To Kill an Order, II
Right then. Where were we before the cruel vagaries of nature intervened?
Ah, yes. Cruel vagaries of man. Let’s get back to that.
James Molay – a name that’s going to come up again – was the last man to serve as Master of the Templar, starting his term somewhere around the end of 1292 and beginning of 1293. When he came into office, the Templars were already plagued by rumours of misconduct, and had a terrible reputation in 13th-century literature for pride, arrogance, ill-gotten wealth and lack of charity. Molay made it his mission to reform the Templar image, a task that had already become monumental in scale.
As alluded to in the previous series, the perceptions of Templar wealth were partly fueled by their significant landholdings throughout Europe, which had initially been granted to them to help fund the expenses of maintaining a military force in the Holy Land. The Templars were significant landholders in western Europe, owning estates in England, France, the Italian peninsula, Sicily, and the Iberian peninsula. In fact, the Templars had holdings of one sort or another in almost every county in England. Two of these holdings became the centres of new towns, Hertfordshire and Witham. By consciously attempting to acquire land along major roads and rivers, their estates were scattered, but lucrative.These estates were serviced not only by Templar brothers, but also by wage labourers and tenants, which could be very profitable; by exploiting feudal landholding laws to their limits, the Templars were able to thoroughly exploit their tenant peasants for their labour while restricting their freedom to leave and find another landlord.
In addition to this, the Templars were exempt from ecclesiastical taxes – another measure meant to help them funnel more money into Outremer to keep their soldiers fed, armed and sheltered, but one which, once the last Christian kingdoms in the middle east had fallen, served only to aggravate the secular clergy (a term that seems like a contradiction; it refers to those who worked in the employ of the Church but had not taken any vows) who wanted to supplement their tax revenues. Because this tax exemption also extended to those who lived on Templar lands, those who could afford to move there did so, drawing the ire of the burghers left behind who had to pay their departed neighbour’s part of the tax as well as their own. This exemption granted to the Templars was not unique, but because the Templars had scattered holdings just about everywhere, they drew most of the attention.
Bishops, frustrated by Templar’s immunity to taxation and unable to punish them with excommunication or interdiction, turned instead to excommunicating the order’s vassals. The Templars also abused their exemptions to interfere with bishopric courts and ecclesiastical justice. The number of papal bulls (direct orders from the Vatican) directed at English prelates, demonstrates the harshness with which those local religious authorities contested against the Templars. The Templars at times even had to rely upon royal protection, as when King John ordered his justices of the peace to safeguard Templar persons and property. Putting the Templars at somewhat of a disadvantage in ecclesiastical confrontations was the fact that they were not heavily involved in wars against heretics and other offenders against the Christian faith following the fall of Jerusalem, as other military orders were. They were even accused of betraying the cause in the holy land, though only by a few of their more militant opponents.
Towards the end of the 13th century, the Templars in Europe had already begun to accrue a reputation for vices such as greed, avarice and treachery thanks to the dark rumours spread by those they had offended. By the 14th century, with the Holy Land lost entirely, they transformed into a living contradiction to Crusader ideology in the public consciousness. The hatred of both regular and secular clergy, growing popular discontent due to their priviliges and immunities, the perception of pride and avarice, and the secrecy of their private ceremonies were all prime factors in the tumbling pulic opinion of the Templars. The importance that the medieval world placed on social precedence, coupled with the Templars’ high position, prestige, and occasional arrogance in asserting their legal rights, led to the annoyance of both laymen and the ecclesiastics. The rapid elevation of status that ordinarily common men received if accepted into the Templars as a Sergeant-Brother also served to upset the oft-conservative social status quo of medieval society. By the time the more vile charges officially laid against the Templars by Philip IV came forth, they fit all too neatly into the image the public had begun to form about the once-beloved Order.