Today in European history: the Knights Templar order is purged (1307)

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The Knights Templar are the more famous of the two major Christian military orders that were founded during the Crusades. We talked about the other, the Knights Hospitaller, when we looked at the failed Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565. Ironically, while the Templars get more press it’s the Hospitallers who have survived to the present day, although now you may see them called the “Order of St. John” or the “Order of Malta.” The Templars, meanwhile, barely survived into the 14th century before the entire order was wiped out in a collaborative effort by Pope Clement V (d. 1314) and French King Philip IV (d. 1314), which mostly had to do with the fact that Philip owed the Templars a lot of money and didn’t want to pay them back.

After the last Crusader strongholds along the eastern Mediterranean coast were lost to the Mamluks at the end of the 13th century, you might have thought that the Templars, being an organization that was founded to protect Christian pilgrims in the Latin-controlled Holy Land, would simply cease to exist. But the Templars weren’t about to just dissolve their order, and anyway the hope was that Christian forces would soon recover their lost Outremer kingdoms and they could then go back. For the time being, the order simply relocated, first to Cyprus and then back to its original home in the Champagne region of France.

This relocation didn’t sit so well with Philip, and you can kind of understand why. I mean, here’s this military order full of trained knights occupying part of Philip’s territory that, because of papal decree, wasn’t subject to Philip’s authority and paid no taxes to the French monarchy. And they seem to have had plans to set up their own European principality, along the lines of what the Hospitallers had established on the island of Rhodes (later relocated to Malta) or the kingdom that the Teutonic Knights established when they conquered Prussia in the 13th century. Already this isn’t looking good. Now factor in the other wrinkle in this story, the fact that the French Capetian monarchy was heavily in debt to the Templar order.

In addition to fighting Muslims in the Levant, the Templars had spent the previous couple of centuries developing one of medieval Europe’s first large-scale banking operations. They started by offering deposit services to Christian pilgrims headed for the Holy Land. Pilgrims would entrust their goods and money to the Templars in Europe and receive the 12th century equivalent of a traveler’s cheque that could be redeemed once they arrived in the Levant. The pilgrims got to travel without having to carry around a lot of stuff that could invite brigands, and the Templars…well, they made lots of money. Usury was strictly against Church law back in those days, but the Templars found a number of creative ways to sidestep that little obstacle and still get quite rich from their banking activity. Add in all the donations the Templars received from Christian philanthropists who wanted to support their work in the Holy Land, and the order accumulated an extraordinary amount of money, enough that historians sometimes argue that they were the “first multinational corporation.” Thanks to all that cash, they got their fingers into a lot of different pies—real estate, shipping, building projects, you name it.

Oh, and lending money to needy European big shots.

Among those big shots were the Capetians, including Philip IV. Philip owed a lot of money to the Templars and to wealthy Jewish families in his kingdom, but he was also the king of France, and if the king of France doesn’t want to pay his creditors, who the hell are those creditors to say otherwise? Philip was lucky, insofar as one of the groups to which he owed money, those wealthy Jewish families, had no political power nor hope of obtaining any, so in 1306 he simply expelled them from France in lieu of repayment. But the Templars were a powerful Crusader order that did have political power, as well as support from Rome.

Or did they? The Crusader kingdoms were all gone, remember, and the real source of the Templars’ influence went with them. Clement V owed his elevation to the papacy to Philip, and at any rate he’d rather pick a fight with the Templars than with the King of France. This was a period when the relationship between secular European monarchs and the papacy was being redefined in favor of the monarchs, so in many respects Philip was in a stronger position than the Holy Father.

Philip had other reasons for going after the Templar order. Well, he had one other reason. Expunging the Templars would, in addition to clearing Philip’s debt to them, also leave their very ample and very tempting treasury ripe for the king to pluck. Wipe out my debts and make a bunch of money in the process? Sign me up! So Philip proposed to Clement that they create a case against the Templars on charges of heresy, and Clement, whatever his reasons, went along with it. On October 13, 1307 (a Friday, which erroneously leads some people to assume that this was the origin of the “Friday the 13th” superstition), Philip had every Templar he could find arrested, from Grand Master Jacques de Molay (d. 1314) on down.


Jacques de Molay (Wikimedia Commons)

Philip’s torturers coerced confessions out of the Templars that would have been scandalous—among other things, they included reports of blasphemy, homosexuality, idol worship, and devil worship—if they hadn’t been obtained by torture. There are some historians who argue that Philip genuinely believed that the Templars were engaged in heresy, and that this—rather than money—motivated his actions. There are reasons to be skeptical of this. Philip had a history of lobbing outrageous charges of religious crimes at his enemies, including Clement’s predecessor’s predecessor, Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303). And the fact is that Philip only seems to have made those kinds of charges when there was money involved (Boniface, for example, wouldn’t let him tax French priests), so I don’t really think there’s much mystery as to his true motives.

We should also note that what was probably the main charge against the Templars, that they were worshiping a “god” called “Baphomet,” is based on medieval Christian ignorance about Islam. The general scholarly consensus nowadays is that “Baphomet” is a medieval French corruption of Muhammad, meaning that this accusation was basically that the Templars had converted to Islam or at least adopted some of its tenets. It’s certainly plausible that they might have incorporated elements of Islam into their rites or beliefs, given their exposure to Islam during the Crusader period. But Muslims don’t worship Muhammad. There are fringe offshoots of Islam that skirt the line on this point, but no mainstream branch of Islam permits such a thing. Medieval Christians thought Muslims worshiped Muhammad, though, and that’s likely the origin of this “Baphomet” accusation.

For some medieval audiences, confessions obtained by torture were just as reliable as any other kind of confession, If not more so. Consequently, the charges stuck—in France. In England, where torture was outlawed, no Templars were convicted, and likewise in Germany and Italy, where the Inquisition was responsible for investigating the charges. Yes, that Inquisition. If you’re only familiar with the way it’s portrayed in modern fiction, it may surprise you to learn that the Inquisition was generally more sophisticated on matters like the use of torture than most European monarchies of the time, both in terms of when it could be employed and the evidentiary value placed on the confessions it generated.

Clement issued a Papal Bull ordering all European monarchs to arrest any Templars in their territory and confiscate their property, which many of them were probably happy to do for reasons similar to Philip’s. In 1312, Clement (at Philip’s behest) issued another bull that, despite acknowledging that there was no evidence to support the charges of heresy against the Templars, disbanded the order altogether. Philip had many of his Templar prisoners burned at the stake—even though Clement apparently absolved those who confessed in 1308—while he personally assumed the proceeds of the Templar treasury. In theory, and by Papal order, the Templars’ treasury was supposed to go to the Knights Hospitaller, and eventually much of it did get to them. But the Hospitallers got nothing while Philip was alive, and after he died the French crown took a cut of the loot before transferring the balance to the order.

De Molay and a few other leading Templars recanted their confessions before they were put to death, which really sealed their fates (although Philip probably would have put them to death anyway). They were executed in March 1314. Before he died, de Molay is alleged to have warned that God would punish those who had falsely accused the Templars and unjustly executed them. Clement did die about a month later and Philip a few months after that, but de Molay’s pronouncement was probably a bit of postdiction invented by later writers. There are various legends about what happened to the Templars who survived the purge (who knows, maybe they sailed to America), but little actual evidence to support any of them.