On Oct. 13, 1307, King Philip IV of France arrested members of the Knights Templar and seized their treasury. The move ensured the downfall of the monastic order.
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, usually known as the Knights Templar, had been founded sometime in the A.D. 1120s as an order of warrior monks. Its members were required to take oaths of poverty and chastity and serve as the Roman Catholic Church's shock troops during the Crusades. Knights from the order participated in many of the Crusades' significant engagements, including the Battle of Montgisard (near modern Ramla, Israel). The A.D. 1177 battle saw Christian forces defeat what was most likely the numerically stronger army of Islamic leader Saladin.
Even as European commitment to the Holy Land began to dwindle and the order's primary mission to make war on Islam became less imperative, the Templars thrived. In less than two centuries, the order controlled vast holdings of land and businesses throughout Europe, most of it originally donated by pious church members. With its Paris headquarters known simply as the Temple, the Templars' reach covered the continent, with major branches in the Iberian kingdoms, the British Isles and throughout the various polities of Germany and Italy.
This wealth and international character made the order look something like a modern multinational corporation, and as an order of the church, the Knights Templar enjoyed tax-exempt status throughout Europe. Additionally, as their allegiance was theoretically to the pope, members in the various branches felt no sense of loyalty to the local prince. Unlike the order of the Knights of St. John, which had been founded at roughly the same time, the Knights Templar was not known for using its wealth for charity.
Such wealth and autonomy irritated many a monarch, none more so than France's Philip IV, known, now somewhat ironically, as Philip the Fair. Philip had many debts, possibly counting the Templars among his creditors, and it perhaps stung that such wealth lay in the heart of Paris and he could not touch it.
In her book “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” historian Barbara Tuchman wrote: “In the woe of the century no factor caused more trouble than the persistent lag between the growth of state power and the means of state financing. While centralized government was developing, taxation was still encased in the concept that taxes represented an emergency measure requiring consent. Having exhausted every other source of funds, Philip the Fair in 1307 turned on the Templars in the most sensational episode of his reign.”
The Templars often practiced rituals behind the closed doors of their Paris headquarters, which most likely were harmless gestures of Christian devotion. In the first few years of the 14th century, several disgruntled knights who had left the order began to slander their former brothers, however. Accusations began to appear that the knights were engaged in all sorts of evil works, from financial impropriety and corruption to unnatural sexual acts and devil worship.
Grand Master Jacques (or James) de Molay, the order's leader, wrote to the pope, asking for an official inquiry to clear himself and the order of the charges. Philip, whom Molay counted a friend, saw his chance to get at the order's wealth. Though Pope Clement V had specifically requested that Philip take no action in the matter, the king ordered his soldiers to strike. In his book “The Templars,” historian Piers Paul Read wrote:
“James of Molay traveled from Poitiers to Paris where, on 12 October 1307, he was a pall-bearer (in) the funeral of King Philip's sister-in-law, Catherine of Courtenay, the wife of Charles of Valois. The next day, Friday 13 October 1307, he was arrested in the Temple compound outside Paris.”
In fact Molay's arrest had been only one in a carefully coordinated strike to eliminate the power of Knights Templar. Read writes of Philip's plans:
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