The Council of Vienne and the End of the Order

Pope Clement V was determined to keep some sort of control over the problem of the Templars, despite the determination of King Philip the Fair to dictate their fate. So far the trials had been of individual Templars, not the order as a whole. Legally, the Templars could only be condemned or declared innocent of all charges by the pope.

Clement knew that if he made the decision alone, he would bring down the wrath of one side or the other. He had to make it clear that a pronouncement on the Templars would come from the leaders of the Church acting together. Therefore, he called for a council to meet in the town of Vienne, just south of Lyon. Vienne was not yet part of France but Lyon had recently been taken over by King Philip. Clement knew that anything that he and the council did would be in the shadow of Philip and his army, but at least not under the king’s jurisdiction.

The first summons to the council was written on August 12, 1308. In it Clement ordered all the archbishops, bishops, and abbots of Christendom to meet in October 1310. He didn’t mention the Templars by name in the summons. Instead he asked the attendees to prepare reports listing areas in which the Church needed reforming.1 He also sent invitations to most of the major rulers of Europe. It was understood that the main issues would be the suppression of the Templars, the need to regain the Holy Land, and the reform of the Church as a whole.

It is a tribute to Clement’s skill at procrastinating that the council wouldn’t actually begin until October 1311. This gave many of those invited (or commanded) to attend time to come up with excuses.

THIS was not a popular council. Over a third of the Church officials didn’t show up, even though they had been ordered, not invited, to appear. It’s possible that they were worried that they would be asked to provide more money for the support of the papal curia.2None of the rulers came, except Philip IV (with his army) and he was only there for the meetings concerning the Templars.3

So, instead of creating a show of unity and willingness to support any papal decision, Clement found himself facing a group of largely disgruntled prelates. These men were mostly noblemen, with regional and family connections that meant more to them than punishing the sins of the Templars. Few of them were willing to get on the wrong side of King Philip.

And many of them were not at all sure that the Templars were guilty.

Added to that, the town was crowded, prices had been jacked up to meet demand, and the weather was terrible. On November 9, Raymond Despont, bishop of Valencia, wrote to King James II of Aragon, “It is very tedious here, since the land is cold beyond measure and . . . it is not suited to my age. The place is small with a multitude of people, and therefore crowded. As a result many remain inconvenienced, but it is necessary to endure it with patience.”4

There were also complaints that the council had been packed with French prelates who were too afraid to vote against the wishes of King Philip.

It seems that Clement had hoped to get a quick vote on the condemnation of the Templars, assign their property to another order, and get on with his dream of a new crusade. He also wanted to keep King Philip from pushing for a denunciation of Pope Boniface VIII. It wasn’t a good idea to let kings think they could dispose of popes, even ones that were dead.

Things didn’t work out at all according to plan. First of all, to give an appearance of fairness, Clement had invited Templars to come to Vienne and defend the order personally. Remembering the burnings of 1310, Clement apparently assumed that they wouldn’t dare show up.

However, on December 4, 1311, seven men did. The next day, two more joined them. They told the council that they were prepared to give a defense and that there were over a thousand others in the area who would also speak on behalf of the Templars.5

Clement had them arrested.

He then held a secret meeting of a small group of prelates. Clement’s biographer, Ptolomy de Lucca, later reported what happened. “The bishops and the cardinals were called together by the pope to deliberate on the subject of the Templars. . . . The pope interrogated them one at a time. They told him that they were agreed that the Templars should be allowed to present their defense. All the Italian bishops, with one exception, came round to this opinion, along with all the bishops from Spain, Germany, Dacia, England, Scotland, Ireland and France, except the three archbishops of Reims, Sens and Rouen.”6

The archbishop of Sens was the one who had ordered the conflagration of Templars in 1310 and was also, you may remember, Philip de Marigny, the brother of King Philip’s trusted counselor Enguerrand de Marigny. The archbishop of Rheims, Robert de Courtenay, was related to the French royal family through marriage. 7And Gilles Aycelin, archbishop of Rouen, was also the chancellor of France and nephew of ones of Philip’s former advisers, Pierre Flote.8

Everyone at the council was very much aware of this.

That’s not to say that many people were willing to defend the Templars themselves. There was still the problem that Jacques de Molay and the other officials of the order had confessed, retracted their confessions, and then confessed again. How could they declare someone innocent when they had admitted they were guilty?

But one man, at least, Jacques de Thérines, was willing to defend them at the council. In 1311 he was the abbot of a Cistercian monastery in what is now Belgium. In 1307 he had been one of the masters of the University of Paris who told King Philip that he didn’t have a case against the Templars. Then, he had been one voice in a group of fourteen scholars.9Now, he stood alone.

In his address to the council, Abbot Jacques stated many of the arguments that have been echoed for the past seven hundred years. Was it logical that the charges against the Templars were true? These were men from widely different backgrounds, who had entered the order at different ages. It seemed incredible to Jacques that “commoners and nobles, men of different speech and lands, raised not as bastards but in stable, god-fearing households, men who had fervently expressed the desire to defend the holy places would all have the appetite to fall to precisely the same temptations.”10

Jacques concluded, as many have since, that the confessions of the Templars were patently untrue, torn from the men by torture and through terror. The fact that some had been brave enough to recant and face the stake spoke even more for their innocence. The fact that trials outside of Francehad turned up no evidence of guilt was also suspicious. And, in any case, the matter wasn’t for the king of France to decide, but the pope.11

The ball was back in Clement’s court and he wasn’t pleased about it.

It seemed a good time to call a winter recess.

Clement spent the next three months trying to find a way out before the council convened again in March.

It’s hard to say what he really thought of the guilt of the Templars. I believe that if he had been certain of it, he would have condemned the order immediately. As it was, he must have known that they would have to be sacrificed in one way or another. If he saved the Templars, he would still be faced with Philip’s determination to have Pope Boniface excommunicated posthumously, which would include digging up his body and burning it for heresy.12 If the Templars were condemned, then it would only encourage the clerics who were opposed to the exempt orders. Next, it might be the Cistercians or the Franciscans and Dominicans, not to mention the Hospitallers, who were attacked. The suppression of a religious order was not new. In 1274, two Provençal orders, the Pied Friars and the Friars of the Sack, had been dissolved. The Templars had benefited from this when they received property that had belonged to these orders.13

There seemed no way for Clement to win. No wonder the poor pope’s stomach always hurt.

Finally, Clement made up his mind to act. This may have been encouraged by the arrival, on March 20, 1312, of Philip the Fair, accompanied by his three sons, his brothers, and his army. Two weeks earlier, Philip had sent Clement a letter insisting that the Templars be suppressed at once. He says that “burning with zeal for the orthodox faith and that such a great injury to Christ not go unpunished, we humbly and devotedly beg Your Holiness that the aforesaid order be suppressed.”14

Therefore, “On the day of the moon after the Quasimodo [March 22], the second session of the general council was held in the great cathedral.” 15 The returning leaders of the Church gathered and prepared to hear Clement’s opening sermon.

With the king on one side and his eldest son, the future Louis X, on the other, Clement read out the bull suppressing the order of the Templars.

He first made it clear that he found the things that Jacques de Molay and the other Templars had confessed to absolutely disgusting: “it was against the lord Jesus Christ himself that they fell into the sin of impious apostasy, the abominable vice idolatry, the deadly crime of the Sodomites, and various heresies.”16But, fortunately, “Then came the intervention of our dear son in Christ, Philip, the illustrious king of France. . . . He was not moved by greed. . . . He was on fire with zeal for the orthodox faith.”17

At this point, can’t you just see the pope glancing nervously toward the king?

After outlining the arrest and trials of the Templars, and how the information gathered from all the trials in Europe had been studied by a committee of cardinals and bishops, he admitted that 80 percent of the assembly felt that the Templars should be allowed a defense. However, the name of the order had been so soiled that it could never function with any credibility again.18 “Therefore, with a sad heart . . . we suppress, with the approval of the sacred council, the Order of the Templars, and its rule, habit and name, by an inviolable and perpetual decree, and we entirely forbid anyone from now on to enter the Order, or receive or wear its habit or to presume to behave as a Templar.”19

It’s not certain that the members of the council had agreed to the suppression but it didn’t matter since the pope had made the decision and could enforce it without their approval.

He also cautioned that the property that had belonged to the Templars was to be reserved to the papacy, to be used for the retaking of the Holy Land, and no one was to touch it. I imagine that he didn’t look at the king while reading this.

Clement also ordered that Templar brothers who had not confessed or who had been judged innocent were to be pensioned off. Those who had confessed and been absolved were to be assigned to various monasteries to perform their penance.

On May 2, the pope announced that all the Templar property was to be given to the Hospitallers, with the exception of that owned by the Templars in Aragon, Castile, Portugal, and Majorca.20

This was the end of the Order of the Templars, but their story was far from over. Several thousand men had to be accounted for and goods consisting of “houses, churches, chapels, oratories, cities, castles, towns, lands, granges, places, possessions, jurisdictions, revenues, rights, all the other property, whether immovable, movable or self-moving, and all the members together with their rights and belongings, both beyond and on this side of the sea, in each and every part of the world . . .”21

How all that was sorted out is another chapter.

While the affair of the Templars overshadows the whole Council of Vienne, it wasn’t the only subject of interest to the Church. Clement’s death in 1314 prevented the immediate publication of the decrees of the council but his successor, John XXII, who attended, had them sent out. They included clarifications of articles of faith, such as baptism, and the issue of a heretical sect that had started in the Low Countries, known as the Free Spirits.22 They set down rules for the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who wandered about far too much for some people’s taste. The universities of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Salamanca were told to start teaching Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldeic “that they might be able to instruct the infidel.”23

The council finally closed, on May 6, 1313. The last few days were taken up with administrative business. The prelates may have thought they were finally getting away, but they discovered that Philip had one last surprise for them. He agreed to go on crusade in 1319, and asked for a portion of the Church tithes be put aside to pay for his expedition. 24

Wearily, the council agreed.

Neither Philip nor his sons ever went on crusade.


Charles-Juseph Hefele and Dom H. Leclercq, Histoires des Conciles d’aprés les documents originaux Vol. VI second part (Paris, 1915) p. 648.


Sophia Menache, Clement V (Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 283.


Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars (Cambridge University Press, 2006; 2nd ed.) p. 259.


Heinrich Finke, Papstum und Untergang des Templerordens (Münstyer, 1907) Vol. 2, pp. 251-52, quoted in Barber, pp. 259-60.


Barber, p. 262.


Quoted in Hefele and Leclercq, p. 651.


He was the brother of the wife of the king’s brother.


Jean Favier, Philippe le Bel (Paris: Fayard, 1978) pp. 27-29.


William Chester Jordan, Unceasing Strife, Unending Fear: Jacques de Thérines and the Freedom of the Church in the Age of the Last Capetians (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) p. 31.


Ibid., p. 53.




Hefele and Leclercq, p. 661. Philip’s ambassadors really suggested this.


Dominic Sellwood, Knights of the Cloister: Templars and Hospitallers in Central-Southern Occitania c. 1100-1300 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) p. 98. And no, I did not make up those names, but I can’t imagine many people would want to admit to being a “pied friar.”


Georges Lizerand, Le Dossier de L’Affaire de Templiers (Paris, 1923) p. 196. “Quare, zelo fidei orthodoxe succensi et ne tanta injuria Christo facta remaneat impunita, vestre sanctitati affectuose, devote et humiliter supplicamus quatinus tollatis ordinem supradictum.” (italics mine)


Continuator of Guillaume de Nangis, ed. and tr. M. Guizot (Paris, 1825) p. 289.


Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, eds. The Templars: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated (Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 311. From Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils ed. N. P. Tanner, vol. 1 (London: Sheed and Ward, 1990) pp. 336-43.


Ibid. (italics mine)


Ibid., p. 316.


Ibid., p. 318.


Ibid., p. 318-22. The bull is named Ad providam.


Ibid., pp. 320-21.


See chapter 37, Marguerite Porete.


Hefele and Leclercq, p. 689, “qui infideles ipsos sciant et valent sacris institutis instruere.” Okay, mine is a loose translation.


Menache, pp. 112-16.

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