Astonishingly, the Vatican sat on key documents relating to the trial of the Knights Templar for seven hundred years until author and Vatican archivist Barbara Frale uncovered the so-called Chinon Parchment and made her discovery public in 2001. This was followed in 2007 by the Vatican’s belated release of the original trial documents.
However, contrary to what many people think, the parchment and trial account are not an exoneration of the order by the pope of that time – far from it!
Back in 1307, the Knights Templar had reached a bit of a low ebb. The crusades were failing. The Holy Land was lost. Cyprus was their main eastern stronghold.
So, the last Grand Master – Jacques De Molay – headed west to drum up interest in a new crusade. But by this time, the medieval public had gone down with a severe case of crusade fatigue. Regaining Jerusalem – surrendered to Islam over a century before – looked like a total lost cause.
Add to that a mercurial king of France, Philip the Fair, who was continuously short of money. He’d shaken down the Jews, Lombards and monasteries and now cast a greedy eye over the Templars. Weren’t they loaded? Only one way to find out.
So, in 1307 he rounded the Templars up, locked the knights in dungeons where they were tortured to sign false confessions and headed for the Paris Temple, a massive fortress, to fill his boots with Templar loot. Needless to say, he found nothing. The money had gone.
In order to assault the Templars, the king had to sell this drastic action to his people with a tsunami of fake news about the order. The knights were sorcerers, heretics, sodomites, rebels, robbers and so on. These accusations needed a holy seal of approval and luckily for Philip there was a compliant French pope at hand, Clement V, to give the thumbs up.
For seven years, the pope and his cardinals questioned Jacques De Molay and other senior Templars to squeeze confessions out of them. De Molay had returned to France in good faith to raise money and recruits for a new crusade but now found himself in court fighting for his life. At times, he broke down and admitted to the king’s trumped up charges but then recovered his nerve and tore up his previous statements.
There was only one way this appalling farce was going to end and in 1314, De Molay was burnt at the stake with two other Templars as heretics who had refused to recant. And so it might have rested. But clearly the church felt more than a pang of guilt at destroying a military order that had shown nothing but unswerving loyalty to its Catholic mission and the pope. The Chinon Parchment shows how the pope wrestled with his conscience.
Frale’s discovery of this stunning document might look like a complete exoneration of the Templars by the papacy. But it’s not. In a rather mealy-mouthed way, it lets the knights off the heresy hook but damns them on other charges. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which their dissolution was conducted and reveals a pope who was bitterly unhappy at being strong armed into this course of action.
Interestingly, it airs the Templar justification for one of its more curious practices – that of spitting on the crucifix. The order claimed that this prepared knights for being captured by the Muslim enemy. Attempts by the Saracens to break their will in captivity through acts of sacrilege could be resisted by the imprisoned Templars because they had already role played this kind of scenario.
Frale has also claimed that the Vatican archive contains evidence that the worship of a head may not have been a profane and pagan activity but a veneration of the body of Jesus. It’s often assumed that the head referred to was variously that of John the Baptist or the prophet Mohammed (if you think the Templars were secretly in league with the Saracens!) or even a cat. But Frale thinks it might have been a representation of the Messiah.
However, the Templars are not given a seal of approval anywhere in the Chinon Parchment. The pope seems to have absolved the Templars without exonerating them. Maybe this gave them a papal passport to heaven but it still meant they were going to be burnt to death first.
It’s hard to imagine this gave them much comfort as their bones were broken in torture chambers and their bodies consumed by fire.