Part 4

The Fall 1291–1314

Exile from the Holy Land

Lost Souls

Though not unexpected, the fall of Acre came as a shock in the West. The sins of the inhabitants of Outremer were blamed, as was the failure of the leaders of European Christendom to provide ample and timely aid, and the Italian merchant states which had traded with Mameluke Egypt, and the military orders, Templars and Hospitallers alike. No one was exempt.

But it was the Templars who felt the loss most intensely. The defence of the Holy Land and the protection of pilgrims was their raison d’être. For the Hospitallers the ethos of their charitable work took precedence; they had never abandoned their original function of caring for the sick. But the Templars were founded as a knighthood, their role to fight against the infidel, and in that cause to service crusades and direct the finances of Popes and kings. Now cast out from the Holy Land, the Templars found themselves in limbo.

Dreams and New Realities

Of course, the dream of recovering the Holy Land was not yet over, certainly not in the mind of James of Molay who in 1293 became the Templars’ new Grand Master. He had spent thirty years in the order, much of it in Outremer, and his vision for the Templars was that they should take the lead in a new crusade. The fall of Acre did not seem like the decisive end of things, more an interlude, and there were expectations that the mainland would be regained. The Templars had established their new headquarters on Cyprus, and they still held the tiny island of Ruad (Arwad) just two miles off the coast of Syria opposite Tortosa, and from these places James of Molay envisioned that the counterattack against the Mamelukes would begin.

Meanwhile on the mainland there were numerous local insurrections against Mameluke rule, which was brutal and repressive. Already in 1291, while Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil was busy fighting the Crusaders at Acre and elsewhere along the coast, Shia Muslims living in the northern part of the Bekaa valley and in the mountains northeast of Beirut had joined with Druze in an uprising against the Sunni Mamelukes which was finally crushed only in 1308.

Across Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, the Christian denominations survived but were greatly diminished. Muslims taunted the native Christians, saying that the failure of Christ to save them against the Mameluke onslaught proved that he was just a man; so demoralised were many Christians in the East that they converted to Islam. Things were particularly difficult for the Maronites. They had been condemned by the Church as heretics in the seventh century for their belief not in the single nature of Christ, Monophysitism, but in the single will of Christ, Monothelitism, but in 1182 the Crusaders helped bring them into communion with the Catholic Church at Rome. Over fifty thousand Maronites were said to have died fighting alongside the Crusaders during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to defend Outremer against the Muslims. When the Crusaders left, some Maronites went with them to Cyprus, but those who remained never surrendered their connection with Rome, despite persecution by the Mameluke jihad. Instead they escaped into the mountains of northern Lebanon where surnames such as Franjieh, meaning Frank, and Salibi, meaning Crusader, are current to this day.

Nor had the Mongols gone away. Since their defeat at the hands of the Mamelukes in 1260 they had shown an interest in forming an alliance with the Christians in the West, and indeed the conversion of two Mongol emissaries at the Council of Lyons in 1274 had raised hopes that the Mongols might convert wholesale to Christianity. Twice, in 1281 and 1299, the Mongols advanced into northern Syria, and when news came from the West in 1300 of a new crusade, the Mongols offered the Christians the Holy Land if they would help them beat the Mamelukes.

Waiting for the Mongols

Eager to take the initiative in recovering the Holy Land, in 1294 James of Molay travelled from Cyprus to the West to promote the Templars as the vanguard of a new crusade. He received encouragement from Pope Boniface VIII in Rome and King Edward I in London and practical assistance too, with both Pope and king making it easier for the Templars to raise new funds in Europe in order to rebuild their forces after their terrible recent losses at Acre and elsewhere in Outremer. Foodstuffs and treasure were shipped from European ports to the Templars in Cyprus and galleys were bought from Venice, part of the war fleet that the Templars would need to lead the attacks against the Syrian and Egyptian coasts.

A wave of excited anticipation swept across Europe in 1300 at the prospect of this new expedition to the East. The mood was reminiscent of those days when Pope Urban II had preached the First Crusade. The Mongols had invaded deep into Syria the year before and the Mamelukes had withdrawn, and there were rumours that Jerusalem had fallen into Mongol hands. Being the 1300th anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Pope declared this to be a jubilee year, promising full remission of sins to those who visited the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Two hundred thousand pilgrims answered his call and were welcomed by a triumphant Pope Boniface sitting on the throne of Constantine the Great and holding the symbols of temporal dominion, the sword, the sceptre and the crown, and bellowing to the crowd, ‘I am Caesar!’ In the familiar battle between the Church and the secular claims of kings, no one could be left in doubt that the Pope was proclaiming the universal jurisdiction of the Church over the monarchs of the West and celebrating the victory yet to come over the infidels in the East.

In the summer of 1300 the Templars, together with the Hospitallers and the king of Cyprus, launched a series of probing attacks against Alexandria and Rosetta, and at Acre, Tortosa and Maraclea. These were preliminaries to a planned joint operation with the Mongols, and they were followed up in November by a combined Templar, Hospitaller and Lusignan force from Cyprus, about 600 knights in all, which was landed on the island of Ruad opposite Tortosa; this, together with Athlit, had been the last stronghold abandoned by the Templars in 1291. From there they made further raids against Tortosa, waiting for the Mongols to appear; instead in the face of a Mameluke threat the Crusaders withdrew to Cyprus, and when the Mongols finally did appear in February 1301 it was too late.

Nevertheless, later in that year the Templars returned to Ruad, this time establishing a considerable force on the island and rebuilding its defences. In preparation for a serious assault on the Syrian mainland, they garrisoned Ruad with 120 knights, 500 archers and 400 servants, almost half the number of Templar knights and auxiliaries as would normally have defended the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century. Possibly they were waiting for the Mongols to return; instead they found themselves isolated on their tiny island against which the Mamelukes sent a fleet of sixteen ships in 1302. A prolonged siege and repeated attacks finally wore down the starving Templars, who surrendered on condition of safe conduct, a promise that was betrayed, the Templars being slaughtered or sold into slavery.

Philip IV, the Most Christian King

Despite this setback in the East, Pope Boniface VIII was no less adamant about his claims of Papal supremacy in the West, which he reinforced with a bull in 1303 called Unam Sanctam. This asserted that there was only one holy (unam sanctam) Catholic Church, and that to attain salvation it was necessary to submit to the Pope in all matters both spiritual and material. The bull was in response to various trespasses against the authority of the Church that had been committed by King Philip IV of France, often known as Philip the Fair for his golden locks if nothing else, who was forever in need of money to finance the expansion of his kingdom and make war against Flanders and England, and so imposed taxes against the clergy. To Philip this was no different to raising taxes for a crusade, for he ruled with a divine mission; in 1297 he had obtained a sainthood for his grandfather, the crusading Louis IX, and was convinced that France was the chosen kingdom of God. In effect the conflict was between the universalist claims of the Church and the new phenomenon of nationalism as asserted by the king of France, both claiming to have God on their side. The Pope might be the Vicar of God, but Philip, according to his admirers, was ‘more than a man, wholly divine’, and ‘the most Christian king of France’.

When Philip still showed no sign of repentance nor of bowing to the Pope’s will, Boniface prepared a bull of excommunication against the king and his minister William of Nogaret. But before it could be published a force of French soldiers led by William of Nogaret himself burst into the Pope’s summer palace at Agnani in the hills southeast of Rome with the aim of taking Boniface as prisoner back to France to stand trial on charges of heresy, sodomy and the murder of the previous Pope. Boniface, who was guarded by only a handful of Templars and Hospitallers, challenged his enemies to kill him, saying, ‘Here is my neck, here is my head.’ But Boniface had been born at Agnani and the townsfolk rallied to him; and before his captors could do more than slap him around and beat him up, they rushed to his defence and drove the French out. He was a broken man, however, and a month later when he died in Rome any serious pretension of the Catholic Church to universal dominion over spiritual and material affairs died with him. The age had truly begun of European nation states led, whatever their religious claims, by secular leaders with secular aims.

Pope Clement’s New Crusade, King Philip’s New Order

After the death of Boniface, the College of Cardinals elected a new Pope, but he died within a year. After long deliberation and pressure from Philip IV, the College produced a Frenchman who came to the Papal throne in 1305 as Clement V. Never throughout his Papacy did Clement set foot in Rome nor indeed Italy; instead he moved between Lyons and Poitiers until March 1309 when he set up court at Avignon in Provence, which at that time technically lay outside the jurisdiction of the kings of France. Clement then went on to pack the College of Cardinals with Frenchmen; not surprisingly the next six Popes all resided at Avignon, and all were French.

This did not mean that Clement V was a puppet of Philip IV, rather the new Pope understood that if he was to achieve his Papal ambitions it would not be, as Boniface had insisted in Unam Sanctam, by trying to make Philip submit to his authority but by cultivating their relationship and securing Philip’s cooperation. Clement’s great ambition was a new crusade, but it would need the collaboration and leadership of the French king. The proposed venture had its difficulties, however, not least because since the fall of Ruad the Mongols had converted en masse to Islam, not to Christianity as had been hoped.

Another difficulty was presented by Philip himself. Clement succeeded in persuading the king to take the cross at the end of December 1305; he freed Philip from the distraction of local conflict by negotiating a peace between the French king and King Edward I of England; and he diverted 10 per cent of the Church’s income in France to Philip’s coffers to finance the new crusade. But in Philip’s view a prerequisite for a successful crusade was the merging of the two military orders, the Templars and the Hospitallers. Moreover, Philip would command the new order; it would become an instrument of France, for Philip’s propagandists also insisted that eventually his command should pass to one of his sons who likewise should succeed him as king of Jerusalem.

Then again, there was a large element of hypocrisy in these French plans; recovering the Holy Land was not really Philip’s priority, rather his ambition was to conquer the Christian Byzantine Empire and to establish himself on the ancient imperial throne at Constantinople.

The Last Days

In May 1307 Pope Clement met with the Templar and Hospitaller Grand Masters at his court in France where they submitted their own views on the proposed crusade and the unification of the orders. The comments made by the Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Fulk of Villaret, about the merging of the orders do not survive, but it seems that he was opposed as his proposal for the crusade assumed that the Hospitallers and the Templars would operate independently. Fulk favoured a small initial expedition to the East, a policy the Hospitallers in fact pursued in June of that very same year when they seized the island of Rhodes, which had been a Byzantine possession, an enterprise that gave them a well-fortified and independent state of their own. A large crusade, went Fulk’s argument, should follow only after forward bases had been secured.

But after the Templars’ experience of the failure at Ruad, James of Molay opposed a small-scale expedition and wanted an all-out crusade. This meant calling on the kings of England, Germany, Sicily, Spain and France to raise an army of between 12,000 and 15,000 knights and 5000 soldiers on foot. This enormous force was to be raised secretly and transported on Venetian, Genoese and other Italian ships to Cyprus, from where it was to be launched against the coast of Palestine. James of Molay’s plan was based on a serious and realistic assessment of the military problems facing a crusade aimed at the recovery of the Holy Land, though he knew that this was not in line with popular opinion, which wanted the rhetoric of crusade without the effort or commitment, and moreover it flew in the face of Philip’s hypocritical intentions.

On the matter of uniting the two orders, James of Molay was also unaccommodating. He admitted that there could be some advantages in the merger, principally that a united order would be stronger. But he also pointed out that the question had been raised before, only to be rejected. Competition between the Templars and the Hospitallers made the orders more effective, he said, as it provided the stimulus for each to outdo the other; nor did one duplicate the functions of the other, rather they were complementaries, placing different emphases on providing alms, transporting men and supplies across the sea, protecting pilgrims and Crusaders, and making war against the infidel.

Unfortunately, for the Templars there was no hope of the sort of mass crusade envisioned by James of Molay. The Hospitallers had shown a keener awareness of current realities by going for the lesser option, one which all but guaranteed their survival by creating a state of their own on Rhodes. The Templars once again were left in limbo and were now increasingly the victims of attacks on their seeming idleness.

The Templars, wrote Rostan Berenguier, a poet of Marseilles at around this time, ‘waste this money which is intended for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre on cutting a fine figure in the world; they deceive people with their idle trumpery, and offend God; since they and the Hospital have for so long allowed the false Turks to remain in possession of Jerusalem and Acre; since they flee faster than the holy hawk; it is a pity, in my view, that we do not rid ourselves of them for good.’

After his meeting with the Pope, James of Molay travelled to Paris where on 12 October 1307 his apparent intimacy with the royal family was evident for all to see when he walked in procession holding one of the pall cords at the funeral of Philip IV’s sister, Catherine of Courtenay. Other Templar leaders, usually based in Cyprus, were also in Paris at this time. However, at dawn on the following day, Friday 13 October, James of Molay was arrested by the king’s men, led by William of Nogaret.

Philip’s order for the arrest of the Templar leadership in Paris and of every Templar throughout France had been circulated secretly the month before: ‘A bitter thing, a lamentable thing,’ went the opening lines of the order, dated 14 September, ‘a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from all humanity.’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!