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.
Clearly, 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.
De 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.