POWERFULLY PROTECTED by its walls and supplied by sea, Acre had seemed invincible to attack, and the news of its fall after only forty-four days came as a terrible shock. The loss of the city also marked the end of a nation that had survived for almost two hundred years. The massive numbers and resources of the Turkish aggressors were not fully comprehended; instead the fault was taken to lie within, and along with feelings of grief and anger there was a sense of failure. The sins of the inhabitants of Outremer were blamed, as was the failure of the leaders of European Christendom to provide ample and timely aid, and the Italian merchant states which had traded with Mameluke Egypt, and the military orders, Templars and Hospitallers alike. No one was exempt.
But it was the Templars who felt the loss most intensely. The defence of the Holy Land and the protection of pilgrims were their raison d’être. For the Hospitallers the ethos of their charitable work took precedence; they had never abandoned their original function of caring for the sick. But the Templars were founded as a military knighthood, their role to patrol the pilgrimage routes, to fight against the infidel and to preserve the Christian East, and in that cause they had serviced crusades and directed the finances of popes and kings. Now cast out from the Holy Land, the Templars found themselves in limbo.
TO MANY THE FALL OF ACRE did not seem the decisive end of things, more an interlude, and there were expectations that the mainland would be regained. Certainly in the mind of Jacques de Molay, a man approaching fifty when he became the Templars’ new Grand Master in 1292, the dream of recovering the Holy Land was not yet over. He had spent thirty years in the order, much of it in Outremer, and his vision for the Templars was that they should take the lead in a new crusade. The Templars had established their headquarters in Cyprus, and later they recovered the tiny island of Ruad (Arwad) just 2 miles off the coast of Syria opposite Tortosa, and from these places Jacques de Molay envisioned that the counter-attack against the Mamelukes would begin.
Meanwhile on the mainland there were numerous local insurrections against Mameluke rule, which was brutal and repressive. Already in 1291, while Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil was busy fighting the Franks and their allies at Acre and elsewhere along the coast, Shia Muslims living in the northern part of the Bekaa valley and in the mountains north-east of Beirut had joined with Druze in an uprising against the Sunni Mamelukes. On his return from Acre, al-Ashraf Khalil had the Sunni caliph, who after the fall of Baghdad was made a Mameluke puppet in Cairo, declare jihad against dissenting Muslims, who outnumbered Sunnis in Palestine and Syria, with the aim of breaking their resistance to Mameluke domination; they were finally crushed in 1308.
In 1293 al-Ashraf Khalil built a fleet with the intention of invading Cyprus, but he was murdered that December by another Mameluke, touching off a battle for power which after further murders, crucifixions and chopping off of hands saw al-Nasr Mohammed eventually emerge as sultan. He built himself a splendid mosque–madrasa–mausoleum in Cairo and for its entrance used the Gothic portal to the Church of St Andrew brought from Acre, an advertisement of Islam’s victory over Christianity. Also during al-Nasr’s reign a new emphasis was placed on Jerusalem; building on the story of the Night Journey initiated by the Umayyads, continued by the Fatimids and deployed by Saladin’s jihad, the sanctity of Jerusalem was extolled, Muslims were encouraged to make pilgrimage there and were told that the Prophet Mohammed had said that a prayer at the Aqsa mosque was worth a thousand times more than one in any other, apart from at Mecca or Medina.
Under regulations imposed by al-Nasr in 1301 Christians and Jews throughout Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt were again oppressed by the old laws which reduced them to the status of dhimmis; among other things they were forbidden to ride horses or mules and were forced to wear distinctive clothing; al-Nasr also abolished a national Coptic feast and closed many Coptic churches in Egypt. In 1321, still during al-Nasr’s long reign, fanatical Muslims looted and destroyed all the principal churches of Egypt and Christians suffered wholesale massacre, while Copts were expelled from official positions and subjected to a range of indignities. Each of these events was followed by conversions to Islam. Even so, Copts continued to outnumber Muslims in much of Egypt until a further great wave of persecution in 1354.
In Syria and Lebanon things were hardly less difficult for the Maronites. They had been condemned by the Church as heretics in the seventh century not for their belief in the single nature of Christ (Monophysitism), but rather for their belief in the single will of Christ (Monothelitism), but in 1182 the Franks helped bring them into communion with the Catholic Church at Rome. Over fifty thousand Maronites were said to have died fighting alongside the Franks during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to defend Outremer against the Muslims. When the Franks left, some Maronites went with them to Cyprus, where their communities continue to thrive, while those who remained never surrendered their connection with Rome, despite persecution by the Mameluke jihad; instead they escaped into the mountains of northern Lebanon, which remain a Christian stronghold to this day.
Eager to take the initiative in recovering the Holy Land, in 1294 Jacques de Molay travelled from Cyprus to the West to promote the Templars as the vanguard of a new crusade. He received encouragement from Pope Boniface VIII in Rome and King Edward I in London, and practical assistance too, with both pope and king making it easier for the Templars to raise new funds in Europe in order to rebuild their forces after their terrible recent losses at Acre and elsewhere in Outremer. Foodstuffs and treasure were shipped from European ports to the Templars in Cyprus, and galleys were bought from Venice, part of the war fleet that the Templars would need to lead the attacks against the Syrian and Egyptian coasts.
The best hope for a new crusade lay with the Mongols. Since their defeat at the hands of the Mamelukes in 1260 the Mongols had shown an interest in forming alliances with the Christians in the West and with the Byzantine Empire. Maria Paleologina, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Paleologus, who had recovered Constantinople from the Latins, was sent East in the 1260s to marry the son of the Mongol khan and to proselytise for Christianity. And when two Mongol emissaries converted to Christianity at the Council of Lyon in 1274, hopes were raised further that the Mongols might convert wholesale. Twice, in 1281 and 1299, the Mongols advanced into northern Syria; and when news came from the West in 1300 of a new crusade, the Mongols offered the Christians the Holy Land if they would help them defeat the Mamelukes.
A wave of excited anticipation swept across Europe in 1300 at the prospect of this new expedition to the East. The mood was reminiscent of those days when Pope Urban II had preached the First Crusade. Being the 1,300th anniversary of the birth of Christ, the pope declared this to be a jubilee year, promising full remission of sins to those who visited the Basilica of St Peter in Rome. Two hundred thousand pilgrims answered his call and were welcomed by a triumphant Pope Boniface sitting on the throne of Constantine the Great and holding the symbols of temporal dominion, the sword, the sceptre and the crown, and calling to the crowd, ‘I am Caesar!’ In the familiar battle between the Church and the secular claims of kings, no one could be left in doubt that the pope was proclaiming the universal jurisdiction of the Church over the monarchs of the West and celebrating the victory yet to come over the infidels in the East.
In the summer of 1300 the Templars, together with the Hospitallers and the king of Cyprus, launched a series of probing attacks against Alexandria and Rosetta, and at Acre, Tortosa and Maraclea. These were preliminaries to a planned joint operation with the Armenians in Cilicia and the Mongols, and they were followed up in November by a combined Templar, Hospitaller and Lusignan force from Cyprus, about six hundred knights in all, which was landed on the island of Ruad. From there they made raids against Tortosa, waiting for the Mongols to appear.
But the Mongols failed to arrive. A year later, writing from Cyprus, Jacques de Molay gave an outline of the situation to King James II of Aragon.
The king of Armenia sent his ambassadors to the king of Cyprus to tell him that the lord king of Armenia had learned that [the Mongol khan] Ghazan was now on the point of entering the lands of the sultan with a horde of Tartars. As we knew this we are now en route for the island of Tortosa, where our convent has maintained horses and arms the whole of this year. By pillaging, destroying their casalia and capturing their men our brothers have inflicted serious damage on the Saracens. We will continue to stay there until the Tartars arrive.1
This time, towards the end of 1301, the Templars took it upon themselves to establish a considerable force on the island and rebuild its defences. In preparation for a serious assault on the Syrian mainland, they garrisoned Ruad with 120 knights, 500 archers and 400 workers and servants, almost half the number of Templar knights and auxiliaries as would normally have defended the entire kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century. Yet still the Mongols failed to arrive, but in April 1302 the Mongol Khan wrote to Pope Boniface saying they were coming soon. ‘We are continuing preparations. [. . .] You too should prepare your troops. [. . .] If the heavens hear our prayers our entire effort will be directed to this great enterprise. [. . .] You, too, should pray to the heavens and prepare your troops.’2
Instead, later that year, while waiting for the Mongols, the Templars found themselves isolated on their tiny island, against which the Mamelukes sent a fleet of sixteen ships. A prolonged siege and repeated attacks finally wore down the starving Templars, who surrendered on condition of safe conduct, a promise that was betrayed, the Templars being slaughtered or sold into slavery.
Despite this setback in the East, Pope Boniface VIII was no less adamant about his claims of papal supremacy in the West, which he reinforced with a bull in 1303 called Unam Sanctam. This asserted that there was only one holy (unam sanctam) Catholic Church, and that to attain salvation it was necessary to submit to the pope in all matters both spiritual and material. The bull was in response to various trespasses against the authority of the Church that had been committed by Philip IV of France, often known as Philip the Fair for his golden locks if nothing else, who inherited a massive debt when he became king in 1285 and was forever in need of money to finance the expansion of his kingdom and make war against Flanders and England, and who therefore imposed taxes on the clergy. To Philip this was no different to raising taxes for a crusade, for he ruled with a divine mission; in 1297 he had obtained a sainthood for his grandfather, the crusading Louis IX, and he was convinced that France was the chosen kingdom of God and his dynasty, the Capets, its chosen instrument. In effect, the conflict was between the universalist claims of the Church and the new phenomenon of nationalism as asserted by the king of France, both of which claimed to have God on their side. The pope might be the Vicar of God, but Philip, according to his admirers, was ‘the most Christian king’ and if not wholly divine then at least ‘semi-divine’.3
When Philip still showed no sign of repentance or of bowing to the pope’s will, Boniface prepared a bull of excommunication against the king and his minister William of Nogaret. But before it could be published, a force of French soldiers led by William of Nogaret himself burst into the pope’s summer palace at Agnani in the hills south-east of Rome with the aim of taking Boniface as prisoner back to France to stand trial on charges of heresy, sodomy and the murder of the previous pope. Boniface, who was guarded by only a handful of Templars and Hospitallers, challenged his enemies to kill him, saying, ‘Here is my neck, here is my head.’ But Boniface had been born at Agnani, and the townsfolk rallied to him; and before his captors could do more than slap him around and beat him up, they rushed to his defence and drove the French out. He was a broken man, however, and a month later, when he died in Rome, any serious pretension of the Catholic Church to universal dominion over spiritual and material affairs died with him. The age had truly begun of European nation-states led, whatever their religious claims, by secular leaders with secular aims.
Forty years earlier, in a dispute between the papacy and the Templars, the pope wrote to the Grand Master reminding him that it was the Church ‘on whose help, after God, you are totally dependent’, and that if the Church removed its hand of protection from the order ‘you could not in any way subsist against [. . .] the force of the princes’.4 Now that time had come.
After the death of Boniface, the College of Cardinals elected a new pope, but he died within a year. After long deliberation and pressure from Philip IV, the College produced a Frenchman, who came to the papal throne in 1305 as Clement V. Never throughout his papacy did Clement set foot in Rome or indeed Italy; instead he moved between Lyon and Poitiers until March 1309, when he set up court at Avignon in Provence, which at that time technically lay outside the jurisdiction of the kings of France. Clement then went on to pack the College of Cardinals with Frenchmen; not surprisingly the next six popes all resided at Avignon, and all were French.
This did not mean that Clement V was a puppet of Philip IV; rather, the new pope understood that, if he was to achieve his papal ambitions, it would not be, as Boniface had insisted in Unam Sanctam, by trying to make Philip submit to his authority but by cultivating their relationship and securing Philip’s co-operation. Clement’s great ambition was a new crusade, but it would need the collaboration and leadership of the French king. The proposed venture had its difficulties, however, not least because since the fall of Ruad the Mongols had converted en masse to Islam, not to Christianity as had been hoped.
Another difficulty was presented by Philip himself. Clement succeeded in persuading the king to take the cross at the end of December 1305; he freed Philip from the distraction of local conflict by negotiating a peace between the French king and King Edward I of England; and he diverted 10 per cent of the Church’s income in France to Philip’s coffers to finance the new crusade. But in Philip’s view a prerequisite for a successful crusade was the merging of the two military orders, the Templars and the Hospitallers. Moreover, Philip would command the new order; it would become an instrument of France, for Philip’s propagandists also insisted that eventually his command should pass to one of his sons, who likewise should succeed him as king of Jerusalem. Then again, there was a large element of hypocrisy in these French plans. Recovering the Holy Land was not really Philip’s priority; rather, his ambition was to conquer the Christian Byzantine Empire and to establish himself on the ancient imperial throne at Constantinople.
In May 1307 Pope Clement met with the Templar and Hospitaller Grand Masters at his court in France, where they submitted their own views on the proposed crusade and the unification of the orders. The comments made by the Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Fulk of Villaret, about the merging of the orders do not survive, but it seems that he was opposed, as his proposal for the crusade assumed that the Hospitallers and the Templars would operate independently. Fulk favoured a small initial expedition to the East, a policy the Hospitallers in fact pursued in June of that very same year, when they seized the island of Rhodes, which had been a Byzantine possession, an enterprise that gave them a well-fortified and independent state of their own. A large crusade, went Fulk’s argument, should follow only after forward bases had been secured.
But after the Templars’ experience of the failure at Ruad, Jacques de Molay opposed a small-scale expedition and wanted an all-out crusade. This meant calling on the kings of Spain, Sicily, Germany, England and France to raise an army of between 12,000 and 15,000 knights and 5,000 soldiers on foot. This enormous force was to be raised secretly and transported on Venetian, Genoese and other Italian ships to Cyprus, from where it was to be launched against the coast of Palestine. Jacques de Molay’s plan was based on a serious and realistic assessment of the military problems facing a crusade aimed at the recovery of the Holy Land, although he knew that this was not in line with popular opinion, which wanted the rhetoric of crusade without the effort or commitment. Moreover it flew in the face of Philip’s hypocritical intentions. In the end Jacques de Molay’s plan amounted to wishful thinking, but to admit that would have meant reassessing the role of the Templars in changing times, something that was not in the nature of the Grand Master to do.
On the matter of uniting the two orders, Jacques de Molay was also unaccommodating. He admitted that there could be some advantages in the merger, principally that a united order would be stronger. But he also pointed out that the question had been raised before, only to be rejected. Competition between the Templars and the Hospitallers made the orders more effective, he said, as it provided the stimulus for each to outdo the other. Nor did one duplicate the functions of the other; rather, they were complementaries, placing different emphases on providing alms, transporting men and supplies across the sea, protecting pilgrims and crusaders, and making war against the infidel. Ultimately the great purpose of the military orders was to further the crusade, wrote Jacques de Molay to the pope, and as the Hospitallers and the Templars ‘are better suited and more useful for reconquering and guarding the Holy Land than other peoples are’,5 they ought to be kept separate.
But unfortunately for the Templars there was no hope of the sort of mass crusade envisioned by Jacques de Molay. The Hospitallers had shown a keener awareness of current realities by going for the lesser option, one that all but guaranteed their survival by creating a state of their own on Rhodes. The Templars once again were left in limbo and were now increasingly the victims of attacks on their seeming idleness.
The Templars, wrote Rostan Berenguier, a poet of Marseille at around this time, ‘waste this money which is intended for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre on cutting a fine figure in the world; they deceive people with their idle trumpery, and offend God; since they and the Hospital have for so long allowed the false Turks to remain in possession of Jerusalem and Acre; since they flee faster than the holy hawk; it is a pity, in my view, that we do not rid ourselves of them for good’.6
After his meeting with the pope, Jacques de Molay travelled to Paris, where on 12 October 1307 his apparent intimacy with the royal family was evident for all to see when, in the presence of Philip IV himself, he walked in procession holding one of the pall cords at the funeral of the king’s sister Catherine of Courtenay. Other Templar leaders, usually based in Cyprus, were also in Paris at this time.
The following day at dawn, Friday 13 October, Jacques de Molay was arrested by the king’s men, led by William of Nogaret.
Philip’s order for the arrest of the Templar leadership in Paris and of every Templar throughout France had been circulated secretly the month before: ‘A bitter thing, a lamentable thing,’ went the opening lines of the order, dated 14 September, ‘a thing horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear, a heinous crime, an execrable evil, an abominable deed, a hateful disgrace, a completely inhuman thing, indeed remote from all humanity.’7