Of all the people involved in the arrest and trials of the Templars , Guillaume de Nogaret has been considered the most sinister, the man who was the mastermind behind everything that happened. This servant of the king had cut his teeth on the struggle with Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 and was ready once again to prove himself to his master, King Philip IV, by destroying the Templars as well. Many have considered him the evil genius behind the trial of the Templars as well as the campaign against Boniface.
Who was this man? Was he pulling the strings to make King Philip dance to his tune or was it Guillaume who was the puppet, taking the fall for the king?
Guillaume de Nogaret was born in the town of Sant-Félix de Caraman in southwestern France. The date isn’t certain, perhaps around 1260. Nogaret is not the name of a place but is a variation on the Occitan word nogarède, or “walnut grower.”1
Unlike many of the officers of the government of Philip the Fair, Guillaume was not nobly born. It was said that his grandfather had been burned as a Patarine heretic.2 It’s not clear if this is true or not. However, it was a charge that was thrown back at him more than once over his life, and it must have affected him strongly. Since it was he who wrote most of the broadsides condemning the Templars as heretics, his background in this is important. Did he actually believe that the Templars were bad Christians or had he simply trained himself to see heresy everywhere he looked, to prove that his religion was orthodox?
Despite their suspect origins, Guillaume’s family had enough money to educate him. He may have studied for a time at Toulouse before going to the town of Montpellier to study law. By 1293 he was a “doctor of law.”3
Sometime around 1296, Nogaret received a call from Paris. He’d made the big time, legal counsel to the king!4 Over the next few years he successfully handled several negotiations for Philip. In 1299, he was rewarded by being promoted to the nobility. After that, he was entitled to call himself “knight.”5 This was another of the innovations of the king. The ennobling of nonmilitary men led to what was called the “noblesse de robe.” These nobles were dependent upon the king who created them for their livelihood rather than having inherited lands to fall back on.
Nogaret seems to have been Philip’s main counselor during the king’s battle with Pope Boniface. The reasons behind the dispute are rooted in the ongoing struggle between the rulers of Europe and the church for power. On one side, the popes felt that kings should not be allowed to appoint their friends and family to bishoprics and other high church offices. On the other side, the kings wanted the clergy of the realm to be subject to the same laws as everyone else.
Throughout the Middle Ages, clerics were tried in a church court. If they were judged guilty, they might either be sentenced to hard time in a strict monastery or, if the crime warranted it, turned over to the state for execution.6
In Philip’s confrontation with the pope, Nogaret was apparently the guiding hand and also the one who physically led the attack on the pope in his retreat at Anagni in 1303.
Two precedents were set in this episode. The first was that Philip established, in his own mind at least, that if the pope was corrupt, then it was up to secular powers to overthrow him. No one could be above God’s law.7 The second was the use of the media to convict Boniface in public opinion even before he was arrested by Philip’s men.
In this, Nogaret was a master. According to Nogaret’s defense of the king’s actions, Boniface was a heretic, idolater, murderer, and sodomite. He also practiced usury, bribed his way into his position, and made trouble wherever he went.8 These charges were never proved but they convinced many. They also gave Guillaume de Nogaret good material for his diatribe against the Templars four years later.
After the death of the pope, Nogaret wrote to the College of Cardinals justifying his actions. “If some antichrist were to invade the Holy See, we must oppose him; there is no insult to the Church in such opposition. . . . If, in the cause of right, violence is committed, we are not responsible.”9
Whether Nogaret was responsible for the violence at Anagni or not, he was seen as being the ringleader. The next pope, Benedict XI, had witnessed the attack on Boniface. When, as part of a deal, he issued absolution for the deed to King Philip and other instigators, Nogaret was not among them. Actually, he was at the top of the naughty list, the head of the “sons of perdition, of the first-born of Satan.”10Benedict was about to convene a tribunal to excommunicate Nogaret and twelve others when he suddenly died on July 7, 1304.
It was popularly believed that Nogaret had arranged to have him poisoned. There was no proof of this, either, but that didn’t stop the rumors.
He had also earned the enmity of a much better writer than he. In the Divine Comedy Dante compared Nogaret to Pontius Pilate.11
Nogaret not only instigated the arrest of the Templars, he also did his best to guide the interrogations. In 1309, when Jacques de Molay was being questioned for the third time, the inquisitors were interrupted by Nogaret, “who arrived unexpectedly.” He confronted the master and told him that the chronicles of the abbey of St. Denis said that at the time of Saladin, the Templars had paid homage to the sultan and that at that time, Saladin had said publicly that the Templars had done this because they “worked at the vice of sodomy and because of this they had lost all their faith and their law.”12
The twentieth-century editor of the deposition adds in a footnote, “This accusation . . . is not found in the text of the chronicles of St. Denis that we have.”13 One wonders how many of the inquisitors or the people of France who heard Nogaret’s accusation ever bothered to check the library of St. Denis to find out if it was true.
At the Council of Vienne, Nogaret was again eager to prove that all he and Philip had done was for the good of Christendom. To finance a projected crusade to regain the Holy Land, he suggested that they use “not only all the wealth of the Templars but that of the whole ecclesiastical Order: the clergy would, therefore, be left with only those funds necessary for its daily subsistence.”14
That must have gone over well with the cardinals and bishops.
After the Templars had been arrested, Nogaret should have felt he’d accomplished all his goals. However, one problem remained. He was still excommunicated. Nogaret was terrified that he would die still under sentence from the pope.
One reason that Nogaret fought so hard to have his excommunication lifted was to ensure that his family would be taken care of. He had a wife, Beatrix, and three children, Raymond, Guillaume, and Guillemette.15Beatrix seems to have come from a noble family of Languedoc so the new man, born into a family of walnut growers, had come far. But it would be for nothing if his property was confiscated at his death.
Nogaret went to the king’s brother, Charles de Valois, to put pressure on Clement V. He even wrote a bull for the pope to sign that explained how he had acted only for the good of the church.16 It was rumored that money changed hands. Finally in April 1311, Clement signed the decree stating that all those involved in the attack on Boniface VIII were reconciled with the church. A penance was assigned to Guillaume. He had to go on a pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain and then take a party of soldiers to fight in the Holy Land, an ironic twist.17
He never did either.
Guilluame de Nogaret died in November 1314. He was probably buried, as he had requested, at the monastery of the Dominicans near Nimes.
Outside of France, where he did his best to see that the history books would justify his actions, Nogaret was totally reviled. Dante had no doubt who was pulling the strings of King Philip. I don’t believe that Nogaret’s actions can be justified, but they deserve to be looked at objectively in the light of the times. There are those who might say that, by arresting a pope and by destroying the Templars, neither of whom were all that innocent, Nogaret also struck a blow at the unfair dominance of the papacy and those it protected.
However, I’m not ready to be that objective.
Ernest Renan, Guillaume de Nogaret: Un Minister du Roi Philippe le Bel (Quebec: Numerus, 2006; rpt. of 1872 ed.) p. 3.
Ibid. The Patarines were only one of the many heresies in Europe at the time. They were not connected with the Cathars.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 5.
Ibid., p. 6.
For a good overview of this issue, see Ute-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1988.)
Except Philip, of course.
Renan, p. 49.
Quoted in Sophia Menache, Clement V (Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 15.
Quoted in Renan, p. 44.
Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XX, ll. 85-93.
Georges Lizerand, Le Dossier de l’Affaire des Templiers (Paris, 1923) p. 168. “Verum, cum per nobilem virum Guillelmum de Nogareto, cacellarium regium, qui supervenerat, . . . fuisset dictumeidem magistro quod in cronicis que erant apud Sanctum Dionisium, continebantur quod tempore Saladini, sodani Babilonie, magister ordnis Temple qui tunc erat et alii majores ipsius ordinis fecerant homagium ipsi Saladino et quod idem Saladinus, auditaadversitate magna quam dicti Templarii tunc passi fuerant, dixerat in publico predictos Templarios fuisse dictam adversitatem perpessos, qui vicio sodomitico labarabant et quia fidem suam et legen prevaricati fuerant.”
Lizerand, p. 169.
Menache, p. 114.
Renan, pp. 88-89. I worry about someone who feels the need to name both a son and a daughter after himself.
Ibid., pp. 113-15.
Ibid., p. 116.