The Templars and the Shroud of Christ (6 page)

Assaulted in his rights by the illegal arrest of the Templars, then once again deceived by the King’s fraudulent effort to prevent him from meeting the heads of the Order, the Pope could consider the Chinon inquiry as a forceful moral victory; the only kind of victory, alas, open to him, given his extreme political weakness. No later than the following October, shortly after the events of Chinon became widely known,
Philip the Fair’s strategists set out on a long-prepared action that attacked directly the Church of Rome: the bishop Guichard di
Troyes, who had earlier fallen into disgrace at the Court of France and had then been involved in a financial scandal, was charged with sorcery and burned alive on royal order, even though
Clemens V himself had previously cleared him of the charges. This repeated the plot of a trial of a few years earlier, against the bishop of Pamiers Bernard
Saisset, whom
Philip the Fair had hounded on charges of lese-majesty and condemned to death against the will of the Pope.

This fact was connected with the
trial against
Boniface VIII and that against the Templars, amounting as a whole to a plan to destabilise: a bishop, a Pope and a whole religious order had fallen under accusation for terrible crimes such as heresy and sorcery, and this showed that the Church of Rome was riddled with corruption in every part of its body.
Philip the Fair’s lawmen were planning to dig up the body of
Boniface VIII to subject it to a public trial, at whose end it was to be burned under the charge of heresy, sorcery and
blasphemy. The dead pope’s burning would have placed the whole Church in an illegal position: the whole reign of
Boniface VIII would have been considered invalid, and everything that happened after the abdication of
Celestine V, not excluding the election of
Clemens V, would have proved null and void. With the College of Cardinals split and most French bishops loyal to Philip, the King threatened a schism that would separate the Church of France from that of Rome.
Clemens V was faced with a dreadful dilemma: he had to choose whether to condemn the order of the Temple as the sovereign demanded, or save it and risk the burning of
Boniface VIII’s body and the French schism with all its consequences.

The Pontiff chose to protect the unity of the institution for which he was responsible, sacrificing a part to preserve the whole. The Order of the Temple was by now effectively destroyed, blasted away by the wave of scandal and defamation. Many brothers had died in the King’s jails, many more had lost their motivation for good. In the spring of 1312 an Ecumenical Council was gathered in Vienne to decide, among other things, the fate of the Templar order; the Pope did not conceal that the judgment was most controversial and a large part of the council opposed their condemnation. After long thought, he felt there was only one way to solve the issue, avert irreparable scandal, and serve the interest of the Crusade: avoid a verdict and act instead by way of administrative decision; that is an official act required for practical reasons. Being a great expert in canon law, he sought for an expedient not to condemn the Order of the Temple, of whose innocence at least where the most serious charges were concerned he was certain: in the Bull
Vox in
, the Pope declared that the Order could not be condemned for heresy, and was therefore “closed” by administrative fiat and without a verdict, to avoid grave danger to the Church. The goods of the Templars were handed over to the other great religious-military order, the
Hospitallers; that at least made them safe from the greed of the French crown, and so they might possibly still serve the cause of re-taking the Sepulchre and Jerusalem, the reason why so many people had in the past donated gifts to the Temple.
Philip the Fair did not exactly accept that decision happily; in the end, however, the
Hospitallers were able to have a consistent part of what had been the Temple’s patrimony.

Though unjust, the end of the Templar order was proving historically convenient: the scandal roused by the
trial had to be placated, and the doubts created by the Templars’ confessions needed to be silenced. The scandal had made the Order odious to sovereigns and to all Catholics; it would no longer be possible to find an honest man willing to become a Templar. The order had therefore lost its usefulness to the Crusader cause for which it had been established, and furthermore, if a swift decision on the issue had not been reached, the king would have completely squandered its goods.
Clemens V therefore decided to get the Templar order “out of the way” by refusing to issue a final sentence, but forbade any further use of name, habit and distinctive signs of the Temple under the penalty of automatic excommunication for anyone who ever dared proclaim himself a Templar in future. The Pope thus eliminated the Order from contemporary reality, but by not issuing a formal sentence he left judgment on the Order in abeyance.

In the end, then, there was no conviction or convict, but a defendant severely punished for crimes other than those he had been indicted for. Something of the same kind also happened with the trial against the late
Boniface VIII; which is hardly surprising, since the two issues were intimately bound up with each other, and their resolution was the result of a long diplomatic struggle made not just of negotiations but also of actual blackmail from both sides.

The fate of the leading Templars was still undecided, and they awaited the Pope’s judgment, when, on 18 March 1314, after proclaiming the Order innocent, Grand Master Jacques de
Molay and Preceptor of Normandy
Geoffroy de Charny were abducted by royal soldiers and condemned to be burned on a little island in the Seine without any reference to the Pontiff. Old, sick for years and severely tested by that long clash with the French monarchy,
Clemens V was no longer in any condition to exert influence; he died about a month later, and his death marked the start of the Church of Rome’s exile in Avignon. Later Popes, pressed by other emergencies, preferred not to deal with the odd situation of the Templar order, never condemned but practically shut down by virtue of a wholly exceptional decision.

The mysterious presence

The most recent research into the documents of the Templar
trial has allowed many points to be clarified. They proved among other things that the construct of
Philip the Fair’s indictment had an explosive impact because it was built on some foundation of fact; certain charges such as the denial of Christ, the obscene kisses and the spitting on the Cross came from a few actual facts, suitably distorted and reworked into evidence of heresy. A few years before he moved openly against the Temple, the King of France had secretly intruded into the Order some spies to collect any kind of information that might help damage it; then a group of royal men of law led by Guillaume de
Nogaret had worked the information into a detailed and imposing castle of accusations. These clever technicians of the law started from a few basic points and derived facts from them just as is done in mathematical sciences when building a theorem. It’s no exaggeration to say that
Nogaret and Co. built the “theorem of Templar heresy”. Their technique was that of the half-truth: every charge they wanted to prove must have a hook in a genuine fact, unpleasant or censurable, but committed without intention of sin; Templars would admit the fact itself under questioning – such as that they had been forced to deny Christ – but they would then deny the charge that hung from it, that is that they did not believe in Christ. But at that point, their position hardly looked solid.
The very same identical scheme was employed to argue that the Templars had turned their back on Christ en masse to indulge the worship of a mysterious

The charge started with a material and evident fact. The Templars wore a little strand of linen string over their tunics. That was something nobody could deny, because everyone had seen it, indeed it was clearly mentioned in the part of Templar statutes dealing with the brothers’ dress. The Templars knew that it had some kind of symbolic rather than practical value, since they were under obligation never to take it off – even when they slept at night – but they did not have any clear idea what it was. Leaning on this unarguable fact of the little linen string,
Nogaret and the King’s other strategists would argue that that object had in fact a perverted meaning, and stated that it had been in contact with a devilish object, a dark and mysterious
idol in the shape of the head of a man with a long beard. According to the charge, the Templars offered this
idol special liturgies, reserved only for the highest dignitaries. These were solemn ceremonies during which it was worshipped, kissed and rubbed with the linen strands that would later be distributed to all brothers in the Order.

The linen belt was a most banal little object which could never in itself have been used to defame the Templars; but it was something that concerned the whole Order, all its members, one by one. The
idol on the other hand was a wholly exclusive matter, that could only be used against the higher officials. Making the Templar linen strands be somehow “fouled” by contact with the dark
idol, however,
Nogaret threw the charge of
idolatry on every single monk of the Temple, “contaminated” by the
idol possibly without knowing it thanks exactly to that little belt he wore every day.

Of all the charges thrown at the Templars,
idolatry is no doubt the darkest, and it is not at all strange that such a suggestion inspired so many novelists. Curiously, however, this charge was not
Pièce de résistance
in the
trial, not his chief weapon, but a kind of little side corollary stuck on as a kind of tail to so many other charges: in his indictment,
Philip the Fair made it quite clear that only a very few Templars knew of the
idol. Why such a disagreement between potential effect and actual work? The answer is simple: the prosecution, who had built a theorem on solid bases from a decade’s worth of reports from its moles, knew quite well that the three disgusting acts of the ritual of admission were common matters practised in every command of the Temple. Practically every Templar could be led by threats or other methods to admit facts that were part of the daily life of the Temple, facts which could be manipulated and distorted; but the existence of the
idol, whatever it was, was an issue purely for the elite, and the hope of wringing any confession seemed very distant indeed. Rumours about that mysterious object were, to
Nogaret, very attractive; they would have allowed him to create a theatrically effective comparison to shock the Pope: just as Moses came back to find, to his rage and grief, that the Jews had in his absence abandoned the cult of the sole God and had built themselves a golden calf, so Pope
Clemens V was to have the evidence that the Templars, themselves monks in a religious order, secretly worshipped a strange
idol that had fallen into their hands. There was however a severe problem: if only the leaders of the Temple knew of the
idol, it could be expected that only a very few confessions could be gathered.

Philip the Fair wanted was the entire demolition of the Order, so he had to convince the Pope that the whole Templar body was poisoned by corruption and heresy; the condemnation of the leaders alone was no good to the King, they would have been removed and replaced, while a mass indictment of the whole Order would allow him to demand from the Pope its total extinction. A few confessions, however red-hot, were worth little to the prosecution: even if ten or 20 Templars could be found to admit that they practised sorcery and raised devils, that would have amounted to nothing, because the thing would have seemed a sin – if a dire and inexcusable one – that affected only the culprits. At that point the Inquisition would convict the individuals.
Nogaret and
Philip the Fair, however, needed large numbers, and had to find charges that, even if less serious, were so widespread in the Order as to let them say that one could hardly find one Templar innocent of them. The military ritual of admission suited this need exactly; the secret ceremony with its apparent outrages against Christian religion, was ideal. The ritual was known to be commonly practised, though in widely divergent forms, so nearly every member of the Order could admit that they had carried out at least some of those guilty acts, such as denying Christ or spitting on the Cross: and since judicial procedures at the time weren’t too refined, the general confusion raised by the scandal could well be used to suggest that the whole order was affected by anti-
Christianity. Emphasis on the
idol in the prosecution’s scheme would have been ill-advised, since it risked suggesting that the whole castle of charges was built on mere calumny. Like the smart lawyer he was,
Nogaret preferred to bet on charges that the monks themselves were more likely to confirm, and reduced the matter of the
idol to an obscure, if chilling, detail: so he made it clear in the indictment that the existence of this simulacrum was unknown to the vast majority of monks. As had been expected, the harvest of reports of
idolatry was exceedingly small, scarce and mutually highly contradictory, though
Philip the Fair’s strategists did what they could to manipulate and paint them in the grimmest possible colours.

A mosaic of fragments

Examination of the documents leaves no doubts whatever. Only a small, tiny minority of the Templars who appeared in the
trial were able to say anything at all on this phantom object. And even within this tiny minority, many mentioned it only because they had heard talk about it from others, that is, from no personal knowledge at all. That is a pretty sad haul when compared to the near totality of testimonies that have nothing whatever to say about it. Out of 1,114 Templar testimonies recorded during the
trial, only 130 include even a hint of the
idol, and most of those do nothing but repeat what the prosecution said; clearly these are the miserable product of torture and other forms of violence. Only 52 statements give any information at all about the
idol, that is, 4.6% of the total. On this at least
Philip the Fair did not lie: very few Order members were aware of the matter, as against the immense majority who had no idea what so ever. We may take this as reliable, since the inquisitors and the royal lawmen were hardly short of means to persuade. These very few witnesses, utter exceptions to the rule, don’t even describe the same object, giving in fact the most wildly different detail. I think that all this must have discouraged historians from looking with due scholarly care in this field: in effect, the great variety of images makes it all seem like a big hodgepodge of things said at random. So the whole area was condemned without distinction, as a set of tragic lies caused by torture.

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