This article is an edited transcript of The Templars with Dan Jones on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 11 September 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The Knights Templar are the most famous of the medieval military orders. Originating in Jerusalem in around 1119 or 1120, the Templars evolved into a highly profitable global organisation and a major political power on the world stage – at least in Europe and the Middle East.
But their fortunes began to change around the the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. In 1291, the crusader states were basically wiped out by Mamluk forces from Egypt. The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem relocated to Cyprus, along with a couple of hundred Templars, and then the inquest began.
So from 1291, for about the next 15 years, people started to wonder why the crusader states had been lost and a certain amount of blame – some of it fair, but most of it unfair – was levelled at the Templars and the Hospitallers, another high-profile knightly order.
As military orders, it was the duty of these organisation to guard the people and property of Jerusalem. Thus, manifestly, they’d failed in that duty. So there was a lot of call for reform and reorganisation of the military orders, one idea being that they might be rolled into a single super order and so on.
Fast forward to 1306 and all of this began to intersect with domestic politics and, to an extent, foreign policy in France, the heartland of the Templars.
France, was traditionally the Templars strongest recruiting ground and the Templars had bailed out French kings taken prisoner on crusade. They had also saved a French crusading army and been subcontracted the treasury business of the French crown for 100 years. France was safe for the Templars – or so they had thought until the reign of Philip IV.
As military orders, it was the duty of these organisation to guard the people and property of Jerusalem. Thus, manifestly, they’d failed in that duty.
Philip had been engaged in long struggles against the papacy and a number of popes but most particularly against one called Boniface VIII who he essentially hounded to death in 1303. Even after Boniface’s death, Philip still wanted to dig him up and put him on trial for a sort of concoction of charges: corruption, heresy, sodomy, sorcery, you name it.
The problem really was that Boniface had refused to allow Philip to tax the church in France. But let’s put that aside for a second.
Enter Philip’s money problems
Philip was also in desperate need for cash. It’s often said that he was in debt to the Templars. But it’s not quite that simple. He had a massive structural problem with the French economy that was two-fold. One, he’d overspent massively on wars against France, against Aragon and against Flanders. Two, there was a general shortage of silver in Europe and he couldn’t physically make enough coin.
So, to put it simply, the French economy was in the toilet and Philip was casting about for ways to fix it. He tried taxing the church. But that brought him into an almighty conflict with the pope. He then tried in 1306 to attack the Jews of France who he expelled en masse.
There were 100,000 Jews in France and he expelled them all, taking their property. But that still didn’t bring in enough money for him, and so, in 1307, he began to look at the Templars. The Templars were a convenient target for Philip because their role was somewhat under question following the fall of the crusader states. And he also knew that the order was both cash-rich and land-rich.
In fact, because the Templars were running French treasury functions out of the temple in Paris, Philip knew how much physical coin the order had. He also knew they were extremely wealthy in terms of land and that they were kind of unpopular.
To put it simply, the French economy was in the toilet.
They were also connected with the pope and it was in Philip’s interest to bash the papacy. So he put one, two, three and four together and came up with a plan to arrest en masse all of the Templars in France. He would then charge them with a series of sexed-up – in every sense – accusations.
These included spitting on the cross, trampling on images of Christ, illicit kissing at their induction ceremonies and mandating sodomy between members. If someone wanted to compile a list of things that would shock people in France in the Middle Ages, this was it.
On Friday 13 October 1307, Philip’s agents all over France went at dawn to every Templar house, knocked on the door and presented the houses with the accusations and arrested the order’s members en masse.
These members were tortured and put on show trials. Eventually, an enormous amount of evidence was compiled that appeared to show the Templars individually guilty of terrible crimes against the Christian faith and church and, as an institution, irredeemably corrupt.
The reaction abroad
The initial reaction to Philip’s attack on the Templars from other western rulers seems to have been one of sort of bafflement. Even Edward II, new to the throne in England and not a wonderful or sensible king, couldn’t really believe it.
He was betrothed at that time and soon to be married to Philip’s daughter and so he had an interest in falling in line. But people just sort of shook their heads and said, “What is this guy on? What’s going on here?”. But the process had begun.
The pope at the time, Clement V, was a Gascon. Gascony was English but it was also a part of France and so he was more or less a Frenchman. He was a very pliable pope who was in Philip’s pocket, let’s say. He never took up residence in Rome and was the first pope to live in Avignon. People saw him as a French puppet.
The sexed-up allegations included spitting on the cross, trampling on images of Christ, illicit kissing at their induction ceremonies and mandating sodomy between members.
But even for him it was a little much to countenance the rolling up of the most famous military order in the world. So he did the best he could which was to take over the process of dealing with the Templars himself and say to the king of France, “You know what? This is a church matter. I’m going to take it over and we’re going to investigate the Templars everywhere”.
So that had the effect of the investigation being rolled out to England and Aragon and Sicily and the Italian and German states, and so on.
But while the evidence in France, most of it acquired through torture, shed the Templars in an almost uniformly bad and the order’s members in France were lining up to admit that they’d committed grotesque crimes, in other countries, where torture wasn’t really used, there was not much to go on.
In England, for example, the pope sent French inquisitors to look into the English Templars but they weren’t allowed to use torture and they became incredibly frustrated because they got nowhere.
They said, “Did you have sex with each other and kiss each other and spit on Christ’s image?” And the Templars responded with, “No”.
And in fact, there’s evidence that the French inquisitors started looking into mass extraordinary rendition for the Templars. They wanted to take them all across the channel to the county of Ponthieu, which was another place that was part English and part French, so that they could torture them. It was amazing.
But it didn’t happen in the end. Enough evidence was eventually kind of wheedled out of the Templars in England and elsewhere.
All for nothing?
Anyway, by 1312 all of this evidence had been amassed from the various territories where Templars were based and sent to a church council in Vienne, near Lyon, at which the Templars weren’t allowed to represent themselves.
The king of France parked an army down the road to make sure the council came up with the right result, and the result was that the Templars were useless as an organisation. After that, no one wanted to join them anymore. They were rolled up and shut down. They were gone.
There’s evidence that the French inquisitors started looking into mass extraordinary rendition for the Templars.
But, as with his attacks on the Jews, Philip didn’t get enough out of bringing down the Templars. We have to assume, although we don’t know for sure, that the coin in the Templar treasury in Paris ended up in the French treasury and that would have been a short-term gain in terms of income.
But the Templars’ lands, which was where their real wealth existed, were given to the Hospitallers. They were not given to the king of France.
Philip’s plan must have been to appropriate this land, but it didn’t happen. So his attack on the Templars was really a futile, wasteful and kind of a tragic one because it didn’t gain anyone anything.