Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin (1867-1937) served three times as Prime Minister between the wars, after being unexpectedly chosen as leader of the Conservative party at the age of 56 after six unremarkable years in the Cabinet. He liked to present himself as an ordinary gentleman-farmer who loved the English countryside and was more interested in his pigs than he was in politics. But Churchill described Baldwin as "The most ruthless and astute politician of his day", and Lloyd George called him "The most formidable opponent I ever faced"; so I think we are justified in saying that his pose as a simple country squire was if fact a carefully constructed image.
Baldwin saw Britain through three very perilous events which could easily have developed into catastrophic constitutional crises: the General Strike of 1926, the formation of the National Government in 1931 and the abdication of Edward VIII in 1937. It is hard to think of any contemporary politician who could have handled these problems so calmly and adroitly. However, after his retirement in 1937 his reputation took a rapid nosedive as it was realised that he had failed to respond adequately to the rising power of Nazi Germany.
Despite twice losing General Elections, Baldwin's grip over the Conservative party was never shaken. The tabloid press of the day once tried to get him dumped, but he saw off the press lords in a single speech when he accused them of seeking "Power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages". The plots against him immediately collapsed. One could only wish that today's leaders could find the courage to take on the media in this way!
My favourite Baldwin anecdote, and one which incidentally is fully in accordance with the image of himself that he wished to put forward, runs as follows. Late in his life he was asked if there was any political thinker whose ideas had particularly influenced him. He mentioned in reply the writings of a now-forgotten Victorian jurist, Sir Henry Maine, who had argued, said Baldwin, that human history showed the development of societies based on hierarchy and command into those based on freedom and consent: in other words; the story of progress from status to contract. Then Baldwin suddenly paused, and said, "Or was it the other way round?"

George Orwell dismissed Baldwin as "Not even a stuffed shirt, just a hole in the air". But the humorous writer A. P. Herbert satirised him perfectly. In one of his "Misleading Cases" series, Herbert imagined Baldwin giving evidence about himself in a court of law:-
"Mr Baldwin said that he was not a stupid man. On the contrary, he was as cunning as a bag of monkeys. But in British politics it was fatal to confess to the possession of brains. He therefore laid low and said nothing until everyone supposed he was in a stupor. He then rose and walloped the lot of them,after which he relapsed into reticence. This he did at intervals of about six months, and it worked very well".
This was written about 1930. Such behaviour is all very well in domestic politics, but hardly seems likely to be effective when dealing with Hitler and Mussolini.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Dorothy Clive Garden

This garden, which lies close to the border between Staffordshire and Chesire, is one of my favourite places to visit in spring and early summer.It was created on a hillside with an abandoned quarry in the 1940s and 1950s by Major Harry Clive in memory of his late wife, Dorothy Clive.

Here is another photo of spring in Staffordshire; this one being of the bluebell woods near Kidsgrove.


Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Curse of the Templars

When Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, was burnt at the stake in Paris in ....... it is said that even as he was engulfed by the flames he cursed the three men who had brought about his ruin: king Philip IV of France, William de Nogaret, the king's chief minister, and Pope Clement; prophesying that they would all meet him before God's judgement-seat within the year.

The curse appeared to bear immediate fruit. Pope Clement died a month after the burning of the Templar leaders. William de Nogaret also died; poisoned, according to legend, by a former Templar; and in November king Philip also met his end, suffering some kind of seizure whilst out hunting and expiring in a peasant's hut. He was only 46 years old. The Superintendent of Finance, Enguerrand de Marigny, whose brother the archbishop had burned the Templars of Paris, did not survive them long, being hanged for corruption and embezzlement in 1315. But for those who believed in the power of the curse, there was much more to it than this.

King Philip had a daughter, Isabella, who had married Edward II of England, and three sons: Louis, Philip and Charles. But just weeks after the end of the Templars a shattering scandal rocked the French throne. The wives of the three princes were all convicted of adultery and sentenced to life imprisonment, but not before they were compelled to watch while their lovers, young nobles of the court, suffered hideous public execution in Paris.

For more than 300 years, son had succeeded father on the throne of France without a break. But the new king, Louis X, died after only two years of notably incompetent rule, during which time his adulterous wife expired with official assistance, so he was able to remarry. But he left only a posthumous son, who died almost immediately, and a five-year-old daughter, Joan by his first marriage,whose parentage was inevitably in doubt following the adultery. What was to be done? Philip, his brother, took control. The lawyers were able to unearth the tradition that amongst the Salian Franks back in the Dark Ages, no woman had been allowed to succeed. This was now elevated to become the “Salic Law”, and with the agreement of the French nobles he was crowned as king Philip V. But he was hoist with his own petard, for he had fathered only daughters when he died in 1322, and his brother, who then succeeded as Charles IV, did no better before himself dying in 1328. The throne then passed to their cousin, another Philip, count of Valois, who began the Valois dynasty.

But there remained Isabella, Philip IV’s daughter, the wife of Edward II of England, who was now the centre of more sensational events. In 1327 the “she-wolf of France”, as Isabella was sometimes nicknamed, together with her lover, Roger Mortimer, deposed king Edward and, according to legend, had him gruesomely murdered in Berkeley castle. Isabella’s son, now Edward III, was only fifteen at the time, but a few years later he was able to stage his own coup, arrested Mortimer in Nottingham and had him executed for high treason. In 1340 Edward denounced the Salic Law as a legal nonsense and claimed the throne of France for himself, as Philip IV’s only grandson. The Hundred Years’ War was on, France was ruined and did not recover until the early sixteenth century. (Because of Edward's claim, the English royal coat-of-arms after 1340 always contained the French fleur-de-lys. This was not abandoned until 1802!)

The papacy fared no better. For almost seventy years, no Pope set foot in Rome. All the popes were Frenchmen, living lives of luxury and corruption at Avignon. When finally Pope Urban VI was persuaded by Saint Catherine of Siena to return to Rome, the situation deteriorated even further, because there followed a disgraceful period in which there was one pope in Rome and a rival pope in Avignon: indeed, at one point there were three rival popes! Only with the election of Martin V in 1417 was there once again a unified papacy in Rome. It can be argued that the Catholic church never recovered the prestige it had once enjoyed.
Indeed, all Europe seemed to be under a curse. In the 1340s the Black Death swept through the continent; perhaps a third of the population dying in the first great epidemic. In some regions population levels did not recover for centuries.

The Templars have always been an ideal subject for writers of occult fiction. But could there be any fact behind the senstaional allegations? I think we can immediately discard the notion that the Order was in possession of some terrible and shattering secret truth about Jesus Christ, which they had discovered in Jerusalem. For how could the proof any such secret have survived for a thousand years? Most of the early Templars were illiterate, and in any case, no-one at that time had any notion of reliable historical evidence as we understand the concept. (The Templars' understanding of the past can be illustrated by the fact that they believed the Moslem Dome of the Rock to be the Temple of Solomon, and thought the vast platform it stood on had been built by Solomon - in fact it was built by king Herod!)
It is quite likely that the Templars survived in some shadowy and unofficial form for a few years after their suppression. Many must have escaped, especially in the lands outside France, where the persecution was distictly half-hearted. It is also likely that many of them would seek revenge upon king Philip and his family. But the disasters that befell France and the papacy can only be attributed to them if we believe some occult or magical force was at work. (Incidentally, I know of no contemporary source that attributes these disasters to the curse of the Templars. The great witch-hunts, where victims of the Inquisition were accused of casting malevolent spells and curses of terrifying power, did not start until the early 15th century, many years after these events)
Many organisations since then have claimed, or perhaps even genuinely believed in, some link back to the Templars (for instance Britain's self-styled "black magician", Aleister Crowley). But the notion that since the days of the Templars there has always existed an immensely rich and powerful society which is the secret manipulator of great historical events (the French Revolution, for instance, has been linked to the curse of the Templars, and variously blamed on the Freemasons, the Rosicrusions or whoever) - such a notion, though making an ideal subject for occcult thrillers, cannot be supported by any evidence whatsoever.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Trial of the Knights Templar

The mass arrest of the Templars on October 12th 1307 was brilliantly planned and executed. Everything had been meticulously set up in advance: sealed orders had been sent out to royal officials in mid-September, and letters written to the Pope and the other kings of Europe, giving king Philip’s reasons and suggesting they should follow suit - though in fact few took such serious action, at least not initially. King Philip's letter spoke of the Templars as "unclean people" who "defile the land with their filth,remove the benefits of the dew and infest the purity of the air". Preaching friars, who traditionally hated the Templars, were despatched to explain to the people what had happened, together with the crucial announcement that all debts owing to the Order were cancelled forthwith. Not surprisingly in the light of this, there were no popular protests. Not the least detail of these preparations had leaked out, and the victims suspected nothing. Then in the one night, about 15,000 men were seized all across France: knights, sergeants, foot soldiers, chaplains and labourers. All went quietly; there was no resistance; only a handful seem to have escaped. Philip’s leading minister, William de Nogaret, personally arrested the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay.

Special courts were set up to examine the Templars, run by the Friars, their enemies, but with royal officials present. The proceedings were by inquisitorial methods, such as had been used in the previous century against the Albigensian heretics: the accused were not told the precise nature of the charges, or who had informed on them, but were invited to confess and to denounce others. Those who refused to co-operate could be subjected to savage torture. In Paris alone, 36 Templars died under interrogation, and others were so weakened they needed to be carried to make their public confessions. It should be remembered, however, that many of those interrogated were not hardened warriors but others attached to the Order: priests and servants, workmen and shepherds; some of them old men and others mere teenagers. Such people would be unlikely to resist Nogaret's interrogators for long. Also, modern experience shows that extreme physical torture is not often necessary for getting results: sleep deprivation, semi-starvation, bullying and threats and the extinguishing of all hope are frequently enough to reduce victims to grovelling compliance. Furthermore, the courage of the battlefield is quite different from the moral courage needed under this sort of pressure.
The charges against the Order, which were immediately given maximum publicity throughout France, were an odd sort of rag-bag. The Templars, it was said, betrayed the Holy Land to the Saracens; they held their own heretical religious services, they were actively homosexual, their initiation rituals included such blasphemies as spitting on a crucifix and denying Christ, they practised black magic, and worshipped the devil.

(Norman Cohn, in his very interesting book, “Europe’s Inner Demons”, points out how similar some of these charges were to those made half a century earlier against the Albigensians, and indeed against those made against Christians under the Roman Empire, and those which were to be made later in the great persecutions of the witches. He suggests that certain practices, such as devil-worship, cannibalism, infanticide, magic and sexual deviance, are objects of profound horror to the European psyche; and also, by the time of the arrest of the Templars, and later of the witches, the interrogators knew in advance what offences to look for)

Not surprisingly, many confessions were soon forthcoming, though these included a high degree of prevarication. Jacques de Molay, for instance, admitted that the initiation ceremony involved spitting on the cross, but said that in his case he had deliberately missed! Other knight said they knew such rituals happened, but denied personally taking part, and others said that they had presumed that some of the more disgusting practises were merely intended as tests of their absolute obedience; comparable to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Jacques de Molay confused the picture by writing an open letter to all Templars, urging them to make full confessions.
The question of the actual guilt of the Templars remains a mystery. The easiest explanation is that they only confessed under torture, or threat of torture; or that they were promised immunity in return for co-operation and then double-crossed. There is, of course, the possibility that at least some of the accusations were true. (Once again, the parallel with Stalin’s purge trials is obvious) But no hard evidence was ever produced. In the case, for instance, of devil-worship, the image adored was variously said to be a cat, a human skull, a carved head, or an object named Baphomet (clearly a corruption of Mohammed). No image of any kind was found.
The most obvious motive for king Philip’s actions would be that he was perennially short of money. He had previously taken violent action against the Jews of France and the Lombard bankers, and he now proceeded to seize all Templar property. It is also likely that, as a moderniser and centraliser, he was jealous of the Order’s independent power within his kingdom. Then again, he may genuinely have believed in at least some of the charges, and thought they ought to be investigated.
But who except the Pope was entitled to judge the Templars? Pope Clement made a feeble protest against French actions, but when Philip’s propagandists responded with violent personal attacks, he duly surrendered and published a Bull ordering all the kings of Europe to act against the Templars. There were arrests throughout Europe, but only in France was such extreme brutality used to get confessions. When Edward II of England (who was king Philip’s son-in-law, it may be remembered, and had only come to the throne a few month earlier) wrote to say that he could find little substantial evidence, he was informed that he was not employing sufficient torture! Since under English law judicial torture had not previously been used to extract evidence, special skilled torturers had to be imported from France to carry out the work!
The University of Paris ruled that, in emergencies, the king was justified in arresting heretics without prior authorisation from the church (the catch being, of course, who decides what constitutes an emergency?) Pope Clement ordered a special commission to meet to consider the case, but, in the interim, ruled that Templars could be tried by local bishops - who, of course, had always hated them. The Archbishop of Narbonne set up a court, and invited all Templars who wished to defend their Order to appear before him. This was actually a very serious matter: heretics who confessed their errors might be imprisoned or suffer other punishment, but were not executed. However, any who repudiated their confessions were deemed “lapsed heretics”; the Church would wash its hands of them and hand them over to the royal government (the “secular arm”) to be burnt at the stake. Therefore many Templars were cautious about accepting the offer, and Jacques de Molay caused yet more confusion by first reiterating his confession, then rejecting all charges, and finally producing a watered-down version of the original confession. In fact de Molay appears throughout the story as a confused and frightened old man, quite unable to cope with the pressures he was under. Nevertheless, in 1310 no less than 546 Templars came forward to denounce their confessions as being merely the result of torture. One knight is said to have brought along a bag containing bones from his own feet! A priest attached to the Order, Peter of Bologna, was brave enough to come forward and speak in their defence. King Philip sensed, to his alarm, that public opinion was beginning to swing back towards his victims. Pope Clement's interventions, though feeble, had had the effect of dragging out the proceedings, when Philip would have preferred a quick settlement.

In 1311 the Archbishopric of Sens, which had authority over Paris, fell vacant. King Philip nominated for the position a young man with a somewhat dubious reputation, but who had a supremely important qualification: namely, he was the younger brother of Enguerrand de Marigny, the king’s Superintendent of Finance. Pope Clement made another feeble and ineffective protest. The new archbishop at once proceeded to try those Templars under his jurisdiction. 54 Templars who had rashly repudiated their confessions were condemned to death as relapsed heretics and burnt at the stake the same day. All proclaimed their innocence even amidst the flames. Public opinion became increasingly uneasy. Altogether around 120 Templars were burnt, and, not surprisingly, many others reaffirmed their guilt in order to save their lives. Peter, who had acted as their defence spokesman, was imprisoned but possibly escaped, and disappeared from the picture.

In March 1312, at a church council held at Vienne, under more heavy pressure from king Philip, Pope Clement issued an edict abolishing the Order, and the remaining Templars were dealt with by local ecclesiastical courts. Following established practice, those who publicly confessed their guilt were not executed, but condemned to imprisonment or lesser punishments. The grand finale took place in Paris in March 1314, in a public display which was to be king Philip’s triumph. It forms the basis of another great legendary story, which runs as follows. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, and three other senior Templars were paraded outside Notre Dame cathedral to make a full confession to all the charges against the Order before being sent to life imprisonment. But instead of following the script, Jacques de Molay now rose to the occasion and made a ringing defence of his Order, proclaimed its innocence of all charges, and said that all confessions were merely the result of torture. The Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffrey de Charnay, supported him. King Philip’s intended triumph had become a propaganda disaster.
Only one thing could now be done. The very next day, the bonfires were set up on a small island in the Seine, and the last Grand Master and the Preceptor were burnt at the stake before an amazed crowd of spectators, some of whom sneaked back during the night to gather up the remains as holy relics (See the contemporary illustration at the top of this essay). It was the end of the Knights Templar, but not necessarily the end of the story; for it is said that even as the flames engulfed him, Jacques de Molay cursed king Philip and all his line, prophesying that Philip, his chief minister William de Nogaret and Pope Clement would all meet him before God’s judgement-seat within the year. This did indeed happen: all three died that same year - and the consequences for the French monarchy and the papacy were even worse!

See the third and final part of this essay, entitled "The curse of the Templars", for what followed!

("The trial of the Templars" by Malcolm Barber is a good academic survey of this topic. The text of what is said to be Jacques de Molay's speech denouncing his confession can be found in "The piebald standard" by Edith Simon. There is an entertaining historical novel, about the burning of the Templars and what followed, by Maurice Druon, translated into English as "The iron king")

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Fall of the Knights Templar; Part 1: the Setting

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.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Assassinations and Justice

The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden brought letters to the papers from writers sympathetic to Israel. Why, they asked, should world opinion applaud the killing of Bin Laden but criticize similar actions by the Israeli security services? This is a serious question (though misleading: many important people support Israeli actions, and those critical of Israel are more likely to have doubts about the killing of Bin Laden), deserving of an answer. I would like to take it further and ask, if shooting terrorists is not only justifiable but praiseworthy, why did the British government not adopt such tactics in its recent battles with the I.R.A.? It must be remembered that the I.R.A. not only killed a great many civilians as well as troops and police, but also planted the Brighton bomb in October 1984 that came within an ace of wiping out Margaret Thatcher and the entire British cabinet. Yet our government never attempted the assassination of Gerry Adams, Michael McGuinness and the other Republican leaders; neither did they follow the Israeli example by shelling the Bogside or sending hit-squads into Irish Republic. There are to my mind four reasons for this restraint:-

1. It was believed that such an action would be immoral
2. It was thought likely to be strategically counterproductive
3. The Americans wouldn't have approved
4. When all is said and done, Adams and co. were white men, not a bunch of nig-nogs, and were entitled to more civilised treatment

I have no idea which of these considerations was deemed the most important. Clearly none of them applied in the case of Israel or of Bin Laden. In any case, the alternative approach followed by the Britsh government in Northern Ireland proved successful for all concerned, since the Republican leaders are now happily serving in the government of the province, in coalition with their bitterest enemies the Democratic Unionists, and are quick to denounce any futher terrorist actions by their former pupils. The killers on both sides were released from prison, including those who planted the Brighton bomb.

Assassination, when you get down to it, is only a fancy word for the killing of someone important. It cannot be viewed as "justice" in any formal sense, because (as with all "vigilante justice") the same people act as prosecuting counsel, judge, jury and hangman, and there is no counsel for the defence. If we interpret "justice" in the abstract Platonic sense of everyone "getting their just deserts", it could well be argued that Bin Laden deserved to die. But the problem is, who is to decide what are someone's "just deserts"? It western society, this is not decided by friends and relatives of the accused person's victims. If someone dear to me was brutally murdered, I might well wish that the perpetrator should be boiled in oil: such a reaction could be understandable in human terms, but would have nothing to do with morality. I also take issue with those who quote the Old Testament on the theme of "An eye for an eye ..." Why do such people never mention that Jesus specifically denounced the whole concept?

If killing has to be done, assassination of key figures is undoubtedly far preferable to cruder methods of retaliation, such as bombing from the air. As far as I know, the British government has only once sponsored an assassination: that of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy in charge of the S.S. and the Gestapo, who was successfully rubbed out in Prague in 1942. If any such killing was ever justifiable in moral terms, this one was. But it cannot be said that it served any useful strategic purpose whatsoever. The war continued, and the Holocaust was actually accelerated. Could this be an omen for the Bin Laden case? I am sure everyone hope not.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Standards of Living in the Past

My mother-in-law once told me the following. She came from a family of farmers, and in the 1930s they needed a new farm-worker, so they advertised in the local paper. The pay offered was £2 a week plus a cottage - the cottage being really only four walls and a roof, without running water, electricity or gas. This being a period of high unemployment in the Midlands, they received more than fifty applicants, and in the end they gave the job to the man who had the biggest family to support - in his case, eight children! The farmworker and his wife successfully brought up their family on £2 a week in this cottage without modern facilities. (My mother, on hearing thi story, said she wasn't surprised they had so many applicants, since in her part of the country, Yorkshire, £2 a week would have been very good pay for a farmworker).

At about the same time, my father left school to train as a civil engineer. Nowadays his first step would be to enter university and get a degree, but in those days it was done by a kind of apprenticeship, and he was taken on by a local firm to be trained "on the job". But to get him taken on, his father had to pay the firm a "premiuim" of £100. So the question must be; in those days, what chance did any child of a farmworker on £2 a week have of entering a good middle-class profession? And the answer must be; probably none whatsoever. I think we should bear this in mind when we discuss modern problems of lack of social mobility.