay, his gaze meeting the eyes of the crowd, “in my final hour, I shall let truth triumph and declare, before heaven and all the saints, that I have committed the greatest of all crimes.” The crowd pressed in.

“But my crime is this: that I confessed to malicious charges made against an order that is innocent so that I could escape further torture. I shall not confirm a first lie with a second. I renounce life willingly. I have no use for days of sorrow earned only by lies.”

The King’s police seized the two knights and chained them to the stakes. Brush and branches were set aflame. As the old men were roasted alive, they shouted their innocence and their love for Jesus Christ before falling silent. Thus the last Master of the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem was reduced to ashes.

Valiant Beginnings

The end of the Knights Templar was a sad close to an order whose origins two centuries earlier had been marked by valor and purity of intent. After the liberation of Jerusalem in 1099, the cities of the Holy Land were freed from the tyranny of Islam, but the countryside of Outremer remained the domain of thieves, robbers, and murderers, Saracen and otherwise. Despite these dangers, Christians from Western Europe journeyed in great numbers to the sites where the Son of God walked, preached, and worked miracles. For the brigands who filled the hillsides along the way, these pilgrims were easy prey.

Moved by their plight, around 1119 or 1120, nine Frankish knights who had settled in Jerusalem after the First Crusade took vows in the presence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Led by Hugh of Payens and Godfrey of Saint-Omer, these knights vowed like other religious brothers to live lives of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Altogether new, however, in monastic history, to say nothing of military history, was their fourth vow: to police the roads of the Holy Land for the protection of pilgrims. Soon nine grew into 30, and King Baldwin II of Jerusalem gave the knights a wing of his palace believed to lie on the site of Temple of Solomon. The Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, or simply, the Templars, were born. As Desmond Seward writes, they became the “the first properly disciplined and officered troops in the West since Roman times” and “the storm troopers of the Crusades” (The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, 17).

Bernard of Clairvaux believed that the union in the Templar of the man of prayer and the man of war was exactly what the Holy Land needed. He requested from the pope a formal rule and papal approval for the order. In January 1128, at the Council of Troyes, Bernard presided over the writing of the 72 articles that made up the order’s Rule of Life. Modeled on the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Templar Rule covered all aspects of Templar life, guiding the monk whose job was also to train for combat and, when the need arose, shed the blood of the Saracen in defense of the cross.

With a rule, the official recognition of the Church, and the endorsement of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Templar Order grew quickly. Knights were eager to join an operation that promised better to organize the crusading spirit of the age, and those unable to join were eager to give their support. A cynic might say that the Templars were great fundraisers, but that would misunderstand the fire with which this new order set alight the Christian imaginations of the people of this blessed time, people whose gaze, like all pilgrims, was set not on this world but on the next. Cash gifts from the nobility of Christendom poured in, as well as donations of land, estates, and manor houses, all made, as their charters reveal, for remission of sins.

By the middle of the 12th century, the Templars had an extensive network of agricultural estates, or preceptories, throughout France, Italy, Spain, and England. These funded the high cost of the Templars’ defense of Christianity’s tenuous hold on the Holy Land. Secular knights would come and go, but it was the military religious orders—the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights—who constituted the standing army of the Crusades.

De Laude Novae Militiae

To reinforce in the minds of the Templars the legitimacy of their calling and to convince the secular and spiritual leaders of Christendom that this new hybrid was altogether proper and good, Bernard again picked up his pen. Although a moral tradition of war in the service of a just cause was at least as old as St. Augustine, Christians of the age nonetheless understood (with reason) that the sphere of prayer and the sphere of war were occupied by different types of men. Bernard’s treatise De Laude Novae Militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood) approved the theology of the soldier-monk:

A new knighthood has appeared in the land of the Incarnation, a knighthood that fights a double battle against adversaries of flesh and blood and also against the spirit of evil. This new knighthood is worthy of all the praise given to men of God. The knight who protects his soul with the armor of faith, as he covers his body with a coat of mail, is truly without fear and above reproach. Doubly armed he fears neither men nor demons.

Bernard distinguished the Templars from their secular counterparts. He argued that the outward appearance of a knight reflected the inward disposition of his soul: The close-cropped hair of the Templar and his plain white woolen tunic represented Templar humility and the goodness of their purpose, while the finery of the secular knights suggested vanity and self-love.

The second half of the treatise inextricably tied the Templars to the Holy Land. Bernard piously described Outremer’s “abundant delights.” In so doing he reinforced in the imaginations of his readers that the Holy Land is the patrimony of Christendom and that, as guardians of these places, the Templars were performing work central to God’s Providence. Bernard explained to the Templars themselves how dwelling so close to these sites and visiting them often was central to their spiritual growth.

He encouraged the knights to become true guardians of these holy sites by developing their understanding of the places’ spiritual meanings and passing them on to pilgrims to the Holy Land. Understanding the relationship of the Templars to these sites is critical to understanding the order. These holy places gave them their purpose, and De Laude Novae Militiae made this crystal-clear.

A Force to be Reckoned

Picture 500 Templar Knights astride their stallions in a synchronized charge at full gallop, their mail glistening in the sun, their lances couched and leveled, their banners straining, smashing through the Saracen lines and dispersing them to all corners of the battlefield.

Whether it was the rule against desertion or the fraternity felt by the Templars all devoted to so high a cause, the Knights of the Temple were formidable in battle, and the cavalry charge of which they were masters was terrifying to the Turks. One need not be a physicist to imagine the pounds per square inch at the tip of a couched lanced behind which was a heavily armed and armored knight astride a thundering horse. Multiply the effect by 500 knights so closely ordered that an “apple thrown in their midst would not fall to the ground but instead hit either man or horse.” Now imagine that line reforming and charging several times as the sergeants in the infantry pursued the scattered enemy.

A 12th-century pilgrim to the Holy Land described the Templars in the field:

Their black and white standard, which is called the baucent, goes before them into battle. They go into battle without making a noise. They are the first to desire engagement and more vigorous than the others. When the trumpet sounds for advance, they piously sing this psalm of David: “Not to us Lord, not to us but to your name give the glory.” They couch their lances and charge into the enemy. As one body they ravage the ranks of the enemy, they never yield. They either destroy the foe completely or they die. In returning from battle they are the last to go behind the rest of the crowd looking after all the rest and protecting them. (Helen Nicholson, Knights Templar 1120-1312, 45)

Throughout the Crusades, the Templars served as vanguard and rearguard for columns on the march. Kings Louis VII, Richard III, and Louis IX all entrusted the Templars with the task of instilling and preserving order within their otherwise poorly disciplined armies, on the march and on the battlefield.

For all their military prowess, however, the battlefield story of the Templars—indeed, the story of the Crusades—is one of a long, slow defeat, a phrase J.R.R. Tolkien says is the only Christian understanding of history. In defeat, however, the Templars often obtained glory by making brave stands against much larger Saracen armies. When captured, Templars went silently to their executions rather than convert to Islam.

The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, ever a precarious enterprise, lasted for the two centuries it did because of such sacrifices by Templar Knights. First in and last out of every major battle, more than 20,000 Templars gave their lives fighting the enemies of Jesus Christ during the two centuries of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. As Edward Gibbon put it: “The firmest Bulwark of Jerusalem was founded on the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John and of the Temple of Solomon; on the strange association of a monastic and a military life, which fanaticism might suggest but which policy must approve” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). (See “Military Monastics,” page 22.)

De Molay’s Vain Quest

To the princes of Christendom, however, looking for a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land with the fall of Acre in 1291, the military orders were an easy target. Philip IV advocated merging the Templars and the other military orders into one order under a Warrior King—namely himself. The last Templar Master, Jacques de Molay, rejected the idea. To a man who had been raising his sword in the desert dust of Outremer for 30 years, proposals from a king more experienced in devaluing currency than fighting Saracens must have been particularly annoying. What de Molay did not see was Philip’s darker motive.

Historians have accused de Molay of naiveté. He seems to have had the uncomplicated mind and heart of a soldier, a heart and mind forged on crusade with St. Louis and on the crumbling ramparts of Acre. His reputation for direct speech and uncompromising commitment to the Templar purpose—fighting Islam in the Holy Land—earned him the admiration of his brother knights and, in 1292, a year after the fall of Acre, the order’s top post.

To de Molay, the order’s new headquarters on Cyprus was a temporary solution. The Templars’ identity was rooted in the Holy Land and to there, God willing, the soldier-monks would return. From 1293 to 1296, he made the rounds in Western Christendom trying to stir up fervor for a new crusade to take back Jerusalem.

His efforts bore no fruit, as Western princes were preoccupied with their own territorial struggles. Without their help, the Templars were reduced to futile raids on the coasts of Syria and Egypt, but de Molay never gave up hope that his Knights would once again take the vanguard of a major crusade. With that hope, the Templar Master responded in 1307 to a summons from Pope Clement V. De Molay believed that the princes of Christendom had at last adjusted their priorities and were preparing to march East.

Betrayal, Arrest, and Torment

First, he called on the royal court in France. Philip borrowed huge sums of money from the Templars. The Paris Temple had served as a refuge for the king when he escaped an angry mob four years prior. While in residence, in only a few short days, Philip and his court consumed 806 pounds of bread and 2077 liters of wine. The profligacy was typical of a king who could never balance his books, but his sojourn at the Paris Temple gave him an insider’s understanding of the Templar Order’s great wealth.

Although the Hospitallers owned some 19,000 manors to the Templars’ 9000, the Templars were vastly richer. Their banks were the most reliable in Christendom. Whatever crusading ideas de Molay brought to this meeting with the young French king, it was the Templar’s assets on which Philip’s imagination was focused, for they were the means to Capetian hegemony in Europe: The man who already controlled the papacy now was determined to supplant the German emperor. That de Molay sensed none of Philip’s ambition is doubtful. What he failed to see coming was the treachery the king had already set in motion in his desire to seize the Templar wealth. Taking leave of the king on, he thought, good terms, the old Master made his way to Poitiers to see the pope.

A compromiser and a vacillator, Clement could not have much inspired the old warrior. It must have left de Molay speechless when out of the mouth a man he surely disdained as a weak puppet of the French monarch came the appalling charges that were to set in motion the final passion of the Templars. De Molay had come to plan a new crusade and refute the foolish suggestion of uniting the military orders. Instead he found himself defending his order against charges too horrifying to dream: The Templars, he was told, was some kind of demonic secret society with unnatural and blasphemous rituals.

Denying the charges, de Molay returned to Paris to serve as a pallbearer at the funeral of Catherine of Valois. He was unaware that her brother-in-law, the man Dante called the scourge of France and the new Pontius Pilate, Philip le Bel, was the author of the charges.

Just one day after the funeral, the arrests were made and the unthinkable charges levied. The Templar Knights had, it was alleged, denied Christ, spat and urinated on the crucifix, kissed one another on the mouth, on the navel, and at the base of the spine, and then joined in an orgy of sodomy as they adored and caressed an idol in the shape of a human head. After 11 days of torture in a Paris dungeon, de Molay confessed as much to the inquisition, begging the pope and the most Christian king Philip for mercy. In an open letter to his brethren he instructed them to confess all their evil practices, just as he had done.

Citing de Molay’s confession, Philip asked all the kings of Christendom to arrest Templars in their countries. Edward I of England wrote back and said the accusations were impossible to believe. James of Aragon refused to arrest men who had so courageously served Christ “fearing neither loss of blood nor death.” Both monarchs knew the day’s instruments of torture and the confessions they could elicit. (See “Medieval Methods of Extraction,” page 24.)

Defense and Counterattack

Relief, however, might yet come. Pope Clement, displaying uncharacteristic backbone, suddenly intervened. “You have perpetrated these attacks,” he wrote to Philip, “on the persons and goods of people directly subject to the Roman Church. In this action of yours . . . everybody sees . . . an insulting contempt for us and the Church of Rome.”

Taking over the investigation, Clement sent two cardinals to Paris, before whom de Molay and more than 60 other Templars revoked their confession, one saying that under torture he had been prepared to confess to killing God himself. Next, lawyers at Paris University told the king there was no legal justification for his trial. They added that even if the order were suppressed, the throne of France had no claim to its assets. Two inquisitors sent to England got nowhere when Edward explained that accused men in England were entitled to a jury of freemen. Meanwhile, Pierre de Bologna, a priest and member of the order, marshaled a brilliant defense:

It is unbelievable that such scandalous charges should be taken seriously by anyone. It is true that some Templars have admitted them but only because of torture and suffering. It is not in any way to be marveled at that there are those who have lied; what is more wonderful is that any have kept the truth, knowing the tribulations and dangers, menaces and outrages, which those who speak the truth suffer daily and continually. (Stephen Howarth, The Knights Templar: Christian Chivalry And The Crusades, 1095-1314, 295)

Torture, de Bologna asserted, had deprived his brothers of “freedom of mind.”

At the moment it seemed Bologna’s defense would exonerate his brothers, Philip exploited a loophole in canon law; if the Bishop of Rome would not do his bidding, he would find a bishop who would. He caused the opening of a provincial trial supervised by Archbishop Philip de Marigny of Sens, whose archdiocese included Paris. Marigny was brother of the king’s chief financial minister, and his judgement came quickly: The 54 Templars he had examined were all guilty. They were burned at the stake in a field outside of Paris. The surviving Templars knew the game was up. Soon, over 100 Knights had suffered execution by burning.

Bologna’s assistant, Renaud de Provins, came from Sens, but was soon summoned for examination himself, which even Clement could not prevent. When the Templars saw that their own defense counsel was not immune, they realized the trial was a farce. Within five months, hundreds of Templars who had retracted their confessions now retracted their retractions, preferring a life of degradation to death by burning.

The Knights Annihilated

The pope lost his resolve, and at the Council of Vienne in 1312, he issued his bull of suppression:

In view of the suspicion, infamy, loud insinuations and other things which have been brought against the order and also the secret and clandestine reception of the brothers 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 very many of the brothers of this order, who have lapsed into 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 . . . (Vox in Excelso)

With a few words, the pope had done what no Muslim army could do in two centuries: destroyed the Templars. Philip, who for good measure had surrounded Vienne with his army, ended up with nothing. Clement gave all the assets of the order to the Hospitallers, though the transfer took many years. The pope delayed judging de Molay until 1314, and then he sent two cardinals in his place. By then the Grand Master was 70 and had sat in a Paris dungeon for six-and-a-half years. He died an agonizing death but with his honor intact.

Philip and Clement followed him to the grave within a year. De Molay’s curse, some say, brought the end of the Capetian dynasty, which did not outlast Philip’s three sons.

Elegy for the Soldier-Monk

Although a few Templars may have indulged in acts contra naturum or spoken heresy, the charges that an entire order was mired in the filthiest corruption do not bear much scrutiny. Only a few months before the arrests of 1307, the rulers of Christendom were planning the merger of all the military orders. There is no way such conversations could have been conducted if there had been any kind of suspicion that the Templars were rotten. Their sickness would have overwhelmed the new order. Moreover, confessions given under torture are inadmissible as evidence, whether historical or legal.

The Templars’ demise has been blamed on a growing arrogance within an order that had gone from being the poor fellow soldiers of Jesus Christ to Europe’s most powerful bankers. The charge goes that they abandoned the humility and poverty that informed the order at its dawn. To be sure, “hubris goeth before the fall,” but a deeper answer may lie in St. Bernard’s letter to the Templars: It was the holy sites that gave these soldier-monks their raison d’être. Separated from them, they stopped being Templars.

Nonetheless, for a time, on the shores and on the plains and on the ramparts of Outremer, the courage of the warrior was joined with the piety of the monk into one fervent soldier of Christ, the Knight of the Temple of Jerusalem, and whatever his shortcomings, the story of the West is more magnificent and more worthy of our love for his valor and his sacrifices.


Military Monastics

In garrison, the Templar began his day with matins, directly followed by prime, terce, and sext. When the Templars prayed the office, they said several hours in one sitting to create ample time in the afternoon for uninterrupted weapons training with lance, broadsword, mace, dagger and shield, and crossbow.

Meals were taken in silence as a brother priest read from Scripture. Fasting, except on certain liturgical occasions, was discouraged; Knights had to stay fit to fight. Meat was eaten three times a week. A Knight could not leave the table without permission unless he became suddenly afflicted by, of all things, a nosebleed. Other exceptions in the rule are curious, as well. Brothers could miss one of the hours if they were in the act of baking, forging a weapon, shoeing a horse, or washing their hair. A brother who was so excused was required to pray a set number of Pater Nosters.

At weekly chapter meeting, brothers confessed transgressions against the rule, and penance, decided by the whole of the company while the accused waited outside, would be issued. Transgressions willingly confessed received less severe punishments than those revealed by accusations, and accusations that the brethren determined to be malicious were punished harshly. Losing or carelessly damaging a weapon or mistreating a horse incurred harsh punishment—the Templars were very conscious of the expense of their profession and did not tolerate waste. Crimes warranting expulsion from the order included simony, larceny, heresy, treason, the murder of a Christian, revealing the secrets of the chapter, misrepresenting one’s social class to gain entry as a knight, and fleeing the battlefield.

Bringing the Templar cavalry charge to fruition required an extensive support network. More numerous than the Knights were the brother sergeants, whose duties included repairing mail, forging weapons, caring for horses, cooking, fighting as infantry, and serving as men-at-arms to the more heavily armored knights.

Medieval Methods of Extraction

Stripped of their habits, chained, and cast into dungeons, the old men were tortured with rack and thumbscrew. The soles of their feet were smeared with animal fat and then held over hot coals. Their weary frames were crushed under iron weights.

Sometimes the accused was tied down, a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Water poured into the cloth caused it to swell: The choice was to confess or drown. A more creative option was to place a man into a pit no wider than himself, where he would be left to stand in his filth and starve. The rack was used to dislocate shoulders and hips.

Subtler methods of interrogation worked as well. Denied sleep and the chance to void his bowels or bladder, the accused could be subjected to a constant battery of bewildering questions by an endless string of interrogators, some cruel, some appearing compassionate. Rare is the man who could withstand this to the point of death, which would be his only relief. Under such conditions, hundreds and hundreds of Templars confessed to appalling crimes.

Further Reading

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