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:
“These were put into effect with remarkable efficiency: around 15,000 knights, sergeants, chaplains, confrères, servants and laborers throughout the territories governed by the King of France were rounded up in a single day. Only around two dozen escaped.”
Additionally, Philip sequestered all of the Templars' property within France.
Though he had successfully arrested his targets, his actions had remained legally dubious since the Templars sat outside his jurisdiction and the pope had ordered him to do nothing. Now committed, Philip insisted to the pope that the rumors were true and demanded that the members be put on trial. To bolster his case, Philip ordered that confessions be obtained by torture.
Tuchman wrote: “The Templars, many of them old men, were racked, thumbscrewed, starved, hung with weights until their joints were dislocated, had teeth and fingernails pulled one by one, bones broken by the wedge, feet held over flames, always with pauses in between and the 'question' put again each day until confession was wrung or the victim died. Thirty-six died under treatment; some committed suicide.”
Most of the Templars confessed under this constant abuse, including Molay. Those who subsequently found the courage and strength to recant their confessions paid a greater price. As relapsed heretics, they burned at the stake. Time passed as the king, the pope and other interested parties squabbled over questions of authority and jurisdiction.
Eventually, the church disbanded the order's various branches throughout Europe, all of its wealth theoretically transferred to the Knights of St. John, though they bestowed a generous gift upon Philip, as he claimed subsequently that the Templars had owed him money.
Finally, in March 1314, Molay and his executive officer were summoned to a scaffold in Paris, where they were meant to publicly confess before receiving their official sentence, handed down by papal legate, of life in prison. The two men recanted however, and an enraged Philip ordered them burned at the stake. The next day, as the flames scorched his body, Molay supposedly called out that both King Philip and Pope Clement would join him before the judgment seat of God before a year had passed.
Tuchman wrote: “Within a month Clement did in fact die, followed seven months later in November by Philip, in the midst of life, aged 46, without suffering illness or accident. The legend of the Templar's curse developed, as most legends do, to explain strange happenings after the event.”
Philip's 1307 decision to strike at the Templars is significant for many reasons, certainly illustrating the growing contempt that secular leaders had for the church's authority at the time. Despite a papal order not to act, Philip had proceeded with his plans. The move also highlighted the precarious position of a stateless entity like the Templars as state power increasingly became centralized in the later middle ages.
The cultural legacy of the mass arrest and downfall of the Templars is still alive today. The destruction of the Knights Templar was a key plot point in Dan Brown's 2003 best-selling novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” and the incident bears a striking resemblance to events depicted in George Lucas' 2005 film “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” when Anakin Skywalker leads a legion of Stormtroopers against the Jedi Temple.
Some have even speculated that superstitions surrounding “Friday the 13th” began with that fateful day when King Philip moved against the Templars. Certainly it was an unlucky day for Molay and his followers.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org