Pope Persecutes Knights Templar to Appease France

Pope Persecutes Knights Templar to Appease France

On this day in 1312, under pressure from King Philip IV of France, Pope Clement V issued a Papal decree that officially disbanded the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, known to history as the Knights Templar.

The influential Order had been established around 1119 at the height of the Crusades, as a military force entrusted with the protection of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Lands. They owed their existence to charity, and soon found wealthy backers who funded the Order and allowed it to grow. By the end of the 12th century, the Knights Templar had spread their influence across Christendom, attaining power and wealth in the process. They owned property across Europe, had built a network of castles, fortresses and churches, and had even developed a rudimentary form of banking.

By the mid-13th century, their military influence was beginning to wane, as the balance of religious power slipped from the Crusaders’ grasp. But the Templars remained strong in the west, and for some, their inordinate wealth and influence was increasingly seen as a threat.

Not least by Philip of France, who after a war with the English, had been left heavily in debt, much of which was owed to the Templars. Keen to circumvent his obligations, he exploited rumours that the Templars were engaged in heretical practices, insisting that the Order be investigated. In 1307, he had several hundred French Templars arrested, many of whom were tortured in order to gain confessions of malfeasance. Charges ranged from corruption, fraud and obscenity, to idolatry, apostasy and heresy.

Clement V was apparently opposed to the repression of the Templars, but was compelled to undermine the organisation in order to appease Philip. Philip was involved in a campaign to have an earlier Pope, Boniface VIII, defamed. Boniface and Philip had become enemies as a result of the King’s efforts to undermine Papal power in France. Boniface was angry that Philip considered his monarchal power greater than that of the Pontiff, and was particularly annoyed that the French King demanded taxes from the clergy. At one point Boniface had excommunicated Philip, ensuring that the two figures remained bitter foes, until Boniface’s death in 1303. As a result of their rivalry, Philip demanded Boniface be posthumously disgraced, and urged Clement V to have him exhumed, burned, and condemned as a heretic.

Despite the demands of Philip, Clement was determined not to act against his predecessor. It was this effort to divert the King’s attentions from destroying the reputation of Boniface that led Clement to permit the persecution of the Templars.

The end for the Order came in 1312, at the Council of Vienne in southern France. Clement issued a Papal Bull declaring the Order disbanded, ceding all assets to another order of Knights, the Hospitallers. The Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, in an act of supreme courage and defiance, retracted his confession of guilt, obtained under torture, declaring instead the innocence and integrity of the Knights Templar. For his defiance he was subjected to Philip’s retributive justice, and was burned alive just a few days later.

Credit: © Photos 12 / Alamy
Caption: A miniature depicting Jacques de Molay being burned alive.