When the Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar) was formally suppressed in 1312, it wasn’t because it had been found guilty of heresy. It was because the campaign of fake news waged by the French Crown had so defamed the Order that the Pope deemed it beyond saving.
Philip IV of France (1268-1314) aka Philip the Fair needed money. He had wars to wage and bills to pay. Everyone knew it. By 1307 he had already driven the Jews out of the kingdom after seizing their property only a year earlier. He’d also been extorting the Italian Lombards of their assets since the 1290s; eventually appropriating all of their property and arresting their persons in 1311. But it was in 1307 that Philip moved against his most lucrative target yet: The Knights Templar.
The Templars were wealthy. They were also not as popular as the once had been. Many blamed the Order for the fall of Acre in 1291 (which was the last of the Christian cities to fall in the Holy Land). Public support for crusading in general was also on the wane. The Templars were weakened and Philip knew it.
Urged on by his minister Guillaume de Nogaret, in the spring of 1307 Philip began a campaign of misinformation (read: fake news) that accused the Templars of heresy and sexual depravity. Although by the end of their trial the Templars were made to answer for 127 articles put against them, Philip’s initial accusations centered on three things.
What made the Templars especially susceptible to Philip and Nogaret’s fake news/propaganda campaign was the secrecy surrounding the Order. When people aren’t given a narrative, they fill in the blanks themselves – until someone else does. Since so much of Templar life was kept secret rumors couldn’t help but grow.
DENYING CHRIST AND SPITTING ON THE CROSS
Although many Templars confessed, their confessions were almost all obtained under torture or the threat of it. Furthermore, the majority of Templar members were non-combatants. They would not have been able to withstand the conditions they were placed in after their arrest. Even the most battle hardened knight would have a hard time resisting the likes of the rack or the strappado. Not surprisingly, in regions where torture was not used regularly, confessions were few and far between. Testimonies in those areas spoke well of all the good the Templars had done.
Of all the accusations, however, the denial of Christ and spitting on the Cross was the one that may have had some truth to it. Though it was a charge leveled at other heretics in the past, even Jacques de Molay had identified it as an immoral practice in the Order when he became Grand Master in 1293. Some sources claim it had been carried out for over 100 years by then.
The practice stemmed from a section of the original Templar Rule that stated new initiates were not to be accepted too quickly. Rather, they should be tested to determine their worthiness of the Templar mantle. Of course no test was formally defined. The official initiation ceremony involved the initiate swearing oaths of obedience, chastity, poverty, and placing all his strength at the service of the Holy Land. Over time, an unofficial ceremony designed to test him afterwards developed. In it, the receptor demanded the initiate deny Christ and spit on the Cross. What outsiders would not have known was the context and reason for this.
This part of the ceremony was meant to imitate what could happen to a Templar if he was captured by Muslims. The script for the ceremony was based on testimony from Templar escapees.
Sometimes a refusal was respected while at other times the initiate would be threatened if he didn’t obey. Most pretended to say the words and/or spit in the general direction of the cross. Thus they performed the actions with their mouth, but not in their heart.
After the ceremony was over, the receptor enjoined the initiates to confess the sins they had just committed to the chaplain so they could be absolved. Sometimes, however, they confessed to priests of other orders. This no doubt had the effect of allowing dark rumors to grow since those outside the Templar Order would have had no understanding of the ritual’s context. Something Philip and Nogaret would capitalize on.
OBSCENE KISSING AND HOMOSEXUALITY
Church and secular authorities also had a long history of using sexual deviance as a means of labelling individuals or groups as heretics. Ironically, it was also a claim that Romans frequently used against early Christians to justify persecuting them. Even today nothing creates a bigger political splash than an accusation of sexual malpractice, true or not.
With regard to the Templars, however, there is little evidence of truth to it. For the accusation of obscene kissing on the buttocks, navel, etc., where it may have been practiced, it can be understood as an additional part of the initiation ceremony that amounted to a form of hazing. The same may be said for initiates being told they had to have sex with their brothers on demand. Even then, these would not have been uniform practices throughout the Order. The only thing that came close was something called the “kiss of peace”. It consisted of a kiss on the mouth that welcomed a new initiate into the Order. There was nothing controversial about it. Christians had practiced it regularly from an early date.
What’s more, the Templar Rule lists sodomy as one of the most serious offenses a Templar could commit. It carried with it fierce penalties, including expulsion from the Order. Of close to 1000 depositions, only six confirmed acts of homosexuality. Each of these also involved long-term relationships of genuine affection.
IDOLATRY: THE MYSTERIOUS HEAD (OR CAT)
Similarly, worshipping a cat and/or a mysterious head was a well established practice that heretics were commonly held to do. Traditions of heads having magical powers were common in medieval Europe. They had a long history that stretched as far back as the legend of Perseus and Medusa. Some said that the Templars worshiped the head because it was a “giver of plenty” that made the “trees flower and the land germinate.” The implication here was that the Templars owed their wealth and successes to sorcery and the devil. Similar accusations would be made against “witches” during the witchcrazes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Some Templars identified the “head” idol as having the name Baphomet, which some scholars have taken as a corruption of John the Baptist (who was beheaded) while others suggest it was Mohamet. Certainly many Templar opponents tried to say they had been infiltrated by Islam, but both of these interpretations remain speculation.
Other Templars who confessed regarding the head gave differing descriptions of it. Some said that it had a long dark beard, others a silver beard. Some claimed it had two faces while others said four. Some said it had legs and feet. Some even said that it was the head of Hugues de Payns, the founder and first Grand Master of the Order! Whatever the case, such contradictory testimony tells us that it had little if any basis in truth.
Ultimately, apart from the induced confessions and unsubstantiated rumor, royal authorities could not produce any evidence to support the claim of idol worship.
Despite Philip and Nogaret’s best efforts, Pope Clement V saw through them. Unfortunately, he was no match for these masters of information manipulation.
When the French Templars were first arrested on Friday 13th 1307, the Pope was furious. He demanded that they be released to Church custody. As a religious order legally beholden only to the Pope, Philip required Clement’s consent before undertaking such an action. Though Philip implied to everyone he had it, he did not.
Any objections raised by Clement V were met with the suggestion that the Pope’s inaction had forced Philip’s hand, and even worse, that the Pope may have been complicit in the Templar’s heresy. This ensured that the French Templars would remain under royal custody indefinitely.
In June 1308, Philip agreed to send a hand-picked selection of Templars to the Pope to confess before him and affirm their guilt. This group consisted almost entirely of low-ranking sergeants, apostates, and those who were terrified from torture. But Philip’s ploy worked. The Pope issued a bull across Christendom for rulers to arrest and seize Templars and their property until a full investigation could be conducted.
A few days later Clement V sent three of his most trusted cardinals to the fortress of Chinon, where Jacques de Molay and the Templar leadership were being held. Documents such as the recently discovered “Chinon parchment” reveal that the Pope then absolved them of heresy. However, he did find them guilty of lesser crimes (such as allowing the practice of denying Christ and spitting on the Cross to flourish, regardless of context).
The Templar leaders were also given judicial immunity. This meant that no one could so much as interrogate them without the permission of the Pope. Of course this did not stop Philip from burning Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey De Charney (Preceptor of Normandy) at the stake on March 18th, 1314. He did so without Clement’s permission and to ensure that the Templars would never rise again.
In the meantime, Clement V and Jacques de Molay agreed that to save the Order they would merge it with the Knights Hospitallers and a new Rule would be established. Afterwards, word of Clement V’s intent to save and reform the Order began to spread.
Philip was not amused.
Philip and Nogaret responded by threatening to try Pope Boniface VIII posthumously.
Previously, Boniface VIII and the French Crown had clashed over a number of issues dealing with Papal vs. Royal authority. Boniface VIII had gone so far as to excommunicate Nogaret and draw up a bull excommunicating Philip (which was never published). In 1303, Nogaret responded by framing Boniface VIII on charges of murder, idolatry, simony, and heresy. More fake news.
By trying the bones of Boniface VIII, Philip would send a signal to the world that secular authority trumped the Pope’s. It was a form of blackmail that betrayed a weakness in the papacy at the time. It was also too much for Clement to handle. He gave up.
Under the military “protection” of Philip, the Council of Vienne convened in 1311 to finalize the fate of the Templars. Although they were not allowed to defend themselves and no evidence proved them guilty of heresy, Clement V publically suppressed the Order on April 3rd, 1312. He did so on the grounds that it had been so defamed that it was not saveable. Most outside observers knew it was bogus, but they were powerless to do anything. Fake news had done its job.
By playing on popular superstitions and the use of threats and misinformation about their enemies, Philip IV of France and Guillaumme de Nogaret were able to bring down one of the most powerful organizations in Western history. As Vatican historian Barbara Frale puts it, “By way of sophistry, generalization, and manipulation, the royal lawyers managed to transform every failing, every fault, every misdeed of the Templars into crimes against the faith.”
It serves us with a warning. Even without the help of mass media and communications like we have, fake news destroyed the mighty Knights Templar. Imagine how much more damaging it can be today! In this regard, the words of Edgar Allan Poe ring true, “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”
Barber, Malcom. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Frale, Barbara. The Templars: The Secret History Revealed. Translated by Gregory Conti, Arcade Publishing, 2009.
Napier, Gordon. The Rise and Fall of the Knights Templar:The Order of the Temple 1118-1314 – A True History of Faith, Glory, Betrayal. The History Press, 2006.
Ralls, Karen. The Templars and the Grail. Quest Books, 2003.
Wojtowicz, Robert T. Trans. The Original Rule of the Knights Templar. Western Michigan University, 1991, scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2029&context=masters_theses.