On Friday, October 13, 1307, the French King, Philip (Philip IV) the Fair, arrested and charged with heresy the various knights, monks, and households of the Knights Templar, in defiance of the then-current Pope Boniface VIII’s authority. Thus begins the most famous or infamous, depending on your belief, trial of Medieval times: the trial of the Knights Templar, or the Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ.
The Order of the Knights Templar was beholden only to the Pope as was set out in their formal inception as a military-sacred order in 1129 C.E. at the Council of Troyes. The Knights had a strict Rule of Order, written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, emphasizing chastity, obedience, and poverty. Originally charged with guarding the pilgrims who came to a newly-won Christian Jerusalem, the knights performed further duties over the course of their approximately 190 years of existence: they fought in the Crusades, took in younger sons of nobles and trained them in monastic and chivalric duties, and acted as monetary brokers to the pilgrims. Due to the interest in securing the Holy Land for pure Christian purposes, many European nobles and royalty gave large sums of money, younger sons, and land to the Order, who also acted as bankers for several members of royalty.
At the time of their arrest, the Templars were one of the richest organizations in Christendom. They were money changers and deposit bankers, one of the largest religiously sanctioned banking functions in the Middle Ages. Being beholden to the Pope, and only the Pope, did not hurt their lofty status; they were answerable to no King or Duke, ostensibly working for all of the Christian faith. That is, they had little temporal control over their comings and goings. This apparent secrecy hurt them, in the end, as false charges were difficult to disprove. Yet, their status as protectors of pilgrims never wavered, even when the Crusades were beginning to fail. As Christians lost control of the Holy Land to other religions, the Templars pulled back their protection efforts yet still retained their status as bankers and pious warrior monks.
This was a group that did not know how to reinvent itself. Indeed, their last Grandmaster, Jacques de Molay, was seen as both pious and inefficient. Lacking vision, the Grandmaster pushed for a new crusade as their original charter dictated, perhaps to the Order’s detriment. There was tremendous political upheaval within the Catholic church, and this entered the period of the French papacy, puppets of the French royalty. There are some scholars who believe the Knights Templar lost their humility and shifted the way of the powerfully rich, feeling that money and their connection to the Pope would save them from all political or temporal concerns.
In the end, we have to rely on contemporary reviews of medieval writings, from everyone but the Templars, on their motivations and defense. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of contemporary writings about the Knights Templar, with nearly as many theories of “why” and “what.” Grand schemes involving treasures and magic have surfaced with little substantiation behind them. The truth can be found, we hope, in the primary resources and period writings. At least in part.
From his book, “Trial of the Templars,” Malcolm Barber seeks to lay out how the Templars met their downfall. From the introductory material, we read:
The Templars fought against Islam in the Crusader East for nearly two centuries. During that time the original small band grew into a formidable army, backed by an extensive network of preceptories in the Latin West. In October 1307, the members of this seemingly invulnerable and respected Order were arrested on the orders of Philip IV, King of France, and charged with serious heresies, including the denial of Christ, homosexuality and idol worship. The ensuing proceedings lasted for almost five years and culminated in the suppression of the Order. The motivations of the participants and the long-term repercussions of the trial have been the subject of intense and unresolved controversy, which still has resonances in our own time.
Barber first published this book in 1978, with a second edition in 2006, one year before the Vatican released the official documents they had on the Templar trials. More on this below. Barber endeavors to explain in clear terms what was going through the minds of the main players of the story. For those who are interested in a scholarly rather than sensational approach to the story, this is the goto accessible book. You can download a copy from Academia.edu Much of the downfall of the Templars, their “secrets,” are very fanciful ideas with no supporting evidence. Sensationalized by “The Da Vinci Code,” among other media, the facts regarding who the Templars were, what they achieved, and what ultimately led to their downfall have been somewhat lost.
As to the reason for the arrests and trial, two theories reign. The first is that the Templars were arrested on the charge of Heresy as that is the only charge that could force the organization to deliver all its material wealth to the regional authorities: in this case, Philip IV in France. Philip was broke, after having seized monies from all his available sources and this source, the Knights Templar, were the last richest group he could possibly tap. Having some control over the Pope afforded Philip the ability to take the step of arrest without the Pope’s approval. The Pope attempted to control the situation by issuing the arrest warrants for all Templars throughout Christendom, and force the trials to be run by the Papacy rather than the regional monarchs. This did little to help the Order survive as the defaming, true or not, caused a general apathy towards the original goal of the Knights Templar.
The second theory for the arrest is slightly less supported, although also possible. In this second theory, Philip was being fed information about the Templar’s heresy by French members of the Order. Philip was known as a devoted Catholic and husband, and when his wife died, he turned his bitterness into hate for the Templars’ supposed heresy. In this single-minded desire to rid France of all things un-Christian, he issued the arrest for what he deemed to be a heretical group living in his domain, a reason for God to punish his household and kingdom. Whether money factored into this decision or not is not known.
Ultimately, we only have the few written documents of the time to try to suss out what really happened. Barber’s conclusion is that whatever the reason for the arrests and subsequent trial, the forces which brought down the Knights Templar were external, not a glaring internal insufficiency.
For people who are really interested in how the Templars began, a copy of the work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Rule of the Knights Templar, can be had from your bookseller. St. Bernard was a leading theologian of his time, attending popes and royalty alike. His rule came out of the work he did in the Council of Troyes, and became the ideal of the chivalric orders. The book is a dry read but it does outline what it meant to be a warrior and a monk, a new professional and religious vocation in medieval society. Another book written by Bernard and edited by historian Malcolm Barber, is “In Praise of The New Knighthood: A Treatise on the Knights Templar and the Places of the Holy Land.” In this second book, St. Bernard gives us an expose on the ideals of the warrior-monk life and how this new medieval knight serves the greater good.
In early 2007, the Vatican announced that the papers regarding the trial of the Templars had been found, and in October of that same year, they published 799 copies of “Processus Contra Templarios” or the Processes Against the Templars. In this book are contained copies of original manuscripts and papal bulls, decrees, and transcripts of everything the Church would allow published of the Templar trial. It can still be found for sale, at prohibitive sums; it would be a good solid read for any true scholar of the Templars if it could be found available to the public. One can hope that the Vatican, someday, releases it to a far wider audience. Some scholars on academia.edu’s reference site have placed papers about the Templars, some of them referencing this Vatican book, including one treatise on the Chinon Parchment, the written conclusion of absolution of the charges of heresy against the Order written by the then-pope, Clement V and the college of cardinals. “The document contains the absolution Pope Clement V gave to the Grand Master of the Temple, friar Jacques de Molay and to the other heads of the Order, after they had shown to be repented and asked to be forgiven by the Church; after the formal abjuration, which is compelling for all those who were even only suspected of heretical crimes, the leading members of the Templar Order are reinstated in the Catholic Communion and readmitted to receive the sacraments.”
What began in glory ended in sadness and death. The Rule of the Order, and many of the moral tenants live on today in Freemasonry, if perhaps a shadow of what they were. Freemasons endeavor to lead a nobly simple life, focusing on Service rather than reward. Additionally, there are groups of Freemasons who participate in rituals dedicated to the Knights Templar and continue to work toward the ideals of the original Templars.
For hundreds of years, the Knights Templar seemed to be a shamed group, shrouded in mystery and falsehood. Now, after seven hundred years, the Order of the Templars are absolved of their heresy and can rest an eternal, peaceful sleep of justice.