The normal account of what happened to the Templars is that King Philip of France – greedy for their wealth – crushed the knights with the active help of a compliant pope who did what he was told. But is that true?
Clement V was a pope in a weak position. His predecessor, Boniface VIII, had tried to stand up to King Philip and had literally been beaten to a pulp by Philip’s minister Guillaume de Nogaret and a band of French troops.
So, Clement had no wish to suffer that fate. In addition, he had been forced to flee Rome because of the city’s poisonous politics and the papacy had moved to the city of Avignon – right on the doorstep of King Philip. But this doesn’t appear to have meant that the pope was entirely in Philip’s velvet pocket.
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In the year that followed the arrest of the Templars – on the orders of King Philip – the pope began to doubt that they were guilty of anything. In February 1308, he even told his inquisitors to rein in their investigations. Needless to say – King Philip was furious.
Not only did he meet Pope Clement in person to deliver a thinly veiled threat – but began what we would now call a PR campaign to trash Clement’s reputation. De Nogaret had anonymous tracts questioning the suitability of the pope circulated around the country. These poison pen letters said that:
- The people of France were greatly angered by the pope ignoring the terrible things the Templars had done behind closed doors (sodomy, heresy, etc)
- Pope Clement had only admonished the Templars “in words” and that just wasn’t good enough
- This pope was corrupt, giving powerful positions in the church to members of his family including a nephew (most likely an illegitimate son)
- The crimes of the Templars are so grave and terrible that the church isn’t fit to judge them and the prosecution should be conducted by the French king
- They should suffer the same fate as that meted out by the prophet Moses to those of his Jewish followers he found worshipping a golden calf
“Are not all these Templars homicides or fautores, sustainers, accomplices and receivers of homicides, damnably uniting with them apostates and murderers?”
Pope Clement was still minded to defend the knights who had been so loyal and brave in defending Christendom but then an event played into King Philip’s hands. A Templar being held in a papal prison escaped. Oliver of Penne, the preceptor of Lombardy, broke a promise to the pope to be a good prisoner and made a run for it.
King Philip was then able to throw up his hands and basically say: Well, look at that excuse for a pope – can’t even keep one Templar behind bars, let alone two thousand!
And with that – papal attempts to stop King Philip destroying the Knights Templar faded.