Were the Knights Templar secretly part of the Cathar heresy?

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.

Albigensian_Crusade_01
Pope Innocent III excommunicates the Cathars then has them massacred

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.

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What exactly were the Templars accused of?

In 1307, the king of France – Philip the Fair – issued orders to arrest every Knight Templar in his realm. This was done in total secrecy in what one writer has described as the medieval equivalent of a dawn raid. A couple of ex-Templars, disgruntled with the order they had once sworn loyalty to, had spilled the beans to the king’s officials about all manner of dubious practices the Templars were alleged to engage in.

401270_279190018817179_100001785495655_671372_1873688118_nThis included the notorious kiss on the base of the spine, the mouth and the navel. There was also the worship of a head – sometimes described as a cat’s head or a three-faced head or the head of John the Baptist or a head in the sand that spoke, etc, etc. The Templars denounced Christ, it was alleged, and stamped, urinated and spat on the cross. This was the very cross that they displayed on their tunics and yet they dishonoured it.

The heresies that the rumour mill attributed to the Templars included being closet Muslims, closet Cathars or closet Mandaeans. The latter were an eastern gnostic sect who revered John the Baptist but rejected Jesus Christ. The stamping on the crucifix was believed to evidence the Templar disdain for Christ. The Cathars were a major heretical movement in France that threatened both royal and church power in the south of the country. Cathars rejected the Catholic church’s hierarchy and sacraments disputing the real nature of Jesus. As regards Islam, it has been argued from the medieval period to the present day by some that the Templars had got a little too close to Muslim belief and the scientific knowledge held in the caliphate’s universities and libraries.

Of course, all of these accusations may be utter tripe. The real reason for the Templars being rounded up, tortured and forced to confess to all of this was that king Philip of France just needed their money. He had bolted to the Paris Temple during a mob riot in the city asking the Templars for their protection but while in their safekeeping, he had seen their wealth at first hand and determined to get his hands on it. Philip had form in this regard having already mugged France’s Jewish population, Lombard merchants and even the church. Why not shake down the Templars?

But in the ‘no smoke without fire’ camp, there are those who think the Templars may genuinely have been influenced by eastern philosophical and religious ideas that crept into their ritual and belief. Maybe not in the lurid terms described by the charges at their trial – but hateful to the western church all the same. The truth is – we don’t know. But what is certain is that the allegations above were upheld at the time and dozens of Templar knights including the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay were burnt at the stake on the basis of their forced confessions.

Templars’ Lost Treasure – on National Geographic

Interrogation Of Jacques De Molay
Interrogation Of Jacques De Molay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Al Aqsa in Jerusalem ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Al-Aq...
Al Aqsa in Jerusalem ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Al-Aqsa Moskeen i Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Two Templars burned at the stake, from a Frenc...
Two Templars burned at the stake, from a French 15th century manuscript (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They only existed for barely two centuries – but the Knights Templar continue to fascinate….so says the National Geographic channel and we certainly wouldn’t object. The knights formed the top of the medieval fighting machine and were based in the Temple of Solomon – what is now the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. With preceptories all over Europe, they were bequeathed huge amounts of money and ran a kind of medieval banking system. But all good things must come to an end – and King Philip the Fair of France decided to crush the Templars. So it came to pass that on Friday 13th in 1307, a dawn swoop resulted in the arrest of Templar leaders.

Heresy was the charge. Torture got the desired answer. Spitting on the cross, etc was confessed to and the pope – under pressure from the French king – suppressed the order in 1312. Eventually, the elderly grand master Jacques de Molay was burnt at the stake before Notre Dame cathedral – at a spot still marked by a monument in Paris. From the flames, De Molay demanded that within the year – the pope and French king would meet him before God. And sure enough – both men died in the following months.

So – what happened to the treasure of the Templars? Could it lie hidden in a Templar treasury? That’s what National Geographic set out to find discover!

When the French went to arrest the knights at the massive Temple in Paris in 1307 – they found no treasure. Legend has it that some Templars fled to England with untold riches. At a Templar preceptory in Gisors, northern France – there is some enigmatic graffiti left by Templars held prisoner in their own castle. It seems to show large carts being moved piled high with something.

In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo – author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame – was intrigued by Gisors and the images left by these imprisoned Templars. In the 1920s, an enthusiastic caretaker set about excavating Gisors to see if the treasure had been left there. He kept digging for decades, even through the Nazi occupation of France, and eventually claimed to have found a vault with nineteen stone caskets and thirty chests – full of treasure. When local authorities went to check – they found nothing. No underground room and no treasure. The caretaker was sacked.

Subsequent digs at Gisor have yielded zilch. So attention turns to England and specifically the Templar church in London. But no sign of gold and jewels there. So it’s off to an eighteenth century stately home at Shugborough in the English countryside. Templar enthusiasts will know that in the grounds there is an intriguing folly called the Shepherds Monument. Inscribed on it are ten letters that don’t appear to make any sense. National Geographic invokes a quote from Nostradamus that infers it’s a clue to the existence of an underground chamber that if discovered will result in the trial of the world’s leaders – attractive thought, eh?

The monument is a copy of a structure that appears in Poussin’s famous painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ and National Geographic goes into a theory linking Poussin to a future pope and a possible coded interpretation of the title of his painting that suggests knowledge of divine secrets. All of which propels the programme out of England and off to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome. There we find a bust of Poussin and an ancient throne occasionally used by the pope.

I’m a little disappointed that a reference to king Louis XV is accompanied at this point by an image of Louis XIV – c’mon National Geographic! Anyway, we’re now asked to believe that the carving on the Shepherd’s Monument is actually a reference to Nova Scotia. L’Acadie in French being the old name for that Canadian province. Joel Doucet – a descendant of early French settlers in eastern Canada has been investigating Templar links to Nova Scotia. There seem to be clues of sorts. Not least that a local native American tribe in the region uses symbols not dissimilar to the Templar cross. Could the Templars have brought their treasure all the way to this part of the world?

A very deep pit at Oak Island has captivated treasure hunters for a century and many digs have been conducted to find Templar treasure. Incredibly, a young Franklin Roosevelt – the future US president – dug at the site. And National Geographic has a picture of FDR with his spade and a gang of like minded treasure seekers. But is this pit and others really the work of the Templars? Well, some Templar experts are prepared to say yes.

Back in France, a massive coin horde has been found by Bernard Delacourt. It’s not a mystical treasure from Jerusalem – but it could be wealth squirreled away by the Templars as the order was crushed.

King Philip IV of France (1268–1314)
King Philip IV of France (1268–1314) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why were the Templars suppressed?

BaldwinII ceeding the location of the Temple o...
BaldwinII ceeding the location of the Temple of Salomon to Hugues de Payns and Gaudefroy de Saint-Homer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I almost feel like this is a game of Templar medieval Cluedo – were they killed with the Turkish mace in the banqueting hall or with the lance in the dovecote?  The web is not short of sweeping conclusions so I thought I’d have a go at dissecting some of the theories – briefly of course, in the spirit of blogging!

So, let’s look at some possible reasons.

ULTRA-RICH TEMPLARS:  The Templars did become very wealthy.  Nobles placed their estates/wealth with the Order for safekeeping while on crusade.  The Order developed ingenious ways of transferring wealth from one preceptory to another developing a primitive version of the modern banking system.  They lent money to kings and popes who were not always disposed to paying that money back.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they got way too rich and powerful.

A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES:  Templars operated as an order of monastic warriors with their own command structure headed up by the Grand Master in Jerusalem.  From early on in their history, the papacy gave the Templars an enviable degree of independence.  They did not have to answer to local bishops, they ran their own estates as semi-independent fiefdoms, they could even recruit former excommunicates…only the pope could take them to task.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they were just too big for their crusading boots.

TEMPLAR FAILURE:  The Templars were formed to protect pilgrims being attacked as they journeyed to the holy places in outremer.  However, the order evolved in to a well-oiled military machine.  Their estates around Europe funded their military exploits in the Holy Land.  Together with the rival order of warrior monks, the Hospitallers, they put some backbone in to the crusades.  But from as early as the 1180s – just over 60 years from the order’s formation – things started to go wrong. The defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 wiped out the Templar success against Saladin at Montgisard. Now the brave knights were on the back foot.  Barring a few outstanding moments, it was the Saracens who were now notching up victories – Battle of Jaffa, Battle of Al-Mansurah, Siege of Safad, etc.  In 1300, together with the Hospitallers, the Templars tried to take Tortosa and failed dismally.  The crusades were over.

Conclusion: With the veneer of invincibility wearing off and the crusades unraveling completely by the early 14th century, the Templars were well past their prime and a force no longer needed.

HOSPITALLER DEVIOUSNESS:  There were two main orders of warrior monks in the Holy Land – the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.  Both were engaged in the last attempt to establish a Christian foothold in the Holy Land in 1300.  The Hospitallers were as wealthy as the Templars.  After the suppression of the Templars, the Hospitallers acquired much of their property.

Conclusion: The Hospitallers wanted to preserve their wealth and position – so they were complicit in destroying the Templars.

EVIL FRENCH KING:  Phillippe the Bel – or king Philip IV of France – fought wars on several fronts against the English and in Flanders.  Wars cost money and he ran up impressive debts.  To raise money, the king expelled French Jews in 1306 – the year before the Templars were outlawed.  He attacked the church and even sent a party of knights to arrest the pope who died as a result of his captivity.  Phillippe then got a more compliant pope – Clement V – based in Avignon and not Rome, who was far more compliant (if he knew what was good for him).  Phillippe also raided Lombard merchants for money to try and erase his debts.  The king owed the Templars a great deal of money and they had turned him down for another substantial loan.

Conclusion: Closing down and expropriating Templar assets fitted in to a pattern of grabbing assets that was a hallmark of Phillipe’s reign.

There are plenty of other factors to consider.

France had been divided by the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries – a Gnostic variant on Christianity that exposed a deep well of resentment against papal interference in all aspects of political life.  The result of the crusade against the Cathars was the emergence of the Dominican order and the inquisition.  Possibly this created a climate where allegations of heresy against the Templars were more readily accepted.

Some argue that the Templars themselves were heretics and the church was forced to wipe them out to protect its position.  This view comes in different variants but the recurring themes are that the Templars had either picked up heretical ideas in the East or even discovered ‘secrets’ (often dug up under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, now the Al Aqsa mosque).  Those secrets of course include the Holy Grail.  Evidence is thin on the ground though some of the symbols much beloved of the Templars raise eyebrows – for example the demi-god Abraxas.

There is also the theory that having failed in the Holy Land, the Templars now consisted of a large army, well funded and organised, with not much to do.  Where was it going to go?  How would its hunger for power be sated?  Were the Templars even contemplating some kind of coup d’etat against the French king?

And of course – were the Templars engaging in those practices that caused so much abhorrence to the medieval mind?  The charge of sodomy was of course leveled against them by a bishop, incidentally, who went on to level the same charge against the English king, Edward II.  His charges stuck in both cases.

The jury is still out and this is one game of Cluedo that hasn’t drawn to a conclusion after seven hundred years of being played.