The Destruction of the Templars

IN MARCH 1309 THE PAPACY 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. Its concern was with the state of the order, not individual Templars, and Jacques de Molay was invited to speak. Describing himself as ‘an impoverished knight who knew no Latin’, he haltingly offered a defence. The Templars had the finest churches with the exception of cathedral churches, he said, and no one distributed more alms than the Templars. Most proudly he said that ‘he knew of no other order or other people more prepared to expose their bodies to death in defence of the Christian faith against its enemies, nor who had shed so much blood and were more feared by the enemies of the Catholic faith’. But Jacques de Molay’s defence was slapped down by a member of the commission who remarked ‘that what he had said was no help for the salvation of souls’. As the Grand Master was offering this defence, the king’s minister William of Nogaret strode in and told Jacques de Molay that in the chronicles at Saint-Denis it was written that Saladin, ‘on hearing of the heavy defeat the Templars had just suffered, had publicly declared that the said Templars had suffered the said defeat because they were labouring under the vice of sodomy and had violated their religion and their statutes’.1 The chronicles said no such thing; in maintaining his slander campaign against the Templars, William of Nogaret had made it up.

Jacques de Molay was not alone in defending the order. By early May 1310 nearly six hundred Templars had spoken in support of their order before the papal commission, 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 that 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 practices 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 burned at the stake. Yet even after these burnings not all the remaining Templars were cowed, nor was their morale completely crushed, although this intimidation by burning did have its effect, and many Templars fell silent or returned to their confessions.

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 advisers 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’.2 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.3

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’.4Just 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.

        Considering therefore the infamy, suspicion, noisy insinuation and the other things above which have been brought against the Order, and [. . .] considering, moreover, the grave scandal which has arisen from these things against the Order, which it did not seem could be checked while this Order remained in being, and also the danger both to faith and souls, and that many horrible things have been done by very many of the brothers of this Order [. . .] who have lapsed into the sin of wicked apostasy against the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the crime of detestable idolatry, the execrable outrage of the Sodomites [. . .] we abolish the aforesaid Order of the Temple and its constitution, habit and name by an irrevocable and perpetually valid decree, and we subject it to perpetual prohibition with the approval of the Holy Council, strictly forbidding anyone to presume to enter the said Order in the future, or to receive or wear its habit, or to act as a Templar.5

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 Church had now washed its hands of the Templars. In accordance with Church practice, 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 dispensing 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 dealt with. They might well have expected their cases to have 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 Jacques de 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.6

Jacques de 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, Jacques de 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 west 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 constancy of their death and final denial’.7 The last of the Templars went to their deaths with courage, in the tradition of their order.

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