Since we are having an awful lot of Fridays falling on the 13th this year it’s intriguing to look back on where the legend may have come from. Some say it did and some say it didn’t. But I’m sure those who died that day had a very different opinion to the latter.
King Phillip IV of France set his sights on the fabled riches of the Knights Templar. His aim was to destroy the Templar Order and confiscate all their treasuries and properties in France, but he had to achieve it legally. The one surefire way was to accuse them of crimes so heinous that, if proved, no one would dare come to their rescue. It was no good to simply accuse the Grand Master or a handful of leaders. It had to be all of them, and he had to find a way to make the charges stick. And he had to be quick about it, because battle-hardened Templar knights were already returning to France, partly because of tensions on Cyprus between the Templars and the island’s king. Phillip needed no more knights to cope with.
King Phillip’s audacious plan was to arrest every Templar in France, charge them with heresy, and exact immediate confessions from them by torture before Pope Clement V or anyone else could protest on their behalf. By making the charges religious in nature, Phillip would be seen not as an avaricious thief, but as a noble servant of God.
Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had been called to Poitiers, France, for the purpose of discussing with the new pope a new crusade to retake the Holy Land. For almost two years, he shuttled back and forth between the pope and King Phillip, essentially stamping out various diplomatic fires, such as the proposal to merge all the military orders.
In June 1307, de Molay rode into Paris at the head of a column of his knights, with a dozen horses laden with gold and silver, to begin the financing of the new Crusade. For the next several months, Phillip treated the aging Grand Master with interest and diplomacy, and de Molay believed he and the Order were at a new turning point. He didn’t know how right he was.
October 1307: An unlucky Friday the 13th
The end began at dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307. The sealed order to Phillip’s bailiffs had gone out a full month before. It was accompanied by a personal letter from the king, filled with lofty prose about how heart-rending it was to be compelled to do his duty, while detailing frightening accusations against the Templars. The letter would have had an eye-popping effect on the king’s men, and their secrecy was undoubtedly assured. The sealed arrest order was not to be opened until the appointed day.
At this time, France was the most populous nation of Europe, even including Russia. And it was no tiny country either; France took up more than 40,000 square miles, an enormous area to cover from the back of a horse. Yet Phillip IV managed to carry off a stunning piece of work. Hundreds of the king’s men simultaneously opened letters all over the country ordering them to converge on every Templar castle, commandery, preceptory, farm, vineyard, or mill.
It was shockingly effective, instantly chopping off the head of the Order. Phillip obviously had a hit list of the most important knights to nab. Accounts differ wildly, but the most respected ones agree that 625 members of the Order were arrested in the first wave. These included the Grand Master; the Visitor-General; the Preceptors of Normandy, Cyprus, and Aquitaine; and the Templars’ Royal Treasurer.
The arrested Templars, whose average age was 41, were put into isolation and immediately subjected to the gruesome tactics of medieval “interrogation” on the very first day of their arrest. The technique of the strapaddo was common. It involved binding the victim’s wrists behind his back, passing the rope over a high beam, pulling him off of the ground, and suddenly dropping him, snapping his arms and dislocating his shoulders. Stretching the victim on the rack was another favored method. Perhaps the most horrible was coating the victim’s feet in lard or oil, and then slowly roasting them over a flame. Subjected to these agonies, the overwhelming majority of the knights confessed to every charge that was put to them.
Phillip’s goal was to arrest all the Templars, subject them to torture immediately, and exact confessions from them on the very first day. He knew that the pope would be livid over his actions, and that Church officials would be wary of agreeing to the kinds of interrogations Phillip had in mind, so time was of the essence. He wanted to hand Clement V a stack of confessions so damning that the pope would lose his stomach for siding with the Order.
The pope reacted just as Phillip had planned. His outrage over the arrests turned to dread and resignation as the “evidence” was presented to him. Phillip leaned on Clement to issue papal arrest warrants all across Europe, which were largely ignored or skirted by other monarchs. Very few show trials went on outside of France, and there were no cases (outside of the tortured knights in France) of Templars who admitted to the charges of heresy.
In an outburst of courage and remorse, most of the arrested Templars subsequently recanted their confessions and proclaimed to Church officials that their statements were made under the pain of torture and threat of death. To intimidate the remaining Templars, Phillip ordered 54 of the knights to be burned at the stake in 1310, for the sin of recanting their confessions.
In 1312, Clement finally decided to end the situation at a council in Vienna. Just to make certain the decision went the way he intended, Phillip stationed his army on the outskirts of the city. The pliant pope officially dissolved the Order, without formally condemning it. All Templar possessions apart from the cash were handed over to the Knights Hospitaller, and many Templars who freely confessed were set free and assigned to other Orders. Those who did not confess were sent to the stake and burned to death. Phillip, ever the cheap gangster, soothed his loss of the Templars’ tangible assets by strong-arming a yearly fee from the Hospitallers to defray his costs of prosecuting the Templars.
So as you can see the date has nothing to do with what it has been popularized into.