The Knights Templar were revered throughout medieval Europe as the fiercest, wealthiest and most powerful military order of the era. So how were they obliterated with such devastating swiftness?
Lies, spies and torture—lots of torture—masterminded by a power-hungry, money-mad king.
Philip IV of France began his campaign to quash the Templars on September 14, 1307, when he sent sealed orders to his officers across the kingdom, with instructions that they not be opened until the night of October 12. The king had good reason for secrecy. His plan—to arrest every Templar in France—would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.
The Templars, a Roman Catholic military order that answered only to the pope, had for more than a century enjoyed a reputation as heroic fighters who distinguished themselves in the Crusades. Pope Boniface VIII had praised them as “fearless warriors of Christ” just a decade before Philip’s move against them.
But Boniface was no longer in the picture, having died in 1303, barely a month after Philip’s agents had terrorized him and held him hostage. The new pope was Clement V, a former French bishop far more acquiescent to Philip. The Templars were now fair game—and their arrests, carried out on the morning of Friday, October 13, launched one of the bloodiest and most brutal episodes in church history.
Philip sees a rich target
They wouldn’t be the first group Philip had targeted, largely to fill the royal coffers. In 1292 he had arrested the Lombards, wealthy Italian merchants, seized their property and forced them to buy French nationality from him if they wished to stay. In 1306, he ordered the arrest of some 100,000 French Jews, along with the confiscation of their property. “They were told to leave the kingdom within a month on pain of death,” writes Dan Jones in his 2017 book, The Templars.
Needing yet another source of plunder, he turned his attention to the Templars, some 5,000 of whom lived in France.
Even though individual Templars had taken a vow of poverty, the order had become enormously wealthy over the decades, accumulating fleets of ships and vast property holdings throughout Europe.
While they were often referred to as the Knights Templar, only a minority of the group’s members were actually knights; others were priests and “serving brethren,” who came to hold a wide range of jobs. By 1300, many were essentially bankers. In London, for example, the group “operated a system of national and international credit and finance,” notes British historian Stephen Howarth in his book, The Knights Templar. “Kings, merchants and noblemen deposited gold, silver and jewels with them for safe-keeping, and came to them for loans, or to make payments to people overseas.” They even seem to have invented a medieval version of the traveler’s check.
Spies compile a dossier
Still, the Templars’ reputation as warriors persisted. So, when Pope Clement called the order’s Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, to France in late 1306, supposedly to discuss launching another crusade to the Holy Land, the request didn’t seem unusual.
De Molay arrived in France in early 1307, with an entourage of 60 knights, and spent the next several months in meetings there. During that time, “The secret agents of the French king immediately circulated various dark rumors and odious reports concerning the Templars,” wrote Charles G. Addison in an 1842 history of the group. Philip’s spies also attempted to infiltrate the Templars and compiled a dossier of scurrilous charges against them from disaffected former members and others with battle axes to grind.
Grisly torture was used to elicit confessions
That was all the excuse Philip needed to send out his arrest orders in September 1307. Not only were the Templars to be arrested, and their property seized, but they were to be imprisoned, interrogated and, if necessary, tortured. The instructions added, “you are to promise them pardon and favor if they confess the truth, but if not, you are to acquaint them that they will be condemned to death.”
The purpose of torture “was not to obtain the actual truth,” writes French historian Alain Demurger in his 2019 book, The Persecution of the Knights Templar, “but to elicit the specific truth that the accusers wanted to hear—it was that truth, or death.” Among the charges the Templars were expected to confess to: renouncing Christ and spitting on the cross.
In Paris, the king’s inquisitors tortured 138 Templars, most of whom eventually made confessions. Many were subjected to “fire torture,” which Addison describes in vivid detail: “their legs were fastened in an iron frame, and the soles of their feet were greased over with fat or butter; they were then placed before the fire, and a screen was drawn backwards and forwards, so as to moderate and regulate the heat. Such was the agony produced by this roasting operation, that the victim often went raving mad.”
Jones details some of the other techniques used to coerce confessions from the Templars, including starvation, sleep deprivation, relentless questioning and the strappado—“a device that yanked the victim’s tethered arms behind him until he was raised from the ground and his shoulders dislocated.”
Unable to withstand these tortures, many Templars did eventually confess—even Grand Master de Molay, who admitted renouncing Christ and spitting near a cross, though not directly on it. He urged other Templars to confess, as well.
Charges included cat worshipping and navel kissing
In 1309 the pope began his own inquiry, which would continue intermittently into 1311. Rather than assessing the guilt or innocence of individual Templars, its primary goal was to determine whether the pope should abolish the entire order.
By now the accusations against the Templars and their order had grown to a total of 127. On the list: worshipping cats, condoning theft and perjury to enrich the order and kissing each other’s navels during secret initiation ceremonies.
The pope established a commission of bishops and other high-ranking churchmen to hear the evidence, both pro and con. Believing they were no longer at the king’s mercy and would be protected by the pope, many Templars took the opportunity to describe the tortures they’d suffered and to recant their earlier confessions. For some, that proved to be a fatal miscalculation.
In May 1310, the archbishop of Sens, whose brother happened to be among the king’s closest associates, ordered that 54 Templars who had recanted be burned at the stake as relapsed heretics. Soon after, another 14 Templars met the same fiery fate. One dead Templar was even pulled from his grave so his bones could be burned.
By now it was clear to surviving Templars that they could either confess or die. Most confessed.
READ MORE: How Greed and Religion Toppled the Templars
The Pope seals their fate
In March 1312, the pope finally announced his decision. Based on the confessions and other evidence, he said, he was abolishing the Order of the Templars, by “an inviolable and perpetual decree.”
That wasn’t the end of it, however. There remained some loose ends, one of them being the elderly grand master de Molay, still imprisoned in Paris. In March 1314, he and three other Templar leaders were put on public display outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where three cardinals appointed by the pope were to pronounce their sentences.
The event didn’t go as planned. When de Molay and another prisoner learned they faced life in prison, they lashed out at the cardinals, denounced the injustice of the whole process, and proclaimed their innocence.
Centuries later, an enterprising Italian scholar would discover one reason de Molay may have been surprised by the cardinals’ ruling. Digging through the Vatican Secret Archives in 2001, Dr. Barbara Frale found a misfiled copy of an August 1308 document known as the Chinon Parchment. It chronicled the interrogation of de Molay and several other high-ranking Templars, conducted by representatives of the pope in Chinon, France, who pressed them on such issues as renouncing the cross, sodomy and kissing on the mouth. The long-lost document revealed that after de Molay testified and pleaded for mercy for his sins, he had been granted absolution, or forgiveness, by the church. (The Vatican made the parchment public in 2007.)
READ MORE: Step into the Vatican Secret Archives
But in 1314 even life imprisonment wasn’t a harsh enough sentence as far as King Philip IV was concerned. When he heard about de Molay’s protest, he ordered both him and his compatriot burned at the stake that night.
In addition to the Templars who were burned alive, many others would die during their years of harsh confinement. Some succumbed during torture, refusing to the end to confess sins they had never committed.