Today in European history: the Knights Templar order is purged (1307)

The Knights Templar are the more famous of the two major Christian military orders that were founded during the Crusades; the other, the Knights Hospitaller, we’ve encountered in talking about the failed Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565. The Hospitallers, in fact, are still around today, although nowadays you may see them called the “Order of St. John” or the “Order of Malta.” The Templars, meanwhile, barely survived into the 14th century before the entire order was wiped out in a collaborative effort by Pope Clement V (d. 1314) and French King Philip IV (d. 1314), which mostly had to do with the fact that Philip owed the Templars a lot of money and didn’t want to pay them back.

After the last Crusader strongholds along the eastern Mediterranean coast were lost to the Mamluks around the turn of the 14th century, you might have thought that the Templars, being an organization that was founded to protect Christian pilgrims in the Latin-controlled Holy Land, would simply cease to exist. But the Templars weren’t about to just dissolve their order, and anyway the hope was that Christian forces would soon recover their lost Outremer kingdoms and they could then go back. The order simply relocated, first to Cyprus and then back to their original home in the Champagne region of France. This didn’t sit so well with Philip, and you can kind of understand why, right? I mean, here’s this military order full of trained knights occupying part of Philip’s territory that, because of papal decree, wasn’t subject to Philip’s authority and paid no taxes to the French monarchy. And they seem to have had plans to set up their own European principality, along the lines of the Hospitaller principality on the island of Rhodes (which later relocated to Malta) or the kingdom that the Teutonic Knights established when they conquered Prussia in the 13th century. Already this isn’t looking good.

Now couple the uneasiness that Philip must have felt about the Templars in general with the fact that the French Capetian monarchy was heavily in debt to the Templars.

Yes, see, when the Templars weren’t fighting in the Holy Land, they’d been developing one of medieval Europe’s first large-scale banking operations. They started by offering deposit services to Christian pilgrims headed for the Holy Land, which let them deposit their goods and money with the Templars in Europe and receive the 12th century equivalent of a traveler’s cheque that could be redeemed once they arrived in the Levant. The pilgrims got to travel without having to carry around a lot of stuff that could invite brigands, and the Templars, well, they made lots of money. Usury was strictly against Church law back in those days, but the Templars found a number of ways to sidestep that obstacle and still get quite rich from their banking activity.

When their banking was coupled with the massive donations the Templars brought in from Christian philanthropists who wanted to support the order’s work in the Holy Land, the Knights accumulated an extraordinary amount of money, enough that historians sometimes argue that they were the “first multinational corporation.” And they got their fingers into a lot of different pies: real estate, shipping, building projects, you name it.

Oh, and lending money to needy European bigshots.

Among those bigshots were the Capetians, including Philip IV. Philip owed a lot of money to the Templars and to wealthy Jewish families, but he was also the damn king of France, and if the damn king of France doesn’t want to pay his creditors, who the hell are those creditors to say otherwise? Philip was lucky insofar as one of the groups to which he owed money, those wealthy Jewish families, had no political power nor hope of obtaining any, so in 1306 he simply expelled them from France in lieu of repaying them. But the Templars were a powerful Crusader order that did have political power, as well as support from Rome.

Or did they? The Crusader kingdoms were all gone, and the real source of the Templars’ political power went with them. Clement V owed his elevation to the Papacy to Philip, and at any rate he’d rather pick a fight with the Templars than with the King of France. This was also a period where the relationship between secular European monarchs and the papacy was being redefined in favor of the monarchs, and Philip may have tried to assume traditional papal prerogatives, like rooting out heresy, in order to shift that king-pope dynamic.

Expunging the Templars would, in addition to clearing Philip’s debt to them, also leave their very ample and very tempting treasury ripe for the king to pluck. So Philip proposed to Clement that they create a case against the Templars on charges of heresy, and Clement, for whatever reason, went along with it. On October 13, 1307 (a Friday, which erroneously leads some people to assume that this was the origin of the whole “Friday the 13th” superstition), Philip had every Templar he could find arrested, from Grand Master Jacques de Molay on down.

Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay (d. 1314)

Philip’s torturers coerced confessions out of the Templars that would have been scandalous — among other things, they included reports of blasphemy, homosexuality, idol worship, and devil worship — if they hadn’t been obtained by torture. There are some historians who argue that Philip genuinely believed that the Templars were engaged in heresy, and that this–rather than money–motivated his actions. Me personally, I don’t buy it. Philip had a history of lobbing outrageous charges of religious crimes at his enemies, including Clement’s predecessor’s predecessor as Pope, Boniface VIII (d. 1303). And the fact is that Philip only ever made those kinds of charges when there was money involved (Boniface, for example, wouldn’t let him tax French priests), so I don’t really think there’s much mystery as to his true motives.

Of course, for some medieval audiences, confessions obtained by torture were just as reliable as any other kind of confession, so the charges stuck–in France. In England, where torture was outlawed, no Templars were convicted, and likewise in Germany and Italy, where Church authorities (if you’re only familiar with its bastardized Spanish variant, it may surprise you to learn that the Inquisition was generally better on matters like torture than most European monarchies of the time) were responsible for investigating the charges, rather than the French crown.

Clement issued a Papal Bull ordering all European monarchs to arrest any Templars in their territory and confiscate their property, which many of them were probably happy to do. In 1312, Clement (at Philip’s behest) issued another bull that, despite acknowledging that there was no evidence to support the charges of heresy against the Templars, disbanded the order altogether. Philip had many of his Templar prisoners burned at the stake–even though Clement apparently absolved those who confessed in 1308–while he personally assumed the proceeds of the Templar treasury, of course. In theory, and by Papal order, the Templars’ treasury was supposed to go to the Knights Hospitaller, and eventually much of it did get to them. But the Hospitallers got nothing while Philip was alive, and after he died the French crown took a cut of the loot before transferring the balance to the order.

De Molay and a few other leading Templars recanted their confessions before they were put to death, which really sealed their fates (although, hell, Philip may have put them to death anyway). They were executed in March 1314. Before he died de Molay is alleged to have warned that God would punish those who had falsely accused the Templars and unjustly executed them. Clement did die about a month later and Philip a few months after that, but de Molay’s pronouncement was probably a bit of postdiction invented by later writers. There are various legends about what happened to the Templars who survived the purge (maybe they sailed to America), but little actual evidence to support any of them.

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