Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Poor Prisoner – An Excerpt from “The English Templar”



The faint hope that they would not dare to treat knights and noblemen in the same manner as commoners was shattered on the afternoon of the 19th. That was the day they took the ageing Sir Etienne de Mende to the torture chambers. They extracted his teeth one by one until he had confessed to everything they wanted to hear.

When the guards came and unlocked the chains at his feet, Percy felt such terror of what was ahead of him that he could hardy control his bowels. Sweat glistened on his face. Someone murmured a blessing. Someone else said a prayer for him.

He could hardly walk. His muscles seemed to have frozen. He tripped over his own feet. He smelt his own stench and was ashamed of himself. He was led along a dark, dank corridor, past a chamber full of torture instruments and into a windowless room lit by a torch. Behind a plain wooden table sat the sheriff. At his right hand sat a monk in the habit of the Dominicans. The Inquisition.

To his surprise, a stool was waiting for him. At a gesture from the sheriff, Percy sank down on it. The relief was less than expected. His muscles were not used to sitting anymore and the stool was low. His legs cramped at once and he had to clamp his teeth together to keep from crying out while he tried to shake the cramp from his legs. During the entire procedure the sheriff and the Dominican stared at him like lizards — without the slightest flicker of emotion. The guards who stood just inside the door made some crack to one another in a relaxed tone. Then it was over. He waited.

“Your name?” The sheriff asked.

Percy pulled himself together. He had had enough time to think about what he would say to this inevitable question. “Sir Percival de Lacy, second cousin of the Earl of Lincoln, subject of His Grace King Edward II of England and Knight Templar of the Commandery at Limassol, Cyprus. I hereby protest vehemently at my unlawful detention at the hands of a foreign monarch and demand immediate audience with a representative of the English Crown.” It sounded decisive and self-confident — if only his sweating, stinking body and shaking knees had not betrayed him.

Even so, there was evident surprise and consternation behind the table. The sheriff raised his eyebrows and turned to the Dominican. The Dominican leaned forwards and whispered loud enough for Percy to hear. King Philip had, of course, immediately informed his fellow monarchs of the outrageous crimes committed by the Templars and his own decision to put an end to the perversions which offended God. He had urged his fellow monarchs to follow his example, arrest the Templars and investigate their crimes. As yet, it was too soon to know the response of the English King, but he was due to marry King Philip’s only daughter Isabella in just a few months. He was sure to follow the lead of his wise and devout father-in-law.

The sheriff addressed [Percy]. “Your request has been noted. I will pass it on to my superiors. For now, your cooperation in this grave matter is requested. I am certain that voluntary cooperation will be noted with favor by both your own king and mine. You are aware of the charges levelled against your Order?”

“I have heard what my brothers reported after their interrogations,” Percy answered cautiously.

“Do you agree that the denial of Christ is a vile and heinous crime?”
Percy crossed himself. “With all my heart.”

“And the worship of some idol in place of our dear Saviour must offend every Christian.”

“It is repulsive!” Percy spoke with conviction.

“Yet both these crimes have been confessed to by your brothers.” The sheriff leaned forwards over the table. “How do you explain that?”

“A man will confess to anything to stop pain,” Percy retorted and at once wondered if he had blundered. Hadn’t he just admitted that he too would admit to anything to stop pain? Wouldn’t they recognize how weak he was? Wouldn’t they exploit it?

“But a man who makes a false confession is condemned to the tortures of hell — and hell has no end. The tortures that we poor, imperfect instruments of His will can impose are finite. They can always end in death, and that is — for the truly innocent — a release into paradise. To confess to end earthly torture only to land in the perpetual and eternal torture of hell is the act of a madman.”

“Pain creates madmen,” Percy answered. He had not prepared for these questions. He was not ready for an intellectual discussion about the nature of earthly and divine torture. He had no clue what he should say to defend himself.


“You do not give credence to the confession of your brothers?” The sheriff asked raising his eyebrows.

“How can I? I do not know what they confessed.”

“Ah.” The sheriff lifted the corner of his mouth. For some reason he was genuinely pleased to have a worthy opponent. “Let me read them to you… Your brother and priest, Father Roger of Saint Pierre du Temple confessed the following:

When I took my vows before the chapter, I was led into a small room beside the chapter chamber. There I was told to remove my clothes. This I did without hesitation, thinking that I would now receive the mantle of the Templars. But when I stood naked before the commander, he lifted his habit and ordered me to kiss his navel. I did so. He then turned to back on me and ordered me to kiss his ass. I did so. Then he gave me the kiss of peace.

The sheriff set the parchment aside and looked expectantly at Percy.

Percy stared back and thought of Father Roger’s hands. At the thought of someone tearing off even one of his fingernails, his muscles tensed. Seven of Father Roger’s fingernails had been removed brutally. His hands were swollen like sausages and hot to touch. Blood and pus still oozed from them. And Father Roger was the son of serfs; the pride of his family, the one son who had been allowed to go to school and whose freedom had been bought by the Temple so he could enter the priesthood. Percy knew that now. Sergeant Gautier had told him about Father Roger after they had brought him back from his interrogation.

“Well?” the sheriff prompted. “What do you have to say to that?”
“That Father Roger is a poor, miserable man, whom I pity with all my heart. May Christ have mercy upon him! He did not mean to lie but he was not strong enough to insist upon the truth.” Percy crossed himself. He did not think he was strong enough to withstand torture either.

The sheriff shifted uncomfortably. That too true. Then he suppressed his discomfort. Christ might be merciful; King Philip never. And it was to King Philip he owed his position and his wealth. “Brother Thomas, also of Stain Pierre, confessed to the followed,” he persisted mercilessly. “At my initiation I was forced to deny Christ three times —“

“As did Simon Peter on the day of the Crucifixion.” Percy interrupted without knowing what he did. The stench of Brother Thomas’ charred feet was in his nostrils. He felt nausea rising in his empty belly.

The sheriff looked over at him with a mixture of anger and admiration. He was not used to prisoners interrupting him — unless it was with screams and pleas for mercy. But the remark was correct. And that gave him an exciting idea. “You mean this was routine? Templars re-enact the denial of Christ which Saint Peter made on the day of His Crucifixion?”

“No!” Percy quickly saw the error he had made. “I never denied Christ. I was never asked to deny Christ,” he replied firmly.

“Simon Peter never spat upon Our Lord in his agony,” the Dominican entered the interrogation for the first time. He had a relatively high, frail voice.

“Not that I know of,” Percy retorted. “I wasn’t there.”

“You impudent bastard!” The Dominican sprang to his feet, furious. He thought Percy was mocking him.

The sheriff patted his arm and gestured for him to reseat himself. “But your brother Thomas of Saint Pierre confessed to it” the sheriff remarked calmly. “After denying Christ three times, he was forced to spit upon the crucifix which was held out to him.”

“Read me his confession,” Percy demanded, trying to concentrate all his attention and intelligence on some way out of this spider’s web of lies and torture.

“’I was forced to deny Christ three times and then spit upon his image.’”

Percy noted the difference between this confession and the last. The first confession had been wordy, as if Father Roger had spoken. This confession read like the indictment. They had not torn more than a yes or no answer from Brother Thomas. Or, rather, they had forced him to say yes after countless nos.  He crossed himself. “Christ have mercy. God have mercy. The Holy Spirt have mercy. My brother knew not what he did.”

The sheriff felt first a touch of satisfaction at Percy’s calm but then reminded himself that he would sing a different tune if they were applying the glowing iron to his genitals. He shook his head slowly and leafed through the documents before him. “I think you will agree, sir, that idol worship is not something that can be taken lightly, much less forgiven. Nor is it something an ordinary Christian would think up.”

“Not even the Muslims are idol-worshipers!” Percy retorted.
“Yet I have sworn confession by a brother of yours who describes in detail how the chapter met at midnight, stripped off their habits and trampled on the cross. Then they crept naked, in single file, into a chamber opened by a secret key kept by the commander. In the chamber he idol was kept and each brother bowed before the idol ‘like an Egyptian slave’ I quote,” the sheriff stressed. “’Then after we had bowed three times we kissed the feet of the idol.’ The idol according to this report was shaped like a big head with hands and feet but no body and with cat’s ears. After kissing the feet, each brother retreated backwards so the next brother could enter.”

Percy looked at the sheriff, the Dominican, and then turned and looked at the guards on either side of the door. “You can’s seriously believe that?” Percy asked at last.

“Believe it? It is the testimony of a Templar — freely given I might add, without resort to torture.”

“You think that French noblemen, men who heard mass six times a day, men who fought in Christ’s name, who when captured could gain life by denying Christ, but instead died by the hundred for Christ, secretly worshipped a head with cat’s ears? Have you lost your senses?” Percy felt his protest was much too weak, but he could not find words for his sense of sheer disbelief. The notion of such infantile idolatry was not only too absurd, it was not worthy of the Inquisition or an officer of the crown.

“Let me repeat!” the sheriff said sharply to disguise his own growing embarrassment. “This is a sworn confession — from Saint Pierre, I might add.”

“By whom, in God’s name?”

“Brother Gaston.”

“Gaston?” Percy could not place the name at first. Then it dawned on him. Gaston was the boy. The over-eager boy who had helped him out of his armor. “Gaston is a child!” he said out loud.

“He is twelve and so has reached the age of maturity,” the Dominican retorted with surprising intensity.

Percy was frowning. He did not remember seeing Gaston since the day after the arrest. Gaston had been removed for interrogation — but he had never returned. A shock went through him. “Is Gaston dead? Did you torture him so long that he couldn’t take it? Did you kill him?” Percy, get hold of yourself, he warned himself. You are losing control. Calm down. Shut up. Get hold of yourself. He sat clutching the edge of his stool, shaking and sweating, waiting for a reaction.

“I told you the confession was not made under torture,” the sheriff replied calmly, his eyes narrower. “What makes you think he might be dead?”

“Because he did not return. You took him to an interrogation and he has not returned since.”

“That is true. He was … cooperative. It was not … necessary” the sheriff glanced at his colleague “to returne him to the jail. You need not worry about Gaston.”

A chill went down Percy’s spine. Why did he feel so certain that they had done something vile to Gaston? Surely he should hate the boy for making up such ridiculous stories about heads with cat’s ears and feet! But he could not find hatred for the boy. He closed his eyes and pictured Gaston helping him remove his spurs — the last time he had worn spurs.

“Did you have illicit relations with Gaston?” The tight, jealous question came from the Dominican.

Percy opened his eyes and stared at the man. In that moment he knew this other monk had raped Gasont. Gaston had not been tortured into his confession. His limbs had been left whole. But he had been degraded and humiliated until there was not left of the idealistic youth, proud of his membership in a famous order. Percy did not answer. He stared at the Dominican until the other monk lowered his eyes.

The sheriff had been watching. He knew what his colleague had done. He had not witnessed it, of course, because he found it revolting, but he knew. And he knew that it brought excellent results like this lengthy confession. Furthermore, the boy could be produced as a witness. Cleaned up and properly worked over in advance, his testimony would melt the heart of the pope himself. Oh, Gaston was worth his weight in gold. Gaston was worth more than all the others put together — precisely because there wasn’t a mark on him. Gaston could never, never claim that he had been forced to confess. Gaston could never tell the circumstances of his confession — not without condemning himself to be hanged. That was the beauty of it. And still the sheriff found it distasteful.


He looked at Percy and he was sorry. He liked the young man. He had intelligence, dignity and humanity. It would be a pit to break him, but break him he must. 







The English Templar is available for sale here.

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