King Phillip IV, Pope Clement V, and the Fall of the Knights Templar — Part I

The Crusades of the Knights Templar were failures, but their ultimate doom came from outside the Order — from the manipulation of church and state by a greedy French king.

King Phillip the Fair

King Phillip IV of France — nicknamed Phillip the Fair for his looks, not his ethics — was one of the most remarkable figures of the early 14th century, a king so forward-looking and modernistic that he seemed to have been born out of his time and place. Chicago in the 1930s should have been his time and place. The only difference between this guy and Al Capone was the pinstriped suit.

Kingship was the ultimate power trip in the Middle Ages, and all kings have had their little eccentricities. Phillip the Fair's eccentricity — in fact, his obsession — was money. In the course of his reign, one lousy decision after another was brought about by his mania for gold, and his belief that enough of it would make of him a great king and of France a great nation. Phillip's monumental avarice knew no bounds of decency or fear of consequence. It's true that he left the nation larger than he found it, but this wasn't through the usual route of conquest; he bought new towns and counties. He seemed to believe there was absolutely nothing that money couldn't buy. Phillip hid behind the skirt of the power of his royal position to trump up charges against any group in the land that seemed to have a little bit of green. It began with the Lombards.

The Lombards were Italian bankers living in France to do business there. The word was that Phillip had borrowed from them, heavily. Suddenly, the wealthiest among them had various charges brought against them that had them expelled from France. The king, of course, kept their goods and money. Finally, he had all the remaining Lombards expelled and swooped in to gather up their money, too.

Next, in 1306, he turned his sights on France's Jews, a group that few Christians were willing to risk their own lives to defend. Many of the Jewish moneylenders of France had done fairly well in the previous two centuries, and, of course, as with the Lombards, it was rumored that Phillip was personally in hock to them. Charging that they "dishonored Christian custom and behavior," he expelled them from France, stealing all their money and belongings.

Looking back, it seems obvious that Phillip's actions against the Lombards and the Jews were practice runs, simply to see if he could pull it off. By that time, he clearly had another organization in his sights, one with fabled wealth — enough gold, Phillip thought, to make even him feel secure. Phillip clearly had his eye on the Knights Templar.

Pope Clement V

Unfortunately for the Knights Templar, at the beginning of the 14th century, a papal disaster was brewing, a political and religious mess that no one could ever have foreseen. It would be the final blow, the one from which they would not recover. Catholics often refer to it as the Babylonian Captivity. Nowadays, it's usually called the Avignon Papacy or the Great Schism. Either way, an atom bomb by any other name still blows everything to bits.

King Phillip IV of France and his personal henchman Guillaume de Nogaret had been in severe conflict with the then-reigning pope, Boniface VIII. The pope had declared that the king of France had no right to tax Church property, and the money-hungry king Phillip had, obviously, disagreed. De Nogaret kidnapped an important French bishop, and the pope had come out swinging over it. He issued a papal bull proclaiming that kings must be subordinate to the Church, and that popes held ultimate authority over both spiritual and temporal matters on earth. To make sure they got the message, Boniface excommunicated Phillip and de Nogaret. Phillip answered his challenge by sending the brutal, devious, and bad-tempered de Nogaret at the head of an army to meet up with Italian allies and capture the pope. Boniface was, indeed, kidnapped and held for three days. After being beaten to a pulp, he was released; a month later, he died. The French king had proved just who was subordinate to whom, and he didn't mind a little papal blood on his hands. Pope Boniface's successor, Pope Benedict XI, lasted only a year in office — poisoned, it was said, by de Nogaret.

But there were diplomatic difficulties to suffer for killing two popes. Consequently, King Phillip decided it would be easier to just buy one. He began procuring cardinals, pulling strings behind the scenes until the number of French cardinals in the Vatican's College of Cardinals was equal to the Italian ones. They then obligingly elected his handpicked candidate, Bertrand de Goth, making him Pope Clement V. The city of Rome was in turmoil, and the safety of the Vatican was in question. So, it didn't take much to convince the new French pope that his life would be in serious danger by living there. Clement obliged by staying in France, having his ceremony of investiture in Lyons. In 1309, he moved the Holy See to the city of Avignon (which was actually owned by the king of Sicily), right on Phillip's back doorstep.

Clement had everything Phillip wanted in a pope: He was puny, weak, new in the job, and owed everything to his French king. Now was the time for the boldest move of Phillip's reign — the arrest of the Knights Templar.

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