The Templars on trial: a very muted inquisition

Seven hundred years after they were charged with heresy, Helen J Nicholson considers the oddly understated legal dealings in the case against the military monks in Britain…

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

The arrest of the Templars, as shown by the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis

The arrest of the Templars, as shown by the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis in the late 14th century. (BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY)

 

Why did Templar brother Thomas Totty break out of Lincoln Castle in April 1310? Was it because he knew some dreadful secret about the Templars which he could not tell? Almost 15 months after his escape Thomas turned himself in to church officials at London, and accused his interrogators at Lincoln of intimidation. With hand on heart, inquisitor Abbot Dieudonné of Lagny had sworn by God’s Word that he would force Thomas to confess. Terrified, Thomas bribed the sheriff of Lincoln to release him, and walked out in broad daylight. 

The Templars’ history was renowned: since the 1120s they had defended Christendom against Islam in the Holy Land and Spain, and protected pilgrims en route to Jerusalem and nearby holy sites. The sheriff probably did not believe that such men could be guilty of denying God, as Abbot Dieudonné claimed. But after the final destruction of the ‘crusader’ kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Templars lost their main function. They were trying to organise a new crusade to the east when in October 1307 the Templars in France were arrested for heresy, accused of denying that Jesus is God, of spitting on the crucifix, not believing in the church sacraments, adoring a cat and a three-faced idol, and sodomy. 

An image of Edward II from Verses on the Kings of England (c1431). (AKG images)
 

Under torture, the Templars in France admitted many of the charges. Pope Clement V tried to stop the trial, but was outmanoeuvred by the French king, Philip IV, who insisted that as the Templars had confessed, they were guilty. Those Templars who went back on their confessions, claiming that torture had forced them into false statements, were burned at the stake as relapsed heretics. But in Britain it was a different story.

There had never been a major heresy trial in Britain, and legal processes in Britain were quite different from those on the continent. King Edward II of England was reluctant to arrest the Templars. There were no torturers in Britain and the sheriffs, the king’s officials in each county who maintained law and order and who were responsible for the Templars after their arrest, would not co-operate with the inquisitors. No Templars were burned at the stake. The bishops in charge of the trial in Britain followed all the proper 
procedures, but without fanatical enthusiasm. The trial of the Templars in Britain was a very understated affair.

Amid contemporary speculation over Philip IV’s motives for arresting the Templars, the majority view outside France was that the French king needed the Templars’ money. Edward II of England was also desperately short of funds, thanks to the debts which his father, Edward I, had incurred. His father had also left him a legacy of discontented nobles in England and a war in Scotland. As a result, Edward needed all the outside support he could find. Yet his initial reaction to the accusations against the Templars was of utter disbelief. The Templars, he said, had always served the kings of England faithfully, and they had defended the Christians’ holy sites in the Holy Land.


A 14th-century painting of Philip IV, who, it was widely believed, prosecuted the Templars because he owed them money. (AKG images)

However, Edward was in no position to oppose his counterpart in France. Edward I had negotiated a peace treaty with Philip, by which Edward was to marry the French king’s daughter Isabella. Meanwhile, as the French Templars had confessed to the charges – even though only under torture – Pope Clement ordered that all the Templars throughout Christendom should be arrested and interrogated as suspected heretics. Although Edward was sceptical of Clement’s decree, he needed papal support, so at last agreed to comply.

Edward sent instructions to his sheriffs in England and his officials in Wales, Scotland and Ireland that the Templars should be arrested, but emphasised that they should be comfortably housed and allowed some comforts. In England, the arrests took place early in January 1308. Edward took all the Templars’ lands into his own hands. He granted the Templars a daily allowance of four pence (2p) each, except for the grand commander (chief official in the British Isles), William de la More, who received two shillings (10p) per day. These allowances were paid from the Templars’ revenues, and the surplus went into the royal treasury. Edward made good use of this windfall, paying off his father’s debts, rewarding his followers and bestowing gifts to win others’ support.

A contemporary image of the coronation of Edward II, who was at first reluctant to prosecute the Templars. (AKG images)

Pope Clement V urged Edward to ensure that the Templars were properly imprisoned rather than being allowed to wander about freely, but not until late November 1308 did Edward issue instructions to his sheriffs. Meanwhile some English Templars had disappeared. There were 144 Templars in the British Isles at the start of 1308, but at least 14 avoided arrest. Two of these, Stephen of Stapelbrugge and Thomas Lindsey, turned up in Ireland in autumn 1308, and received pensions of four pence a day with the other Templars in Ireland. Some others reappeared during the course of the trial, so that by the end of the trial in Britain, only five remained unaccounted for. Possibly they had escaped overseas, but it is equally likely that they were lying low at home, protected by their friends and family.

It was not until September 1309 that the two inquisitors appointed by the pope – Abbot Dieudonné and Sicard of Vaur – arrived in England to begin interrogating the Templars. They planned to begin in London, then to move on to Lincoln and York, and to send representatives to Scotland and Ireland rather than venture themselves into those dangerous lands. The trial in London got under way on 23 October 1309, the inquisitors confidently expecting to complete the interrogations quickly and to reach Lincoln in a month’s time. They summoned a church council to open in London on 16 February 1310 to discuss the Templars’ fate. 

It soon became clear that they had been over-optimistic. The Templars in London denied all the charges of heresy. Although some of their procedures might look suspicious – for example, they could not discuss what took place at their management meetings (‘chapter meetings’) with anyone who had not been present – nothing untoward ever occurred. The papal inquisitors wanted to use torture to force the Templars to confess, only to discover that the English common law did not allow this. 

Procedures against heretics allowed inquisitors to use a person’s public reputation against them, if no other evidence was available. So church officials were sent out to enquire who had worked for the Templars or had dealings with them. Those who were known to have information and refused to come forward would receive the same punishment as heretics. In November 1309 and January 1310, 17 non-Templar witnesses were cross-examined in London about the Templars. Several spoke in their support. Only Robert the Dorturer, notary public of London, showed real hostility to the order. He accused a past grand commander of sodomy and claimed that the Templars had acquired property unjustly. He did not produce any evidence which could be checked, but the inquisitors only needed evidence of the order’s reputation, not of the brothers’ actual deeds.

While the questioning in London dragged on, the enquiries in Scotland had reached a full stop. The only two Templars in Scotland – who, the record noted, were both English by origin – confessed to nothing heretical, and the non-Templars admitted that they knew very little about the order. One witness complained that the Templars were greedy: he had sold them some oats, but because he did not have the grain to give them, they made him repay them twice over. Lord Henry Sinclair and Lord Hugh of Rydale, whose lands bordered the Templars’ estates in Midlothian, were sure that the Templars were good Christians, although they could not be sure about those overseas.

Meanwhile, in Ireland the friars of Dublin seemed to be determined to convict the Templars, insisting that they were “as guilty as can be”, without being able to give precise evidence. However, the Templars themselves insisted that they were innocent, although they might have suspicions about Templars elsewhere in Europe.

 

A new angle of attack

Back in England, the inquisitors tried a new tack. The initial interrogations in London had revealed that some of the Templars did not understand the difference between a sin against God and an infringement of the order’s own regulations – only a priest could absolve a Templar of a sin, but the grand master, or another high official of the order, could let them off for infringing the regulations. The inquisitors devised a new set of questions to highlight the Templars’ ignorance. When they reached Lincoln – at the end of March 1310, four months late – they found the same confusion as in London. The uncertainty was even more marked among the brothers at York, where interrogations began in late April. The only Templar priest in Yorkshire, Ralph of Ruston, declared that: “just as an abbot can absolve persons of his convent, so the master can absolve persons of his convent”. He was wrong: an abbot can absolve sins because he is a priest, but the master of the Temple was not a priest. This was some progress for the inquisitors, but it was a far cry from the colourful charges of blasphemy and idol-worship.

By mid-June 1310 the papal inquisitors were growing impatient. They had not found any substantial evidence of heresy among the Templars in Britain, because they were not able to torture them. They wrote to Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, complaining that the king’s ministers were bribing the king to give the inquisitors no help, and even the official appointed to help them (by arranging for torturers) was not helping at all. They offered several suggestions as to how the trial could be better organised, such as moving it to the king’s French territories – so that torture could be used – or putting the Templars into church custody, because the king’s sheriffs and their officials were protecting the Templars.


York chapter house. A church council was held in the city in 1311 to discuss the Templars’ fate. (Alamy)

In August 1310 Edward II agreed that all the Templars in Lincoln should be moved to London and imprisoned there, and that torture could be used on them. But it was not until March 1311 that the Templars who had been in Lincoln Castle finally arrived in the capital, by which time the papal inquisitors were running out of time. The pope had summoned a church council to discuss the Templars’ affair, opening in October 1311 at Vienne in the south of France. With only six months  until the council, the inquisitors still had no solid evidence against the Templars in the British Isles.

All the papal inquisitors had for their report to the council was hearsay evidence from non-Templars, stories repeated at second or third hand, usually without supporting names or dates. The inquisitors’ report relied on a few select examples of this hearsay evidence, repeated again and again under different headings to give the impression that they had a great deal of strong evidence. The inquisitors hardly mentioned the evidence in the Templars’ favour. In May they left England, taking their report with them. 


Lincoln cathedral, where a number of British Templars were tried in 1310. (Alamy)

Church councils at London and York would discuss the final fate of the Templars in Britain. In the province of York, the bishops had decided that torture should not be used, but in London things were different. Three Templars were tortured, all of them apparently with something to hide: Stephen of Stapelbrugge, who had fled to Ireland but returned to England early in June 1311; Thomas Totty, who had so infuriated Abbot Dieudonné; and one of the order’s priests, John of Stoke. John had witnessed the burial of Walter le Bachelor, former commander of Ireland, who had died in a Templar prison. All three confessed to some of the charges.

 

The order is dissolved

Three confessions were enough to bring the trial to an end. Another report on the proceedings was produced, based on the papal inquisitors’ earlier report but heavily abridged and omitting all names and details, so that the hearsay evidence against the Templars appeared to be first hand. The Templars’ insistence on their innocence and evidence in their favour was ignored. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the bishops at the church council of London agreed in July 1311 to dissolve the Order of the Temple.

Yet, none of the Templars in Britain were condemned for heresy, and no one was burned at the stake. Instead, they were encouraged to abjure or ‘swear off’ all heresy, and then were sent to monasteries to perform penance for any heresy they might have committed. Only William de la More and Humbert Blanc – a visiting grand commander from the Auvergne in France – refused to abjure. They said that they had not committed any heresy, and it would be a mockery to abjure what they had never done. The council of London decided that they should remain in prison, where they died a few years later.

Thomas Totty was, though, still alive in 1338, drawing his pension from the Hospitallers. His ‘confession’ had been partly responsible for the dissolution of the Templars in Britain, but he doesn’t seem to have suffered for it. 


Timeline

How the trials unfolded

9–11 January 1308: Arrests of the Templars in England.

12 August 1308: Pope Clement V sets out 88 charges against the Templars in the British Isles and names inquisitors who will try them.

3 September 1309: Papal inquisitors Abbot Dieudonné of Lagny and Sicard de Vaur announce their arrival in England.

23 October 1309: The trial of the Templars in London begins. Separate investigations at Lincoln and York are delayed until March–April 1310.

17 November 1309: Interrogations of Templars and outside witnesses begin in Scotland; cut short by the Anglo-Scottish war.

26 August 1310: King Edward II orders that all the Templars at Lincoln be sent to London for interrogation, and approves use of torture.

29 April 1311: The Templars in London set out their defence.

July 1311: Church councils in London and York absolve those Templars who agree to swear off all heresy. Those who refuse remain in prison.

Helen J Nicholson is reader in history at Cardiff University, and a specialist in the history of the Knights Templar and 
Knights Hospitaller

Books: The Knights Templar on Trial: the Trial of the Templars in the British Isles, 1308–1311 by Helen J Nicholson 
(The History Press, 2009); The Trial of the Templars by Malcolm Barber, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Temple Balsall: The Warwickshire Preceptory of the Templars and Their Fate by Eileen Gooder (Phillimore, 1995)

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