Here’s one bit of evidence that says yes – they were.
In 1307, the Templars were accused of some terrible crimes – by medieval standards. Christ’s divinity was being denied in their secret initiation ceremonies. They venerated idols, possibly including the head of a cat. Templars were encouraged to be homosexual and in their rites, kissed each other at the base of the spine, on the navel and the mouth. The holy sacraments were ignored because the Templars thought they were a sham. And so it went on. But were any of these charges true?
King Philip IV of France – Philip the Fair – had form when it came to trumping up charges against those who crossed his path. Pope Boniface VIII refused to be bullied by the French king so Philip unleashed his spin doctors to characterise the pontiff as a heretic, sodomite, wizard and magician.
But it’s an example of the king’s bullying of a French bishop that suggests the crimes against the Templars may have been made up. In his book on the Templar trials, Malcolm Barber gives the example of Guichard, the bishop of Troyes, who had fallen out with Philip’s wife Joan of Navarre and her mother Blanche.
Philip’s spin doctors set to work dreaming up some pretty steamy charges. Guichard was accused of making a wax image of the queen, baptising it and then sticking pins in the dummy. This apparently resulted in the queen’s death in 1305. He then made a potion from snakes, scorpions, toads and spiders with the intention of poisoning the royal princes. The bishop was thrown into prison and witnesses were tortured to back up the allegations.
By 1313 however, the king was distracted by the Templar trials and the bishop was released from jail later that year. He died after being transferred to a bishopric in modern day Bosnia. The manner of his treatment and over-the-top charges sounds very familiar. A king who wanted somebody out of the way got his advisers to set about total character assassination throwing everything they could at the bishop. So – could the same tactics have been employed against the Knights Templar?
During the suppression of the Templar order in the early 1300s, the oft repeated charge against the knights was that of ‘sodomy‘. The trial documents didn’t spare any blushes in detailing the crime describing the act of kissing the body of initiates in various places including the base of the spine.
The act of anal sex had not been a taboo in Europe before the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire. Indeed the Greeks seemed to be particular fans and tolerant of bisexuality in the upper classes. The issue for pagan Romans was whether a man of senatorial rank allowed himself to be the submissive partner, especially if he played bottom to somebody of inferior social rank – that was a no-no.
But Christianity – inheriting the Judaic opposition to homosexuality – gave us an outright ban on same gender sex. That of course did not stop it happening, especially in monasteries where men were grouped together in celibate conditions. I think it’s reasonable to assume that many gay men in the Middle Ages might have made a beeline for their local monastery – thus avoiding the pressure to get married to a woman and being round the clock in the company of men.
Sodomy was an accusation calculated to damn anybody. It’s still used in religious countries to discredit political opponents today. To get an idea of how the legal system viewed anal sex, you can access at no charge the archive of Britain’s Central Criminal Court with cases going back three hundred years – a fantastic resource and hours of fun.
Many of the accusations of sodomy in the centuries covered by this archive (18th and 19th centuries mainly) led to acquittal. Punishments were severe and juries needed to be convinced beyond a doubt. Thomas Poddy for example was accused of ‘assault with sodomitical intent’ but acquitted.
George Duffus was less lucky having gone drinking with a stranger who he then asked to stay with as his home was far away. While sharing a bed, Duffus “thrust his Tongue in his Mouth, called him his dear Friend, and got on his Back”. He then attempted to leave an “Emissio Seminis in his Body”. Needless to say the judge directed the jury to find him guilty.
Duffus was “Fin’d 20 Marks, a Months Imprisonment, and to stand upon the Pillory near Old Gravel Lane”. A Mark was a British accounting unit, his imprisonment would have been in a shared cell and the choice of pillory was near to the pub he had picked up the other man. The pillory was a wooden structure which held your hands and head in place in a standing position while passers by mocked or even pelted you with objects – people were known to die in the pillory from their injuries.
William Griffin who was accused of sodomy in 1726 was, like many before him, sentenced to death. Very near where I live in south London there used to be a gallows where local historians can confirm that two men were hung together for being lovers in the eighteenth century. Ironically, the area now has a thriving gay scene.
In the Middle Ages, the punishment for sodomy – which covered all acts of anal sex even with women – could lead in some parts of Europe to castration and then death. France, the Spanish kingdoms and the Italian cities seemed to be particularly harsh in their legal attitude towards the act. Bologna saw those accused of sodomy burnt to death and an early recorded case of capital punishment for sodomy in the Middle Ages is from Ghent where a man was burnt at the stake in 1292.
England, it’s believed, was more likely to allow leeway for acts of penance and rehabilitation – though ironically the king who oversaw the seizure of Templar property, Edward II, would come to be accused himself of sodomy by his political enemies. I’ve posted on this before. One of his accusers was a bishop who had been prominent in the Templar trials – in other words, accusing people of sodomy seems to have been a regular tactic of his.
Repeatedly, we see heretics throughout the medieval period accused of sodomy with the Templars suffering the same indignity. Question – were they indeed sodomites? Well, if they were like many monks and knights of the time – and indeed all men throughout human history – we can assume that some Templars were gay and indulged their passions. But they would have been aware of the biblical prohibition on the act.
However, the idea that sodomy was a part of their initiation and thereby practised by the entire order is far fetched and smacks of a campaign of spin by the Catholic church and French monarchy.
This month’s edition of ‘History Today’ mentions in passing a certain bishop called Adam of Orleton who in a sermon on October 15th, 1327 declared that King Edward II of England, who was in the process of being deposed by his wife and a rebel army, was a sodomite. The magazine says this is the first known reference to Edward II being gay – or a ‘sodomite’ to use the unpleasant terminology of the time.
Orleton didn’t actually specifiy who King Edward had sodomised or when – he was just a sodomite. As History Today then points out, this was a tried and tested way of denigrating somebody and had even been used against a Pope. What makes Orleton’s accusation interesting was that he had previous form. Because just a few years earlier, the good bishop had condemned the Templars as sodomites before the pope at his residence in Avignon.
If only Freud had been alive in the Middle Ages, we might have put Orleton’s obsession with homosexuality down to a latent desire to do some sodomising himself. But hey ho, no psychoanalysis for another six hundred years.
So who was bishop Orleton? Well, he seems to have been something of a serial bishop, starting with Hereford. He got that bishopric in the teeth of opposition from Edward II – who he later accuses of being a sodomite. The pope who appoints him is John XXII – often claimed to be the pontiff who initiated an interest witch-hunting that would take off in succeeding centuries. He would be charged with treason by Edward II and had to be placed under the protection of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.
Once Edward II had been overthrown by his wife and her associate Mortimer, Orleton had the joyful experience of visiting the imprisoned king to force him to abdicate. What happened to Edward II next has always been the subject of salacious gossip. The goriest account is that he had a red hot poker shoved up his backside – some say to leave no mark on his body but others as a kind of commentary on his sexual preferences. But the one person who claimed to have witnessed the king’s death later retracted his remarks and some claimed to have seen the ex-king alive years later.
As I said, Orleton had spoken against the Templars a decade before in Avignon accusing them of sodomy. At the trial of the Knights of the Temple, they were said to have kissed each other on the mouth, anus, end of the spine (in anca), naval and ‘virga virilis’. Some say this was done to awaken the ‘kundalini’ serpent of knowledge.
Orleton died in 1345 a wealthy man as bishop of Winchester. His alleged role in the death of Edward II was immortalised by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.