Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

B9. Molay Elected Master

Last attempt of the Christians in Syria—Conduct of the Three Military Orders—Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII.—Seizure of the Pope—Election of Clement V.—The Papal See removed to France—Causes of Philip's enmity to the Templars—Arrival of Molay in France—His interviews with the Pope—Charges made against the Templars—Seizure of the Knights—Proceedings in England—Nature of the Charges against the Order.

We have, in what precedes, traced the order of the Templars from its institution to the period when the Latin dominion was overthrown for ever on the coast of Syria, and have described, at some length, its internal organisation, and exhibited its power and extent of possessions. It remains for us to tell how this mighty order was suddenly annihilated, to examine the charges made against it, and, as we have promised, to establish the falsehood and futility of them—a task far from ungrateful, though not unattended with pain; for it is of advantage to strengthen our love of justice and hatred of tyranny and oppression, by vindicating the memory even of those who perished their victims centuries agone. It is also of use to furnish one instance more to the world of the operation of the principle which will be found so generally to prevail, that, let falsehood and sophistry exert their utmost to conceal the truth, means will always remain of refuting them, and of displaying vice, however high seated, in its true colours.

In the year 1297, when the order had established its head-quarters in the isle of Cyprus, James de Molay, a native of Besancon, in the Franche Comte, was elected Master. The character of Molay appears to have been at all times noble and estimable; but if we are to credit the statement of a knight named Hugh de Travaux, he attained his dignity by an artifice not unlike that said to have been employed by Sixtus V. for arriving at the papacy. The chapter, according to De Travaux, could not agree, one part being for Molay, the other, and the stronger, for Hugh de Peyraud. Molay, seeing that he had little chance of success, assured some of the principal knights that he did not covet the office, and would himself vote for his competitor. Believing him, they joyfully made him great-prior. His tone now altered. "The mantle is done, now put the hood on it. You have made me great-prior, and whether you will or not I will be great-master also." The astounded knights instantly chose him.

If this account be true, the mode of election at this time must have differed very considerably from that which we have described above out of the statutes of the order. This election, moreover, took place in France, where, in 1297, Molay, we are told, held the fourth son of the king at the baptismal font.

One feeble attempt, the last military exploit of the Templars, was made by the Christians to acquire once more a footing on the continent of Asia during the mastership of Molay. In 1300, the Mongol chief Gazan came to the aid of the king of Armenia, against the Turks. As it was the policy of the Tartars, who had not as yet embraced Islam, to stir up enemies to the Mohammedans, Gazan, after over-running the country as far as Damascus, sent an embassy to the Pope, Boniface VIII., inviting the Christians, particularly the three military orders, to come and take possession of the Holy Land. The Templars, Hospitallers, and Henry, king of Cyprus, forthwith manned seven galleys and five smaller vessels. Almeric de Lusignan, Lord of Tyre, and the Masters of the two orders, landed at Tortosa, and endeavoured to maintain that islet against the Egyptian sultan, but were forced to yield to numbers. The Templars fought gallantly to no purpose, and a few of them, who defended a tower into which they had thrown themselves, surrendered, and were carried prisoners to Egypt.

The Hospitallers, in the year 1306, renewed their attacks on the isle of Rhodes, where they finally succeeded in expelling the Turks, and planting the standard of their order. The Teutonic knights transferred the sphere of their warfare to Russia, and the adjacent country, whose inhabitants were still heathens. The Templars meantime remained inactive in Cyprus, and seem even to have been meditating a retreat to Europe.

France was at this time governed by Philip the Fair, son of St. Louis. Philip, who had come to the throne at the early age of seventeen years, had been educated by Giles de Colonna, afterwards archbishop of Bourges, a man distinguished for his learning and for the boldness of his opinions. One of his favourite maxims was, "that Jesus Christ had not given any temporal dominion to his church, and that the king of France has his authority from God alone." Such principles having been early instilled into his mind, the young monarch was not likely to be a very dutiful son of the Church, and the character of Boniface VIII., who, without possessing the talents or the virtues of a Gregory or an Innocent, attempted to stretch the papal pretensions to their greatest extent, soon roused him to resistance. In the plenitude of his fancied authority, the pope issued a bull, forbidding the clergy to give any subsidies to lay-powers without permission from Rome. Philip, in return, issued an order prohibiting the exportation of gold, silver, or merchandize from France, thereby cutting off a great source of papal revenue. In the course of the dispute, Boniface maintained that princes were subject to him in temporals also. Philip's reply was,—"Philip, by the grace of God, king of the French, to Boniface, acting as supreme pontiff, little or no health. Let your extreme folly know, that in temporals we are not subject to any one." Shortly afterwards he publicly burned a bull of the pope, and proclaimed the deed by sound of trumpet in Paris. Boniface, raving with indignation, summoned the French clergy to Rome, to deliberate on the means of preserving the liberties of the Church. Philip convoked a national assembly to Paris, in which, for the first time, there appeared deputies of the third estate, who readily expressed their resolution to stand by their monarch in defence of his rights, and the clergy willingly denied the temporal jurisdiction of the pontiff. Several prelates and abbots having obeyed the summons of the pope, the king seized on their temporalities. The pope menaced with deprivation all those who had not attended, and, in his famous bull of Unam sanctam, asserted that every human being was subject to the Roman pontiff. Another bull declared that every person, be his rank what it might, was bound to appear personally when summoned to Rome. Philip forbade the publication of these bulls; and the states general being again convoked appealed to a council against the pope. Commissaries were sent through France to procure the adhesion of the clergy to this act, which was given in some cases voluntarily, in others obtained by means of a little wholesome rigour. The king, his wife, and his son, pledged themselves to stand by those who adhered to the resistance made by France to papal usurpation. Boniface next excommunicated the king, who intercepted the bull, and prevented its publication. The pope finally offered the crown of France to the emperor Albert of Austria. Matters were now come to an extremity, and Philip ventured on one of the boldest acts that have ever been attempted in the Christian world.

Philip had afforded an asylum at his court to some members of the Colonna family, the personal enemies of the pope. His chancellor and fast adherent was William de Nogaret, who had been his agent in the affair of appealing to a general council, by presenting to the states general a charge of simony, magic, and the usual real or imaginary crimes of the day against the pontiff. This man, and some of the Italian exiles, attended by a body of 300 horse, set out for Italy, and took up his abode at a castle between Florence and Sienna, under pretext of its being a convenient situation for carrying on negociations with Rome. The pope was meantime residing at Anagni, his native town. Nogaret having, by a liberal distribution of money, acquired a sufficient number of partisans, appeared before the gate of Anagni early on the morning of the 7th September, 1303. The gate was opened by a traitor, and the French and their partisans ran through the streets, crying Live the king of France, die Boniface. They entered the palace without opposition; the French ran here and there in search of plunder, and Sciarra Colonna and his Italians alone came in presence of the pope. Boniface, who was now eighty-six years of age, was clad in his pontifical vestments, and on his knees before the altar, in expectation of death. At the sight of him the conspirators, whose intention had been to slay him, stopped short, filled with involuntary awe, and did not dare to lay a hand upon him. During three days they kept him a prisoner; on the fourth the people of the town rose and expelled them, and released the pontiff. Boniface returned to Rome; but rage at the humiliation which he had undergone deranged his intellect, and in one of his paroxysms he dashed his head against the wall of his chamber, and died in consequence of the injury which he received.

Benedict XI., the successor of Boniface, absolved Philip, and his ministers and subjects, from the sentence of excommunication. As he felt his power, he was proceeding to more vigorous measures to avenge the insulted dignity of the holy see, when he died of poison, administered, as a contemporary historian asserts, by the agents of Philip. During ten months the conclave were unable to agree on his successor among the Italian cardinals. It was then proposed by the partisans of the king of France, that one party in the conclave should name three ultramontane prelates, from among whom the other party should select one. The choice fell on Bertrand de Gotte, archbishop of Bordeaux, who had many serious causes of enmity to Philip and his brother Charles of Valois. Philip's friend, the cardinal of Prato, instantly sent off a courier with the news, advising the king to acquiesce in the election as soon as he had secured him to his interest. Philip set out for Gascony, and had a private interview with the pontiff elect, in an abbey in the midst of a forest near St. Jean d'Angely. Having sworn mutual secresy, the king told the prelate that it was in his power to make him pope on condition of his granting him six favours. He showed him his proofs, and the ambitious Gascon, falling at his feet, promised everything. The six favours demanded by Philip were a perfect reconciliation with the Church; admission to the communion for himself and friends; the tithes of the clergy of France for five years, to defray the expenses of his war in Flanders; the persecution and destruction of the memory of Pope Boniface; the conferring the dignity of cardinal on James and Peter Colonna. "The sixth favour," said he, "is great and secret, and I reserve the asking of it for a suitable time and place." The prelate swore on the host, and gave his brother and two of his nephews as hostages. The king then sent orders to the cardinal of Prato, to elect the archbishop of Bordeaux, who took the name of Clement V.

Whether urged by the vanity of shining in the eyes of his countrymen, or by dread of the tyranny exercised by the cardinals over his predecessors, or, what seems more probable, in compliance with the wishes of Philip, or in consequence of impediments thrown by that monarch in the way of his departure, Clement, to the dismay of all Christendom, instead of repairing to Rome, summoned the cardinals to Lyons for his coronation. They reluctantly obeyed, and he was crowned in that city on the 17th December, 1305, the king, his brother, and his principal nobles, assisting at the ceremony. Clement forthwith created twelve new cardinals, all creatures of Philip, whose most devoted slave the pope showed himself to be on all occasions. His promises to him were most punctually fulfilled, with the exception of that respecting the memory of Boniface, which the cardinal of Prato proved to Philip it would be highly impolitic and dangerous to perform; but Clement cheerfully authorised him to seize, on the festival of St. Madelaine, all the Jews in his kingdom, to banish them, and confiscate their property in the name of religion.

What the sixth and secret grace which Philip required was is unknown. Many conjectures have been made to little purpose. It is not at all improbable that the king had at the time no definite object in view, and that, like the fabled grant of Neptune to Theseus, it was to be claimed whenever an occasion of sufficient importance should present itself.

Such as we have described them were Philip and the sovereign pontiff; the one able, daring, rapacious, ambitious, and unprincipled; the other mean, submissive, and little scrupulous. As it was the object of Philip to depress the papal power, and make it subservient to his ambition, he must naturally have desired to deprive it of support. The Templars, therefore, who had been on all occasions the staunch partizans of the papacy, must on this account alone have been objects of his aversion; they had, moreover, loudly exclaimed against his repeated adulteration of the coin, by which they sustained so much injury; and they were very urgent in their demands for repayment of the money which they had lent him on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter Isabella with the son of the king of England. Their wealth was great; their possessions in France were most extensive; they were connected with the noblest families in the realm; they were consequently, now that they seemed to have given up all idea of making any farther efforts in the East, likely to prove a serious obstacle in the way of the establishment of the absolute power of the crown. They were finally very generally disliked on account of their excessive pride and arrogance, and it was to be expected that in an attack on their power and privileges the popular favour would be with the king. These motives will, we apprehend, sufficiently account for Philip's anxiety to give a check to the order, beyond which, as it would appear, his plans did not at first extend. We cannot venture to say when this project first entered the mind of king Philip; whether he had the Hospitallers also in view, and whether he impelled the pope to invite the Masters of the two orders to France.

As the rivalry and ill-feeling between the two orders had long been regarded as one of the principal causes of the little success of the Christians in the East, the idea of uniting them had been conceived, and Gregory X. and St. Louis had striven, but in vain, at the council at Lyons, to effect it. Pope Boniface VIII. had also been anxious to bring this project to bear, and Clement now resolved to attempt it. On the 6th June, 1306, only six months after his coronation, he wrote to the Masters of the two orders to the following effect;—The kings of Armenia and Cyprus were calling on him for aid; he therefore wished to confer with them, who knew the country well, and were so much interested in it, as to what were best to be done, and desired that they would come to him as secretly as possible, and with a very small train, as they would find plenty of their knights on this side of the sea; he directed them to provide for the defence of Limisso during their absence.

The Master of the Hospital, William de Villaret, was, when the letter arrived, engaged in the attack on Rhodes, and, therefore, could not obey the summons. But De Molay, the Master of the Temple, having confided Limisso and the direction of the order to the marshal, embarked with sixty of his most distinguished knights, taking with him the treasure of the order, consisting of 150,000 florins of gold, and so much silver, that the whole formed the lading of twelve horses. When they arrived in France, he proceeded to Paris, where the king received him with the greatest marks of favour and distinction, and he deposited the treasure in the Temple of that city. Shortly afterwards he set out for Poitiers, where he had an interview with Clement, who consulted him on the affairs of the East. On the subject of a new crusade, Molay gave it as his opinion that nothing but a simultaneous effort of all the Christian powers would be of any avail. He objected to the union of the orders on the following grounds, which were, on the whole, sufficiently frivolous. He said, 1st. That what is new is not always the best; that the orders, as they were, had done good service in Palestine, and, in short, used the good old argument of anti-reformists, It works well. 2dly. That as the orders were spiritual as well as temporal, and many a one had entered them for the weal of his soul, it might not be a matter of indifference to such to leave the one which he had selected and enter another. 3dly. There might be discord, as each order would want its own wealth and influence, and seek to gain the mastery for its own rules and discipline. 4thly. The Templars were generous of their goods, while the Hospitallers were only anxious to accumulate—a difference which might produce dissension. 5thly. As the Templars received more gifts and support from the laity than the Hospitallers, they would be the losers, or at least be envied by their associates. 6thly. There would probably be some disputing between the superiors about the appointment to the dignities in the new order. He however candidly acknowledged, that the new order would be stronger than the old one, and so more zealous to combat the infidels, and that many commanderies might be suppressed, and some saving effected thereby. Having thus delivered his sentiments, Molay took leave of the pope, and returned to Paris. Vague rumours of serious charges made, or to be made, against the order now beginning to prevail, Molay, accompanied by Rimbaud de Caron, preceptor of Outre-mer, Jeffrey de Goneville, preceptor of Aquitaine, and Hugh de Perando, preceptor of France, repaired once more to Poitiers, about April, 1307, to justify himself and the order in the eyes of the pope. Clement, we are told, informed them of the serious charges of the commission of various crimes which had been made against them; but they gave him such explanations as appeared to content him, and returned to Paris, satisfied that they had removed all doubts from his mind.

The following was the way in which the charges were made against the Templars.

There was lying in prison, at Paris or Toulouse, for some crime, a man named Squin de Flexian, a native of Beziers, who had been formerly a Templar, and prior of Mantfaucon, but had been put out of the order for heresy and other offences. His companion in captivity was a Florentine, named Noffo Dei—"a man (says Villani) full of all iniquity." These two began to plan how they might best extricate themselves from their present hopeless state; and, as it would appear, aware of the king's dislike to the Templars, and hating them for having punished him for his crimes, Squin de Flexian resolved to accuse them of the most monstrous offences, and thus obtain his liberation. Accordingly, calling for the governor of the prison, he told him that he had a discovery to make to the king, which would be more for his advantage than the acquisition of a new kingdom, but that he would only reveal it to the king in person. Squin was immediately conveyed to Paris, and brought before the king, to whom he declared the crimes of the order; and some of the Templars were seized and examined by order of Philip.

Another account says that Squin Flexian and Noffo Dei, who were both degraded Templars, had been actively engaged in an insurrection of the people some time before, from which the king was obliged to take shelter in the Temple. They had been taken, and were lying in prison without any hope of their lives, when they hit on the plan of accusing their former associates. They were both set at liberty; but Squin was afterwards hanged, and Noffo Dei beheaded, as was said with little probability, by the Templars.

It is also said, that, about the same time, Cardinal Cantilupo, the pope's chamberlain, who had been in connexion with the Templars from his eleventh year, made some discoveries respecting it to his master.

The charges made by Squin Flexian against the order were as follows:—

  1. Each Templar, on his admission, was sworn never to quit the order; and to further its interests, by right or by wrong.
  2. The heads of the order are in secret alliance with the Saracens; and have more Mahommedan infidelity than Christian faith; in proof of which, they make every novice spit and trample on the cross of Christ, and blaspheme his faith in various ways.
  3. The heads of the order are heretical, cruel, and sacrilegious men. Whenever any novice, on discovering the iniquity of the order, attempts to quit it, they put him to death, and bury him privately by night. They teach the women who are pregnant by them how to procure abortion, and secretly murder the new-born babes.
  4. The Templars are infected with all the errors of the Fraticelli; they despise the pope and the authority of the Church; they contemn the sacraments, especially those of penance and confession. They feign compliance with the rites of the Church merely to escape detection.
  5. The superiors are addicted to the most infamous excesses of debauchery; to which, if any one expresses his repugnance, he is punished by perpetual captivity.
  6. The temple-houses are the receptacles of every crime and abomination that can be committed.
  7. The order labours to put the Holy Land into the hands of the Saracens; and favours them more than the Christians.
  8. The installation of the Master takes place in secret, and few of the younger brethren are present at it; whence there is a strong suspicion that he denies the Christian faith or promises, or does something contrary to right.
  9. Many statutes of the order are unlawful, profane, and contrary to the Christian religion; the members are, therefore, forbidden, under pain of perpetual confinement, to reveal them to any one.
  10. No vice or crime committed for the honour or benefit of the order is held to be a sin.

Such were the charges brought against the order by the degraded prior of Montfaucon—charges in general absurd, or founded on gross exaggeration of some of the rules of the society. Others, still more incredible, were subsequently brought forward in the course of the examinations of witnesses.

Philip and his ministers, having now what they regarded as a plausible case against the Templars, prepared their measures in secret; and on the 12th September, 1307, sealed letters were sent to all the governors and royal officers throughout France, with orders to arm themselves on the 12th of the following month; and in the night to open the letters and act according to the instructions contained therein. The appointed day arrived; and, on the morning of Friday, the 13th October, nearly all the Templars throughout France saw themselves captives in the hands of their enemies. So well had Philip taken his measures, that his meditated victims were without suspicion; and, on the very eve of his arrest, Molay was chosen by the treacherous monarch to be one of the four pall-bearers at the funeral of the Princess Catherine, wife of the Count of Valois.

The directions sent by the king to his officers had been to seize the persons and the goods of the Templars; to interrogate, torture, and obtain confessions from them; to promise pardon to those who confessed; and to menace those who denied.

On the day of the arrest of the Master and his knights, the king took possession of the Temple at Paris; and the Master and the preceptors of Aquitaine, France, and beyond sea, were sent prisoners to Corbeil. The following day the doctors of the University of Paris and several canons assembled with the royal ministers in the church of Notre Dame, and William de Nogaret, the chancellor, stated to them that the knights had been proceeded against on account of their heresies. On the 15th the University met in the Temple; and some of the heads of the order, particularly the Master, were examined, and are said to have made some confessions of the guilt of the order for the last forty years.

The king now published an act of accusation, conceived in no moderate or gentle terms. He calls the accused in it devouring wolves, a perfidious and idolatrous society, whose deeds, whose very words alone, are enough to pollute the earth and infect the air, etc., etc. The inhabitants of Paris were then assembled in the royal gardens; and the king's agents spoke, and some monks preached to them against the accused.

Philip, in his hostility to the order, would be content with nothing short of its utter ruin. Almost immediately after his coup d'etat of the 13th October, he despatched a priest, named Bernard Peletus, to his son-in-law, Edward II., king of England, inviting him to follow his example. Edward wrote, on the 30th of the same month, to say that the charges made against the Templars by Philip and his agent appeared to him, his barons, and his prelates, to be incredible; and that he would, therefore, summon the senechal of Agen, whence this rumour had proceeded, to inform him thereupon, before proceeding any farther.

Clement had been at first offended at the hasty and arbitrary proceedings of the king of France against the Templars; but Philip easily managed to appease him; and on the 22d November the pope wrote to the king of England, assuring him that the Master of the Temple, had spontaneously confessed that the brethren, on their admission, denied Christ; and that several of the brethren in different parts of France had acknowledged the idolatry and other crimes laid to the charge of the order; and that a knight of the highest and most honourable character, whom he had himself examined, had confessed the denial of Jesus Christ to be a part of the ceremony of admission. He therefore calls on the king to arrest all the Templars within his realms, and to place their lands and goods in safe custody, till their guilt or innocence should be ascertained.

Edward, in a letter, dated November 26, inquired particularly of the senechal of Agen, in Guienne, respecting the charges against the Templars. On the 4th December he wrote to the kings of Portugal, Castile, Aragon, and Sicily, telling them of what he had heard, and adding that he had given no credit to it; and begging of them not to hearken to these rumours. On the 10th, evidently before he had received the bull, he wrote to the pope, stating his disbelief of what he had heard, and praying of his holiness to institute an inquiry. But when the papal bull, so strongly asserting the guilt of the order, arrived, the good-hearted king did not venture to refuse compliance with it; and he issued a writ on the 15th December, appointing the morn of Wednesday after Epiphany, in the following month, for seizing the Templars and their property, but directing them to be treated with all gentleness. Similar orders were forwarded to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, on the 20th; and on the 26th he wrote to assure the pope that his mandates would be speedily obeyed. The arrests took place accordingly; and the Templars and their property were thus seized in the two countries in which they were most powerful.

The reluctance of the king of England and his parliament to proceed to any harsh measures against the Templars affords some presumption in their favour, and would incline us to believe that, had Philip been actuated by a similar love of justice, the order would not have been so cruelly treated in France. But Philip had resolved on the destruction of the society, and his privy councillors and favourites were not men who would seek to check him in his career of blood and spoliation. These men were William Imbert, his confessor, a Dominican monk, one of an order inured in Languedoc to blood, and deeply versed in all inquisitorial arts and practices; William Nogaret, his chancellor, the violator of the sanctity of the head of the church; William Plasian, who had shared in that daring deed, and afterwards sworn, in an assembly of the peers and prelates of France, that Boniface was an atheist and a sorcerer, and had a familiar demon. The whole order of the Dominicans also went heart and hand in the pious work of detecting and punishing the heretics. We must constantly bear in mind that the charges made against the Templars, if they may not all be classed under the term heresy, were all such as the Church was in the habit of making against those whom she persecuted as public heretics. And in this, Philip and his advisers acted wisely in their generation; for treason, or any other political charge, would have sounded dull and inefficient in the ears of the people, in comparison with the formidable word heresy.

[Illustration] from Secret Societies of the Middle Ages by Thomas Keightly