Political Masterclass: Death of the Templars, V
The motives behind King Philip IV’s arrest of the Knights Templar vary. It is known that he was deeply in debt to the Order after taking out a series of loans to supplement his own empty coffers, to the amount of 260,000 livres (a monetary unit used in medieval French accounting; a livre was worth roughly one gold coin, but confusingly, the coins themselves were not referred to as livres). The destruction of the Templars would not only wipe out his debt, but give him the opportunity to appropriate the Order’s lands within France, many of which were quite valuable and encompassed profitable farmlands and forests.
Philip’s move against the Templars may also have been another element in the ongoing process of political centralization he was undertaking in France, which for the entirety of the medieval period had been infamously fractious and disunited. Lombard (northern Italian) bankers and Jewish money-lenders had already been systematically expelled, leaving the potentially profitable positions open to men loyal to the King. That the Knights Templar, by virtue of being a religious organization, were outside the royal command structure was another obstacle to Philip’s grand design of centralized authority. Finally, there is the element of political blackmail; the tone and subject matter of the accusations levelled against the Templars were largely the same as those used to discredit Pope Clement V’s immediate predecessor, Boniface VIII, who had dared to clash with King Philip. By attacking the Templars, who were ostensibly under Clement V’s protection as Pope, Philip was exercising his dominance over the new pontiff (who, due to instabilities in Italy, was currently holding court in the French city of Avignon, and thus within Philip’s direct reach) to quell thoughts of rebellion.
In any of the above scenarios, King Philip could only make his move once the position of the Templars was weak. As would be expected, resistance to the eventual papal orders coerced from Pope Clement V ordering the arrest of the Templars in nations outside of France was strongest in the only area in which the Templars still exercised their military virtues – the Kingdom of Aragon. Even when forced to act by threat of excommunication, King James II, the sovereign of the Kingdom of Aragon, moved slowly and was highly reluctant to use force; many of his subjects supported the Templars for their work in guarding the realm’s borders against the Islamic city-states of Iberia, and he himself still believed them innocent.
For the Knights Templar, however, the end had finally arrived. Trials and inquisitions dragged on for nearly five years, complicated to no end by the continuing stubbornness of sovereigns outside of France to cooperate. Unfortunately for the beleaguered Templars, the Christian rulers were only willing to defy the will of Philip and the Pope for so long on behalf of a military Order that had scarcely any military left in it On March 22, 1312, Pope Clement V issued a papal bull formally suppressing the Order of the Temple. The opening of the document lays out not undeserved praise for the centuries-long service of the Templars, acknowledging their crucial contributions to the defence of the Holy Land and praising their steadfast faith and determination. From there it moves on to the revelation of the shocking rumours and accusations that had surfaced against the Order, and the writing takes on an almost sad tone as it relates the steps that had to be taken in response – lightened only by the claim that “[King Philip IV] was not moved by greed. He had no intention of claiming or appropriating for himself anything from the Templars’ property…” which is rendered absurd in light of the machinations known today to have been underway by Philip, and was likely included at the monarch’s insistence to pre-emptively avoid any attempt at tarnishing his reputation.
Clement’s bull is most notable for the manner in which is deftly avoids laying guilt upon the Templars as an order for any of the charges levelled against them, instead stating to have based his decision primarily upon the scandal which now surrounded the Knights Templar as well as the “horrible misdeeds” of individual brothers which inquisitors had extracted confessions for under extensive torture (some Templars, when called to the stand during trials, had to be carried in; others had little bags with them containing toes or fingers that had been severed during questioning). Ultimately, he orders the suppression of the Order “not by definitive sentence” (again avoiding confirmation of Philip IV’s charges) but by apostolic ordinance. The Pope managed to frustrate Philip one more time by decreeing that all persons and property of the former Order of the Temple were to be left to the disposition of the Apostolic See (where they would ultimately be handed over to the Knights Hospitaler, another crusading monastic order that, thanks to its medical practices, survived the transition into a post-crusade society) and strictly forbade any interference or tampering therein, pre-emptively declaring that the results of such tampering would be considered null and void. Philip’s larcenous ambitions may have been waylaid, but his ultimate objective was still secure, and a large obstruction to the political unity of his realm was removed.
Conceived and founded as a unique creature, a synthesis of warrior and monk, the Knights Templar flourished while their martial prowess had a theatre in which to engage. Exemplary service in Outremer met all the expectations of the Order’s early supporters and garnered them a reputation as disciplined, pious, and fearsome knights, utterly reliable in battle. However, while the Templar as warrior basked in the praise of his peers in the Holy Land, the Templar as monk was the subject of rumour, anger, and disrespectful conduct far to the west in Christian Europe. The accumulation of extensive landholdings in multiple kingdoms coupled with their increasing roles as bankers, treasurers, and tax collectors caused whispers of flagrant and unearned wealth, while legal exemptions from taxation and courts of ecclesiastical law worked only to promote friction with local Church authorities.
When the glory of the Templar’s martial might was dimmed and nearly extinguished entirely by the final loss of the Holy Land, the monastic part of the Order of the Temple was in no position to carry the banner of the brotherhood, and the result was their ultimate downfall at the hands of a politically ambitious king. And many of the charges which that king levelled at the Templars still echo today – that they worshipped foul idols, possess vast wealth, and work to undermine and control all aspects of society so that the world will bend to their whim. Philip the Fair not only killed the Templars, he sullied their reputation so thoroughly that the long-dead order continues to be the subject of whispered conspiracies to this very day. Truly, his work was that of a political mastermind.