The medieval chroniclers who hated the Knights Templar

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Busy sticking the boot into the Templars!

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”.

 

 

KNIGHTFALL character profile: William De Nogaret

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 Jim Carter 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.

nogaretClearly, 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.

arrestDe 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.

What were the Templars up to in their first decade of existence?

According to the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre, nine “noble men of knightly rank” from the Champagne region of France founded the Templar order in the year 1118. So what they do in their first ten years? Well, the answer is a bit vague:

  • They didn’t wear their characteristic white mantles and red crosses until after 1129 – in fact they wore secular clothes for the first few years
  • But they did observe holy vows of chastity and obedience as if they were monks
  • Nine men swore to protect all the roads leading into Jerusalem so that pilgrims could get to the sacred sites peacefully – just nine men!
  • They gave up holding any property themselves but pooled their resources into the new order
  • The King of Jerusalem gave them what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as their new headquarters
  • They believed the mosque was the Temple of Solomon and called it this
  • After nine years – William of Tyre recounts that there were still only nine knights
institution_of_the_orderof_the_knights_templar_granet
Council of Troyes – turning point for the Templars?

It does seem unusual that the order didn’t grow at all in its first decade. And yet, at the Council of Troyes in 1129, both Pope Honorius and the Patriarch of Jerusalem showered praise on the Templars and allowed them to wear a white mantle. Later they began to sew red crosses on to the front of these mantles.

With support from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – who was a leading cleric of the time but also related to one of the founder Templars and from the same part of France – the order developed its own rule book. Money was pumped into the order through bequests by rich nobles. By 1170, there were 300 knights and “countless” Templar sergeants (a lower rank that could not wear the coveted white mantle).

The mystery though is why the order appeared to stand still in its first decade and yet suddenly expand at an incredible pace after 1129 – both in terms of members and wealth. Why did the King of Jerusalem give nine knights with bold claims control of the Temple of Solomon? And why were Popes so willing to make the Templars answerable only to themselves and to no king, prince or bishop – something that would come to generate intense hatred towards the Knights Templar.

How were the Knights Templar formed?

According to the medieval chronicler William of Tyre – who wasn’t a huge fan of the Templars – the order appeared in the year 1118. They promised to live as canons of the church living under vows of chastity and obedience. Nine knights banded together to form the Knights Templar with two playing a particularly prominent role: Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St Omer.

Templar-KnightsThey pledged to guard the routes to Jerusalem for pilgrims, protecting them from robbers and assassins. In an act of supreme generosity but also laden with meaning, this new militaristic religious order was given what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as its new headquarters. In 1118, it was under crusader Christian control and believed to be the temple of Solomon. Nearby was what’s now the Dome of the Rock but had then been renamed the Temple of the Lord with a crucifix placed on its golden dome.

They wore secular clothes for the first nine years of operation but then in 1129, a group of knights appeared before pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes – where he gave them permission to wear a white habit, signifying their purity. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his day, drew up new rules for the order. The Templars did not have to answer to any power in Christendom except the pope himself.

It’s aroused some curiosity as to how the Templars rose so fast to a point where the pope would take them under his wing within a decade of their formation. By 1170, according to William of Tyre, there were about 300 Templar knights and “countless” Templar sergeants – who were not permitted to wear the white habit, which had now acquired a red cross as well.

From this point onwards – their military, political and financial power increased rapidly.

Templars put on trial in the Tower of London

English: Burning of Templars. (British Library...
English: Burning of Templars. (British Library, Royal 14 E V f. 492v) Deutsch: Verbrennung von Templern. (British Library, Royal 14 E V f. 492v) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1307, the leaders of the Knights Templar were rounded up and arrested in France.  Over the next five years, the wave of suppression spread across Europe and England was no exception. There’s an impressive list of Templars who were sent to the Tower of London – a Norman structure you can still see in the city that was a royal palace, prison, treasury and fortress.

The names included Brother William de la More, master of the Temple in England. Others arrested in London were the prior of the New Temple, Brother Ralph of Barton and a sergeant-brother called William of Hereford.

Templars from outside London were dragged to the Tower including a number from the preceptory at Denny in Cambridgeshire. One of them, Brother John of Hauwile, was noted as having gone insane.

And what were the charges? They were asked whether the Order’s initiation ceremony was secret and if so – why?  The interrogators wanted to know if such ceremonies were held at night, whether the existence of God was denied and if false idols were worshiped.

Interrogated at different churches in London, the Templars mainly denied the charges and affirmed that they knew of each other. They were then brought back to be questioned again – possibly after a bit of softening up. Some of the questioning was bizarre by our standards. William de la More was asked, for example, what words were uttered when a brother who had transgressed the rules was forced to bare his back to be “flogged three times with thongs”.  De la More said the words were “Brother, ask God that he may remit the punishment due to you”.

Like all political trials, the conclusion had been decided before the trial started. An official from York, Master John of Nassington, said he’d attended a banquet at Temple Hirst where the brothers “adored a certain calf” (!). Another witness gave the damning testimony that a cross in a Templar place was filthy and the Templars refused to wash it.

Sodomy came up a lot in the trial with various people saying Templars had attempted to lie with them.  Robert the Dorturer alleged that Brother Guy of Forest, Grand Commander of the Temple, had tried to have sex with him – but he fled in time from the chamber.

A friar claimed he had overheard a Templar called Brother Robert of Bayset walking through a field muttering the words: “Alas, alas that I was ever born because I have had to deny God and bind myself to the Devil“.

Most damningly of all, one witness claimed that all Templars were traitors because through them the sultan – the leader of the Saracens in the crusades – was told what the crusaders were going to do next.  This was an often repeated accusation by the Templars’ critics – that they were consorting with the Muslims.

 

Quest for the True Cross – FAQs

Quest for the True Cross – first in the Templar series

This week sees the official launch of Quest for the True Cross – my Templar adventure, which you can download HERE. I’ve been asked certain questions over and over – and in case you can’t get hold of me this week, here are some quotable answers.

Will this be a Dan Brown type book?

Absolutely not!  From day one, when I started work on this two years ago, I wanted to ground a story about the Templars in the medieval period. There is mystery, adventure and suspense – but all seen through the eyes of 12th century Templars, Moors, kings, bishops and Saracens.

Tell us about the main character?

Sir William de Mandeville is based on a real person – the son of the first Earl of Essex who did indeed end up in a coffin suspended above the ground in an apple tree as I describe.  William is forced to return from the crusades in the Holy Land and in modern terms is suffering from something like post traumatic stress.  This being the Middle Ages though, he thinks he possessed by a demon. Finding his father hanging in a tree doesn’t improve his mental state and propels him on a quest. This is the key theme of the book – William’s struggle to win back his family honour and hold on to his sanity.

What about his companion Pathros?

He’s an important character. A Syrian Christian whose family has fallen victim to the invasion of the Seljuk Turks. Pathros’ father is imprisoned in a dungeon never to be seen again. He leaves Saracen-controlled Aleppo to make a life for himself among the crusaders in Jerusalem. But even though he is taken in by the Templars as a ‘turcopole’ – an auxiliary – his background precludes him ever becoming a full knight. Pathros is stuck between two worlds: he’s rejected by the Saracen east because he’s not a Muslim and he’s rejected by the crusader west because he’s a Syrian and his version of Christianity is viewed as heretical.

You say this book will disappoint those on the far right who have tried to appropriate the Templars for themselves?

Oh yes. If Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik thinks killing children at a summer camp bears any resemblance to the Knights Templar then he’s as deluded as most sane people think he is. The Templars were not sociopathic, murderous loners – they were very much a part of medieval society operating at its highest echelons. They were bankers, farmers, politicians, monks and warriors.

So how do you depict the Middle Ages?

I show all the political dirt, the intriguing, the violence and the massive upheavals that shook people and destroyed their lives.  William lived in a world where Constantinople was still the greatest city and trade was conducted between Cairo, Cordoba, Paris and London. It was a much more globalised place than we sometimes imagine. Christian western Europe was establishing its ascendancy over the Islamic south and the Byzantine east. The balance of power was about to be hugely altered.

Is it full of battle action?

From the start, you’ll get plenty of war!  But it’s the last hundred pages and the taking of Al-Usbuna that will have you on the edge of your seat. William fights alongside the great heroes of Portuguese history – Dom Afonso Henriques, Geraldo Geraldes Sem Pavor, Gualdim Pais, Hugo Martins, Martin Moniz and Pedro Pitoes. I don’t portray them all sympathetically and I might upset some readers with my depictions of these characters. But it’s a warts and all read and neither side – Christian or Muslim – comes out of it unblemished.

More about violence in the Middle Ages

English: Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker 

I mentioned Steven Pinker‘s new book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘ on the history of violence and his view that contrary to what many believe, violence is actually on the decline – relatively speaking.  To illustrate his point, he gives examples of random acts of brutality in the Middle Ages that appear to have been everyday occurrences.  Some are truly awful while others almost make you laugh in disbelief.

What are we to make of this, re-quoted from historian Barbara Tuchman, describing a ‘sport’: “Players with hands behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…”  And that was nothing compared to the more bizarre spectacle of a pig being clubbed to death for popular amusement.

Then there is the angry medieval shopper that Pinker re-quotes from a book written by historian Barbara Hanawalt: “It happened at Ylvertoft on Saturday next before Martinmass in the fifth year of King Edward that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain of Ylvertoft, sent John, his clerk, to John Cobbler’s house to buy a candle for him for a penny. But John would not send it to him without the money wherefore William became enraged, and, knocking in the door upon him, he struck John in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth and he died forthwith.”

Historian Valentin Groebner has written an article called ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town’. It deals with the prevalence of nasal mutilation in the Middle Ages as a punishment and as a way of exacting revenge on an enemy. So common was this activity that medical textbooks of the period even speculated whether a severed nose could grow back!!  Cutting off your nose to spite your face referred to real attacks on noses.  In case you think this practice has died out – I’m afraid to say the Taliban think it’s acceptable to do this to young girls in today’s Afghanistan.

Funeral effigies – how the dead appeared at their own burial

Visited Westminster Abbey today – where Wills and Kate just got married of course – and what held my morbid attention the most was the funeral effigies.  These strange objects are located in the 11th century vaulted undercroft of the abbey.

Basically, the abbey you know and love was built in the 13th century but below it are the remains of the earlier 11th century church of St Peter built by Edward the Confessor and completed by William the Conqueror. Most of it was demolished to make way for the much bigger building you see today, constructed in the Gothic style.  However, when you go to the cloister, you can access several rooms built around the 1050s and 1060s.   The Templar era covers the existence of both churches.

The abbey museum is in a room in the undercroft and the main objects to view are these life size effigies of England’s previous monarchs.  Up to around 1300, the real king was dressed up after death and put on display at funerals.  In spite of some sterling efforts at preservation – nothing on a par with Egyptian mummification though – the bodies tended to putrefy and even explode.  This being rather disagreeable, an alternative was devised.  A wooden model of the corpse was made with real hair, finely painted and dressed in the dead monarch’s clothes.  This was then lain on top of the casket during the funeral procession.

The model was then frequently sat next to the gravestone for years – and in some cases, centuries.  They weren’t always treated with respect and the wax and wood effigy of Elizabeth I had to be completely remade in the 18th century – 200 years after her death.  What was left of the original effigy of 1603 is still on display – a headless wooden figure (the original wax head was long gone) in just its undergarments….not very dignified.

The 17th and 18th century models of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne and various aristocrats are in amazing condition but obviously fall way out of the historical zone of this blog.  But go see them.  Henry VII – father of Henry VIII – has only got his wooden head and shoulders on display.  Believe it or not, the rest of the body was destroyed by a bomb in World War II.  From the Middle Ages, we have Anne of Bohemia (queen of Richard II) and Katherine de Valois (queen of Henry V).

This practice of displaying models of the dead at their funerals goes back at least to Roman times.  The likeness of many of these models to the dead are said to have been eerily accurate.  And one must assume that pre-Christian ideas of communing with the ancestors through these figures had to be a common belief.  Whether you’re a student of funerary rites through the ages or just like to gawp at historical fashions – the clothes on the dummies are original and very sumptuous – then go down to the undercroft and feast your eyes.