A Highly Efficient Affair
The Templars were taken quite by surprise when Philip IV’s officers came for them in the early hours of the morning of Friday 13 October 1307. They were arrested simultaneously throughout France–about 2000 men in all, from knights down to the most humble agricultural workers and household servants. There was no resistance. Most of the Templars were unarmed and many were middle aged or even elderly, and except for the Paris Temple their houses were unfortified. The arrests were made in the name of the Inquisition and the Templars were all brought to Paris where they were imprisoned in their own headquarters.
The efficiency of the operation probably benefited from previous raids when King Philip struck against Italian bankers resident in France in 1291 and against Jews in 1306, in each case arresting them, throwing them out of the country and seizing their property and their money. A few Templars did escape, about twenty-four it seems, though only one of any importance, Gerard of Villiers, the master of France. Several were apprehended later, despite disguising themselves by a change of dress and shaving off their beards; some had gone to ground in the countryside, one was picked up off the streets of Paris where he was living as a beggar, and another fled to England where he was arrested later. The medieval world was very hard on fugitives, and it is unlikely that many could have survived for long.
Accusations and Defamation
The charge against the Templars was heresy. When being inducted into the order, initiates were required to deny Christ, spit on the cross and place obscene kisses about the body of their receptor. They were also obliged to indulge in sexual relations with other members of the order if requested, and they wore a small belt which had been consecrated by touching a strange idol which looked like a human head with a long beard called Baphomet (possibly an Old French distortion of Mohammed).
The arrest and charging of the Templars was unusual in that though authorised by the Papal Inquisitor in France, the action was effected not by the Church but by the king. The normal procedure in heresy cases at this time was for the Church to make the arrests and try the accused heretics under Church law, only releasing them to the secular authorities for punishment if this was the verdict of the court. Yet here was a military order which for nearly two hundred years had owed its loyalty directly and solely to the Papacy, from which it had enjoyed complete protection, and suddenly its brothers were arraigned by a secular power. This alone must have come as a shock to the arrested Templars.
That Philip was able to arrest and charge the Templars was owed to a loophole in the law going back to the time of the Cathars and their trials nearly eighty years before. So serious was the spread of the Cathar heresy that in 1230 Pope Honorius III had bestowed extraordinary powers on the Inquisitor in France, extending his reach even to the exempt orders, the Templars, the Hospitallers and Saint Bernard’s Cistercians, whenever there was a suspicion of heresy. After the Cathar heresy was eradicated this grant of powers was forgotten by the Papacy, but it was never revoked. This meant that the Templars, though otherwise untouchable, were vulnerable to the charge of heresy–a discovery made by Philip IV’s assiduous lawyers, who now used it to devastating effect.
Heresy was the one possible charge that the king could successfully level against the Templars, and so heresy it had to be. The royal lawyers gathered information about the inner life of the Templar order with the aim of selecting and extrapolating from their proper context those elements which could be presented as crimes against religion. These were then put together in such a form that they created the impression of a coherent heretic creed. The royal lawyers then presented this evidence to the French Inquisitor, a Franciscan called William of Paris who was in connivance with the king, who denounced the Templars as heretics.
The accusations against the Templars were also calculated to exploit a degree of residual hostility towards the order after the fall of Acre and the loss of the Holy Land in 1291, while the mere charge of heresy had the immediate effect of blackening the order’s reputation. No time was wasted in mounting the propaganda campaign against the Templars: the king’s minister William of Nogaret announced the heresy before a large crowd in Paris, and the Franciscans spread the news in their sermons under instructions from the Inquisitor, Brother William of Paris.
The Charges Against the Templars
The charges made against the Templars at the time of their arrest on 13 October 1307 can be summarised as follows:
The Templars held their reception ceremonies and chapter meetings in secret and at night.
During the reception ceremony initiates were required to deny Christ;
to spit, piss or trample on the cross or images of Christ;
to exchange kisses with the receiving official on the mouth, navel, base of the spine, and sometimes on the buttocks or the penis; and
to agree to submit to homosexual practises as required within the order, which practised institutionalised sodomy.
The brothers did not believe in the sacraments and the Templar priests did not consecrate the host.
The brothers worshipped an idol in the form of a head or a cat called Baphomet.
Though not ordained by the Church, high Templar officials, including the Grand Master, absolved brothers of their sins.
The Templars failed to make charitable gifts as they were meant to do, nor did they practise hospitality.
The King’s Motives
It is quite possible that Philip and his government really did believe the accusations of heresy that they made against the Templars, and as will be seen there were some grounds for suspicion. This was an age when people believed that the devil was constantly trying to spread corruption throughout Christian society. By attacking the weak points of the social structure the devil aimed to cause the collapse of society altogether. Therefore the task of the faithful was to be vigilant, to expose evil, and to cut out corruption at an early stage before the whole of society succumbed. Philip had given himself the role of a sacred king ruling over a holy country; if there was anything about the Templars that smacked of heresy, the king and his supporters could easily have taken this as a danger that needed to be immediately eradicated. As for the Templars posing a physical threat to the king, there is no evidence for this and it seems unlikely: they were involved with no faction, and they were largely unarmed. Nevertheless, their protection under the Pope and their immunity from the secular law would likely have seemed an offence to Philip’s notions of absolute sovereignty, and there had already been a clash of sovereign claims between Philip and Pope Boniface VIII.
But Philip’s most powerful immediate motive was the desire, indeed the need, to get his hands on the wealth of the Templars. He had already stolen from the Italian bankers and the Jews, he had debased the currency, and it was his exactions from the clergy that provoked his first confrontation with Boniface VIII. His wars against England and in Flanders had cost him a great deal of money, and he had inherited a huge debt from his father’s wars. The Templars were a tempting target, for unlike the Hospitallers, whose wealth was entirely in land, the Templars from their banking activities also had liquid wealth which the king could quickly and easily grab. By accusing them of heresy Philip could turn the Templars into reprehensible religious outsiders like the Jews, against whom persecution was readily rationalised.
Many foreign observers, especially those in northern Italy where there was a more complete understanding of the power of money than anywhere else in fourteenth-century Europe, were convinced that getting his hands on the Templars’ cash and precious metals was the primary motive for Philip’s attack. Dante famously attacked the king’s actions in Purgatorio, the second book of Divine Comedy, written in the immediate aftermath of the Templars’ arrest:
I see the second Pilate’s cruel mood
Grow so insatiate that without decree
His greedy sails upon the Temple intrude.
from The Portable Dante, ed. Paolo Milano, Penguin, 1977
Spies, Tortures and Confessions
The order went out on 14 September 1307 to make the arrests that took place at dawn a month later, on 13 October, but the case had been prepared years before. French government spies had joined the Templars to discover its inner workings and to gather anything with which they could be slandered. The sinister force behind this was William of Nogaret, who in 1303 had taken part in the attempt to overthrow Pope Boniface VIII, since when he had remained excommunicated. William’s family had suffered persecution because his grandfather had been a Cathar, but by his cleverness and cynicism he had risen in Philip’s court and was ennobled in 1299, becoming the king’s Keeper of the Seals and his right-hand man. These facts may have contributed to William of Nogaret’s contempt for the Papacy and his unscrupulous ambition to make France the greatest power in the world.
Many of those arrested were simple men, not battle-hardened Templar knights, but ploughmen, artisans and servants who helped keep the order running, and these would have succumbed to torture or even the threat of torture fairly quickly. The knights themselves, however, had been long prepared for the worst in Outremer, for that day when they might be captured and thrown into a Muslim dungeon, be tortured or face execution unless they abjured their faith. And yet these too rapidly and all but unanimously confessed. The tortures could be savage: scores died undergoing what was called ‘ecclesiastical procedure’, which was meant not to break limbs or draw blood but routinely included being kept chained in isolation and fed on bread and water; being drawn on the rack until the joints were dislocated; being raised over a beam by a rope tied to the wrists that had been bound behind the victim’s back; and having fat rubbed into the soles of the feet, which were then placed before a fire–one tortured Templar priest being so badly burnt that the bones fell out of his feet. Another of the accused said that he would have agreed ‘to kill God’ to stop his torment.
Yet physical torture was far from the only element in the confessions. Instead, one of the worst problems for the Templars was the overturn of their spiritual and social universe. They had spent their lives in the enclosed world of a military elite group to which they owed absolute loyalty and were constantly reminded of the support they in turn received from the rest of society. But now they were reviled, told that they were heretics, and no support seemed to be forthcoming from any quarter. The walls, ceiling and floor of their enclosed world had fallen away leaving them exposed, bewildered and lost. Under these conditions it is not surprising that James of Molay, the Grand Master, and Hugh of Pairaud, whose rank of Visitor made him the most elevated Templar in Western Christendom after James of Molay, were both among the near unanimity of Templars who rapidly confessed–and indeed there is some uncertainty whether the Grand Master was ever tortured.
The further truth of the confessions was that they were gained quickly because the Templars were accused of something that actually existed and to which they could admit, though it had been distorted in the hands of the Inquisitor. This was the fruit of the information gathered by the government spies.
On 19 October 1307 the Inquisitorial hearings began at the Paris Temple. On 25 and 26 October James of Molay was called to testify. His confession was recorded and sent to the Pope as proof of heresy. In less than two weeks since their arrest, the Templars’ honour had been stained forever, and the news of their guilt reverberated throughout the whole of Christendom.
The Pope Acts
Pope Clement V was stunned when, on 14 October, a messenger brought the news to his court at Poitiers that the Templars had been arrested the previous day. Though the action had been taken on the nominal authority of the French Inquisitor, there was no doubt that the arrests represented an attack on the Papacy and the Catholic Church by the secular monarchy of France. The matter concerned not the Templars only; the survival of the Papacy was at stake, and Clement immediately summoned all his cardinals for an emergency meeting of the Curia which began on 16 October and lasted three days.
Another Pope at another time might have excommunicated Philip. But Clement was doubly vulnerable–after Philip’s coup against Boniface in Italy, and as a resident on French soil. Instead Clement issued a bull, Ad Preclarus Sapientie, which gave Philip a way out: it said that the king had acted unlawfully and had tarnished the reputation of his grandfather Saint Louis, but he could make up for his rashness by handing the Templars and their possessions over to the Church. To achieve this, in November the Pope sent two cardinals to Paris to take into custody the men and property of the Temple. But the king had made himself absent and his counsellors refused access to the Templars, let alone handing them over to the Church, arguing that a Papal intervention was superfluous as they were self-confessed heretics.
When the cardinals went back to Poitiers with the news that the French monarchy was flatly refusing to obey an express command of the Pope, the Curia was plunged into crisis. According to one report, ten cardinals threatened to resign if the Pope showed himself to be a puppet of the French king. Clement was faced with replacing the cardinals at the cost of causing a schism in the Church, or he could excommunicate Philip and fall victim to a royal coup.
But the Pope found another way and, acting with some dexterity within the difficult constraints of his situation, he did what he could to put himself in charge of events. First on 22 November 1307 he issued a bull, Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, asking all the kings and princes of Christendom to arrest the Templars in their lands and to hold their property in safekeeping for the Church. In this way proceedings were initiated against the Templars in England, Iberia, Germany, Italy and Cyprus–but in the name of the Church. By doing this the Pope was delivering an implied ultimatum to King Philip, that what was true in the rest of Europe must also be so in France. He praised the French king for his good faith and religious zeal, but Clement was making it clear that the case against the Templars was being removed from the king’s authority and was now being taken into the hands of the Papacy.
As for the crisis that had arisen when the king’s officials rebuffed the two cardinals, the Pope simply pretended that the incident had never happened. Instead in December he sent the two cardinals back to Paris as if for the first time. But now they brought with them the power, granted by the Pope, to excommunicate Philip on the spot and to place the whole of France under an interdict if the king persisted in his refusal to hand over the Templars. The move was effective: on 24 December 1307 Philip wrote to the Pope that he would hand over the Templars.
On about 27 December 1307 the cardinals met James of Molay and other leading Templars, who denied everything to which they had formerly confessed. According to one source the Grand Master said that he had confessed only under heavy torture, and he showed the wounds on his body, though it is not clear if this source can be trusted. Nevertheless, retracting the confessions was a risky move because under the rules of the Inquisition relapsed heretics were handed over to the secular authorities to be burnt. That the Grand Master and others took that risk shows that they were confident that a great injustice was about to be overturned. Certainly James of Molay’s retraction marked a turning point in the trial.
Deadlock Between Pope and King
Although the Church was granted this brief access to the leading Templars, Philip had still not transferred any Templars to Church control. In February 1308 Pope Clement suspended the Inquisitor William of Paris and the whole French Inquisition. In reply the king’s officials tried to force the Pope to reopen the trial by marshalling public and theological opinion in France. The chief agent in this was William of Nogaret, who instigated a campaign of libel, slander and physical intimidation against the Pope; Clement was threatened with deposition and menaces were directed against his family. But Clement stood his ground against the king, and to settle their differences they met in May and June at Poitiers. There they agreed that the Pope would set up two kinds of inquiry, one by a Papal commission to look into the Templars as an institution, the other consisting of a series of provincial councils, each supervised by the bishop of a diocese, to investigate the guilt or innocence of individual Templars. For his part Philip finally consented to release a number of Templars into the physical custody of the Church so that they could be interviewed directly by the Pope.
Philip chose seventy-two Templars from among his prisoners in Paris and sent them, chained to one another and under a military escort, by wagon to Poitiers. Most of these were renegades or at best sergeants selected to make a poor impression on the Pope, and with them he sent the Grand Master and four other high officers of the Templar order. But suddenly when the convoy reached the royal castle of Chinon the seventy-two were sent on to Poitiers but the leaders were detained, the king claiming they were too ill to undertake the journey. This was an obvious lie as Chinon lay not far from Poitiers. The king probably feared that if the Pope interviewed the Templar leaders he would find them free of heresy and grant them absolution.
The Pope Hears the Strange Testimony of the Templars
The Pope ignored Philip’s deceit over the Templar leaders held at Chinon. Instead of walking into a destructive confrontation with the king, Clement got on with examining those Templars who had been sent to him. From 28 June to 1 July 1308 the seventy-two Templars were heard at Poitiers by a special commission of cardinals and by the Pope himself. On 2 July Clement granted absolution to the Templars, who had confessed and had asked for the forgiveness of the Church. Had the Templars been found guilty, the Pope would never have forgiven them; but on the other hand had they been innocent he would have acquitted them without requiring any show of repentance.
The Templars were not heretics, Clement had decided. An account of the examination was kept in the form of marginal notes made at the time. Damaged and mislaid in the Vatican archives, these notes have only recently been discovered, deciphered and published. Together with the Chinon Parchment, they show how the Pope came to understand the true nature of the Templars’ strange practises.
The Templars attended mass, they went to Holy Communion and confession, and they complied with their liturgical duties. But they also confessed to the Pope that at their entrance ceremony they denied Christ and spat on the cross, though they insisted that they had never consented to this in their souls and as soon as possible had confessed to a priest and asked for absolution. The Pope found these induction rituals too confused to be taken seriously; at one moment the novice spat on the cross, but then kissed it in adoration; and the novice denied the divinity of Christ saying, ‘You, who are God, I deny’, which was no denial at all. If the Templars were heretics, they were the most inconsistent and unconvincing adherents any heresy could have. The Templars had fallen into peculiar ways and needed reform, but that, decided the Pope, was all.
In fact Clement had already heard something of these bizarre practises from James of Molay himself when the two met at Poitiers in May 1307, five months before the arrests. In the Pope’s words, the Grand Master had told him of ‘many strange and unheard-of things’ which had caused Clement ‘great sorrow, anxiety and upset of heart’. The Grand Master feared that these initiation ceremonies, which had been going on for a century or more, were getting out of hand, and the Pope agreed to instigate an inquiry to root out these practises before they erupted into scandal. In August 1307 Clement had also written to King Philip on this count, telling him that ‘we could scarcely bring our mind to believe what was said at that time’. But Philip’s spies within the Templars had informed the king of these practises long before that, providing Philip with the material that he cynically manipulated with such devastating effect.
Clement’s understanding of these strange Templar practises was that they were simply an entrance ritual, a custom which was common, with variations, in every military elite since early antiquity. This was a secret rite of passage after the formal ceremony, a compulsory test to which all new Temple brothers had to submit, a peculiar tradition (modus ordinis nostri) which demonstrated to the initiate the violence that the Templars were likely to suffer at the hands of their Muslim captors, and how they would be compelled to deny Christ and to spit on the cross. The aim of the test was to strengthen the souls of recruits, and it took the form of a very realistic performance. To this first part was added another test, that of kissing the master who had received him on the lower spine, on the navel and finally on the mouth; its purpose was to teach the novice that in all circumstances whatsoever he owed absolute obedience to his superiors. This seems to have been the original and true form of the ritual, but the local masters made changes, and in time this secret ritual became quite coarse and sometimes even violent.
The Templars were not heretics but they were not innocent either for they had actually denied the divinity of Christ even if it was all a pretence. Apostasy could be forgiven but sinners had to repent and submit to harsh penance. That was how Clement dealt with the seventy-two Templars he interviewed at Poitiers. But he could not do the same for the leaders without seeing them, and though he issued a formal summons for the appearance of James of Molay and the other leading Templars, this was refused by the king with the repeated claim that they were ill.
The Mystery of Chinon
In the summer of 1308 the Pope absolved James of Molay and the other Templar leaders held prisoner at Chinon. Seemingly no proper report of this hearing had survived, and until recently it was doubted that any such event had taken place–that is until the discovery of the Chinon Parchment in the Vatican archives in 2001 and its publication by the Vatican in 2007. This showed unequivocally that despite the chief Templars being held prisoner by the king, a hearing had somehow been arranged within the royal castle at Chinon.
This was set in motion on 14 August 1308 when three cardinals left the Papal court at Poitiers for an unknown destination. They were Etienne of Suisy, Landolfo Brancacci and Bérenger Frédol, the last being one of the outstanding canon lawyers of his time and a nephew of the Pope; secretly they formed a special apostolic commission of inquiry with Clement’s full authority. Two or three days later the cardinals arrived at Chinon where, in addition to the royal jailer, there were two important royal officials, identified in French records only by their initials, but who are thought to have been William of Nogaret and a lawyer who acted on his behalf called William of Plaisians.
If there were any hidden negotiations between the parties at Chinon, the fact is unknown. Instead what followed seems to have taken place under the noses of the king’s officials but without their knowledge. According to the Chinon Parchment, no royal officials attended the hearings that took place at Chinon from 17 to 20 August; they were held quickly and presumably in all secrecy to avoid the intervention of the royal officers. Apart from the three cardinals and the Templars they examined, the others at the hearing were a handful of witnesses, all clerks and humble people, none of them closely linked to King Philip. This at last was the Papal trial of the Templar leaders; it was entirely a Church affair.
During the first three days of the trial the three cardinals examined Raimbald of Caron, the master of Cyprus; Geoffrey of Charney, master of Normandy; Geoffrey of Gonneville, master of Poitou and Aquitaine; and Hugh of Pairaud, the Visitor. On the final day, 20 August, they heard the testimony of the Grand Master, James of Molay. The details varied between the testimonies, but taken all together they amounted to a restatement of the practises previously mentioned in testimony by the seventy-two Templars at Poitiers.
When the cardinals reported back to the Pope, Clement accepted the explanation of James of Molay and the other Templar leaders that the charges against them of sodomy and blasphemy were due to a misunderstanding of the knighthood’s arcane rituals, which had their origins in their struggle against the Muslims in Outremer. Denying Christ and spitting on the cross, as well as kissing other men’s behinds, were understood to simulate the kind of humiliation and torture that a knight might be subjected to by the enemy if captured. They were taught to abuse their own religion ‘in words only, not in spirit’.
Noting that the Templars had asked his pardon, the Pope wrote, ‘We hereby decree that they are absolved by the Church and may again receive Christian sacraments.’ Of James of Molay in particular the Pope recorded that after hearing what he had to say, ‘We concluded to extend the mercy of absolution for these acts to Brother James of Molay, the Grand Master of the order, who denounced in our presence the described heresy and any other heresy, and swore in person on the Lord’s Holy Gospel, and humbly asked for the mercy of absolution, restoring him to unity with the Church and reinstating him to communion of the faithful and sacraments of the Church.’
At this point Clement was still trying to save the Templars as an order; his object was reform, and then probably to combine the Templars with the Hospitallers. But the Pope failed to make the details of his absolution public because the scandal of the Templars had aroused extreme passions; Clement was still trying to avoid either a confrontation with Philip or a schism within the Church.
The Chinon Parchment
Everything written about the trial–and beliefs–of the Knights Templar has become redundant since the discovery of the Chinon Parchment. Uncertain and unexplained circumstances surrounding the fall of the order had led to a variety of theories about their activities and the motives of others involved in their trial. The accepted view of historians, over the centuries, had tended to be that the Templars were not heretics but that they were guilty of something–but of what? Historians also saw Pope Clement V as the pliant and weak creature of Philip IV of France, with whom he was thought to have colluded to destroy the Templars and seize their fortune.
The discovery of the Chinon Parchment has thrown a new and clarifying light on these mysteries and misconceptions. The parchment is a contemporary account of the testimony of James of Molay and other Templar leaders at a secret Papal hearing held at the royal castle of Chinon from 17 to 20 August 1308. The document reveals that the Pope found no heresy among the Templars and granted absolution to its leaders. Indeed, he fought with some determination to protect the Templars against the French king. Fatally, however, the Pope delayed making his absolution public owing to the extreme passions of the time. And so Phillip IV was able to have James of Molay and the other Templar leaders put to death before the Pope’s verdict could be published.
Subsequently the Chinon Parchment was mislabelled and misplaced amid the labyrinthine files of the Secret Archive until Barbara Frale, an Italian researcher at the Vatican School of Paleontology, found it and recognised its significance. She deciphered its tangled and coded writing and published her findings in the Journal of Medieval History in 2004. This was followed in 2007 by a facsimile publication of the parchment by the Vatican itself–no doubt eager to avoid the appearance of yet more conspiracy amid the fallout from their fictional machinations in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.
The Papal Examination
The Papal Examination of James of Molay at Chinon castle 20 August 1308 as translated from the Chinon Parchment:
Then on the twentieth day of the month, in our presence, and in the presence of notaries and the same witnesses, brother-knight James of Molay, Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar, appeared personally and having sworn in the form and manner indicated above, and having been diligently questioned, said it has been forty-two years or thereabouts since he was received as a brother of the said Order by brother-knight Hubert de Pérraud, at the time Visitor of France and Poitou, in Beune, diocese of Autun, in the chapel of the local Templar commandery of that place.
Concerning the way of his initiation into the order, he said that having given him the cloak the receptor showed to him the cross and told him that he should denounce the God whose image was depicted on that cross, and that he should spit on the cross. Which he did, although he did not spit on the cross, but near it, according to his words. He also said that he performed this denunciation in words, not in spirit. Regarding the sin of sodomy, the worshipped head and the practise of illicit kisses, he, diligently questioned, said that he knew nothing of that.
When he was asked whether he had confessed to these things due to a request, reward, gratitude, favour, fear, hatred or persuasion by someone else, or the use of force, or fear of impending torture, he replied that he did not. When he was asked whether he, after being apprehended, was submitted to any questioning or torture, he replied that he was not.
After this, we decided to extend the mercy of absolution for these acts to brother James of Molay, the Grand Master of the said order, who in the form and manner described above had denounced in our presence the described and any other heresy, and swore in person on the Lord’s Holy Gospel, and humbly asked for the mercy of absolution, restoring him to unity with the Church and reinstating him to communion of the faithful and the sacraments of the Church.
The Templars Rally
In March 1309 the Papal court established itself at Avignon, which in those days was not within the kingdom of France and had the added benefit of offering the Pope a quick escape over the Italian border. In November 1309 the Papal commission into the order of the Templars began its sittings; this was the inquiry that Clement had agreed to establish after his meeting with Philip at Poitiers the previous year.
Slowly the accused Templars rallied, and instead of confessing they began mounting a defence. By early May 1310 nearly six hundred Templars were defending their order, and they denied their previous confessions. In contrast to the Cathars, who truly were heretics and went to their deaths for what they believed, not one Templar was prepared to be martyred for the heresies which members of the order were supposed to have guarded so fiercely for so long, quite simply because there was no heresy, only the malignant interpretation put on their practises by a malignant king.
Deeply worried by this growing confidence among the Templars, Philip took drastic action and had the Archbishop of Sens, a royal nominee, reopen his episcopal inquiry against individual Templars in his diocese. Obedient to his king, the archbishop found fifty-four Templars guilty as relapsed heretics–in other words guilty of having revoked their earlier confessions–and handed them over to the secular authorities. On 12 May 1310 in a field outside Paris the fifty-four Templars were burnt at the stake. Yet even after these burnings not all the remaining Templars were cowed nor was their morale completely crushed, though this intimidation by burning did have its effect, and many Templars fell silent or returned to their confessions.
The Suppression of the Templars
Since 1308 Pope Clement had been intending to hold an ecumenical council at Vienne in the Rhone-Alps region of France to consider three great matters: the Templars, the Holy Land and the reform of the Church. Originally scheduled for October 1310, it had to be postponed a year because the Pope’s contest with the king of France over the Templars was dragging on. Now in the summer of 1311 Clement had gathered information about the Templars from investigations all round France and abroad to present at the council. What he found was that only in France and in regions under French domination or influence were there substantial confessions from Templars–that is areas where the French authorities and their collaborators had applied ferocious tortures to their victims, or where their testimony was deliberately distorted to turn admitted irregularities into heresy. Clement was becoming eager to wind up the Templar matter before its controversies caused wider and deeper troubles for the Church.
Clement had senior advisors who argued that no time should be wasted on discussion or defence, and that the Pope should use his executive powers to abolish the Templars forthwith. One said that the Templars had ‘already caused the Christian name to smell among unbelievers and infidels and have shaken some of the faithful in the stability of their faith’. He added that suppression of the order should take place without delay in case ‘the capricious spark of this error ignites in flames, which could burn the whole world’. But then in late October a dramatic event occurred which did much to counter the arguments of those in favour of swift abolition–seven Templars appeared at the council to argue for the defence of the order. The Pope reacted swiftly and had them locked up.
But this was not a matter that the overwhelming majority of the clergy attending the council was prepared to overlook. As Henry Ffykeis, an Englishman attending the council, wrote home to the bishop of Norwich on 27 December 1311: ‘Concerning the matter of the Templars there is great debate as to whether they ought in law to be admitted to the defence. The larger part of the prelates, indeed all of them, excepting five or six from the council of the King of France, stand on their behalf. On account of this the Pope is strongly moved against the prelates. The King of France more so; and he is coming in a rage with a great following’. Indeed Philip was soon demonstrating his usual technique of intimidation by appearing at various places upriver from Vienne, creating the powerful sensation in the Pope that the king was about to descend upon him. On 2 March 1312 the king sent a thinly veiled ultimatum to the Pope, reminding him of the crimes and heresies of the Templars, ‘Which is why, burning with zeal for the orthodox faith and in case so great an injury done to Christ should remain unpunished, we affectionately, devotedly and humbly ask Your Holiness that you should suppress the aforesaid order’. Just in case Clement did not get the message, on 20 March the king with his brothers, sons and a considerable armed force arrived at Vienne.
On 3 April, having silenced the members of the council on pain of excommunication, and with the King of France sitting at his side, the Pope made public his decision, already committed to writing twelve days earlier in the form of a bull, Vox in Excelso, dated 22 March 1312, that the Templars, though not condemned, were suppressed on the grounds that the order was too defamed to carry on. Under the circumstances it was probably the best that Clement could do. Another bull, Ad Providam, dated 2 May, granted the Templars’ property to the Knights Hospitaller. Soon after, Philip extracted a huge sum of money from the Hospitallers in compensation for his costs in bringing the Templars to trial.
The Burning of James of Molay
The Church had now washed its hands of the Templars. In accordance with Church practise, once it had decided on a defendant’s fate he was handed over to the secular authorities for punishment. In this case almost all the Templars in France had been in royal hands all along, and the dispensal of their fates did not require the transfer of their persons. The treatment meted out by the royal authorities to individual Templars varied. Those who had confessed were subjected to penances, and these were sometimes heavy, including lengthy imprisonment. Others who had confessed to nothing or were otherwise of little account were sent to monasteries for the rest of their lives.
The leading Templars, including the Grand Master, had to wait until 18 March 1314 before their cases were disposed of. They might well have expected that their cases had been disposed of long before at Chinon when they received Papal absolution, and almost certainly they would now have been expecting to be treated accordingly. But the hearings at Chinon still remained secret, and instead Hugh of Pairaud, Geoffrey of Gonneville, Geoffrey of Charney and James of Molay were brought for final judgement before a small commission of French cardinals and ecclesiastics at Paris, among them that same archbishop of Sens who had so happily for the king burned fifty-four Templars in May 1310.
The sentence was handed down. On the basis of their earlier confessions, as twisted by the crown, all four men were condemned to harsh and perpetual punishment–in effect to starve and rot in prison until they were released by a lingering death. Hugh of Pairaud and Geoffrey of Gonneville accepted their fate in silence. ‘But lo’, wrote a chronicler of the time, ‘when the cardinals believed that they had imposed an end to the affair, immediately and unexpectedly two of them, namely the Grand Master and the master of Normandy, defending themselves obstinately against the cardinal who had preached the sermon and against the archbishop of Sens, returned to the denial both of the confession as well as everything which they had confessed.’
James of Molay was in his seventies; he and Geoffrey of Charney, the master of Normandy, had been in the king’s dungeons for the last seven years. For six of those years they had lived under the expectation that their absolution by the Pope would free them from their nightmare, that they would live again in sunlight among those loved by the Church and Christ. But now in the midst of betrayal and despair they refused to give themselves into perpetual incarceration in a living hell. Loudly protesting their innocence and asserting that the order of the Templars was pure and holy, James of Molay and Geoffrey of Charney put themselves into the hands of God.
At once the king ordered that they be condemned as relapsed heretics, and on that same evening, at Vespers, they were taken to the Ile des Javiaux, a small island in the Seine east of Notre Dame, and bound to the stake. The chronicler described their last moments: ‘They were seen to be so prepared to sustain the fire with easy mind and will that they brought from all those who saw them much admiration and surprise for the constance of their death and final denial.’ The last of the Templars went to their deaths with courage, in the tradition of their order.
Vatican Backs Templar Link with the Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud is claimed to be the linen cloth that covered the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. A relic answering to its description was among the treasures that were taken from Constantinople when the city was sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. In a letter sent the following year to Pope Innocent III, a Byzantine aristocrat complained that ‘the Venetians partitioned the treasures of gold, silver and ivory while the French did the same with the relics of the saints and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death and before the resurrection’. But the certain provenance of the Shroud can only be traced back to 1357 when it was displayed in the church at Lirey in the diocese of Troyes by the widow of a French knight called Geoffrey of Charney who, it is said, was the nephew of that same Geoffrey of Charney burnt at the stake with James of Molay. This has led some historians to believe that after the sack of Constantinople the linen relic passed into the hands of the Templars who took it to France, where it formed part of their famous treasure. But is this true?
Remarkably, in April 2009 support came from the Vatican itself, where Barbara Frale, the scholar who discovered the Chinon Parchment, found a further document, this one the testimony of Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who entered the order in 1287. As part of his initiation, he said, he was taken to ‘a secret place to which only the brothers of the Temple had access’, where he was shown ‘a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man’ and was told to venerate the image by kissing its feet three times. The Templars had rescued the Shroud to ensure that it did not fall into the hands of heretics such as the Cathars, who claimed that Jesus did not have a true human body but only the appearance of a man and neither died on the Cross nor was resurrected. For their pains they were burnt at the stake.
Not that this discovery has any bearing on the authenticity of the Shroud. The Vatican leaves the question of whether or not the Shroud is a medieval forgery to the faith of believers. But it does suggest that the cloth today known as the Turin Shroud, fake or not, was in the possession of the Templars, that they believed it to be real, and that for a century it played a central part in their initiation ceremonies.