The Templar’s Curse

The Templar’s Curse

by Peggy M. Baker

Not much good can be said about Isabella’s father, Philip IV of France. He was a champion of French nationalism. He was, seemingly, fond of his daughter. And that’s about it! We can’t even be sure he was all that fond of Isabella. Philip may have simply appreciated her usefulness to his convoluted diplomatic negotiations and strategies.

Minor virtues aside, Philip was authoritarian to his barons, ruthless to his legion of enemies, oppressive to his people, and feared by everyone.

Philip’s lack of congeniality was exacerbated by his lack of money. He inherited a mountain of debt, and there were always new wars to fund. To solve his financial problems, he debased the coinage, sold peerages to commoners and instituted new taxes, both direct and indirect. He also imposed taxes on the church without papal consent. This was not a new idea but Philip’s taxes were extraordinarily high! When Pope Boniface VIII, in protest, forbade the clergy from paying the tax, Philip retaliated by instigating attacks on Boniface’s reputation and power, followed by physical assaults that led to Boniface’s death in 1303.

Philip then turned his cold and greedy eyes towards the wealth of the Templars.

The Templars were formed after the First Crusade to protect pilgrims. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

The Templars were formed after the First Crusade to protect pilgrims. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Who Were the Templars?

The Templars were a military and religious order, founded in 1199 to protect Christian pilgrims and sites in Palestine. Answerable only to the Pope, they held themselves aloof from national concerns and squabbles. Their reputation for virtue, zeal and military prowess lay in their gallant defense of the Crusader states in “Outremer” (French for “overseas”). Step by step, however, the complexities of successfully managing that defense expanded the Templar’s original mission.

Crusader states and crusading armies needed enormous amounts of provisions of all sorts. Soon, the Templars had amassed extensive properties, in Palestine and in Europe (particularly in France) to fill these needs. The knights of the Order became outnumbered by the Order’s “serving brothers,” who managed the Templar properties as supply organizations.

Individual crusaders needed secure storage for deeds and wills. They needed loans of money, as did lords and monarchs assembling large crusading forces. Templar headquarters were natural strongholds for storing documents, valuables and money, with the knights themselves as built-in protectors. The Templars grew into Europe’s bankers.

With independence, came a reputation for haughtiness and pride. With great wealth, came public distrust and a reputation for avarice and corruption. With a religious life carried out in privacy, came a reputation for secrecy. In that secrecy, suspicious minds found the taint of heresy.

When, in 1291, the Crusader states in Palestine were destroyed and Christian settlers driven out by the Mameluks of Egypt, the Templars lost their purpose and the last of their public support. They were ripe for attack by the unscrupulous Philip.

Philip Attacks the Templars

The destruction of the Templars was carefully and minutely planned. On the night of Thursday, 12 October 1307, Philip’s troops broke into the Paris Temple headquarters and arrested sixty Templars, including the Order’s Grand Master Jacques de Molay.

The arrest and imprisonment of the Templars. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

The arrest and imprisonment of the Templars. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

On the morning of Friday, 13 October 1307, every remaining Templar in France was arrested. Some 15,000 were imprisoned – not only knights, but also serving brothers, retainers and even farm laborers. The Templars faced intense interrogation and appalling torture. Most confessed to unsavory and “heretical” practices. In Paris alone, thirty-six died of torture.

The new pope, Clement V, protested this usurpation of his authority. Once Philip announced the Templar confessions, however, Clement was forced to act against the Order.

At the end of November 1307, he issued the papal bull “Pastoralis praeeminentiae,” ordering the arrest of all the Templars in Christendom. Two cardinals were sent to Paris to personally interview Templar leaders. With the threat of torture temporarily removed, the Templars revoked their confessions. To Philip’s fury, Clement suspended the inquisition.

Only after months of intense pressure from Philip, did Clement agreed to reopen the trials. Two different types of inquiries were to be conducted. One, a papal commission, would investigate the Order itself. The other inquiries, into the guilt or innocence of individual Templars, were to be held in provincial councils.

Hundreds of Templars, called to testify before the papal commission (which did not use torture), retracted their earlier confessions. In response, an enraged Philip IV had one of “his” archbishops preside over a provincial congress. It declared 54 of the Templars who had retracted their confessions to be “relapsed heretics.” On 12 May 1310, all 54 were burnt at the stake in a field outside of Paris. There were no further retractions.

Templars were burnt at the stake, at Philip IV’s behest. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Templars were burnt at the stake, at Philip IV’s behest. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

In October 1311, a general council of the church, the Council of Vienne, began consideration of the ultimate fate of the Order. Under Philip’s eagle eye, and against the wishes of the majority of the council, Pope Clement dissolved the Templars. He stated that there was, indeed, no sufficient reason to condemn the Order but, because of the hatred of the King of France, the scandal caused by the trials, and the dilapidation of their properties, the Order was to be suppressed.

The individual Templars were given heavy penances. On 18 March 1314, four Templar leaders were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. Two accepted their punishment. The other two, Geoffroi de Charney and Grand Master Jacques de Molay, protested their individual innocence and the holiness of the Order. Philip IV immediately ordered them burnt at the stake as lapsed heretics. That same evening, they were executed.

A contemporary chronicler, Geoffrey of Paris, gave a verse account of the event. He had Jacques de Molay say, as he was being burnt,

“God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned
Soon misfortune will come
To those who have wrongly condemned us.
God will avenge our death.”
(as quoted in The Last Templar, by Alain Demurger, p. 198).

Legend soon transformed Jacques’ words, if indeed he had uttered any from the pyre, into a dramatic pronouncement of doom. Jacques, it was said, had cursed Philip and his descendants to the 13th generation and summoned him and Pope Clement to meet him at the tribunal of God before the year was ended.

The “Templar’s Curse” Takes Effect

In April 1314, one month after the death of Jacques de Molay, Philip IV’s royal house was torn apart by one of the 14th century’s greatest scandals.

Philip discovered that his three daughters-in-law were behaving in a scandalous fashion. He had all three arrested. Two of the young women were charged with adulterous affairs with two young knights; the third was charged with helping to hide their misbehavior. The two young men were tortured into confessions and then brutally executed. The two adulterous daughters-in-law admitted their guilt. They were incarcerated in Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, the great fortress built by England’s king Richard the Lion-Hearted, and their marriages annulled. The third daughter-in-law was held for some months under house arrest but eventually released; her marriage survived.

Public disgrace was followed by death. Pope Clement died 18 April 1314. Philip IV died 29 November 1314.

Philip IV is taken to his grave. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Philip IV is taken to his grave. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Philip’s heirs then began to die. Philip’s son Louis reigned for only two years before dying suddenly in 1316. Louis’ posthumous son lived only five days. Louis’ brother then took the throne. He, too, died prematurely, having reigned for only six years. Philip IV’s third son Charles IV’s reign also lasted for only six years. When he died in 1328, the 300-plus years of “Capetian” rule, beginning with Hugh Capet in 987 and descending from father to son in an unbroken line, ended. A new dynasty, that of the “Valois” began.

The “Curse” in England

But what of the descendants of Philip’s daughter Isabella? Far from dying out, today’s English monarch Elizabeth II is the 24th generation in descent from Philip IV. Although the “Templar curse” is legend, it would be gratifying to think that this branch of Philip’s descendants survived and flourished thanks to the kinder treatment that the Templars received in England.

After Philip IV arrested the Templars in France in 1307, he informed Edward II of England of the charges made against them. At the time, Edward had only been on the throne for three months; he was also engaged to Philip’s young daughter Isabella.

Instead of simply following Philip’s lead, however, Edward wrote to Philip expressing his incredulity at the charges. He also sent letters to the kings of Portugal, Castile, Sicily, and Aragon – and even the Pope! – stating that he found it impossible to believe the accusations.

In late December 1307, however, he received Clement V’s papal bull ordering the arrest of the Templars. He had no choice but to obey, but he did so with neither enthusiasm nor rigor. Some 150 Templars were arrested in England. Far from facing torture, some were kept in comfortable prisons with liberal allowances for food and some were released back to their own preceptories.

Then, domestic politics intruded. Edward’s barons were restive and Edward badly needed the support of both Philip IV and the Pope. The price he was required to pay was a crackdown on the English Templars.

On 13 September 1309, two papal inquisitors arrived in England, to be joined by several English prelates. Edward ordered the Templars rearrested; their status and treatment in prison deteriorated. After another letter and more pressure from the Pope, Edward did allow some torture, but with little effect. Although some forty Templars were interrogated, only three admitted any of the charges. Those three were given penance and absolved.

Ultimately, the English Templars were offered their freedom if they confessed – not to their guilt, but that their innocence could not be proven. They were then dispersed among other monastic communities. Only the head of the order in England, William de la More, remained in prison, insisting “he would not ask for absolution for something he hadn’t done.” He died in the Tower 20 December 1312.

For all the terrible cost in human pain and social disruption, did Philip profit from his persecution of the Templars? Probably not as much as he hoped. He did seize their goods and treasury, and he did not have to repay his debts to the Order. He could not, however, hold the Templar lands, which were given by the Pope to the military order of the Hospitallers. True to form, Philip did claim some Templar properties as reimbursement for his “expenses.”

The final settlement of the Templar wealth, however, didn’t happen until 1318. Philip IV profited from that not at all. He was, by then — as Jacques de Molay may have predicted — four years dead.

Suggested Reading

The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328, by Jim Bradbury

The Real History Behind the Templars, by Sharan Newman

The Trial of the Templars, by Malcolm Barber

The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, by Desmond Seward

Knights Templar in Britain, by Evelyn Lord

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery and Murder in Medieval England, by Alison Weir

The Iron King: Volume one of the Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.

The Strangled Queen: Volume two of the Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.

The Poisoned Crown: Volume three of the Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.

The Royal Succession: Volume four of the Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.

The She-Wolf: Volume five of the Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.