Templars: the Flame of Innocence

March 1314. The Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, Jacques de Molay, and his closest subaltern, the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charnay, were escorted to their place of execution. The flames of the fire were to wipe out the Militia of the Temple from Europe, by eliminating the head of its military body. The sentence was not without controversy. Since dawn on 13 October 1307 when the first arrests were made by the soldiers of King Phillip IV of France, known as “the Fair”, several noblemen had spoken out in defence of the Knights Templar. But these pleas fell on deaf ears and had no effect whatsoever. Seven years of torture and interrogations followed, culminating in that fire which killed Jacques de Molay and along with him, in symbolic terms, the whole Order of the Militia of the Temple of Jerusalem. Before he perished in the flames, for the final time de Molay formally shouted his innocence and that of the entire Order, but it seems he did so with knightly pride, addressing his words above all to Philip the Fair and Clement V, those responsible for what was to become an historic outrage. From then on, for seven hundred years, the tragic epilogue of the Templars and the injustice they were subject to had historical, sociological and historiographical repercussions. The numerous unanswered questions raised by the whole affair, which have remained unresolved owing in part to the scarcity of reliable documentary sources, are to this day still undergoing painstaking research by historians who are aiming to reconstruct and understand the facts and the level of involvement of the protagonists involved in this tragic historical event.

Until now according to official research, although the responsibility of the French sovereign in the elimination of the Templar Order was clear, a fair amount of responsibility was also attributed to the Pope himself, Bertrand de Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux who took the name Clement V when elected to the Papal See with the aid of the French Crown and his Roman alliances. It was Clement V who moved the Papal See to Avignon and who repealed the Bull “Clericis Laicos”, issued by his predecessor, Boniface VIII and which was greatly disliked by the French sovereign. Until now, Clement V appeared to have been weak, with seemingly cast-iron responsibility for the fall of the “Temple”. But history often casts doubt over what seemed certain, and the discovery of new sources can overturn beliefs held for centuries.

An unknown document

And that’s what happened recently. On 13 September last year, the historian Barbara Frale discovered a document in the depths of the Secret Vatican Archives regarding the trial of the Knights Templar, which the scientific community had believed lost for centuries. Immediately contacted for advice, experts on the Templar trial confirmed that the parchment, as far as they know, has never been brought to light before. It is an original document from the inquiry led by Clement V during the summer of 1308, the only papal inquiry into the Templar Order, which had been tried by Philip the Fair with the aid of the French Inquisitor William of Paris, acting on his own initiative, thereby subsequently attracting papal punishment. The document contains the only confession made by the Grand Master Jacques de Molay to the Pope’s representatives. Unnoticed by researchers, probably because they believed it to have been stolen along with other documents from the trial when Napoleon transported the Popes’ archives to Paris, the document calls into question the French Pope, his role in the whole trial and, above all, it discloses what no-one could have imagined, thereby restoring honour to the Templar Order, unjustly condemned for heresy, more than 700 years later.

It’s a document which is set to turn the historical view of the Order’s trial upside down and which will definitively clarify the varying influence which the two protagonists, Philip the Fair and Clement V, had in the series of these events. But let’s start at the beginning. The Knights Templar, no longer engaged in the Holy Land following the Fall of Acre of 1291, had returned to Europe, having amassed many riches and possessions over almost two centuries. In France in particular, the Order’s wealth constituted a vast fortune coveted by the Crown. In addition, there were the huge debts which King Philip IV himself had with the Temple, at least that’s what can be inferred from the “Chronicle of Cyprus” compiled by Bustron Florio in 1340. The Templars therefore represented a transversal power which would have hindered the fulfilment of the absolutist plan which Philip had been plotting for some time. Even at the time of Pope Boniface VIII, the despotic sovereign had revealed his desire for “centrality” by his irreverence towards the ecclesiastic hierarchies, a policy which led to the famous “Outrage at Anagni” in 1303.

The immediate arrest of the Knights Templar in October 1307 caught the Pope off guard, and he found himself in the awkward position of having to criticise the sovereign to whom he owed his election: “(…) While we were absent you turned your mind to the Knights Templar and their property. You have even gone so far as to incarcerate them, and what pains us most is that you have not released them. On the contrary, we have heard that you have done more, inflicting in addition to their imprisonment further suffering, which out of respect for the Church, we must, for now, pass over (…)”, a protest which was formalised in the Bull “Subit Assidue” of 5 July 1308 in which Clement accuses the French Inquisitor, William of Paris, of failing to warn the papal authority of the imminent arrests. An official remonstration of this kind called for an imperious reply in order to confirm the (false) accusations which the King was making against the Order of the Temple. The evidence was gathered using a wide range of torture techniques, aimed at “producing” a body of confessions that would stem the embarrassment and enable the Pope to ratify the arrest and imprisonment of the entire Order. Philip IV managed to achieve what he wanted and accused the Knights Templar of heresy, blasphemy, sodomy and idolatry. The Templars were defamed on a massive scale in order to raise a scandal and induce the Pope to issue an immediate condemnation of the Order. A perverse plan, but one which worked like a dream. The confessions led Clement V to issue the Bull “Pastoralis Praeminentiae” which ordered the western monarchies to arrest the Knights Templar and confiscate their possessions and property. Clement V emphasised, however, that it was only the ecclesiastic power which was to have control over what was confiscated, thereby confirming the Pope’s authority as the sole judge of the Knights Templar, and condemning, albeit only indirectly, the King of France’s misuse of authority.

The Bull also declared: “… if it is proved that the premises (on which the accusations were based – Editor’s note) are not true, then the turmoil will cease and according to the will of God there will be joy; for this reason, we propose to seek out the truth without delay (…)”. The truth had, unfortunately, been well hidden thanks to clever manipulation by Philip and his advisers, skilled at gaining the upper hand and preventing the Papal See, by means of cunning strategies, from defending the Templar Order.

The Papal Inquiry

In January 1308, four months after the “night of infamy”, what was happening to the Templars in the French prisons provoked much comment from all quarters. The Grand Master Jacques de Molay, imprisoned in Paris along with other members of the military body, had not yet managed to speak to the Pope to clarify his position and that of the Order he represented. The injustices continued and official protests from the nobility and the people worried the Pope, who ordered the inquiry to come to an end. William de Nogaret, loyal aide and adviser to the Crown, again succeeded in uniting noblemen and prelates loyal to Philip, which breathed new life into the shameful accusations against the Knights Templar. And so we arrive at early June 1308, when a meeting between Clement V and Philip the Fair ended the inquiry. After ordering the King to place the prisoners in the Church’s custody in vain, the Pope suspended the Inquisition’s powers as he had uncovered grave irregularities and misuse of authority during current interrogations, and consequently, the confessions extracted were unreliable. A new inquiry began where this time it would fall exclusively to the Holy See to judge the guilt or innocence of the Order, by means of a Papal Commission.

Clement V, who had had excellent legal knowledge and had been a skilled diplomat for many years, realised the devious intentions behind Philip the Fair’s whole scheme. He proclaimed that the Church would not take a stance regarding the Knights Templar until the King allowed the Pope personally to see the prisoners. This determination led Philip the Fair to allow a selected minority of the brothers to be taken in chains to the Curia in Poitiers to be questioned; however, the King wanted to prevent the Pope from meeting the Grand Master and the high dignitaries of the Order whom he kept apart from their brothers, confined to the depths of Chinon castle. He therefore used the excuse that, as they were ill, they could not travel and consequently he did not let them leave.

Clement V had a brilliant solution to this problem: he appointed a special delegation of his three most trusted Cardinals, including his nephew Béranger Fredol, an expert canonist who had personally witnessed the abuses of the Inquisition, and he sent them to question the Knights Templar at Chinon in his stead.


This is where the document, discovered on 13 September 2001 in the Secret Vatican Archives, begins to cast light on new and conclusive details. The document yields up the very testimony of that interrogation, vital to the Pope’s strategy in order to save the Church from the embarrassment and the problems in which it was embroiled owing to the King’s schemes and the complicity of the French Inquisitor. Besides being unpublished and unknown until today, it enables us to trace, step by step, a fundamental move in Clement V’s strategy concerning the Templars. Already by personally interrogating the Knights Templar in Poitiers, the Pope had realised that the indecent acts, especially the denial of Christ and spitting on the cross, did not express the will of the brothers but they were required for a type of rites of initiation, a compulsory custom which had to be accepted, in honour of the Order’s military tradition. The Pope even investigated whether there were any books which described the requisite tradition and discovered that the texts relating to Templar customs were secret and that only the high dignitaries had access to them: “(...) he had heard that the points regarding the denial of Christ and all the rest were written in the Rule which is held by the Visitors. And the high dignitaries guard the Rule and keep it secret, they do not reveal it to the young, as had been widely said (...)” (from Avignon Register 48, deposition n. XLV).

Clement V understood that at the heart of the ceremony was the need to put the initiate to the test in order to find out whether he could withstand the severe discipline and absolute obedience which the Temple demanded. The Preceptors gave an absurd order, and the new brother had to obey in any case: “You must deny three times the Christ that this images represents, and spit three times on the image and on the cross”. He would reply that he would never do it, so the Preceptor would give him a stern reprimand, saying: “Do you dare to disobey a command you have been given?” and he would threaten to have him thrown into the Merlanc dungeons in a few days’ time, if he did not go back on his word.” (from Avignon Register 48, deposition n. XLVI).

When the Cardinals whom the Pope had sent to Chinon to interrogate the Grand Master on his behalf presented their account of the inquiry, the Pope was able to confirm his suspicions. The following report of Jacques de Molay’s interrogation was made: “the Preceptor made him, at the time of his initiation, deny the God he saw in the image on the cross, and spit on the cross. He obeyed, but did not spit on the cross but on the ground, to one side of it. He also denied Christ only with his words, not with his heart: after careful questioning, it became clear that as for sodomy, idol worship, illicit kisses and the other matters he knew absolutely nothing.”.

The other dignitaries also confirmed: “the denial and other things that happened during the initiation ceremony were only acted out, not done with the heart. When asked by the Commissioners why they were done, given that everyone found them distasteful, the reply came that they were obligatory because they were part of the Order’s tradition. However, it was hoped that those indecent acts would be abolished, sooner or later” (from the Chinon inquiry, A.A. Arm. D 217). Jacques de Molay’s interrogation therefore instilled in the Pope a new belief which, for today’s historians, was completely unexpected. Although Clement was outraged that the military body of the Order had tolerated vulgar military camp customs, he was convinced that the Knights Templar were not heretics. He had no intention of condemning an Order which had served the Church’s own specific purpose and which, if properly reformed and its customs overhauled, could once again have proved very useful to the objectives of Christian politics in the East and in Europe. As can be inferred from the document recently found by Dr. Barbara Frale, the Pope declared that the Grand Master Jacques de Molay, together with the entire military body of the Temple, having atoned for their misdeeds in accordance with the Pope’s orders, were absolved: “(...) and since they have humbly begged forgiveness from the Church for those misdeeds, pleading absolution, we decree that they are absolved by the Church, that they are restored to communion and that they may receive the holy sacraments.” A revolutionary and unexpected conclusion. 700 years on, we can now declare that the Temple was innocent of heresy. An historically recognised fact, but one which we can now declare as a “pronounced judgment”, even including the lifting of the interdict: the Pope would never have allowed this if he was not certain that the Knights Templar were not heretics.

Strategies compared

Although six years passed from 1308 when this unequivocal judgment was made to 1314, when the Grand Master and the Preceptor of Normandy were burnt at the stake, it was never declared publicly and the Order was unable to enjoy their complete absolution. The document which has been found shows, however, that during the inquiry of summer 1308, the only true, legitimate inquiry into the Templars until then, Clement V wanted to see whether the dignitaries of the Temple would yield before his defensive strategy and ask the Church’s pardon, the only way in which they could be absolved from their excommunication imposed for having denied Christ, albeit purely in spoken form, and for the ritual of spitting on the cross which emerged during the interrogations. Only after he had absolved them and reunited them with the Church, reserving for himself the right to judge the high dignitaries of the Temple, did the Pope order inquiries to be opened across Christendom and restore power to the Inquisition.

The fate of the Templars’ possessions in French territory had been sealed long before, but saving the military body of the Temple by lifting its condemnation signified for the Pope the opportunity to reform the Order, after revising the Rule by purging it of the base traditions uncovered during the trials, and to bestow new duties on it within the Church. But by a twist of fate, despite Clement V’s specific wish, with the repeal of the Bull “Pastoralis Praeminentiae”, to rescue the prisoners who were detained illegally in the prisons of Europe from the King of France, it was the Pope himself who decreed their end two years later at the Council of Vienne of 1312 when he dissolved the Order of the Temple, albeit not as a legal judgment, but purely because of the misdeeds of many of its members.

This judgment did not concern the religious sphere of Templar duties, in accordance with the first judgment which has just been found, and was ratified by the Bull “Vox in Excelso” and subsequently the Bull “Ad Providam” of May 1312, which ordered the Templars’ property to be transferred to the Order of St John. The important discovery of this “full absolution” and the new historical details revealed by the find on 13 September require a substantial reappraisal of the historiography of certain aspects of the Templars’ trial; the results will be discussed in a forthcoming historical essay by Dr Frale, which will also include an identical copy of the Chinon parchment. Although he was rather against the mainstream with regard to part of the historiography of the Temple, the personality of Clement V which has emerged from the recent find is being confirmed in research by authoritative experts in papal history such as Edith Pázstor and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, who have shown how the old image of a “weak Pope, dominated by the French sovereign” should be rejected in favour of that of a diplomat and highly skilled canonist, who knew how to act with great prudence and intelligence in one of the most trying times in history for the Roman Church.

Despite this, while on the one hand the new information makes the historical figure of Clement V certainly more real and also “human”, leaving the French King, Philip the Fair, exclusive claim to the description of infamous torturer, on the other hand it reinforces the weakness of the whole canonical body of that time, which, faced with a despotic sovereign and his well-organised political structure (which also practised espionage: two skilled defence lawyers for the Knights Templar disappeared mysteriously during the trial), did not manage to employ suitable means to affirm the sovereignty of ecclesiastic judgment.

This was also due to the political situation in which the Church found itself at that time, caught between the embarrassing charges of heresy against Boniface VIII and the threat of a schism, for which the King of France was the mouthpiece. The choice Clement made was virtually the only one he had. He probably refrained from formally declaring the innocence of the Templar Order and reforming it in order to avoid a schism and draw a line under Boniface’s humiliating trial. With the dissolution of the Templar Order, Clement hoped that the Grand Master and the other noble members would be handed over to him, in order to place them in the custody of the Papal Curia under “comfortable” house arrests. He therefore requested that the prisoners would not be tried by anyone unless by his authority.

On 18 March 1314, an extraordinary Council was convened in Paris under the Cardinals De Freauville, D’Auch and Nouvelle, where Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charnay retracted their confessions, declaring their innocence to everyone’s surprise. This caused considerable embarrassment for the prelates who asked to look into the matter the next day. It was too much for Philip the Fair.

Out of the blue, just as with their arrests, he had them removed from their prisons without the Pope’s authorisation and ordered them to be taken to an island on the Seine where they were unjustly burnt at the stake, extinguishing any possibility of reforming the Templar Order. Thus an Order perished in the shadow of the injustice of unenforced (and until now, unknown) absolution, and the infamy of an unscrupulous king, an Order which had made Christ part of its name and its mission, leaving in Europe the seeds of a social evolution which would only find fertile ground centuries later.