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Unholy knights?

Byline: By Peter Leathley

Friday the 13th is the unluckiest day of the year and in 1307 its reputation became worse, as Peter Leathley reports.

When Jerusalem fell to the Christian crusaders in 1099, the floodgates opened for pilgrims to visit sacred shrines in the Holy Land.

But the journey was a dangerous one and many were robbed, beaten and killed on the way.

Sick and wounded pilgrims were cared for in hospitals of the Knights of St John, but a new military order was needed to protect them on the roads to Jerusalem.

The Knights Templar were founded in 1118 by French nobleman Hughes de Payens.

King Baldwin of Jerusalem gave the group of nine knights lodgings in a part of the ancient temple of Solomon - then the Al Aqsa mosque.

Templars took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and were prepared to fight to the death in the name of Jesus Christ. Renowned for their courage and fighting skills, they charged into battle with a red cross emblazoned on their shield to the battle cry "God wills it".

The order became extremely wealthy, owning tax-free estates and castles throughout Europe.

Land and money were donated to the order by generous kings who saw them as the fearless defenders of Christianity from Muslim invasions.

But with the loss of the last Christian territory in 1291, the Templars were deprived of their mission and abandoned the Holy Land.

Many returned to France and the Temple in Paris became their new headquarters.

The king of France - Philip the Fair - ascended to the throne aged 17, but inherited a huge debt from his father.

He taxed the Jews and the Lombards - Italian bankers - and in 1306 ordered the seizure of all Jewish property, he even tried to tax the church.

Bankrupt and unpopular with the people, he once took refuge at the Temple in Paris from a rioting mob.

There, under the protection of the Templars, many believe he saw their wealth and started plotting to get it for himself.

Soon he was accusing them of being in league with Satan. On Friday October 13 1307, the Knights Templars were arrested by King Philip.

By the end of the day nearly all the Templars in France, including the Grand Master Jacques de Molay, were imprisoned.

Accusations of spitting on the cross, denying Christ, practicing "obscene kisses" and worshipping a cat were made against them.

They had supposedly burnt the bodies of deceased members for food and cooked and roasted infants.

At the mercy of their barbaric inquisitors, confessions were extracted by any means necessary.

Knights protesting their innocence were strapped to the rack or had fat rubbed on their feet and set alight.

The main accusation against them was that they worshipped a head of some sort, but confessions differed as to what the idol was.

King Philip described it as: "a man's head with a large beard, which they kiss and worship at all their provincial chapters".

Inquisition documents say: "the brothers had idols in every province, some of which had three faces, some one and some a man's skull.

"They adored that idol. They worshipped it as their god, as their saviour."

Brother Raoul described the head to his inquisitor as: "Terrible. It was the face of a demon, of an evil spirit. Every time I saw it I was filled with terror."

Like other persecuted heretics, the Templars were accused of holding their chapters at night and in secret.

Interrogations were more humane in England. In a letter to Pope Clement, King Edward expressed his disbelief at the "horrible and detestable" rumours spread abroad concerning the Templars.

In Paris, knights who retracted their alleged abominations were burned at the stake.

The order was finally abolished in 1312 and their lands were given to the Knights of St John.

After seven years languishing in jail Jacques de Molay was led out to a public scaffold to confess his order's sins.

Facing the crowd gathered to hear his final words he said: "I do confess my guilt, which consists in having, to my shame and dishonour, suffered myself, through the pain of torture and the fear of death, to give utterance to falsehoods, imputing scandalous sins and iniquities to an illustrious Order, which hath nobly served the cause of Christianity.

"I disdain to seek a wretched and disgraceful existence by engrafting another lie upon the original falsehood."

He was taken to an island in the River Seine and burned alive.

Within a year of Jacques de Molay's death the main players in the Templars' persecution - Pope Clement and King Philip had died.

Pope Clement's body was taken to Rome and placed in a church which caught fire, consuming his remains - a victim of the so-called curse of Jacques de Molay.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2004
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