Review: The Trial of the Templars

Title: The Trial of the Templars
Author: Malcolm Barber
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 1978 (Second edition 2006)
Language: English

Although the Trial of the Templars is now more than thirty years old, it is still the best study of the period written in English. This is a period, a long with the Crusade against the Cathars, which is well known and studied in French but for which very little English material of any quality exists.

In this book, Barber has presented documentary and other first hand evidence of the arrest, trial and suppression of the Order of the Temple of Solomon. From this he constructs a narrative which delves deeply into the motivations of the three main participants: Philip IV le Bel of France, Pope Clement V and the Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay. He weaves into this mix the reactions and thinking of the leaders of other countries in which the Templars operated.

On Friday 13 October 1307, one secret orders of Philip IV, all Templars in the kingdom of France were arrested and their goods seized. The Templars protested their innocence of the charges brought against them: blasphemy, denying Christ, sodomy and worshipping strange idols. The trial lasted for seven years and finally ended inconclusively in 1314 with the Papal decree disbanding the Order “without blame being attached to the brothers: not without bitterness and sadness of heart, not by way of judicial sentence, but by way of … apostolic ordinance” (Vox in excelso, 22 March 1314).

The trial was the ground on which a completely different battle was fought. This was not a fight to either condemn or acquit the Order of the Templar but a battle over whether kings owed secular allegiance to the Pope as god’s representative on earth or whether they were rulers because they themselves had been anointed by god.

This battle began more than 100 years previously, more openly, as conflict between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Both claimed overall sovereignty over the region we now called western Europe: the one as the direct descendant of the Apostles of Christ, the other as the inheritor of the empires of Charlemagne and of Ancient Rome. During this struggle, the Papacy relied on two weapons, the development of canon law and fostering the military might of France. When the Hohenstaufen Emperor was finally defeated, Rome found that it had only transferred the fight from what is now Germany to France. The fight began anew.

When Philip came to the throne in 1285, he inherited the cash problems caused by was with England, Aquitaine and Flanders. After a series of disastrous de-valuing and re-valuing of the currency, he resorted to the favour tactic of cash-strapped medieval monarchs: exiling sections of the community and taking their stuff. First on the list was the Lombard merchants in Provence. Next were the commonest scapegoat of all, the Jews. Still lacking money, he turned his sights to a target which represented both vast wealth and, if he was successful, a large dent in the armour of if the idea of Papal superiority: the Templars.

In opposition to the romantic fantasies of Victorian historian, who searched for any possible truth to the charges brought against the Templars, Barber shows quite clearly that they had no validity. The only confessions made my members of the Temple were extracted under torture. In no other country was there any confession of guilt made by a Templar (except when the Pope half-heartedly ordered torture to show he was in control of proceedings). Only in France were there any confessions of guilt made by the Templars.

In the end, Templars were nothing more than pawns in the political game. The tragedy of the tale is that they did not realise this until well after the events, during which they relied with childlike expectation on being saved and vindicated by the man who abandoned them to further his own political ends: Pope Clement V.

Commemoration Plaque: Jacques de Molay Tourist Note: The spot on which Jacques de Molay was burned to death (map) as a relapsed heretic can still be seen beneath the Pont Neuf. Where tourists queue for ferry rides along the Seine, there’s a small plaque commemorating the event.