The Guilt of the Templars
by G. Legman
Basic Books, 308 pp., $8.50
The trial of the Knights Templars is one of the causes célèbres of medieval history. Of all the spiritual and military Orders that flourished in the Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, none stood higher in reputation and influence. The Knights, who took monastic vows, were also pledged to the defense of the Holy Land against the Saracens. Fostered in its early days by St. Bernard himself, protected and privileged by popes, enriched by the gifts of kings and magnates, the Order soon became a wealthy landowner not only in the crusader states, but in every country of Latin Christendom. It also developed the greatest single banking organization of its time, with the kings of France as the most illustrious of its many royal and noble clients. The wordly wealth and greatness the Knights had achieved by the thirteenth century was a far cry from the poverty of their two founders, so poor, it was said, that they had but one horse between them. Like all the great Orders, they seemed to a growing number of satirists and critics to have forgotten their early ideals. But while other Orders survived, the Templars were brutally suppressed.
The efficient planning and rapid execution of large-scale enterprises was not a normal medieval skill, but the Templars were overthrown with a ruthless despatch which would command the admiration even of modern executives and staff officers. Ruthlessness and efficiency—these were the characteristics of the men to whom King Philip the Fair of France entrusted his affairs—men like Pierre Flote, who had directed the campaign against Pope Boniface VIII, or Guillaume de Nogaret, who took charge of the attack on the Templars. Early on 13th October, 1307, in accordance with sealed orders sent to the king’s officers a month earlier, every Templar in France was arrested. The coup achieved complete surprise. On the previous day the Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, escorted the pall at the funeral of a Capetian princess in the presence of the king himself. Next morning he was that king’s prisoner, never again to know freedom until he was burnt at the stake nearly seven years later.
As soon as the arrests had been made, Nogaret published an account of the crimes of which the Knights stood accused: how each Templar on admission to the Order was obliged to deny Christ, to spit, even to urinate, on a crucifix, to greet with an obscene kiss the knight who received him; how each was encouraged to the practice of sodomy; and how at some meetings of the Order a head was exhibited to be worshipped as Baphomet. The accused were given no opportunity to organize an effective defense. The imprisoned Knights were examined separately by the Grand Inquisitor in the presence of the king’s officers. Those unwilling to answer questions were menaced or afflicted with physical torture. Scores of confessions were produced, and the Pope was urged to suppress the Order. Clement V, a …