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The Knights Templar on Trial
The Trial of the Templars in the British Isles 1308-1311
By Helen J. Nicholson
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Helen J. Nicholson
All rights reserved.
The Beginning of the Trial of the Templars
The Order of the Temple was a religious-military institution originally founded by a group of warriors in Jerusalem in the decades following the First Crusade. The function of this group was approved both by the king of Jerusalem and by the patriarch (head of the Christian Church in the kingdom) at a Church Council at Nablus in 1120. It was to protect Christian pilgrims on the roads to the pilgrimage sites around Jerusalem, while its members also helped to defend the territories that the crusaders had conquered. In January 1129, at a Church Council at Troyes in Champagne, in what is now north-eastern France, the Templars were given papal approval and acknowledgement as a formal religious Order, with an official uniform or 'habit', and a rule of life. As members of a religious Order, the members of the Order made three vows: to obey their superior officer, to avoid sexual activity and to have no personal property. They became known as 'Templars' after their headquarters in Jerusalem, which westerners believed had been King Solomon's Temple but in fact was the Aqsa mosque, constructed from the seventh century AD onwards.
Western European Christians gave the Templars extensive gifts of land and money and privileges (such as tax concessions and legal rights) to help them in their work of fighting on behalf of Christendom, and the members of the Order also traded and acted as government officials for the rulers of western Christendom. On the frontier between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Iberian Peninsula they conducted military operations, but elsewhere in Europe they lived a peaceful life, very similar to members of other religious orders. For nearly two centuries the Templars were an everyday sight; they farmed their lands, lodged travellers in their houses and looked after the valuables of merchants and rulers. Their estates in Europe were divided into provinces, each administered by a grand commander, while the individual houses in each province were grouped into commanderies, each under a commander (in Latin, a preceptor). Each province had an annual general meeting of commanders, known as a 'chapter meeting' – the traditional monastic term for house management meetings – at which their incomes were collected together to be forwarded to the East, business was discussed and problems resolved. The grand commanders were summoned less frequently to a general chapter meeting, which was generally held at the Order's headquarters in the Levant.
But although in the Iberian Peninsula their military operations alongside the Christian kings of the Peninsula were largely successful, in the Middle East – where they were facing increasingly well-organised, militarily efficient opponents – it became clear by the second half of the thirteenth century that even the military skills of the Templars and their sister military orders the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights could not protect the crusader states forever. The Latin (Catholic) Christians finally lost control of Jerusalem in 1244, and the new capital of the kingdom, Acre, was conquered by al-Ashraf Khalil, Mamluk sultan of Egypt, in May 1291. The Templars and the Hospitallers who survived the heroic final defence of Acre moved their headquarters to Cyprus and set about trying to organise a new crusade. They were still involved in fighting the Turks of Anatolia and the Mamluks in Syria, as well as the Muslim rulers of the kingdom of Granada in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. But various factors conspired to prevent their launching a new expedition to recover the territories in the Middle East.
Nearly two decades later, during the trial of the Templars in France, John Cenaudi, sergeant-brother and commander of Chalons-sur-Saône in the diocese of Clermont in the Auvergne, France, stated that he had taken part in a general chapter meeting which had taken place at Nicosia in Cyprus in the year which Acre fell, with 400 brothers present. As there were not as many as 400 brothers on Cyprus, this must have included brothers from overseas. The obvious reason for assembling such a large meeting would be planning for a new crusade. Shortly after this meeting, the newly-elected Templar grand master Jacques de Molay travelled to the West to see the leader of Catholic Christendom, Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303), and discuss the possibilities for a new crusade. Encouraged by the pope's support, he then went on to visit the kings of France (Philip IV) and England (Edward I). Edward I had begun his reign when he was on crusade to the East in 1271–2; Philip IV came from a long line of crusading kings. But as these two kings were currently at war against each other in Aquitaine they were not able to promise any military aid.
Jacques de Molay was in England between late 1293 and early summer 1294, where he presided over a provincial chapter meeting. He then moved on to the kingdom of Aragon, which he reached by the end of August 1294. He eventually returned to the East with promises and privileges, but no actual military aid.
The Templars were still active in military affairs in the East, but on a small scale. At the start of the fourteenth century they maintained a garrison on the island of Arwad, called Ruad by the Franks, which is just off the coastal city of Tortosa (plate 7). But the island is too small to be defensible, and in October 1302 the naval forces of the Mamluk sultan of Egypt sacked the island and took the Templars there prisoner or killed them. The scandal of this defeat clearly had a serious impact on the Order, as the grand commander of Ireland, Henry Danet, referred to it during the trial of the Templars in Ireland.
Although no new crusade materialised, Jacques de Molay continued his planning. The Templars' operations continued as usual, with the grand commanders of the Order's provinces in western Europe being summoned to consult with the grand master and convent, while the official known as 'the visitor' travelled around the western provinces checking that high standards of discipline were being maintained. According to Brother William Middleton – one of the two Templars in Scotland in 1308 – Brother Hugh Peraud, the visitor, came to England when Brother William de la More, the grand commander of England, was out of the country meeting the grand master Jacques de Molay. Hugh Peraud removed some commanders from their posts and substituted others. This would have been in 1304. As well as reorganising the management of the Order in England, Hugh Peraud apparently collected money in large quantities. During the trial of the Templars in Ireland, Brother Ralph of Bradley was asked about the duties of the visitor. He replied: 'that he has never seen the visitor, but he has heard tell from a great many brothers that he sells grain and timber and having accumulated money he transports it to overseas parts; and he does nothing else, as far as he has heard.'
Pope Boniface VIII died in October 1303 after a serious dispute with King Philip IV of France, which saw the pope arrested by King Philip's leading minister Guillaume de Nogaret and members of the Colonna family, the pope's political enemies. The next pope, Benedict XI, died within a year. His successor was selected because he was acceptable both to the king of France and to his opponents. Bertrand de Got, who took the name Clement V, had been born in France; but he was not a direct subject of the king of France because he was from Gascony, which was the king of England's hereditary fief. Clement V was crowned pope at Lyon in what is now southern France on 14 November 1305. Preferring to avoid the factional disputes in Rome, Clement never went to the traditional papal home, but remained within what is now France.
King Edward I of England died on 7 July 1307. Renowned across Europe for his military skills and courage and a patron of chivalry, he had long been a friend of the military religious Orders of the Temple and the Hospital. While he lived, the Templars could hope that he would sponsor a new crusade to the east; but Edward died en route to another military expedition to Scotland, with his latest crusading vow unfulfilled. King Philip IV of France might talk of crusades, but he had no money to launch one. Clearly no other European monarch was about to embark on such an enterprise.
The Beginning of the Trial of the Templars
Instead, by the summer of 1307, some monarchs of western Europe had decided that the Templars' property could be put to better use. Clive Porro has recently shown that on 18 August 1307 King Dinis of Portugal initiated legal proceedings against the Templars in his kingdom. He claimed from them certain lands which had been given to them by his ancestors, but (he said) the lands had been granted only temporarily because the Templars were in the king's service. Now he wanted those lands back. In France, King Philip IV took far more drastic measures. On 13 October 1307 all the Templars within the kingdom of France were arrested on charges of heresy, and their property confiscated. The Templars were imprisoned and interrogated. They were told that witnesses had already told the pope and king about the heretical practices at the Templars' reception ceremonies, and that unless they confessed they would be killed. Philip's instructions to his officials were that torture should be used if necessary to obtain confessions. If the Templars were found guilty of heresy, then the king could legally keep their property.
Philip needed money. His financial problems had already led to riots – notably in Paris in 1306, where the king himself had had to hide from the rioters in the Templars' tower (plate 9). But he could not simply take the money he needed from his subjects, because he had to abide by the law and precedent. The machinery of the heresy trial offered him a means of bypassing the law. He could show his subjects that he was an effective Christian ruler while at the same time resolving his financial problems.
The success of the king's plan relied on the use of torture to extract confessions. Since 1252 the papacy had allowed torture to be used in the interrogation of heretics in order to obtain confessions, and it had become normal procedure when suspects refused to confess. The most common form of torture used at this time was the strappado: the accused's hands were tied behind his or her back and attached to a rope which was thrown over a beam; the accused was hauled into the air and allowed to hang there, then lowered to the ground, then hauled into the air again. The rack was also used: this was a triangular frame on which the accused was tied, the ropes holding the accused were attached to a windlass, the windlass was turned and the ropes tightened until the accused's joints were dislocated. Lesser tortures included tying the accused's hands tightly to cut off the circulation of the blood, preventing the accused from sleeping, or simply starving the accused by keeping him or her on a diet of bread and water for several weeks.
There were strict rules about the use of torture: it should not cause death or permanent injury, a medical expert should be present, and a notary had to keep a record of what was done. Yet the Templars of France claimed that these procedures were not always followed during the trial of their Order. When the papal investigation into the Templars' affair in France got under way in 1309, the papal commissioners heard many cases of the misuse of torture. Bernard of Vado, a priest from Albi, told the papal commissioners that his feet had been rubbed with fat and then held in front of a fire, so that the skin of his toes burned, and a few days later two bones fell out of his feet. John of Cormeilles, serving-brother, had lost four teeth through being tortured during his interrogation at Paris. Other Templars had not suffered permanent physical injury, but had lied because of the torture.
Against this background of torture and intimidation it is not surprising that out of 138 Templar testimonies which survive from the interrogations in Paris in October–November 1307, only four Templars did not immediately confess to the charges. Of ninety-four Templar testimonies which survive from other provinces of France in this period, the majority confessed to the charges. However, a contemporary writer pointed out that thirty-six Templars in the Parisian house alone had died under torture rather than confess to the charges. Apparently, the interrogators in France did not always record the testimonies of those who refused to confess.
King Philip IV had been successful in obtaining confessions, but he had stepped outside his own jurisdiction. The prosecution of heresy was not the responsibility of a secular ruler but a spiritual matter, and so the business of the Church. In August 1307, Pope Clement V had written to the king that when he first became pope in November 1305 he had heard rumours about heresy within the Order of the Temple, which he had been inclined to dismiss; but he had at last decided to launch an investigation. Now Clement was furious that Philip had gone ahead with his own enquiry without his authority or permission. However, the Templars in France had confessed to the charges of heresy, and even though those confessions had been obtained by force they could not simply be set aside. Again, as Clement was then staying near Poitiers, within the kingdom of France, his freedom to act against the French king was limited. Accepting Philip's actions as a fait accompli, on 22 November 1307 he sent out letters to the kings of Catholic Christendom, telling them to arrest and interrogate the Templars.
King Edward II of England had already told his father-in-law-to-be what he thought about the charges against the Templars. Philip had sent Bernard Pelet, one of the original denouncers of the Templars, to England with details of the appalling heresies of which the Templars were accused. But Edward had replied that he was not prepared to believe the accusations, for the Templars had always faithfully served his ancestors and protected the Holy Land. On 4 December 1307 he wrote on the same lines to the pope, to his allies King James II of Aragon and King Dinis of Portugal, and to his relatives, King Ferdinand of Castile and King Charles II of Naples. Yet Edward did undertake to investigate the affair, and on 16 November 1307 he wrote to William de Dene, royal seneschal in Agen (the general area where the charges had originated), instructing him to come to Boulogne at Christmas to brief him about the Templars' case.
In the long run Edward could not oppose the pope's commands, because in England his position was unstable. He owed vast sums of money, debts left to him from the wars of his father, King Edward I; he was unpopular with his nobles, who despised his friendship with Piers Gaveston, a knight from Gascony, and who believed that the gifts, favour and influence the young king gave to his friend would be better given to themselves; he was losing the war in Scotland against Robert Bruce, whom the pope had excommunicated, and he wanted to retain papal support on that front; and also he was due to marry King Philip IV of France's daughter Isabelle, a ceremony which took place at Boulogne in what is now northern France on 25 January 1308.
King James II of Aragon and Albert of Habsburg, emperor-elect of Germany and Italy, were also sceptical, but like Edward II they could not withstand events. But while these rulers set about organising the arrest of the Templars within their realms, Pope Clement Vdemanded that the French trial be put into the hands of the Church. Jacques de Molay and the other high dignitaries of the Templars in France then withdrew their confessions, claiming that they had confessed only out of fear of being tortured. In February 1308 Clement V called a halt to the trial.
As he had done against Pope Boniface VIII, King Philip IV attempted to muster the support of the French Church and people behind him, attacking the pope's reputation and arguing that it had been his duty as a good Christian monarch to arrest the Templars. In early May 1308, Philip called representatives of the 'three estates' of his kingdom – the clergy, nobles and townspeople – to a meeting at Tours. Representatives went with the king to the pope at Poitiers to urge him to continue the trial.
In June 1308 Clement V decided to hear the Templars' testimonies for himself. Seventy-two Templars were sent to Poitiers by King Philip IV, and the pope listened as they repeated the confessions that they had made to the king's interrogators. After further discussion with King Philip, Clement agreed that the investigations against the Templars should continue, but that the bishops – who had always held primary responsibility for investigating heresy in their dioceses – should lead the investigations. Each bishop should be assisted by two canons (priests) of his cathedral church, two Dominican friars and two Franciscan friars.
Excerpted from The Knights Templar on Trial by Helen J. Nicholson. Copyright © 2011 Helen J. Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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