To Kill an Order, III
So, we all remember our friend King Philip IV. The story of the Templars’ death is his story too, as he was central to it all.
Philip was a very ambitious monarch, determined to unite all power in France under his rule, even to the point of declaring war over the issue, as when he clashed with England over Aquitaine. The early fourteenth century was characterized by initiatives to expel ‘foreign’ elements from key positions in France. Italian merchants, Jewish money-lenders, and the Templar bankers were tempting targets during financial crises, as their assets could be seized by royal forces and put to use for the crown. Furthermore, by expelling these outsiders from important positions, it left more room for French bourgeoisie to attain prominent positions, thus improving their bond with the king.
Aside from such base political manoeuvring, Philip also had firm motivation to see the Order of the Temple specifically come to ruin: He was greatly superstitious and feared sorcery; he was engaged in a political power game against the Catholic Church, the head of whom, the Pope, was also the official protector of the Knights Templar; and he had seriously financial gains to make by the Templars’ downfall, as he could not only wipe out 260,000 livres in debt but fill his coffers with the revenues from the Templars’ wealthy estates. Circumstances seemed poised to provide Philip the opening he needed. By the 14th century even more ugly rumours were circulating about the Templars, beyond the usual sins of avarice and pride: Indecency at initiation ceremonies; denials of Christ; worship of idols alien to Christian tradition. These rumours were the same accusations commonly levelled against heretics, and had been used against the Albigensians and Cathars in France. They were also the same sort of charges used by Philip IV to discredit Pope Boniface VIII, who had opposed the king’s policies and clashed with him over religious and political issues.
In all the accounts which documented the source of the rumours against the Templars, the man Esquin de Floyran makes an appearance. He first appeared in the court of James II of Aragon, where James – who relied on the Templars to help safeguard his borders against the Moors – demanded evidence of the accusations de Floyran made. Instead of providing the requested evidence, de Floyran fled Aragon and went to France, where he repeated his story to Phillip IV, who was much more ready to believe him. Essentially, de Floyran’s accusations stated that the Templar’s devotion to their order was greater than that to their moral principles; that they spat on the cross, denounced Christ, performed immoral acts and worshipped idols. They were, he charged, sodomites and sorcerers. For Philip, these revelations were either incredibly well-timed coincidences, or as in the affair with Boniface VIII, something he had arranged in advance.
The Templars in France were swiftly arrested, and subjected to brutal torture in order to coax from them confessions to the crimes with which de Floyran had accused them. Some died, refusing to confess; others gave in. Those who, upon leaving the torture chambers, attempted to publicly retract their confessions were burned at the stake. The dubious confessions were not taken seriously by any who were beyond the influence of Philip; this widespread scepticism was demonstrated at the Council of Vienne in 1311, which had great sympathy for the Templars, to the extent that Pope Clement V (himself only acting under pressure from Philip) had to consider dissolving the Order on his authority alone. The Council, held in October 1311 primarily to discuss the guilt of the Templars and what was to be done with their property and possessions, was boycotted by most of the archbishops of Europe, who did not want to be involved in the Order’s destruction. Of those who did attend, some demanded the Templars be ordered to present a defence to the council, and all except the French delegates clearly had doubts – and the French only maintained their line out of fear of Philip. The council only moved to have the Templars suppressed when Philip arrived at the head of a column of troops to force their hand.
Clement V attempted to rebel against Philip’s heavy-handedness in small ways, establishing local church councils to wrest the administration of questioning from royal officials and secretly arranging for the bulk of the valuable Templar property to be transferred into the safekeeping of the more powerful and respected Hospitalers, but Philip would not be deterred. So determined was he to see the trials through that any who spoke out against the verdicts, especially in France, did so in danger of their life. To question the verdict was to question the power and authority of the Catholic Church and, in France, the State. As a result, the further away from the epicentre of Philip and his puppet Clement V took place, the less likely the Templars were to be tortured into confessions, and the more likely it was that witnesses called against them would speak honestly of their experiences rather than simply repeating the scurrilous rumours that the King of France accepted as fact.