Political Masterclass: Death of the Templars, IV
The true frictions generated by the monastic arm of the Order of the Temple did not come from their mere presence within the societies of the Christian kingdoms of western Europe – at least not directly. The real problems came from the wealth which financial common-sense said was being generated from the Templars’ many estates, and which rumour said was being stockpiled away in treasuries the size of which would move the kings of nations to jealous shame.
The perception of unrivalled wealth was not aided by the fact that all properties of the Knights Templar were exempt from the taxation and tithes normally due to ecclesiastical authorities, a situation which also served to strain the already tense relations between the Templars and the established Church, exacerbating the existing conflict over local authority that arose whenever the Templar exercised their immunity to the bishopric courts and other measures of ecclesiastical justice and authority. Meanwhile, those with means and opportunity were taking the chance to relocate themselves to Templar-held lands in order to take advantage of the tax exemption extended to all residents, increasing the burden on and resentment of those who could not follow suit.
Further enhancing the image of wealth was the fact that Templar chapter houses, being frequently built with defensibility in mind given the order’s militaristic streak, were often used by the nobility particularly of France and England as bankers and trustees, providing loans to cash-strapped nobles and providing a safe venue in which to store valuables – an early version of the modern bank’s safe-deposit box. The sight of noblemen bringing treasures in to the local Knights Templar chapter house and leaving without them leads those uninformed to the nature of banking to easily conclude that the Templars had simply taken possession of it, a perception not at all dispelled by the sight of literal cartloads of valuables making their way into Templar compounds on a regular basis in many areas. The fact that these carts were laden with tax money, for which the Templars were the authorized collectors and of which they themselves were allowed to keep none, was largely unknown to the ever-busy rumour mill.
In short, it seems that the Order of the Temple in western Europe, where it operated largely as a monastic institution, could do absolutely nothing right. The fact that the Order’s military arm was performing a vital service in the Holy Land, and performing it exceptionally well, was leveraged successfully used to keep criticism of Templar practices in Christendom down to a dull roar. This arrangement worked precisely as long as there was a Christian presence in Outremer. Sadly for the Knights Templar, by the dawn of the fourteenth century, the Christian presence had been firmly erased.
With the final fall of the last Crusader outpost in the Holy Land, the military necessity and martial glory on which the Order of the Temple had relied to justify its existence quite suddenly vanished. Although some limited use for Templar knights could still be found in Iberia, helping to safeguard the borders of the Kingdom of Aragon against the Islamic city-states that controlled much of the peninsula, such a small theatre could not possibly be used to justify the massive land-owning apparatus that the Order’s more monastic members maintained. It is quite possible that James Molay, the last Master of the Temple, recognized the chilling reality the loss of Outremer exposed, as he began to take steps to reform the Templars during his reign. Unfortunately for the Order, the effort was simply too little, too late. Canny predators, sensing the weakness of the suddenly purposeless order, were already circling.
It would be Philip IV of France, also known as Philip the Fair, who would make the decisive strike. Exploiting the untenable position of the Templars and the shroud of dark rumours that had always hung about them, Philip the Fair accused the entire Order of the Temple of committing blasphemous transgressions, actions so reprehensible so as to be described by the king himself as “…a hateful crime, a damnable sin, an abominable deed, an abhorrent disgrace, deeply inhuman – or rather, completely lacking in all human feeling.” These words of his appeared in a letter dispatched in September 1307 from King Philip to his provincial administrators in Normandy, one letter of many. The letter enumerates the crimes of which he accuses the Knights Templar: Denying an image of Christ on the cross three times with “wretched and miserable blows” followed by spitting on said image an additional three times with “horrific cruelty”; stripping naked before their initiator and allowing themselves to be kissed on the bottom of the spine, the navel, and the mouth; vowing to give themselves over to one another for that “disgusting and terrifying vice” known as sexual intercourse whenever asked; and the worship of idols, along with a reference to “other sins” that have been left unnamed.
The letter goes on to detail how King Philip’s initial suspicions were discussed with the Pope, Clement V, and a council of prelates and barons, before being passed off to the inquisitor William of Paris, who – as inquisitors are wont to do – had successfully persuaded a number of Templars to admit to certain parts of the charges. Based on William’s findings, Philip issued a royal order for the immediate arrest and detention of all members of the Order of the Temple. Once they were in his custody, the true theatre would begin.