A Sunday story 4

… from the annals of Christianity:

On a raw March afternoon in 1314, a scaffold stood in the shadow of Notre Dame. The people of Paris knew what macabre show was imminent. Seven years before, the King’s constables had stormed all the Templar estates in France and arrested 5000 knights of the order, much to the astonishment of the people. Now the curtain was about to drop on a bizarre tragedy, one scripted by the king himself.

The Knights Templar were a smelly lot – they didn’t wash. A common expression of their time was “stink like a Templar”. They were brave soldiers – crusaders in Outremer – and brilliant bankers. The order was very rich.

King Philip the Fair of France owed them a huge sum of money and coveted their wealth, so he destroyed them. He had to get them to confess to crimes and acts of blasphemy as an excuse. They might in fact have been heretical by the rules of the Catholic Church. There is some evidence that suggests they were secret Gnostics, but to a rational humane mind, nothing they did surely deserved the punishments the good Catholic king devised for them.

Here is an account of what they confessed to and what King Philip (grandson of Louis IX, known as Saint Louis) had done to them:

The things the knights confessed under torture defied belief: trampling and urinating on the Crucifix, secret rites of obscene kisses, sodomy, usury, treason, idolatry, and heresy. After the arrests came seven years of inquisition, then hundreds and hundreds of public executions by burning.

These confessions were extorted from them under extreme torture.

Stripped of their habits, chained, and cast into dungeons, the old men were tortured with rack and thumbscrew. The soles of their feet were smeared with animal fat and then held over hot coals. Their weary frames were crushed under iron weights.

Sometimes the accused was tied down, a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Water poured into the cloth caused it to swell: The choice was to confess or drown. A more creative option was to place a man into a pit no wider than himself, where he would be left to stand in his filth and starve. The rack was used to dislocate shoulders and hips.

Subtler methods of interrogation worked as well. Denied sleep and the chance to void his bowels or bladder, the accused could be subjected to a constant battery of bewildering questions by an endless string of interrogators, some cruel, some appearing compassionate. Rare is the man who could withstand this to the point of death, which would be his only relief. Under such conditions, hundreds and hundreds of Templars confessed to appalling crimes.  …

The last five of them, having been imprisoned in a dungeon for six years, were burnt to death on the Île de la Cité in Paris on March 18, 1314.

As a large crowd closed around the scaffold, the last Master of the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, 70-year-old Jacques de Molay, stood alongside four of his brothers in arms, listening as the papal legate read their crimes in horrible detail.

However, mercy would yet be theirs if they repeated to the people of Paris the guilt they had confessed before the inquisition. Five stakes piled high with brushwood and faggots awaited them if they did not.

Two [three?] of the knights, eyes cast downward, mumbled their guilt. Then de Molay and Geoffrey de Charney of Normandy stepped forward.

“On this terrible day,” shouted de Molay, his gaze meeting the eyes of the crowd, “in my final hour, I shall let truth triumph and declare, before heaven and all the saints, that I have committed the greatest of all crimes.”  The crowd pressed in. “But my crime is this: that I confessed to malicious charges made against an order that is innocent so that I could escape further torture. I shall not confirm a first lie with a second. I renounce life willingly. I have no use for days of sorrow earned only by lies.”

The King’s police seized the two knights and chained them to the stakes. Brush and branches were set aflame. As the old men were roasted alive, they shouted their innocence and their love for Jesus Christ before falling silent. Thus the last Master of the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem was reduced to ashes.

Then Pope Clement V abolished the order and the “beautiful” King Philip availed himself of their assets. He did not enjoy them for long. He died on 29 November, 1314, eight months after burning the old Knights to death – because, it was popularly believed, de Molay had cursed him. If “God” took note of a curse spoken by de Molay and acted on it in the case of Philip’s death, what – you may be tempted to ask a Christian – had “He” been doing when the same man was being tortured and burnt? Don’t expect an answer. Though the believer may go so far as to say in reply that “He has mysterious ways”.