The Knights Templar were a militaristic order of monks founded at the time of the First Crusade to protect the Christian people of Europe making the journey to the Holy Land. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent II in 1139 gave the Knights Templar special privileges not granted to other religious orders, including the right to build their own oratories and exemption from tithing. It was also subject only to the orders of the pope. Templars swore an oath of poverty, chastity, and obedience, renouncing the world. Although the Templars were an order of monks, their primary duty was to fight as knights and warriors to protect the Holy Land for Christians. The Templars were able to fulfill this duty successfully, until they were defeated at the Siege of Acre in 1291 and the Holy Land was lost again to the Muslims.1 With no more holdings in the Holy Land, the Templars returned to their various religious manors in Europe.
Due to their military strength, the Templars were able to move vast amounts of gold bullion safely between Europe and the Holy Land. As payment for protection, many royals and aristocrats gave the Templars large estates throughout western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land. When the Holy Land was ultimately lost to the Muslims, many of the ruling classes of Europe blamed the Templars. With no Holy Land to protect, there was no longer a need for the Templars. So, the pope suggested they join the Knights Hospitallers, another religious military order. The Hospitallers despised the Templars’ wealth and refused the attempted merger.2 It was at this time that the rumors of heresy first began for the Templars.3
To fully understand the downfall of the Templars, one must understand King Philip IV of France. Philip wanted to unite the various provinces of France, which required money. So he became the first king of France to institute a kingdom-wide tax. In 1303, Philip accused Pope Boniface VIII of heresy and immorality because the pope opposed his taxation plan. In 1306, Philip expelled all Jews from France and seized all their assets for the crown. He then expelled the Italian bankers and seized their assets.4 Next, Philip went after the Knights Templar, from whom he had borrowed large sums of money that he could not repay. Feeding off of rumors, Philip developed a plan to destroy the Templars and seize all their assets as well.5
On 14 September, 1307, Philip wrote a formal letter in Latin to all the royal knights throughout France, which served as an arrest order for the Templars. The letter stated that all Knights Templars were to be arrested, their belongings confiscated, and that they were to be held in prison to await ecclesiastical trials. This was accompanied by a letter written in French containing specific details for carrying out the arrest. The royal knights were to become familiar with Templar houses in advance without arousing suspicion. On the designated day, the royal knights were to gather a sufficient force, swear them to secrecy, and inform them that they were carrying out these orders on behalf of the Church. They were to arrest the Templars, seize their property, and take an inventory of all seizures that same day. Each Templar was to be held in a separate cell under guard, and questioned by the guards before the being questioned by the inquisitor, who had permission to use torture as needed. The inquisitor was to read the Templar the articles of faith and tell him that the king and the pope already knew what has happened. In return for confessing, a pardon was to be promised. If the Templar confessed, it was to be recorded in front of witnesses along with a detailed description of the manner of inquiry used to elicit the confession. If the Templar refused to confess, he would be put to death. All confessions were to be sent to the king.6
In response to Philip’s letter, Guillaume de Paris, the king’s confessor and papal inquisitor, wrote to his fellow Dominican inquisitors, alerting them of the coming arrest of the Templars, and instructing them on how to question the Templars. Guillaume wrote that he had heard witnesses testify to the heresy the Templars had committed, and that the king’s request had opened an inquisition against all Templars. He required them to have two witnesses for any confession and to send all confessions to the king and to himself. Guillaume added that if the Dominicans found the charges to be true, they should share the information with the Franciscans and other orders to lessen the scandal when it became public.7
Starting at dawn on 13 October 1307, coordinated arrests of almost all Templars in France began. Armed men arrived at the Templar houses, breaking down doors, dragging Templars from prayers and from bed, shackling them, and hauling them off to prison. By noon, it was over. A few Templars managed to escape, some warned by aristocratic friends, others managed to run off in the chaos. Most of those arrested were the simple workers that lived at the farms that supplied the food for the order. None of those arrested knew the charges against them.8
The arrest of the Knights Templar by a secular king was a direct challenge to the authority of the pope. However, Pope Clement V was not a strong pope, often bending to the will of Philip. Clement had been elected to keep Philip in check, but instead allowed Philip to move the entire papacy to Avignon and to appoint a number of French cardinals.9 Any charges of heresy should have come from an ecclesiastical court, but Philip could not wait for Clement to act and chose to force the hand of the pope in order to gain access to the Templar fortune.10
The trials began on 21 October 1307, even though no charges had been brought against the Templars. The first Templar to confess claimed that he had been told to spit on the cross, but he refuse. He confessed he had heard of a bearded human head that was worshiped, but had never seen it. He confessed he was kissed on the naval during the membership ceremony, and he had been told it was acceptable to have sexual relationships with men but not women. This first confession allowed Philip to condemn the entire order. In all, 232 Templars confessed to heresy. All of them claimed not to have been tortured, but the evidence was torture—rope burns, flame marks, shackle bruises—visible when they appeared in court. Official inquisition records show that many of the Templars had been severely tortured before they confessed.11
Pope Clement attempted to intervene and slow Philip’s persecution of the Templars in November 1307, when he issued a papal bull Pastoralis praementiae, that promised the pope would investigate the rumors of heresy and find the truth. Upon hearing this, several Templars began to retract their confessions. However, to make this happen, the Pope ordered Christian princes to arrest all the Knights Templar and seize all their property.12 Investigations in England, Iceland, Germany, and Italy found no truth in the accusations against the Templars, and the Templars were freed in those areas. Pope Clement also did not believe the accusations, and the Council of Vienna in 1311 would eventually find that the charges had not been proven.13 However, this did little to protect the Templars.
In hopes of legitimizing his claim to prosecute the Templars, Philip took his case to the Masters of Theology at the University of Paris in early 1308. He put seven questions to the Masters. The Masters responded in March 1308, without answering any of the questions. They simply stated that the Templars should be tried by an ecclesiastical court.14 Philip refused to honor the decision of the Masters and instead appealed to the people of France. He wanted to punish the Templars for the good of the kingdom. Philip threatened the Pope in May 1308, telling him to act or the people of France would rise up against him in defense of their faith.15 The Pope finally agreed to open a papal inquisition.
In August 1308, charges were finally formally brought against the Templars. Six categories of charges were created based on the confessions of the Templars obtained when first arrested. These categories included acts of heresy, acts of idolatry, acts of immorality, and acts of secrecy.16 Clement did his best to delay the hearing since he did not personally think the Templars were guilty of anything more than making Philip angry. As a result, many of the Templars began to recant their confessions while waiting in prison. This caused Philip to threaten the Templars; any that did not recant their confessions would be given absolution and live, while those that recanted would be placed in solitary and receive only bread and water. If they continued to recant, they would be tortured and be denied communion, and eventually they would be denied absolution and a christian burial.17
Philip grew tired of waiting for the papal commission to make a decision regarding the Templars. He convinced the French Archbishops to put pressure on the Church by condemning the 54 Templars that had tried to defend the Order. On 12 May 1310, the 54 Templars were loaded into several carts and taken to a field just outside Paris. The horses were removed from the carts and the carts were set on fire with the Templars still inside them.18 Following this, the Templars that had recanted their confessions began to revoke any retractions of their confessions in an attempt to stay alive. The papal commission heard testimony from November 1310 to May 1311, and no one came forward to defend the Templars.19
Archbishops throughout Europe were summoned to the Council of Vienna, which took place in October 1311. The council was called by Clement mainly to discuss the fate of the Templar Order as a whole. Many Archbishops refused to attend because they did not want to get involved in what they viewed as a private matter between the Pope and Philip. Most believed the French clergy were afraid of Philip IV and would agree to whatever he demanded. The prelates (high ranking Church officials) did not see any real evidence against the Templars, and decided that the Templars were not guilty of the charges levied against them by Philip.20 However, by the spring of 1312, no decision had been officially released, so Philip brought his army along to Vienna to force a decision from the archbishops. The result was another papal bull, Vox in excelso, which abolished the Order of the Knights Templar. Clement reserved the right to do what he wanted with the Templar properties and other assets. It also declared any further discussion of the Templars pointless, since the Templars no longer existed.21
Many of Europe’s rulers wanted the land that had belonged to the Templars, but in May 1313, Pope Clement issued another papal bull, Ad providem, which gave all the Templar property to the Knights Hospitallers except the property in Iberia, which Clement would deal with at a later date. In order to ensure that the Hospitallers received their lands, the Pope issued a mandate that anyone preventing the Hospitallers from entering their land would be excommunicated. However, to appease Philip, Clement absolved Philip of all debts owed to the Templars and gave him a large sum of money as compensation for his losses incurred during the Templar ordeal.22
The individual Templars were not released from their vows even though their Order no longer existed. The Pope had ordered the remaining Templars moved into other religious houses to do penance and receive absolution. They were given a pension that was significantly higher than the pensions received by other orders. Many of the Templars felt bitter towards the Church and left to live ordinary secular lives as husbands and fathers.23
The Templars imprisoned in France were not so lucky. In March 1314, two years after being condemned and almost seven years after being arrested, they learned their fate. The French Templars were taken before a commission of Cardinals, who refused to make any rulings, and passed them off to secular authorities in Paris. The courts ruled that they be put to death. Philip had them taken to a small island on the Seine and burned at the stake for their crimes.24 The ordeal of the Templars was finally over.
While historians may never know the exact reason Philip IV ordered the demise of the Knights Templar, it was most likely a combination of fear and greed. Philip could not let a heretical group destroy the faith of his people, nor could he allow the Templars to hold such debt over him.25 Philip had the leader of the Church, Pope Clement V, under his control, so there was not much the Church could do to protect the Templars. Witnesses to the Templars’ execution claim that one Templar cursed both Clement and Philip. The curse may or may not be true, but Clement was dead a month later and Philip died within ten months. The mystery and unknowns about the Templars have resulted in creating many of the Templar myths that still abound today.