Saturday, October 20, 2012

Friday the 13th and the Destruction of the Knights Templar

On the night of Friday, October 13th, 1307, the forces of King Philip IV of France carried out a surprise attack upon all Templar Commanderies across France, breaking in, arresting and seizing the assets of the Knights Templar. In the days to follow, the Knight's Templar were charged with the usual crimes of heresy and sodomy -- allegations that the French crown routinely raised against individuals and institutions that were not completely submissive or had substantial private assets that the French king wanted for his treasury. In the years to follow mock trials, wholesale torture of prisoners, and ultimately the burning alive of hundreds of innocent men followed in what was one of the worst know cases of brutal tyranny in the western world. 

Although some, particularly wealthier, elements in society appear to welcomed the humiliation of a mighty and haughty institution, and some of the poor and ignorant may have believed the ridiculous allegations of sorcery and devil worship, as time passed and the extent of the French king's greed, the refusal of brutally tortured men to "confess" -- even under the threat of being burned alive -- gradually convinced the majority of people that the Knights Templar were largely innocent victims of the French king's greed. 

Gradually, in the popular mind, Friday the 13th (of October 1307) was remembered as day in which forces of evil had pounced upon unsuspecting good Christians, utterly destroying them despite their faith.  As the memory of the actual event faded, the association of Friday the 13th with something unnaturally evil and threatening remained.  This is the origin of the superstition about Friday the 13th right up into the 20th Century -- 700 years after the destruction of the Knights Templar.

Although I'm a week late, I'd like to remind readers of the event with the following short excerpt from The English Templar, which describes that Friday the 13th through the eyes of the novel's hero:

The crash that came from the courtyard made Percy fling off his blankets and grab his aketon. Now he could hear more shouting, the imperative yelling of men giving orders, the thudding of numerous hooves on frozen ground, the pounding of boots on wooden stairs, the clunk of doors being flung open. He pulled the aketon over his head and tightened the laces at his throat.

Men were bursting into the dormitory. By the light of the two candles, Percy could see that they wore round 'kettle' helmets over mail coifs and that they had naked swords in their hands.

Percy dragged his hauberk and surcoat together over his head even as the armed men were roughly kicking the serving brothers awake and herding the startled, bewildered men together.

Sergeant Gautier was on his feet and limping forward in his underwear, calling out, "What is this? Who are you? What do you want?"

"You are all arrested in the name of His Grace King Philip IV of France!"

While some of the serving brothers broke into a jumble of confused exclamations of disbelief, Brother Gautier protested in a raised, somewhat hysterical voice, "Why? On what charge?"

The thought that these simple brothers could have done anything to offend the crown of France was so absurd that Percy instantly dismissed the claim as either a mistake or a ruse. Philip of France could hardly know that Saint Pierre du Temple existed. The Temple was, in any case, not subordinate to any king and owed Philip of France neither taxes nor obedience. Percy knew, however, that he no longer had time for his mail leggings and reached instead for his sword.

There was a shout and the sound of someone running and then someone tackled him from behind. He was flung stomach first on to his pallet, pinned down by the weight of his assailant on his back. Even as he rammed his elbows backwards against his attacker, he saw a foot kick out and send his sword skittering across the flagstone floor out of reach. Another man had joined the first on his back, pressing his knee into Percy's spine. Another had hold of the back of his neck in a powerful, muscular grip and forced his face down into the blankets, nearly suffocating him.  Someone was wrenching his arms behind his back and tying his wrists together. Percy knew when he was defeated since that too was something a good soldier learned to recognize, and he stopped struggling instantly. The pressure on his spine and head eased at once. The men backed off him, pulling him to his feet.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the men holding him were indeed wearing the livery of the king of France. It was ridiculous! What could they possibly hope to gain by a breach with the pope? Did Philip of France want to start a feud with Clement V to match the one he had had with Boniface VIII? Weak as Clement was said to be, even he would surely not tolerate such a flagrant affront to his authority.

The king's men were already herding the bewildered serving brothers and the priest down the stairs to the courtyard. One old man kept asking his brothers what was happening, while Gaston kept looking anxiously over his shoulder to see what had happened to Percy. Serfs by birth, they had been born to docility and as monks they had vowed obedience. Such men, Percy told himself, could not be expected to distinguish between lawful and unlawful authority.

Brother Gautier alone was protesting to the captain in charge. He insisted that he and his brothers were innocent of all wrongdoing. Not one day in their lives had they ever been anything but loyal subjects of the king, he assured the king's representative in a shaky, strained voice. Terror was written on the aged sergeant's face and Percy felt sorry for him. Evidently, he was so frightened that he had forgotten that the Temple was subordinate to the pope alone.

"It's not for me to judge your guilt or innocence," the royal officer told Brother Gautier matter-of-factly. "I have my orders."

"But who gave you the orders? What is the cause of all this? I don't understand," Brother Gautier insisted, wringing his hands.

"Take it up with the sheriff," the royal officer advised indifferently.

The captain was relieved that his mission had gone so well. The orders to attack a house of the Knights Templar and arrest all those within had made him break out in a cold sweat just six hours ago. He had been raised on the legends of Templars defending their castles against tens of thousands of Saracens, their small bands matching great armies, their rescue of King Louis II from destruction, their heroic defense of Acre to the last man. The captain knew that Templars were not allowed to withdraw unless the enemy had more than three-to-one superiority, and he could not know how many men the Templars had at Saint Pierre -- which was why he'd mustered his entire company of fifty men.  In the event, it was almost ludicrous how easy it had been.

Percy's voice drew the captain's attention: "You can be sure that we will take this up with the sheriff -- and the pope! Someone -- you, your sheriff, or King Philip himself -- has overstepped his authority."

The captain looked over startled at the man held by two of his subordinates.  He took in the chainmail hauberk, the muscular shoulders and thighs, and drew the correct conclusion.  This man was a knight. "Are you the commander, sir?"

"No, I am the commander," Brother Gautier spoke before Percy could get a word out, continuing, "this is just a poor traveler. Here for a single night. Whatever crimes we have been unjustly accused of, they cannot apply to him."

The captain looked from Brother Gautier to Percy somewhat uncertainly.

"I am an Englishman, Sir Percy de Lacy, of the Commandery at Limassol on Cyprus, en route from Poitiers to Limassol," Percy confirmed.  "And you have no business arresting any Templar, since we are subordinate to no one but our own officers and the pope himself."

The arrogance of Percy's tone angered the captain and he took refuge in the certainties of life: "I have my orders and they were to arrest everyone inside this house. I don't give a damn if you are a bloody Englishman or the pope himself!"

And he turned his back on the the two remaining Templars and clattered down the stairs to the ward, his men pushing Percy and Brother Gautier before them as they followed him outside. 


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