We’re used to the idea of the Knights Templar being either vilified or heroised since their destruction in 1307 – but what’s more intriguing is the way that people wrote about the Templars while they were still up and running….and crusading.
Because the views of the Templars from contemporary sources are often pretty damning. William of Tyre, for example, seems to have dipped his pen in bile and poison before scribbling anything down about the Templars.
His account has often been taken as gospel and quoted by Muslim authors writing about the wicked knights. But these days, historians realise that some of these chroniclers had wider and deeper agendas. They were serving those who had an interest in undermining the Templars for a variety of reasons.
So what accusations and insults were hurled by the Templars’ critics? It tended to go along these lines:
They are in league with the Muslim enemy and not serving Christ at all
The Templars are only interested in money and are greedy and self-serving
They are not brave in battle but reckless and put other lives in danger
The Templar rituals include abominable acts such as spitting on crucifixes
These chroniclers undoubtedly made it much easier for King Philip of France and Pope Clement to destroy the Templars in 1307. A long legacy of brickbats being thrown at the warrior knights fostered the impression that there had always been something rotten about the order from the outset.
As early as 1170, the aforementioned William of Tyre, after describing how the Templars came into being, asserted that they had abandoned their early humility and gorged themselves with riches. Why, they had even ditched their commitment to obey the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had helped them in the early days, swearing loyalty to the Pope in Rome alone. Such ingratitude!
They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.
Another chronicler, Matthew Paris, expressed a common gripe among the mainstream clergy: as the Templars were getting so many donations, where was it all going? He wrote that the order “swallow down such great revenues as if they sink them into the gulf of the abyss”.
It’s one of those weeks again when a Friday 13th occurs and our thoughts turn to the Knights Templar. So why is the 13th so significant?
On the morning of Friday 13th October 1307, a huge dawn raid saw Templars all over France rounded up and imprisoned. Orders to conduct this raid had been secretly circulated to law enforcement officers – bailiffs as they were termed – from the King of France.
King Philip the Fair had resolved to destroy the order with one devastating blow. Each bailiff would have read the king’s words with trepidation:
A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from humanity.
The king claimed that while the Templars said they were Christian, they were in effect nothing of the sort. Honest men had informed the royal authorities that these knights were spitting and urinating on crucifixes and worshipping devilish idols. Worse, the Templars were giving each other illicit kisses all over their bodies including the “base of the spine”.
Every member of the Knights Templar was to be held for trial by the church while the King of France would take over all the assets of the Templars – buildings, gold, farms, etc.
Some knights managed to escape including the Preceptor of France, Gerard de Villiers. One has to feel rather sorry for another terrified knight who ditched his white mantle, shaved his beard and got into disguise but was still apprehended by the king’s men.
The evidence suggests that nearly all the Templars had no idea what was about to happen. As the bailiffs kicked down their doors, the knights surrendered to their doom.
They were carted off to grim dungeons where many experienced a range of tortures to extract confessions. The king was determined that they would admit their guilt to the charges of sodomy and heresy.
Many of those taken away to have their feet roasted or hung up with their arms tied behind their back – two common forms of torture – were old men by the standard of the day. They were retired warriors or members of the order who had always been farm managers or administrators.
Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master, was probably the most surprised victim of the Friday 13th arrests. Only the day before, he had been an honoured guest at the funeral of the king’s sister-in-law.
In 1307, the Knights Templar were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured under secret orders issued by the King of France. The trials of top Templars would last for years and lead to many being burnt at the stake including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. He was incinerated in public in front of Notre Dame cathedral.
A string of scandalous accusations were made against the Knights Templar to justify smashing the order. I recommend Malcom Barber’s detailed account of The Trial of the Templars if you want to learn a lot more.
Here were some of the most noteworthy charges:
New entrants to the Templar order had to deny Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints
Templars were told that Christ was a false prophet and there was no hope of receiving salvation through belief in him
Knights were ordered to spit on a crucifix and even urinate or trample on it
The order worshipped a head of some description, possibly that of a cat or with three faces or an idol called Baphomet
This idol was encircled with cords, which the Templars then wore around their waists
The Knights Templar rejected the sacraments of the Catholic church
It was thought that the Grand Master and other leading Templars could absolve sins even though they were laymen and not priests
New entrants were kissed on the mouth, the navel, the stomach, the buttocks and the spine and homosexuality was encouraged
The Templars were only interested in financial gain and pocketed donations for their own use
Chapter meetings and initiations were held in strictest secret with only Templars present and those that revealed any details to people outside of the order would be punished with imprisonment or death
A short film from the Smithsonian includes a reenactment of what the alleged initiation ritual looked like.
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.