In 1115, a knight from Burgundy, Hugh de Payens, came to the crusader kingdom in Palestine and found the roads to be infested with brigands and very dangerous for pilgrims. He and seven other French knights decided to devote themselves to protecting pilgrims, but also took monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. King Baldwin of Jerusalem was impressed; he gave them funds and a base atop King Herod’s great temple platform, where stood the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock: wrongly believed to be Temple of Solomon. Hugh returned to France in 1128, where he met St Bernard, the abbot of Clairvaux, the most famous and influential cleric in Europe. Bernard at once saw the group as an entirely new concept: fighting monks! He gave them the title of “The poor fellow-soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” (Templars for short). He drew up rules and issued a recruiting pamphlet, “In praise of the new knighthood”.
Men of knightly status could join the Order as knights, others as sergeants or servants. The order was to have its own priests. Knights wore white mantle with a cross, other ranks wore brown. They slept in dormitories, always remaining clothed. They ate meals in silence, apart from Bible readings in French. Hunting, hawking & wearing furs were forbidden. No knight was to talk about his previous life, and forbidden ever to boast. No women were allowed: a knight was forbidden even to kiss his mother or sisters! If captured, knights would refuse ransom, even if the alternative was death. Their standard was of black & white, known as the “Beauseant”. The seal of the order showed two knights riding same horse, symbolising poverty.
By the time Hugh died in 1136, the Order was well established. It could count on 300 knights, plus sergeants & servants. Its 2000 horses and 1500 camels were stabled in what had been the vaults of king Herod’s palace, now called the “Stables of Solomon”. The Order was under a Master, answerable only to Pope and not controlled by the king, the Patriach of Jerusalem or any bishop. The Templars built and maintained castles in Palestine, and also had bases in all the countries of western Europe, and great wealth accumulated as kings and great lords gave them not only money but also manors - remaining in England in place-names like Temple Newsom or Temple Sowerby. The Temple church in London was consecrated by Heraclius, Patriach of Jerusalem, in 1185. Temple churches were often round, as in Cambridge, imitating the Dome of the Rock back in Jerusalem.
The vast wealth of the Templars, coupled with their reputation for scrupulous financial honesty, plus the military strength which rendered them safe against banditry, allowed them to develop into a network of international bankers, lending money and issuing credit notes. Crown jewels were often left with the Templars for safekeeping. When Henry III of England paid a state visit to Louis IX of France, he elected to lodge at the Paris Temple rather than at any royal palace!
They were not the only Military Order. Near church of Holy Sep in Jerusalem stood the Hospital of St John, which predated the crusades, acting as an infirmary and hostel for pilgrims. In 1120 it was run by a monk, Raymond. Encouraged by Bernard of Clairvaux, he and his staff took vows, to become the Fellows of the Hospital of St John, devoting themselves to the care of “our lords, the sick”, and generally known as the Hospitallers. The institution soon came to contain 2000 patients, including Jews and Moslems. But the Hospitallers soon took on knightly military function too, building and guarding huge castles like Krak des Chevaliers, the most famous of all the crusader castles. Their organisation was similar to the Templars; their costume, a black mantle with a white “Maltese” cross. They too became enormously rich and powerful. (A third Military Order, the Teutonic Knights, who forcibly spread Christianity amongst the Prussians, Lithuanians and Latvians in the Baltic, does not come into this story)
The Templars and Hospitallers fought heroically in the defence of the Holy Land, and their casualties were extremely high, since they were invariably slaughtered if taken prisoner by the Moslems. On the other hand, they were not necessarily popular amongst the kings of Jerusalem and the crusader lords. They had their own independent strategic ideas, and could not be compelled to follow strategies with which they disagreed; and were often accused of seeking only their own glory.
The last crusader bases fell to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1291. For more than a century afterwards there continued to be hopes for a fresh crusade, but nothing effective was ever done. So what now was the point of the Military Orders? They were still very rich and powerful, but what were they doing to combat the newly-resurgent Islam? The Hospitallers soon found a new role: they took to the sea, basing themselves at Rhodes, and later at Malta (their remains are still to be seen on these islands), and with their fleets of galleys fought the Egyptians and later the Turks. But the Templars failed to find themselves a new function. They had long acted as international bankers and moneylenders as much as warriors for the faith. It was not only their wealth, but also their independence of the kings and bishops of Europe, which aroused jealousy. There was a long history of complaints against their arrogance and avarice. The Emperor Frederick II, when urged on his deathbed to repent of his pride and greed, announced that in his will he was leaving these to the Templars!
The fall of the Templars was intimately concerned with the politics of France, now the strongest state in western Europe. France had provided the bulk of the crusaders (hence the term “Franks” is still often used to designate all westerners), and also the manpower of the Military Orders. In 1285 France had a new king, Philip IV, born in 1268, the grandson of the crusader Louis IX (who was canonised as Saint Louis in 1297); otherwise known as “Philip the Fair” or “the iron king”. He was a great centraliser and moderniser, promoting lawyers and bureaucrats to run his government, much to the resentment of the traditionally-minded nobility. He also summoned the first French Parliament, the “Estates-General”, with representatives of the nobility, the clergy and the commoners, in 1302. He fathered three sons; Louis, Philip and Charles, and a daughter, Isabella, whom he betrothed to the future king Edward II of England - an ultimately fatal step, as will become apparent. He had personal links to the Templar hierarchy: the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, having stood as godfather to his eldest son. Like all kings of the time, he professed to be keen on organising another crusade: indeed, he proposed himself as Grand Master of all the Military Orders combined in order to lead one, though in the end nothing happened.
Much of Philip’s reign was dominated by a violent dispute with the papacy, which was fundamentally about who should control the church in France, but greatly complicated by troubles in Rome. In 1294 there was deadlock in the election of a new Pope, resulting in the eventual compromise choice of an aged and unworldly hermit, Peter Morrone, who reluctantly took office as Celestine V. Not surprisingly, he quickly proved to be utterly unsuited to the position, and in a few months was compelled to abdicate, was imprisoned and soon died. He was replaced by an Italian cardinal, Benedict Gaetani, who took the name Boniface VIII.
Boniface was an extremely autocratic character, with limitless ambitions for the power of the papacy. He soon clashed with king Philip over the question of clerical taxation in France. The dispute rapidly escalated: Philip’s propagandists issued violent personal attacks on the Pope, accusing him of heresy, simony, sorcery, homosexuality and the illegal deposition of his predecessor, while Boniface issued the Bull “Unam Sanctum”, claiming absolute papal authority over all kings, and in 1303 prepared to place all France under an Interdict, which would prevent all religious services throughout the country. It was at this stage that king Philip struck.
Rome was a violent city, the scene of endless feuds between two rival families of gangster-nobility, the Orsini and the Colonna; Pope Boniface being allied to the former. In September 1303 king Philip sent to Rome his chief advisor, William de Nogaret, one of his “new men”, a lawyer and academic, whose parents had been burnt at the stake as Albigensian heretics. Nogaret raised a force of Colonna enemies of Boniface and caught him at his palace at Agnani near Rome. When the pope refused to negotiate, Nogaret struck him in the face while his troops ransacked the palace. Next day the townspeople rallied to the pope’s defence and Nogaret was forced to flee. But Boniface never recovered from his ordeal, dying a few weeks later.
The next pope, Benedict XI, died after only eight months, and was then succeeded by a Frenchman, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who took office as Clement V. With Italy now violent and unsafe, he took refuge in France. For the next seventy years, every pope would be a Frenchman, never setting foot in Italy, many of them little more than puppets of the kings of France. Clement set this trend; he suffered from poor health and was a weak character, always avoiding confrontations and never making more than the feeblest of protests against king Philip’s actions. His period of office was a time of extreme corruption within the church. (In the “Inferno”, written around 1314, Dante meets pope Nicholas III burning in one of the lower circles of Hell, who prophesies that Boniface VIII and Clement V will shortly be joining him there!)
It was at this stage that the Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was summoned to Paris, ostensibly to discuss plans for a new crusade. He was from the nobility of Burgundy, had joined the order in 1265, aged about 20, and had taken part in the last defence of the Holy Land before retreating to Cyprus. He was illiterate, and strongly discouraged private reading of the scriptures, fearing it might lead to heretical ideas. He had been chosen as Grand Master in 1295, after a divisive and bitterly contested election. In spring 1307 he arrived in Paris from Cyprus, with a train of sixty knights. He was received by king Philip with every mark of honour, and lodged in the Temple in the centre of Paris, one of the strongest fortresses in the country. Then, on the night of October 12th 1307, Jacques de Molay and every Templar in France was arrested and conveyed to prison. But why?
One famous story runs as follows: there was a Templar knight called Esquiu de Florian (if that was indeed his real name), a Frenchman, who in 1304 murdered his Provincial Governor for reasons unknown. He fled to Spain, where he told king James II of Aragon of the terrible secret rituals of the Temple. But the king didn’t believe him. Esquiu then returned to France and was arrested. While in prison in Toulouse, he confessed all to his cellmate, who was so horrified by the revelations that he informed the gaoler, who passed them on to king Philip. Esquiu took no further part in the story: he must have been released, because he is reported as living free and in comfort in 1313. His cellmate, a disreputable Florentine called Noffo Deghi, must also have been released, but was hanged for a different crime some years later. It was these revelations formed the basis for the arrest and trial of the Templars, and to a cynical modern observer, the whole story cries “Put-up job!” However, there is not much hard evidence to support this account, and it is more likely that the attack on the Templars had a much wider base.
For those who have studied Stalin’s purge trials of the 1930s, what follows will be grimly familiar in tone. The grisly consequences will follow in the next entry.