How Religion and Greed Toppled the Templars

It was one of the most spectacular reversals of fortune history had ever seen. Once the richest and most powerful military order in all of medieval Europe, the Knights Templar—a band of holy warriors-turned-power-brokers who were protected by popes and befriended by kings—met a swift and shocking end. Between 1307 and 1312 the order was condemned and disbanded. Its wealth was confiscated and its members were tortured and put on trial for blasphemy, corruption and sexual crimes.

The attack was the work of the king of France, Philip IV, and his ruthless ministers, led by William of Nogaret. But it was aided and abetted by the pope, a sickly man from Gascony who took the papal name Clement V. As supreme leader of the Roman Church, he wielded ultimate spiritual authority over the Templars.

It all began with very little warning at dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, when every Templar in France was arrested and imprisoned. This is perhaps one reason why Friday 13th has historically been seen as an unlucky day. In 1307 it certainly was unlucky: This was the beginning of a series of persecutions that spread across Europe. From Yorkshire to Cyprus, the Templars were interrogated and pressured into admitting grotesque perversions and crimes, focusing on the rites of admission into the order.

In France, the king’s orders called for torture, and while the methods of the day were not inventive, they were well-tested: starvation, sleep deprivation, solitary imprisonment, relentless questioning, shackling, racking, foot-burning 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. One Templar, Ponsard of Gisy, later described having his arms tied so tightly behind his back that blood flowed from under his nails, and being kept in a pit so small he could only take a single step in any direction—an experience to which he said death by decapitation, burning or scalding with boiling water would be greatly preferable.

The trials and torture continued across Europe for four years, until in 1311-12 a church council held at Vienne handed down the final, terrible verdict: The Templars, who had for nearly 200 years defended pilgrims in the crusader states, collected taxes for the Church and sacrificed their lives fighting legendary Islamic leaders such as Saladin and Baybars, were to be wound up forever.

In December 1313 Pope Clement turned his attention to the punishments that were to be handed out to the Templars’ master, James of Molay, and three of his surviving colleagues: Geoffrey of Charney, Hugh of Pairaud and Geoffrey of Gonneville. The pope appointed a panel of cardinals to examine the four brothers. They would hear one last round of evidence and decide the Templars’ sentences.

Illustration of James of Molay (Jacques de Molay), the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Credit: Stefano Blanchetti/Getty Images

On March 18, 1314, a crowd gathered around a raised platform set up outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, to see these elderly men, who had once commanded the most famous military order in the world, sentenced for their role in its collapse. The cardinals in their wide-brimmed hats inspected the accused and announced what penalty they were to suffer.

A writer called William of Nangis recorded that he had seen James of Molay and his colleagues examined that day. They were briefly questioned and all four stood by statements they had made before. Their penances were to be exemplary and severe.

“They were adjudged to be taken into hard, perpetual imprisonment,” wrote the chronicler.

For James of Molay, who had been in prison for six and a half years, this was too much. To the shock of the audience before him, he decided to speak out. As one of the cardinals was lecturing the crowd, James interrupted him and began to argue for his innocence. Geoffrey of Charney joined in, decrying the injustice both men had suffered. They berated the cardinals, “and without any respect began to deny everything they had confessed.”

Portrait of Philip IV of France. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Behind James and Geoffrey, Hugh of Pairaud and Geoffrey of Gonneville kept quiet. Each man understood what was happening. To stay silent was to accept the sentence of imprisonment. To speak was to condemn oneself to the flames as a relapsed heretic. The crowd stood stunned. A stage-managed spectacle had taken an unexpected and unwanted turn. James of Molay continued to rave about his innocence until a sergeant standing by stepped forward, “and struck [the master] across the mouth so that he might speak no further, and he was dragged by his hair into a chapel.”

Whatever due process ought to have taken place was jettisoned. Geoffrey of Charney was hauled off with James of Molay. The intention was for both to be held until the authorities “could deliberate more fully over them the next day.” But word soon spread through the city of the scenes at Notre Dame, and within hours the news had reached Philip IV. His patience was exhausted. “He consulted with his own advisers,” wrote the chronicler, “and without speaking of it to the clergy, made a prudent decision to have the two Templars consigned to the flames.”

As evening fell on March 18, James of Molay and Geoffrey of Charney were taken in a little boat to an island in the river Seine known as the île-des-Javiaux, not far from the gardens of the royal palace. Two pyres stood waiting, the wood already smoldering.

Detail of a illustrated manuscript miniature depicting the Templars being burned at the stake. Credit: British Library

A merchant who was in Paris that March saw what happened on the island. “The master begged them to suffer him to say his prayers, which he did say to God. Then his body was bound over to the working of their will.”

Another French chronicler recorded in verse the last minutes of the two Templars. He described a calm scene in which James of Molay stripped to his underclothes without shivering or showing any signs of being afraid. As he was tied to the stake he asked to be allowed a prayer. He added: “God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned. Soon misfortune will come to those who have wrongly condemned us: God will avenge our death.”

The flames were stoked, the wood crackled and before long James of Molay was gone. “So gently did death take him,” wrote the poet, “that everyone marveled.” All that was left of the last master of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple was the curse that had spilled from his lips in the moments before he died.

But the Templars’ legend was only just beginning…

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