KNIGHTFALL character profile: William De Nogaret

KNIGHTFALL (1)Knightfall is the new blockbuster drama series from the History channel featuring the Knights Templar in their final days and a quest for the Holy Grail.

It mixes fact and fiction to tell a compelling story. Some of the characters existed while others are fictional or a blend of people from that period.

I’m going to closely examine some of the factual characters in Knightfall. In this blog post, I’m looking at William De Nogaret – in real life, a key adviser to King Philip of France and architect of the Templars’ downfall. He is played by Julian Ovenden in Knightfall.

William De Nogaret

De Nogaret came from a family that had been implicated in the Cathar heresy in southern France. This deviant form of Christianity had been condemned by the papacy which had unleashed war and damnation on the Cathars. At its height, not just the ordinary people but the aristocracy had supported a religion that refused to recognise the authority of the church and its sacraments.

nogaretClearly, De Nogaret wanted to overcompensate for this family’s past treacherous leanings. He determined to prove to the king that he was the most loyal of French subjects. This craven courtier became a pliant tool of the king’s will and an instrument for his crushing of the Templars.

However, his career was characterised by a robust contempt for the papacy. His boss, King Philip, was engaged in a long row with Pope Boniface VIII (who also features in Knightfall). Predictably, this row was about money.

Philip demanded the right to tax the church as he saw fit and stop the export of riches from dioceses in France to Rome. The king believed the Catholic church in France had a patriotic duty to support his wars financially. But the Pope thought otherwise.

Boniface wanted to continue to exert traditional church power and didn’t accept that kings could tell the church what to do or how to spend its money. Most worryingly for the court in Paris, the pope intended to excommunicate King Philip – a move that was dangerous for any royal ruler in the medieval world. After all, a king was supposed to be a divinely approved figure and to be cast out of the church undermined their very legitimacy.

arrestDe Nogaret came up with a novel idea for convincing Pope Boniface of the king’s view. He kidnapped him in Italy. And then mistreated him. But was then forced to release the pope when local townspeople besieged De Nogaret and forced him to flee back to France. When he got back there, King Philip rewarded him handsomely and both men were delighted when news broke that Pope Boniface had died.

After a short reign by a weak pope called Benedict, the French king and De Nogaret connived to get Pope Clement – a Frenchman – elected pope. He moved the centre of the Catholic church from Rome, where he had way too many enemies, to Avignon in southern France. The popes would remain in Avignon for the next hundred years. For King Philip and De Nogaret this proved to be an excellent development as they were now able to keep a very close eye and almost complete control over the leader of the Catholic church.

This was essential when it came to destroying the Knights Templar. De Nogaret was made Keeper of the Seal in 1307 and almost immediately issued warrants for the arrest of all the leading Templars in France. After they were rounded up, he worked tirelessly to extract confessions and frame the knights on trumped up charges. In this endeavour, he drew on his undoubted skills as a very smart lawyer.

In 1314, the Templar Grand Master would be burnt to death in public in Paris but De Nogaret had died the previous year. Catholic chroniclers delighted in describing his final agonies – having not forgiven him for beating up Pope Boniface and taxing the church in France.

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Vatican scandal – a history of papal wickedness

Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Étienne ...

The Knights Templar were answerable only to the pope. But some of those popes were thoroughly corrupt and venal. They were probably some of the biggest sinners in Christendom.

So, let’s take a look at some papal corruption down the ages!

When the empire of Charlemagne was slowly imploding in the ninth century, the Holy See passed to the cardinal of Porto – who took the name Formosus. He was accused in his lifetime of various acts of church corruption but may have fallen victim to the power politics of the time, in which he was an active participant.

After his death, his opponents decided that the small matter of not being alive should be no barrier to being put on trial. And so his corpse was exhumed, dressed in papal vestments and interrogated at the so-called Cadaver Synod. Formosus was found guilty of all charges, stripped of the aforementioned vestments, his fingers cut off to stop any benedictions from the grave and his body was tossed into the Tiber.

John XIIThe following century saw the pontificate of John XII who really was a dubious character. Celebrating mass without bothering to take communion was small beer compared to his other sins. He was reputed to have turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel and to have ordained a ten year old as a bishop. Blinding and castrating his enemies and toasting the devil – there was nothing John wasn’t capable of! He eventually died after suffering “paralysis” while in bed with a lady.

In 1032, the Count of Tusculum installed his own son as pope – never mind that he was barely 12 years old! Benedict IX went on to hold the papacy three times before his death at 43 years of age. His second term as pope ended when he decided to sell the office to his godfather! He then changed his mind and came back, seizing the papacy for one last time.

Another pope who took cash for religious positions – the crime of ‘simony’ – was Boniface VIII. He features prominently in the History Channel drama about the Knights Templar – Knightfall. I write about him at length in another blog post so please search for that.

Fast forward to the Renaissance! The Borgias ran St Peters like a family enterprise at the end of the fifteenth century. Alexander VI was the most infamous Borgia, the nephew of a preceding pope, Callixtus III.  Alexander was alleged by the lawyer Stefano Infessura to have bought the papacy with mule loads of silver and his claim to have gained a two thirds majority is highly suspect.

Needless to say, Alexander had several children who he brazenly installed in major ecclesiastical positions – most notably, Cesare Borgia. His daughter, Lucrezia, was married off to a nobleman but reputed to have an incestuous relationship with her father. She was also claimed to be an adept poisoner

In my own lifetime, I remember when the former head of the Banco Ambrosiano – a bank strongly linked to the Vatican – was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in my home town of London. This was back in 1982. Roberto Calvi was dubbed ‘God’s Banker’ and while his death was supposed to look like suicide, it didn’t escape the attention of many that the secretive P2 masonic lodge that dominated Italy’s elite at that time was known as the ‘frati neri’ – or black friars!

The death of John Paul I after only 33 days as pope in 1978 is now a largely forgotten papal scandal – but at the time, the conspiracy theories flew around like a blizzard. There’s even a story element in the movie Godfather III that alludes to the mysterious nature of his demise. Suffice to say that the Vatican did nothing to dampen the speculation by its hopeless handling of the affair.