Tuesday 30 March 2010

Aimless Absolution

I know the papacy is going through something of a rough patch at the moment. Even so, is it right and proper, I have to ask, to extend the inquisition (oops!) back through history? I ask this because I was surprised to see a small portrait of Jacques de Molay, the grand master of the Knights Templar, in the present issue of the BBC History Magazine, carrying the caption “Jacques de Molay was tortured and killed by the pope.” Fortunately the accompanying piece, an answer to a question about the Chinon parchment, makes no such contention.

De Molay was, of course, tortured and killed on the orders of King Philip IV of France. Not only was it a convenient way of wiping out his debts with the Crusading order, who also acted as his personal bankers, but it was a wonderful opportunity for the impecunious monarch to get his hands on their loot. The master was arrested along with over six hundred fellow members of the order on a charge of all sorts of heretical and blasphemous crimes, the kind of acts that would have kept tabloid journalists busy for weeks.

Submitting to pressure from Philip, Pope Clement V banned the Templar Order. De Molay himself was burned in March 1314 as a relapsed heretic, on the orders of the King, I stress once again, and not the Pope. The pressure Clement was under at the time was confirmed when Dr Barbara Frale found a copy of the so-called Chinon parchment in the Vatican Secret Archives, confirming that he absolved de Molay and other leading members of the Order in 1308, subsequent publishing her findings in The Journal of Medieval History. The purpose of this particular inquisition was to show that the Templers were not irremediably immersed in sin but were capable of reform under the guidance of the church. In the face of Philip’s determination it was a wasted effort.

The parchment is notable in one other regard: it might be said to mark the point when the state began its ascent and the universal church its decline, its decline from a position of almost absolute political power that had been such a feature of the papacy of Innocent III, only a century before.


  1. the rise and fall of power. and whom would had thought it would had been in such a way. i must say for as impecunious as the king was. he was also utterly diabolical with this scheme. this is a tragedy for the papacy.

  2. It's a tragic story altogether, Nitin.