The Knights Templar were accused of rejecting the divinity of Christ, spitting on the crucifix, not believing the church sacraments and conducting their own masses without a properly consecrated priest. They emerged in France in the 12th century at the same time that a very dangerous heresy had gripped the south of the country: Catharism.
The Cathars were Christians who rejected the Pope’s authority and that of his church of priests and bishops as well as holding “gnostic” views such as the existence of an evil deity in constant conflict with a good God. They found a great deal of support not only among ordinary people but even sections of the aristocracy, most notably Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse. Unfortunately for Raymond, his tolerance of the Cathars led to a direct conflict with the most powerful pope in history, Innocent III.
Innocent sent a papal legate Pierre de Castelnau to try and turn Raymond away from the Cathars but not only did the count reject these overtures, Pierre was murdered on his way back to Rome. A furious pope ordered the French king to head a crusade against the Cathars and armies poured into the Languedoc region of France. The surrendering Cathars were either put to the sword or burnt to death.
But their ideas persisted. Many agreed with their view that the church should return to traditions of poverty and piety. Their questioning of the Catholic view that the bread in the mass literally becomes the body of Christ continued to be discussed in low whispers before erupting to the surface centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. Many of France’s elite had family connections to the Cathars including Guillaume de Nogaret, the top adviser to King Philip of France and scourge of the Templars. His parents and grandparents were reportedly Cathars. It seemed that in spite of the success of Innocent’s crusade, Catharism still lurked in dark corners of French society.
Many of the charges levied against the Templars by King Philip of France and his adviser De Nogaret smack of Cathar beliefs. The charges certainly would have resonated with medieval public opinion, familiar with the scandalous views and practice of the southern French rebels.
There may have been genuine fears that as the Templars had operated at the same time as the rise of Catharism that they had imbibed some of their philosophy. Or that the Templars were influenced by ancient Christian beliefs in the east that were very similar to those held by the French heretics. Worse, there may have been an underlying fear that Templar military might could be used to carve out a Cathar sympathetic state in southern France. As the crusades in the Holy Land crumbled, where might Templar energy and know-how be expended?
Possibly what King Philip of France saw in the order was an unimaginable danger that needed to be rapidly snuffed out.
It’s vexed many down the ages. The Templars were warriors, monks and medieval bankers. They ran a financial system through their preceptories that spanned Europe and funded their crusades in the Holy Land and Al-Andalus (modern Spain and Portugal). Kings and princes left bequests to the Templars while the living deposited their assets with the order and could draw an early type of cheque from any Templar preceptory in Europe or the Middle East when they needed ready cash. This was far better than dragging your wealth in iron chests behind you.
Nobody doubts that the Templars accumulated an awful lot of money. At key points in the crusades, they were asked to pay off ransoms for aristocratic warriors captured by the Saracens. More generally, they lent money to kings, princes and even popes becoming Christian moneylenders, an occupation in the medieval period normally associated with the Jews.
At the start of the fourteenth century, king Philip of France faced a riot in Paris when he decided to devalue the currency. Fearing for his life, he fled to the Paris Temple – the order’s headquarters. This was a well fortified building with thick walls and sturdy towers. It had to be – because inside was a huge amount of money. Philip was always cash strapped and having seen what the Templars possessed, he resolved to get his hands on their wealth. It would wipe out his debts and fund his wars with the English.
On 13th October 1307, he arrested the knights Templar throughout France and imprisoned their leaders. But when his men turned up at the Paris Temple, they found nothing. The wealth had disappeared into the ether. Accounts then circulated that the order had been tipped off about the forthcoming arrests and a group of knights had been seen transporting sacks of bullion on carts away to the Templar port of La Rochelle. There, the order’s fleet set sail with the treasure bound for England and never to be seen again.
So where did it go? We enter the realm of the fanciful now with all kinds of theories. Did the wealth include priceless artefacts found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? Did the ships crawl up the British coastline and eventually end up in Scotland? Some have argued that a group of Templars even set sail with the earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, and following ancient viking routes made their way to the New World. There, they buried the treasure in what is now Nova Scotia.
Whatever the answer – King Philip of France was left very much out of pocket.
On this very sad day, it’s worth remembering what a great historical city Paris is – and why it will endure. It was, after all, the de facto headquarters of the Knights Templar. In what is now the Marais district, there was once a huge preceptory run by the knights. They drained the marshy land, evidencing their ability to be industrious farmers as well as fearsome warriors. This was in the first half of the 12th century, the first decades of the Order’s existence.
Eventually, they threw up a monumental tower complex that lasted into the nineteenth century. It took many years to tear it down. This impregnable building was used during the French Revolution – long after the Templars had disappeared – to imprison King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, prior to their execution on the guillotine. Napoleon had it demolished in all likelihood over fears that royalists would turn the fortress into a pilgrimage site for their late monarch.
As you all know, it was a French king – resident in Paris needless to say – who decided in 1306 to move against the Templars with a compliant Pope in his pocket. Philip the Fair had noted the wealth contained in the mighty fortress and figured it would serve him better if it was moved to his treasury. In order to do that, Philip had to crush the Templars. The leaders of the Order were arrested, tortured and the last Grand Master – Jacques de Molay – were burned to death on a small island in the Seine.
Jerusalem was taken by the Muslim caliphate in 638CE ending centuries of Roman rule. The late Roman – or Byzantine – period had seen the city become one of the great centres of Christendom. Its patriarch was one of five leading patriarchs in Christianity – the others being Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. At the centre of the city was the church of the Holy Sepulchre built under the Emperor Constantine and covering the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Throughout the early period of Islamic rule, Christians continued to visit Jerusalem on pilgrimage and revere the holy sites. But in the eleventh century, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim – widely assumed to have been mentally disturbed – demolished the city’s churches reducing the Holy Sepulchre to rubble. To add to Christian woes, reports circulated of pilgrims being systematically robbed and worse as they made their way to the city.
In 1099, a Crusader army stormed Jerusalem ending four hundred years of Muslim rule. Contemporary accounts suggest a huge massacre ensued of Jews, Muslims and anybody who got in the way. The blood, it was said, splashed on the crusader stirrups. Even allowing for a certain degree of hyperbole, it does seem to have been a violent event.
The crusaders were western knights who had been heeding the call of Pope Urban to defend the holy places in the east. This they did with gusto! The pope in turn had been responding to a call from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople to defend what was left of his empire from the forces of Islam. After two centuries of the Byzantines enjoying a position of relative strength in relation to the caliphate, they had suffered a terrible defeat against the Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. This defeat would eventually lead to the complete transformation of Anatolia from Greek speaking and Christian to Turkish and Muslim.
Into this very volatile situation came a group of French knights led by Hugues de Payens. They approached King Baldwin II of crusader-controlled Jerusalem and the patriarch in 1118 with the novel idea of setting up a militaristic order of monks that would protect pilgrims. This was very much in keeping with the ethos of a church that carried a bible in one hand and a sword in the other. It was a muscular and very medieval approach to the defence of Christ.
The band of knights were allowed to base themselves in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. This site had housed the long destroyed Jewish temple and was revered by Christians. In turn, it had become a holy place for Muslims. Now under crusader rule, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock – both early Muslim buildings – became the temple of Solomon and the Templum Domini respectively. Basing themselves in what they believed had once been the temple of Solomon – the new order of knights called themselves the Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Or the Knights Templar for short.
We always think of the crusades as something that happened in the Middle East pitching western Christian warriors against eastern Muslim saracens. In fact, the crusades of the Middle Ages were far more complex than that – and even involved a war initiated by the Pope against a group of Christians he felt had grown to powerful and influential based in southern France.
The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out. These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed. Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.
So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe. A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness. An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards. There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.
Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes. What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc. If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.
The Cathars had to be crushed. No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.
In 1207, the pope called on King Philip II of France to take action. He did nothing. Half of what we now call France was under the control of the English (or the Plantagenet kings to be more precise) and he didn’t much fancy a war against his own nobles.
But the pope wasn’t going to go away and forget these Cathars – he decided that Rome had to strangle the Cathars using all the powers at its disposal. I’ll be looking at how the Cathars were crushed in the next few posts.
The Knights Templar existed from around the year 1118 to 1307 and I thought it might be interesting to reveal to you which kings ruled during that time and where are they buried. So…here goes!
Henry I was William the Conqueror’s son and became king after his older brother was killed in a rather unfortunate hunting “accident”. Being a Norman king, it’s not surprising that he died in Normandy – his domains in what’s now northern France. It’s said that he died from a “surfeit of lampreys”! His body was returned to England, embalmed and sewn into a bull’s hide – nice! He was buried in Reading Abbey but unfortunately for him, the abbey was shut down by Henry VIII four hundred years later during the Protestant Reformation and his body disappeared.
His successor King Stephen had a stormy reign – a period known as the Great Anarchy in England. Embroiled in a civil war and losing the throne for a while, he managed to regain the crown but died at Dover Castle of dysentery in 1154. Buried at Faversham Abbey in Kent, his body went missing when…Henry VIII shut down the abbey during the Reformation. It’s said the local people stole the jewels off his skeleton and any other valuables.
Henry II took over after Stephen, the son of the Empress Matilda – daughter of Henry I – who had fought that nasty civil war with Stephen. He married the feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful medieval queens, and she and his children rebelled against him. Not a happy family! He’s buried at Fontevraud Abbey in modern France. His empire extended from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
Richard the Lionheart – you all know about him. Brave crusading king who spent hardly any time in England and allegedly admired by the legendary Robin Hood (if Hollywood is to be believed). Like his father, he was also buried in Fontevraud Abbey.
John – “bad king John” who signed Magna Carta, ceding power to the barons. He was forced to flee an invading French army and died of dysentery. According to one account the disease was brought on by eating peaches and wine. He was buried in England at Worcester cathedral, largely on account of having lost his ancestral lands in France.
Henry III – he was buried in Westminster Abbey, which is appropriate as he rebuilt the original Saxon church into something much grander that we see today. His tomb used to be adorned with jewels but pilgrims and tourists hacked off bits of it over the centuries so only the uppermost part of the tomb glitters anymore.
Edward I followed the new example and was also buried in Westminster Abbey but this time in a very grand but austere tomb. You can still see it today. This king, you may recall, was the vanquisher of Braveheart and a stern but effective ruler. His tomb was opened in 1774 during a rather morbid and gothic phase of grave inspecting that titillated posh society. The king was found to be ‘richly habited, adorned with ensigns of royalty, and almost entire’. At another tomb opening around that time, of a medieval knight, one of the high society people decided to taste the remains of the Middle Ages warrior. Ugh!
Edward II – the last king to preside over the Templars came to a grisly end. Reputedly homosexual, though one can argue that with many historians, it’s alleged that his wife and her lover had him executed with a red hot poker placed somewhere I’d rather not mention! His body was buried in an abbey that then became a place of pilgrimage, in spite of his reputation. In fact, he was so popular in death that the abbey expanded to become Gloucester Cathedral. It’s claimed the presence of his remains stopped Henry VIII shutting the place down but as it didn’t stop him dissolving the other two abbeys I mentioned, I wonder if that’s really true.
I have always loved historical maps – they never give a wholly accurate view of what the reality was on the ground but they’re fascinating to pore over. And here are some images of Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Knights Templar. What a different world they present!
Going from left to right across Europe, these maps reveal the tempestuous political climate of the period. The Norman aristocracy of England had begun its slow invasion of Ireland as you can see by a smattering of pink on the east coast, Wales and Scotland were still independent and the English crown still claimed vast swathes of what is now France.
The Iberian peninsula is even more striking. Half of it was still under Islamic control – having been completely invaded in the year 711CE. Christian kingdoms like Leon, Castille, Portugal as well as Aragon and Navarre had begun the ‘Reconquest‘ aided by crusaders and Templars from all over Europe.
Central Europe was dominated by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire that stretched down into northern Italy meeting the Norman controlled southern half of the boot. Venice was independent and increasingly challenged the fading power of the Byzantine Empire – which it would eventually deal a huge blow against in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.
Beyond the Byzantines – the Greek speaking inheritor of the eastern Roman empire centred on Constantinople – was the encroaching realms of the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks had become the dominant force in the Islamic Middle East and would crush crusader controlled Edessa in 1144.