Philip the Fair

Philip IV of France was known as le Bel or “the Fair,” not for his sense of justice, as will be seen, but for his light coloring and good looks. He was the grandson of Louis IX, who died while on crusade, and much of Philip’s reign was directed at seeing that Louis was recognized as a saint.1

Philip was born around 1267. His mother, Isabella, died in 1270, while returning from the crusade. Philip’s stepmother, Marie de Brabant, was apparently not sympathetic to the children of her husband’s first marriage.2 She seems to have resented her husband’s sons because of the fact that hers would not inherit the throne.

Philip became king of France in 1284, shortly after his marriage to Jeanne, heiress of Navarre and Champagne. Philip’s bride brought with her a territory nearly the size of her husband’s, which she managed in her own right. More importantly, she seems to have loved him and he her. Unfortunately this seems to have happened too late in his life to make Philip a nicer person. By all accounts he was withdrawn and uncomfortable in public. Not the best personality traits for a ruler. He acquired a reputation for being aloof and perhaps not very bright. But he was at least ornamental. Several people commented on his good looks.

Philip and Jeanne had three sons and one daughter. From his later actions, it doesn’t seem that Philip cared much for his sons, but he


Philip’s happy family. (Art Resource, NY)

may have just had strange ways of showing it. Isabella was in every sense daddy’s little princess. Even after she married Edward II of England, he kept in close touch with her and often gave presents to her husband at her request.3

In October 1285, when Philip was eighteen, his father died, leaving him the kingdom, a disastrous war in Aragon, and a mountain of debt.4 So, besides being obsessed with the canonization of this grandfather, Philip was also driven to find new ways to get cash. The major conflicts of his reign are all tied to these two goals.


Money was at the heart of Philip’s conflict with the Pope Boniface. To support his war against Edward I of England, Philip had levied a tax on lands owned by the Church. This was not unknown and usually the Church allowed taxes “for the defense of the realm,” although previous kings and clerics had always pretended that it wasn’t a tax but a voluntary contribution.5

Philip got carried away with the percentage of their income that he charged the Churches of France and King Edward, seeing that no one was complaining too much, decided to do the same in England. At this point Boniface stepped in and, in 1296, issued a bull,Clericos Laicos, forbidding the clergy to pay or agree to any “aids or subsidies” to any lord without the permission of the Holy See.6

Since the church owned a large share of the land in both France and England, Philip and Edward weren’t happy with this. But it was Philip who went ballistic. He organized a media campaign against the pope. Pamphlets began to appear castigating Boniface and the clergy. Since the authors were government employees, they didn’t have to worry about libel laws.

This tactic worked so well that Philip would use it again when he decided to go after the Templars.

At first Boniface backed down, but then decided to fight back. As is the case with many major events, the spark was something minor. A bishop in the Languedoc, Bernard Saisset, was in the habit of getting a bit tipsy and running down the king. This was a common a pastime then as it is today. But Languedoc was the home of the Cathar heresy and it had also only recently been added to the French possessions. This made Philip more sensitive to criticism coming from that region. One comment that Saisset made became famous throughout Europe: “Our king resembles an owl, the fairest of birds, but worthless. He is the handsomest man in the world, but he only knows how to look at people unblinkingly, without speaking.”7

This and other pithy remarks caused the bishop to be charged with treason. Now, it had been the rule for centuries that clerics charged of crimes could only be tried in Church courts. If they were guilty of major crimes, like murder, they might be turned over to civil authorities for punishment, but the decision to do so was made by other clerics. However, instead of finding some bishops willing to try Saisset in their courts, Philip had the bishop arrested and brought to Senlis for trial.8

Boniface had had enough. He issued one bull after another declaring that the papacy was above any monarch and that Philip had better turn Saisset over to him or else. This declaration of papal supremacy was an old issue. The popes kept insisting that they were the leaders of Christendom and that kings were merely their lieutenants. This never went over well with the kings, who thought the popes were meddlers. Soon this led to an all-out war between Boniface and Philip. It was clear to most people that the pope would lose. The wisest course would be to come to some sort of compromise, but Boniface refused. He met Philip head-on.

Why did Boniface set himself on a suicide course? One historian suggests that “he had gallstones and that soured his character.”9

The battle did not confine itself to words. Philip, through his adviser Guillaume de Nogaret, accused Boniface of heresy, sodomy, and other unclerical behavior.10 They also implied that he wasn’t really a lawful pope, having driven his predecessor, Celestine V, out of office. 11 There was enough truth in their accusations to put Boniface on shaky ground. He was one of the many popes who had been elected as part of a power struggle between the great families of Rome. When Philip needed help to condemn the pope, Boniface’s enemies, the Colonna family, were happy to oblige.

Nogaret then went to Italy and led a band that arrested and imprisoned Boniface at his home town of Anagni. However, after a short time, the citizens of Anagni became nervous about locking up a pope. Public sympathy outside France was changing in support of Boniface, if not his policies. But we’ll never know who would have won. Boniface was released and went back to Rome an aged and broken man. He died a month later on October 11, 1303.12

This is a quick summary of a very complex issue, but the arrest of Boniface is important to understanding what happened to the Templars because there is a pattern being established here. Philip’s battle with Boniface began with the king’s need for money to support his various wars. The need came first. The moral and legal justifications followed. These were backed up by accusations of wrongdoing, some provable, some clearly made up, like heresy and sexual misconduct. From Philip’s point of view, everything was justified.


Money still being a problem, Philip’s next target was the Jewish population. The situation of the Jews in France was always unstable. As non-Christians, they were already set apart from the rest of the population and could be more easily targeted. They were not numerous and concentrated mostly in the major cities, living in their own enclaves and following their own customs. Jews were also considered a separate society, with their own courts. In most places they were under the direct protection of the king or bishop, to whom they paid huge taxes for the privilege.

Although there had been sporadic accusations of ritual murder, the worst being in Blois in 1171,13 there had been no mass persecutions in France. Philip II had expelled the Jews from his territory in 1180 but invited them back by 1198.14 Since then, the Jews were generally left in peace in France.

Even in the thirteenth-century determination to stamp out heretics, Jews were left relatively alone. Never having been Christian, they couldn’t be heretics. But, by the end of the century, there was once again a general feeling that they shouldn’t be allowed to live in Christian lands. Edward I expelled them from England in 1290 and many went to France.

By 1306, Philip IV had lost the county of Gascony to Edward and the county of Flanders to Countess Margarite along with the revenue from those lands. He began looking around for a new source of cash. In the Jews he suddenly noticed a section of the population that had a good deal of disposable income and who wouldn’t be missed at all.

Philip felt that this was a chance to kill two birds with one stone. Along with his constant need for money, his approval rating in the eyes of the French people was at an all-time low. Not long before, he had debased the coinage, causing rampant inflation. We all know how popular that makes politicians. In Paris this caused “fatal sedition.” “The inhabitants of that town were forced to rent their houses and receive the rental payments in the new coin, according to royal decree. Most of the common people found this very onerous for it tripled the usual price.”15

Philip made a plan to expel the Jews and take their property. His excuse was that they were known to be usurers who gouged honest Christians with exorbitant interest. Actually, the rates the Jews charged were often lower than those of the Christian lenders but that made the general anger worse since that meant they were taking business from Christians.16

Philip and his advisers decided that it was better to keep the matter quiet until the day of the arrests. They didn’t want nobles protesting, Jews fleeing with their valuables, or local mobs getting into the spirit of things and looting Jewish property before the king’s men arrived.17

The lightning arrests didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Some Jews got away with their goods. Some lords tried to protect them. But Philip got enough out of the episode to make it worth his while. For good measure, he also expelled the Lombards, another group of foreigners associated with banking.18

Still Philip needed more. He cast about for another group that was perceived as wealthy and wasn’t all that popular. He settled on the Templars. His attack on them used all the tools he had perfected in his earlier vendetta.19Evidence that the Templars weren’t expecting to be put among the outsiders was the fact that they bought the synagogue complex in Belvèze either from the fleeing Jews or from the king. The complex was walled and had a moat, perfect to the needs of the Templars.20 They only had a few months to redecorate before their turn came.


Historians have disagreed as to how much Philip was the instigator of the deeds attributed to him. Bernard Saisset wasn’t the only contemporary who had a low opinion of the king. Another contemporary said, “Our king is an apathetic man, a falcon. While the Flemings acted, he passed his time in hunting. . . . He is a child; he does not see that he is being duped and taken advantage of by his entourage.”21

Was he? I can’t be sure. His close adviser Guillaume de Nogaret has been blamed for every evil thing Philip did, especially regarding Pope Boniface and the Temple. It’s possible that Philip was easily duped. It’s also possible that Philip, like many people, preferred to make a good impression on the public and let underlings take the heat. He might have been a Teflon king. From looking at the records, I’m inclined to think he was smarter than people thought and not just a puppet.22 I’m sure the matter will continue to be debated for years.

After the execution of the Templars, Philip had one more major scandal. In November 1314, all three of his daughters-in-law were accused of adultery and arrested. It appears that two of them were guilty, although I wouldn’t swear to that, either. The third managed to prove her innocence. The men involved were executed. The two women who were convicted were imprisoned and died soon after.23

This whole situation is extremely odd. One wonders just what was wrong with Philip’s sons. I’ve never found a reference to them either condemning or defending their wives. Everything was done by the king. It’s another indication that Philip always called the shots.

While the three sons each became king in his turn, none of them produced an heir. In an ironic twist, Philip’s only descendant would be the son of his daughter, Isabella, whose marriage to Edward II of England produced King Edward III. That led to what is called the Hundred Years’ War between the two countries. If her actions in England are any indication, Isabella was a chip off the royal block.24

Another of the significant changes in King Philip’s reign is his reliance on lawyers to maintain the workings of the state. Unlike his ancestors’, Philip’s advisers were not relatives or knights who owed him military service, but legal administrators. “The strongest, most highly developed . . . branch of the government was the judicial system.” 25Philip was a master at using this system to give a legal justification for all his actions, including annexing the land of other countries, bringing down a pope, expelling the Jews, and, of course, destroying the Templars.

His legacy is still being disputed. In many ways he strengthened the French government. He proved that a king in his own country can be more powerful than a pope in Rome. He established a weblike bureaucracy that, as far as I can tell, still thrives. He certainly made the law a very lucrative profession in France. But even his greatest supporters admit that a chilly, arrogant personality coupled with rampant overspending made him one of the most disliked kings France ever had. His treatment of the Templars is only one of many misdeeds Philip committed in his single-minded quest for financial security.

Philip’s passion for hunting was legendary and it surprised no one when he died in a hunting accident, November 29, 1314.


He was, of course, or there would be no St. Louis, Missouri.


Joseph Strayer, The Reign of Philip the Fair (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 6.


Ibid., p. 19.


Ibid., p.11.


Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France (London: Macmillan, 1965) pp. 90-91.




Bishop Bernard Saisset, quoted in Charles-Victor Langlois, “Philip the Fair: The Unknown King” in Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII, ed. and tr. Charles T. Wood (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1967) p.85.


Strayer, pp. 262-68.


Jean Favier, Philippe le Bel (Paris: Fayard, 1978) p. 268 (my translation).


Strayer, pp. 275-77.


Ibid., p. 287.


T. S. R. Boase, Boniface VIII (London: Constable and Co., 1933) pp. 341-51.


Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in Northern France, (Jolins Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1973) p. 37.


Ibid. p. 74.


Continuator of Guillaume de Nangis, Chroniques Capétiennes.Tome II, tr. François Guizot (Paris: Paleo, 2002) p. 88.


William Chester Jordan, The French Monarchy and the Jews (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).


Jordan, pp. 202-3.


Favier, p. 205.


See chapter 30, The Arrest and trials of the Templars.


Cyril P. Hershon, Faith and Controversy: The Jews of Mediaeval Languedoc (University of Birmingham, UK, 1999) p. 102.


Favier, p. 86.


Strayer leans to this opinion and makes a very good case for it.


Guillaume de Nangis, pp. 129-30.


Isabella’s life is another interesting story. Just don’t believe anything you saw about her in Braveheart. She was only five years old when William Wallace died.


Strayer, p. 33.

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