KNIGHTFALL character profile: Pope Boniface VIII

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 Pope Boniface VIII – in real life, a pope who had a dreadful relationship with King Philip of France. He is played by Jim Carter in Knightfall.

Pope Boniface VIII

bonifacePope Boniface had a miserable relationship with King Philip of France – the monarch who crushed the Knights Templar. Basically, the French king wanted to tax the Catholic church while the pope believed he needed to be asked first. It was his clergy and the king could lay off until he gave his permission. Also, the pope argued that he had no objection to funding religious wars, crusades in other words, but was less amenable to bankrolling bust ups between the kings of France and England.

There was a growing rift between a papacy that wanted to be all powerful as God’s representative on earth versus a new breed of medieval ruler that wanted full control of their own domain. These kings and queens saw the pope as a foreign intruder undermining their authority, In time, two centuries to be exact, this would lead to a religious revolution called the Reformation where monarchs like Henry VIII of England would reject the pope’s authority altogether.

Boniface didn’t lie down in the face of the French king’s aggression. He came back at him with threats of excommunication and damnation. King Philip let loose a medieval version of political spin circulating poisonous rumours that Boniface was a sodomite and diabolist.

The Italian poet Dante hated Pope Boniface as they were on opposing sides in Italy’s endless political squabbles. When he described hell in his legendary book Inferno – Dante couldn’t put Boniface in hell because he was still alive. But he had another earlier pope buried head first for the sin of simony who predicted that Boniface would soon be taking his place.

romeRelations between King Philip of France and pope Boniface just went from bad to worse. Boniface saw everything Philip did as an attack on the church. Philip reacted with measures designed to provoke Rome like banning the export of gold, silver and precious stones – a law that would starve the pope of revenue from France. There was even a suggestion that Philip wanted to establish a new Christian realm under French control incorporating the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires. In this new empire, the pope would be reduced to a patriarch on a salary.

All of this was too much for Boniface. He issued bulls and proclamations thundering that King Philip needed to acknowledge papal supremacy. He warned that he could not be answerable for Philip’s immortal soul. Boniface chastised Philip for not launching a crusade against the Muslims and urged him to reject evil counsellors. One suspects he had William De Nogaret in mind.

Things got increasingly heated. Philip started conspiring with the Italian Colonna family who detested Pope Boniface. He also convened a special council at which Boniface was accused of heresy, gross and unnatural immorality, worshipping idols, using magic and killing his predecessor as pope. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because King Philip would use very similar charges against the Knights Templar.

Sciarra Colonna slapping Pope Boniface VIII across the face, 1303There was now a showdown between king and pope. Philip called for Boniface’s removal. Boniface demanded the French people overthrow an excommunicated monarch. That was too much for the king. His adviser William De Nogaret and a leading member of the Colonna family went with 2,000 mercenaries down to the city of Anagni where Boniface was holding court and kidnapped him.

He was eventually freed when the local people drove out De Nogaret and Anagni but died shortly afterwards. Stories circulated that in his final days he went completely mad, chewing at his own hands and smashing his head against a wall. But Boniface’s body was taken out of its marble sarcophagus in 1605 and was found to be surprisingly intact. So that bit of spin hasn’t held up.

To be clear, Boniface did not suppress the Knights Templar. What happened after his death was that King Philip eventually managed to get a French cardinal elected as Pope Clement. This pope was far more compliant and moved the church’s headquarters from Rome to Avignon in southern France. With a pope at his fingertips, Philip was able to move against the Templars with relative ease.


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.


Where did all the Templar treasure disappear to?

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.

Templar sealNobody 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.


The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
Knights Templar

The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.

As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?

Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.

They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest.  Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.

Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France.  This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.


The Templars, the Jews and blood libel

220px-Ritualmord-LegendeIn the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a number of children were alleged to have been murdered by the Jewish community in various towns in Europe.  These accusations were certainly false and designed primarily to enable the seizure of the assets of prominent, wealthy Jews.  Due to various prohibitions put on Jewish people, they established a niche in medieval society as money lenders and this was how some became very rich.  Their clients included kings, bishops and princes and the sums involved were huge.

For Christians, the church ban on earning interest meant that this kind of money lending activity was strictly speaking sinful.  However, many cathedrals were built by taking out loans with the Jewish money lenders.  And many wealthy Jews made discreet donations to the church in the hope of currying favour and protection.

Officially, the kings of England did protect the Jews having brought them over with the Norman Conquest.  But that protection seems to have broken down from the time of King Stephen and a hundred years later under Edward I, the already hugely persecuted Jews were forced to leave England and did not return until the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century.

JewsThe Templars seem to have had a complex relationship with the Jews.  They certainly were not anti-semitic – or no more than most people at the time.  If we look at the case of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln, we can get an idea of how Templars and Jews interacted.  Hugh of Lincoln was one of the reported cases of a child being murdered in a so-called ‘blood libel’.   The child was supposedly killed in a way that mocked Christ’s crucifixion and the propaganda alleged that the blood was collected for Jewish rituals.  No real proof exists for any of this and modern scholars reject these accusations as baseless.

As in an earlier case involving a child called William of Norwich, Hugh of Lincoln was an innocent boy who simply disappeared.  It was later said that Koppin the Jew lured the boy in to his house where he was kept a prisoner for a month in the year 1255.  Eventually he was scourged and crucified.  According to Evelyn Lord in her excellent book ‘The Knights Templar in Britain’ – Koppin and 18 other Jews were arrested, tried and confessed to the murder.  They were then executed.

main-lincolnThe Jews lived in houses in the centre of Lincoln many of which they rented from the Knights Templar.  Basically, the Templars were their landlords. It’s hard to say that the Templars would have been more sympathetic to the Jews than their very hostile neighbours though one could speculate that the intensified persecution of the Jews was commercially disruptive to the Temple.

The Order of the Temple was a going financial concern in its own right.  It operated a complex financial web across its thousand preceptories from England to Aragon to the Holy Land.  Credit notes could be taken from one preceptory – say in London – and cashed in at another preceptory – say in Acre.  Like the Jews, the Templars bankrolled church and state alike, particularly in France.  Indeed, the debts owed by the French king to the Temple undoubtedly led to their downfall.

The Jews also lent heavily to medieval monarchs.  Aaron, another Jew who lived in Lincoln, was one of the biggest money lenders in England in the twelfth century.  King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart, is estimated to have owed him £616 12s 8d.  When he died, the monarchy seized all his assets and this came to somewhere around fifteen thousand pounds – a vast amount in the Middle Ages.

The Templars were therefore landlords to many of these Jewish merchants, fellow money lenders (though operating differently) to kings and princes and in England, the Temple also was responsible for holding the taxes levied specifically on Jews.  These monies were placed in the London Temple.  This could have created some antagonism between the Jews and Templars.

There is some wild online speculation that the Templars were Jewish because they were bankers – I hope nobody takes that kind of forced logic seriously.  Both groups in medieval society were engaged in finance at a very primitive level and for different reasons.   In England, both groups came under increasing levels of attack in the second half of the thirteenth century and the common cause was the need for finance on the part of the king.   They would eventually see their assets seized and in the case of the Temple, they would be snuffed out for all eternity.


Templars – moneylenders, but wasn’t that a sin?

cropped-templar-artworkThe Knights Templar weren’t just warriors, monks, farmers and politicians but also international bankers.  Not to anything like the sophisticated standards of today’s bankers but by the standard of the time, the Templars were at the apex of medieval high finance.

A knight could take out a credit note, a cheque, from a preceptory in England and cash it in at a preceptory in, say, Acre in the Holy Land.  So Templars didn’t have to carry physical bullion on crusade with them – they could travel relatively light and pick up the gold they needed on arrival at their destination.  Over time, the Templars came to be sitting on vast piles of cash which they loaned out to monarchs, princes and bishops.

The Paris Temple was particularly active in loaning money and funded the first King of Portugal’s wars against the Moors and even lent money to popes.  Most infamously, they lent money to the King of France which would eventually prove to be their undoing.  Instead of paying them back, the King of France would close the Templars down in the year 1312 with some help from the pope.

But how could the Templars have got in to money lending when it was against church law and scripture to lend with interest.  Well, according to Karen Ralls – an academic specialising in the Templars – they charged a kind of handling fee.  This strikes me as very similar to the way that Islamic finance works today.  With this branch of finance, interest can’t be earned by investors so they receive ‘enhanced capital’ instead.  So Templars managed to work their way round the theological challenge while still covering their administrative expenses.

Not for nothing were the Templars respected and hated in their own time.


When England’s Crown Jewels were moved to Paris

The early Plantagenat kings of England, Normandy and Anjou had very cordial relations with the Order of the Temple.   Henry II and his sons Richard the Lionheart and (bad) King John made use of their military support in the crusades and their financial support.

Across Europe, the Templars had a network of ‘preceptories’ – living and working centres where these warrior monks could conduct their activities.  These included farming, trading and basic manufacture to raise funds for the crusades.  It also included an early form of international banking where Templars and non-Templars could deposit money with a preceptory and then withdraw it with a credit note at another preceptory hundreds of miles away.  Revolutionary stuff for the Middle Ages.  Essentially, preceptories operated like bank branches in this respect.

The Paris Temple was the mother of all preceptories with its high walls and vast amounts of bullion contained within.  Crowned heads, popes and princes borrowed thousands of ‘livres’ from Paris making it an eventual source of envy and hatred among the Templar’s enemies and creditors.

hrythrdThe hapless king of England Henry III (1216-1272), who succeeded King John, went one further and lodged his own crown jewels in the Paris Temple for safe keeping.    He was facing a major uprising by England’s barons for whom Magna Carta had not proven to be enough.  The barons had even supported an invasion by the French king Louis at the end of John’s reign but when that king obligingly died, they threw their weight behind the boy king Henry – however, they eventually reverted to their more rebellious ways.

Led by Simon de Montfort – previously a confidante of the king who had fallen out with him on personal and political grounds – they forced the king to agree to the Provisions of Oxford.  This very revolutionary declaration threatened to destroy the divinely ordained absolutist monarchy of the Plantagenats and Henry got a papal absolution from his oath to the Provisions and began a fightback.

Unfortunately, all did not proceed well.  He lost the Battle of Lewes and saw most of southern England rise for De Montfort.  He was also captured by De Montfort and further humiliated.  The crown jewels were secluded with the Paris Temple then effectively pawned to raise funds from the Templars for Henry’s fightback against the barons.  He was eventually successful and De Montfort was hacked to pieces after the Battle of Evesham.

It is interesting – I hope – to note how a king in desperate straits would hock his baubles to the Templars for some ready cash.   This must have been a new and very innovative way to fund a war unless you can tell me otherwise.