Clearing the Templars

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A book by the Vatican is set to finally exonerate the Knights Templar. As BBC reported when the story first emerged:

The book is based on a document known as the Chinon parchment, found in the Vatican Secret Archives six years ago after years of being incorrectly filed.

The document is a record of the heresy hearings of the Templars before Pope Clement V in the 14th Century.

The official who found the paper says it exonerates the knights entirely.

The material is contained in a book published in a run of 800 by Scrinium, which prints documents from the Vatican’s secret archives.

The order was tried and deemed heretical after a crackdown by the French authorities — a crackdown rooted in the Templars’ banking operations and fuelled by allegations of magic, sodomy and heretical beliefs. They had become so powerful economically that kings came for loans, with one of their most prominent debtors being the French king, Philip IV.

The new book, a 300-page tome that will set you back about €6,000, “reproduces the entire documentation on the papal hearings” into the orders’ alleged heresy. The Chinon document from 1308 records a decision by Clement to absolve the order of heresy and demanding its reform, though he would go back on this and demand its dissolution in 1312.

The Templars were formed in the early 12th century to protect Christian pilgrims travelling in the Middle East. They also provided an avenue for landless men seeking adventure and an outlet for religious zeal. However, the network the order built up allowed it to become a major economic player. They were also exempt from local laws and taxation, and owed obedience only to the Pope.

Norman Davies has referred to it being “a curious bent of the medieval mind that men could reconcile monastic vows with soldiering”. It is not the only example; for instance, the Benedictine order of monks — on which the Templars were based — “combined old monastic traditions with the military spirit of Rome” (Hans Küng). However, the Templars were founded “to bring security to the land” (Georges Tate) and protect pilgrims rather than conquering the region, and the wealth they built up was put back into their campaigns in the Holy Land.

From Joshua Prower’s The World of the Crusaders:

The Templars became the great banking power of the 13th century, vying with the banking houses of Italy and even the Lombards and Cahorsins… On the one hand their well-guarded castles and tower assured the security of their deposits, and their standing as members of the Church turned the order’s property into asylums against lay intervention. On the other, the orders’ many branches facilitated the transfer of obligations and credits [i.e., cheques] from place to place without actually transporting money over dangerous roads and seas… Praises were heaped upon [the military orders’] valour, military skill and devotion to Christendom. But these were counter-balanced by criticism of their wealth, censure of their alleged greed and condemnation of their rivalries which undermined the stability, and even the very existence, of the crusader kingdom.

Their military prowess was never in doubt. The Templars were, to draw a modern parallel, the shock troops of the crusader armies. They would not retreat unless ordered and they would not normally surrender unless ordered. Whereas most monastic orders advocated fasting, the Templars were well fed and muscled — fighting men. These bearded warriors struck terror into Muslim soldiers, and few Templars were left alive after capture.

After the crusader kingdoms collapsed and the order had to withdraw to Europe, it became the focus of the various kings and nobles because of its secrecy in all matters, from initiation ceremonies to financial activities.

A source of envy was the apparent wealth of the Order of the Temple which, given the bad news from the Holy Land, made many wonder if they were giving value for money. Unlike the monastic orders, they made only a minor contribution to the medieval welfare state… [however] the Templars lived in a state of rough frugality… [although they built fortresses in Palestine] the buildings of their commanderies and preceptories were wholly practical: barns to store their corn, stables for their horses, dormitories to house the half-a-dozen brothers who staffed them, and modest fortifications to keep out thieves. (Piers Paul Read)

The order’s emblem symbolised poverty and frugality — two knights sharing one horse.

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They also came under fire for having many members but only a few who ever deployed to the Holy Land; this was unfair, as many members of the order were involved with maintaining its thousands of manors across Europe, most of which were donated to it.

The Templars also came under pressure to merge with another military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Philip the Fair, in turn, had ambitions to command a unified order in a new crusade. The union, predictably, was opposed by the grand masters of both groups.

Philip the Fair had amassed huge debts, much of it from wars against England.

The crackdown in France was swift and uncompromising; on October 13, 1307, about 15,000 members and affiliates of the order were arrested across the country “for crimes ‘horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of… an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from all humanity’ ” (Read). This was under the orders of pious Philip the Fair, below, who acted without consulting Pope Clement; although Clement was largely under the French king’s thumb anyway.

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The charges were extraordinary. Prosceutors said the order served the devil, while at their initiation recruits were Jesus was a false prophet and they were

to deny Christ, and to spit, trample or urinate on  an image of Christ on the cross, and then kiss the Templar who received him on the mouth, the navel, the buttocks, the base of the spine, ‘and sometimes on the penis’. (Read)

Sodomy was also charged, as was worship of a demon called Baphomet (possibly a corruption of the name Mohammad).

Under the tender mercies of the Inquisition, dozens of Templars confessed to these crimes, including the grand master Jacques de Molay (below, and sometimes known as James of Molay), although he steadfastly refused to say he had commited homosexual acts.

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He revoked his confession in the presence of three French cardinals in Paris, apparently thinking the Pope would give him justice. Clement briefly ordered the inquisition against the Templars suspended in 1308, the same year the Chinon document was issued clearing the order of heresy. Some Templars who retracted their confessions retracted the retractions once the inquisition was renewed. While a commission was held from late 1309 and early 1310 into the order’s alleged activities, 58 were executed, burned at the stake for being relapsed heretics. The corpse of one treasurer, John la Tour, was exhumed so it too could be burned.

In 1314, having been frustrated in his attempts to get a personal hearing with the pope and after seven years in prison, Molay was burned at the stake. The grand master, in his 70s, was defiant to the last and refuted all charges against him. He and the preceptor of Normandy, Geoffrey de Charney, were executed on the Ile-des-Javiaux, below.

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The order’s property was distributed amongst the Hospitallers and kingdoms in Spain, Portugal and Mallorca.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Templars.

Part of this is probably received impressions, generated by centuries of literature, mythology and retellings. It may be the dichotomy which they represent — warrior monks, a combination of what seem on the face to be diometrically opposed endeavours. I don’t presume to be an expert on the order, which is why all I’ve really produced is a brief narrative of its destruction. But the myths have always caught my mental eye. I don’t know if it is the nobility associated with the name, or if even the name itself is what appeals (never underestimate the powers of phonetics).

I actually haven’t read The Da Vinci Code (though I saw the film), but it sums up the romanticised attitude of the order. Freemasonry seems to have appropriated much of the group’s symbolism, though it’s a stretch to say it is the order reborn.

In reality there was nothing romantic about life in the order. Recruits generally joined young, were sent to the Middle East and died fighting. The attrition rate was phenomenal, to the point where 70% of all Templars in 1307 had been recruited since the turn of the century. It was a hard, short, bloody life, even if it did fulfil the knightly classes yearnings for religious exertion and chivalry. The order’s soldiers were feared as much as respected by their enemies — with many Templars executed horribly after capture.

Now though, you can even find their symbols on everything from T-shirts to teddy bears.

Sources: CNN.com, “Knights Templar secrets revealed”; Norman Davies, Europe; Hans Küng, The Catholic Church; Piers Paul Read, The Templars; Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Crusades; BBC, “Vatican book on Templars’ demise”; Georges Tate, The Crusades and The Holy Land; Joshua Prower, The World of the Crusaders; Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless.

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