Astonishingly, the Vatican sat on key documents relating to the trial of the Knights Templar for seven hundred years until author and Vatican archivist Barbara Frale uncovered the so-called Chinon Parchment and made her discovery public in 2001. This was followed in 2007 by the Vatican’s belated release of the original trial documents.
However, contrary to what many people think, the parchment and trial account are not an exoneration of the order by the pope of that time – far from it!
Back in 1307, the Knights Templar had reached a bit of a low ebb. The crusades were failing. The Holy Land was lost. Cyprus was their main eastern stronghold.
So, the last Grand Master – Jacques De Molay – headed west to drum up interest in a new crusade. But by this time, the medieval public had gone down with a severe case of crusade fatigue. Regaining Jerusalem – surrendered to Islam over a century before – looked like a total lost cause.
Add to that a mercurial king of France, Philip the Fair, who was continuously short of money. He’d shaken down the Jews, Lombards and monasteries and now cast a greedy eye over the Templars. Weren’t they loaded? Only one way to find out.
So, in 1307 he rounded the Templars up, locked the knights in dungeons where they were tortured to sign false confessions and headed for the Paris Temple, a massive fortress, to fill his boots with Templar loot. Needless to say, he found nothing. The money had gone.
In order to assault the Templars, the king had to sell this drastic action to his people with a tsunami of fake news about the order. The knights were sorcerers, heretics, sodomites, rebels, robbers and so on. These accusations needed a holy seal of approval and luckily for Philip there was a compliant French pope at hand, Clement V, to give the thumbs up.
For seven years, the pope and his cardinals questioned Jacques De Molay and other senior Templars to squeeze confessions out of them. De Molay had returned to France in good faith to raise money and recruits for a new crusade but now found himself in court fighting for his life. At times, he broke down and admitted to the king’s trumped up charges but then recovered his nerve and tore up his previous statements.
There was only one way this appalling farce was going to end and in 1314, De Molay was burnt at the stake with two other Templars as heretics who had refused to recant. And so it might have rested. But clearly the church felt more than a pang of guilt at destroying a military order that had shown nothing but unswerving loyalty to its Catholic mission and the pope. The Chinon Parchment shows how the pope wrestled with his conscience.
Frale’s discovery of this stunning document might look like a complete exoneration of the Templars by the papacy. But it’s not. In a rather mealy-mouthed way, it lets the knights off the heresy hook but damns them on other charges. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which their dissolution was conducted and reveals a pope who was bitterly unhappy at being strong armed into this course of action.
Interestingly, it airs the Templar justification for one of its more curious practices – that of spitting on the crucifix. The order claimed that this prepared knights for being captured by the Muslim enemy. Attempts by the Saracens to break their will in captivity through acts of sacrilege could be resisted by the imprisoned Templars because they had already role played this kind of scenario.
Frale has also claimed that the Vatican archive contains evidence that the worship of a head may not have been a profane and pagan activity but a veneration of the body of Jesus. It’s often assumed that the head referred to was variously that of John the Baptist or the prophet Mohammed (if you think the Templars were secretly in league with the Saracens!) or even a cat. But Frale thinks it might have been a representation of the Messiah.
However, the Templars are not given a seal of approval anywhere in the Chinon Parchment. The pope seems to have absolved the Templars without exonerating them. Maybe this gave them a papal passport to heaven but it still meant they were going to be burnt to death first.
It’s hard to imagine this gave them much comfort as their bones were broken in torture chambers and their bodies consumed by fire.
Everybody knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky because it was the day that Jacques de Molay and the last Knights Templar were rounded up and imprisoned by King Philip of France. De Molay would eventually be burnt to death in front of Notre Dame in Paris and with his demise, the order was crushed. But who was Jacques de Molay?
He was born in 1244 in Franche-Comte – in the region of Burgundy, where the first Templars had originated. Aged just over twenty, in around 1265, he became a Templar knight. De Molay came from a noble background, as did most knights in the order, and once initiated, he made his way to the Holy Land.
From 1273 to 1291, the Grand Master was William (or Guillaume) de Beaujeu. Some accounts say that De Molay disliked De Beaujeu and felt his posture towards the Saracens was far too passive and peaceable. Even that the Grand Master was guilty of treachery, betraying the order’s interests in outremer (the term used to describe the Christian crusader kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coastline). De Molay reportedly spoke out against De Beaujeu, making it known that he’d make a far better job of running things if he ever got the chance.
That opportunity presented itself when Acre fell to the Saracens in 1291. De Molay may have been at the siege where De Beaujeu was killed. Reportedly, the old Grand Master was found staggering from the walls of the city. He revealed a fatal wound saying: “I am not running away. I am dead. Here is the blow.” His death led to the short reign of Tibald Gaudin. In 1293, at Gaudin’s death, De Molay was finally proclaimed as the new Grand Master. Things – he declared from Cyprus – were going to change. Not, however, as he intended.
The fall of Acre may have opened up the Templar leadership to De Molay but it also dealt a heavy blow to the image of the Templars. Some argue that the crusader mission in the Holy Land was already of diminishing interest in the west. The world was changing. Old feudal values were being eroded. Increasingly powerful kings were less willing to bow their knee to papal power. Ideas of nationhood were, it’s said, starting to emerge. This not only threatened the universal Catholic church but also an order like the Templars that operated like a state within a state, a church within a church. What late medieval monarch could tolerate such an uncontrolled power within his realm?
De Molay, presumably oblivious to these trends, went on a long journey round Europe drumming up interest in a renewed crusade. Templar chapter meetings were convened in Montpellier (1293), Paris (1295/6) and Arles (1296). He pleaded the Templar cause to the kings of Aragon and England. And De Molay was present at the election of pope Boniface VIII in December, 1294. This was the pope that the writer Dante would portray in hell in his book The Divine Comedy and it was this pontiff who would clash bitterly with king Philip IV of France – the ruler who would prove to be the nemesis of the Templars. Boniface demanded that Philip acknowledge papal supremacy and the king responded by arrested his legate and sending an army to spell things out to the pope.
De Molay discovered that Europe’s rulers were thoroughly preoccupied with fighting each other – pouring money into the Holy Land was not a priority. Back in 1095, Pope Urban had been able to galvanise Europe to defend the holy places in response to an appeal from the embattled Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Things had changed though. Byzantium was an obviously declining force. Jerusalem had long been lost to the Saracens. Italians, French and English had their swords drawn at each other’s throats while rulers of what would become Spain were rolling back the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and Seville. Muslims were being driven back in western Europe – so why waste time on a lost battle in the east?
The Hospitallers, some believe, took the temperature and began to re-invent themselves as a kind of anti-piracy maritime police force in the Mediterranean based in Rhodes. This, however, was not something De Molay was prepared to countenance. The Templars were about conquering the Holy Land for Christ or they were nothing. And so, De Molay persisted with attacks on the Saracens from his island base in Cyprus, which incongruously called itself the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This only reinforced the sad fact that the Templars had no territory on the mainland – they had lost everything.
No money and no support from the west did not seem to daunt De Molay who flung his men into battle with the Saracens. Some say that the Grand Master was pigheaded and even stupid. It’s argued that he was impervious to the changing times and not too bright. But, De Molay clearly felt that his order was not about to go through some re-branding exercise, a cynical change in its mission statement. No – De Molay was going to go down fighting. To hell with reality – there were Saracens to fight!
His one hope in the Middle East was the presence of Mongol armies. They had arrived from faraway China and fanned out over the region terrorizing Muslim armies and wreaking havoc. To the Templars, they seemed to be a godsend. De Molay sent a force of Templars (and Hospitallers joined them) to try and retake Tortosa (in modern Syria) linking up with a Mongol force. The Christian force made their way to the island of Ruad, just off the Syrian shore, and prepared to attack. But the Mongols failed to show on time and the crusaders drifted back to Cyprus leaving a small force behind on the island. In the meantime, the Mamluks – Egypt’s rulers – drove the Mongols back and launched a devastating attack on Ruad. The Templars remaining there were either killed or ended up in Cairo prisons.
This would be the Templars’ last and pretty ignominious battle – hardly a glorious swansong. De Molay was summoned back to Europe by a new pope, Clement V. En route to the pontiff, De Molay went to Paris and met the king. It’s possible he had no idea that something was afoot. But Philip of France was constantly short of money and had not been shy when it came to imposing new taxes, expelling the Jews and confiscating property. Maybe De Molay thought the king would show deference to this great military order with its impressive fortified Temple in the middle of Paris. The Treasurer of the Temple, Hugh de Pairaud, was – after all – the king’s warden of the royal revenues – so why shouldn’t De Molay believe the cash strapped monarch was on the order’s side?
Things – however – were not as they seemed. De Pairaud might have been closer to the king than De Molay realised. The treasurer had run against De Molay to become Grand Master and failed. He had sided with king Philip against Boniface. As for pope Clement V – unlike Boniface, he was a compliant tool of the French king. There were no more demands for papal supremacy and Clement would move the papal court from Rome to Avignon, beginning a period of total French dominance over the popes (though Rome would have rival so-called “anti-popes”).
Poor Clement. No matter how much he tried to appease his French overlord, the king just kept demanding more. Occasionally, the pope would summon up the dignity of his office and try to express his own view but Philip IV was by far the stronger figure. As De Molay – it seems rather innocently and naively – made his way round France, the king was already dripping poison into the pope’s ear. He’d heard some very choice rumours about those Templars – De Molay included. Their secret rituals and initiation ceremonies. Talk of them leaving Cyprus and outremer altogether and moving all their forces and wealth to the west – maybe trying to overthrow kings like….Philip! The Templars were treacherous – the Templars were a law to themselves – the Templars….had to be crushed.
Clement, who comes across as a timid bureaucrat, seems to be have been paralyzed by indecision as the king bullied and cajoled him. He probably suspected that Philip just wanted the order’s fabulous wealth. As pope, he might have felt a little conflicted. On the one hand, the Templars had always been answerable directly to him and he should have protected them. But on the other hand, his election to the papacy had been largely thanks to Philip – who could destroy him as easily as he had raised him. What was a pope to do?
In the end, it was De Molay who may have precipitated the decisive move to official trials. A bluff soldier and not well versed in courtly politics, the Grand Master lost his cool and demanded that all the whisperings about the order be brought out in the open. On the 12th October, De Molay and others carried the coffin of king Philip’s sister-in-law, Catherine of Valois. To the old warrior, he must have felt that two centuries of fighting for Christ must count for something.
The very next day – he and five thousand French Templars were arrested.
In 1307, the King of France issued orders to arrest all Templar knights in his kingdom. They were summarily rounded up, tortured in dungeons and confessions extracted. So what was the timeline to termination?
14 September 1307 – King Philip of France issues secret orders to the bailiffs and seneschals in his kingdom to round up the Templars and arrest them when given the signal
13 October 1307 – the signal is given and France’s Templars find themselves clapped in irons
19 October to 24 November 1307 – first round of trials with 138 Templars, most of them confessing to their alleged guilt
24 October 1307 – Grand Master Jacques de Molay makes his first confession of guilt
25 October 1307 – De Molay goes before the University of Paris to restate his confession of guilt
22 November 1307 – De Molay retracts his confessions to cardinals sent to interview him by Pope Clement V
22 November 1307 – Pope Clement V gives up trying to resist the French king and demands that all Christian rulers in Europe follow the French example and arrest their Templars as well as confiscating their property
May 1308 – a letter arrives at Cyprus from Pope Clement V calling for the arrest of Templars on the island
28 June to 2 July 1308 – about 54 Templars tried at Poitiers where the pope was in residence
August 1308 – the Chinon Parchment, revealed in recent times, appears to show the pope absolving the Templars but as a puppet of the French king there was little he could realistically do
13 September 1309 – Two inquisitors arrive in England to question Templars there
December 1309 – Pope Clement V authorises the use of torture to gain rapid confessions
1310 – papal commission into the trials of the Templars
12 May 1310 – 54 Templars are burnt at the stake
May 1310 – the Archbishop of Sens takes control of the trial process until 1316
22 March 1312 – Pope Clement V issues the papal bull Vox In Excelso suppressing the Knights Templar
May 1312 – Pope Clement V issues the papal bull Ad Providam transferring the assets of the Knights Templar to the Knights Hospitaller
21 March 1313 – the Knights Hospitaller pay enormous compensation to the king of France most likely saving their order from the same fate as the Templars
18 March 1314 – Jacques de Molay and the preceptor of Normandy Geoffroi de Charney retract their confessions saying they were extracted under torture. They are burnt at the stake before Notre Dame as heretics