Authors: Katherine Kurtz
No, de Molay decided, though his decision tore at his heart. It was better that they stay and fight, that they be taken fighting, that they die fighting in the name of the Lord.
de Molay whispered under his breath, as tears fell into his soup. His companion stared at him, looking as if about to comment on the slow pace with which he ate. Jacques de Molay sadly lowered his head toward his bowl and did penance.
We probably will never know when de Molay acknowledged the impending fate of the Temple. The meeting with the king surely must have reinforced hints of warning that had been building for some time. Upon his return to Paris, de Molay summoned a general chapter of the Order, which met at the Paris Temple on July 24 in strictest secrecy. Though details of that meeting are unknown, orders shortly went out to every commandery in the kingdom to tighten security, and under no circumstances to reveal anything to anyone about the secret rituals and meetings of the Order—a probable indication that the accusation of idolatry had been discussed. Late that summer, de Molay called in many of the Order’s books and extant rules and had them burnt.
On September 23, 1307, Guillaume de Nogaret at last set his long-awaited plans in motion. Having received the royal seals from the king only the day before, he sent out sealed orders to seneschals and baillies all over the kingdom, not to be opened until October 12. And on that day, while the Grand Master walked in the funeral procession of the king’s deceased sister-in-law, basking in the great honor done him and the Order by the king, Nogaret’s sealed orders were being opened and read.
In the predawn hours of Friday, October 13, 1307, the king’s officers made simultaneous raids on nearly every Templar house in France, arresting every member of the Order to be found. Including knights, sergeants, serving brothers, and priests, they numbered several thousand. Strangely enough, there was almost no resistance—which perhaps reflects de Molay’s confidence that the pope would protect the Order and that it would be found innocent of any charges. Nogaret himself led the raid on the Paris Temple, and personally saw to the arrest and incarceration of the Grand Master and many of his principal officers.
Though the pope had not authorized the arrests and argued with the king for some time over whether the king had the right to do so, he seems to have decided that Philip was not acting out of greed, since Philip proposed that the riches of the Temple would be placed at the disposal of the church, to finance the next Crusade. (This never happened. Instead, Philip secured a pledge of 200,000 livres from the Hospitallers, for which he was to ensure that the Hospital got the Temple’s lands.) Still, the charges were serious and had to be investigated—though only individual Templars might be examined; the pontiff reserved for himself the right to deal with the Order as a whole.
In the months that followed, the Order came under the less than tender attentions of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, established in 1229 to inquire into cases of heresy and prevent its spread by whatever means, including the use of torture to extract confessions. St. Dominic and his followers, the Order of the Friars Preachers or “Black Friars” (so named for the black cowl and cloak worn over their white robes), had been particularly single-minded in attacking heresy, with the result that the Dominican Order—the Domini Canes, the “Hounds of the Lord”—became the principal agents of the Inquisition. More than a hundred Templars died under torture during the first few months of questioning, and many more came to confess nearly anything in the several years that followed, just to stop the pain. A few even took their own lives rather than endure it.
The inquisitors themselves were divided on the question of the Templars. On May 30,1311, the Master of the Order of Friars Preachers, Aymeric of Piacenza, resigned his office rather than be compelled to attend a church council being convened at Vienne for the purpose of suppressing the Knights Templar. (As a secondary function, Vienne was also expected to deal with the mystical sectarians called Beghards and Beguines, who figure in our next story. One of the latter had been executed the previous year: a woman called Margaret Porete, whose mystical writings had aroused the ire of conventional theologians.) Appalled at the treatment of the Templars, and especially opposed to the use of torture to extract confessions, Aymeric had for several years evaded even direct efforts of King Philip IV and the pope to coerce the Dominicans into harrying the hapless Templars “more efficiently.” His dramatic resignation deprived the Templars’ enemies of a distinguished presence badly needed to bolster the illusion of legality vital for the success of the king’s plan.
The same Chapter that saw Aymeric’s resignation also assigned Meister Eckhart, the great German preacher, scholar, and mystic, to return to Saint-Jacques in Paris, the foremost theological school of the Dominican Order, for an almost unprecedented second regency. It is unknown exactly why Eckhart was sent, but on several occasions he had represented Aymeric on missions of supervision and reform.
Resident at that time at Saint-Jacques was Guillaume Imbert, the former Grand Inquisitor of France and Confessor of King Philip, who had been instrumental in drawing up the formal charges against the Knights Templar in 1307. Imbert had personally interrogated more than 140 knights and serving brothers, often subjecting them to torture, and had been temporarily removed from office for flouting papal authority in pursuing the persecution of the Templars on the king’s orders, not the pope’s. Events at the time of Eckhart’s return to Paris could well have transpired as the following story suggests.
ain had fallen throughout the sullen day. Although it was early September, a chill had crept up from the Seine during the afternoon, insinuating itself around the youth’s spindly legs and seeping into his very bones. Squatting cross-legged near the tavern door, he shivered reflexively when a shadow only slightly darker than the declining daylight passed over him.
“Alms, please! For God’s sake, pity a poor student,” he wheedled, clutching his ragged cape closer around his thin shoulders and trying to sound even more piteous than he felt.
“Here, scum,” the shadow snarled. “Eat this!”
Hearing the man hawking up his phlegm, the boy barely had time to snatch his bowl aside as a thick globule spattered against the muddy pavement where it had just lain.
“May all your wives be bearded,” he muttered under his breath, and moved to the other side of the door. “Cretinous wretch!”
The burgher may have heard him, or perhaps belatedly recognized an opportunity to revenge himself on the day. Whatever the provocation, the student heard the heavy steps stop and turn. But he felt too weak to scramble to his feet and run. As the steps grew louder, he steeled himself for the blow, cringing and shielding his head with his arms.
“Filth!” the too-familiar voice growled.
For what seemed an eternity, the boy waited for the blow to fall. Instead came another voice, deeper and oddly clipped.
When he opened his eyes, he first saw two enormous feet in front of him, muddy to the ankles beneath the tattered hem of a gray cloak stained dark by rain and mud. The youth peered beneath his arm, up past the worn scrip and faded cross sewn to the shoulder of the cloak. Still upraised, the portly citizen’s wrist was held fast in the grip of a massive figure wearing a round-brimmed, drooping hat. A formidable staff in his intercessor’s other hand served as a further barrier between the student and his would-be assailant. The boy noticed that the man’s little finger was missing.
For a moment, neither moved. Then the burgher stepped back.
“Release me …” he said, eyeing the staff and the worn shoes hung around the man’s neck by their cords, “holy pilgrim.”
The words sounded sour in his mouth, but the taller man opened his hand, and the burgher vanished quickly. After glancing above him at the streaming sign, shaped like a cockle shell, the traveler pushed open the heavy plank door.
“Sire, my thanks,” the student murmured with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. “You are truly sent from heaven. I’m starving, you see, and—”
Without a word, his rescuer passed inside.
!” The screech echoed harshly against the walls. But to hell with dignity. He
starving.… “Alms, please! For the love of God!”
The door closed with a definitive thump, and the boy’s heart fell like a stone off the ramparts of the Grand Châtelet.
“Saint Severin, help me!” he muttered in desperation. “Saint Julien-the-Poor! Saint Denis the Martyr—”
The door opened and a huge arm shot out and grabbed the boy by the scruff of his threadbare cape and hood. He felt old stitches separating, but before he could protest, he was hoisted off the pavement and hauled into the warm, sticky interior as if he had been a sack of oats. Next, he was planted firmly on the floor beside the pilgrim, who stood hatless in the center of the straw-covered floor like one of the stone saints on the cathedral. His head was framed on top by a shaggy mop of close-cropped, gray-blond hair, and beneath by a short, ill-cut beard of similar hue and texture. The thick, hooked staff was leaning against the doorpost, from which the traveler’s battered hat and worn leather shoes now hung by their laces next to the frayed water bottle.
“Go elsewhere!” someone muttered. “No beggars in here!”
The pilgrim glanced around at the tables cluttered with scraps of sodden bread and earthen mugs, the several patrons seated on benches, the fireplace with its rack of roasting meats and collection of tankards, pots, and kettles. Grunting appreciatively, he reached into his scrip and withdrew a small bag.
“Food!” he said, shaking it to make the coins jingle. “I can pay.”
A squat man in a leather apron approached from the back.
“There.” He gestured to an empty table near the fire. Then his gaze wandered to the student.
“Both,” said the pilgrim.
His eyes were blue—or, rather, eye. For the student could see only one. His left eye was half hidden by an irregular white ridge that traversed the man’s face vertically. Where the scar passed into his beard, the hair paled, thinned, and disappeared, like weeds parting for one of the old Roman roads.
With another grunt, the pilgrim removed his dripping cloak and hung it on a peg close to the fireplace.
“What are you called?” From his odd, chopped accent, the boy surmised he was Saxon.
“Robert, sire,” the student said, following the example of the older man. “From Troyes.”
The pilgrim heaved his huge frame onto the bench. A heavyset girl in a stained but respectable smock placed two earthernware mugs on the plank table as Robert joined him. The faintly musty scent of wine made him suddenly light-headed.
“Do they not feed you where you lodge, Robert of Troyes?”
The youth’s mouth watered desperately as he waited for the pilgrim to taste his wine first, as courtesy required. The fragrance of beast and fowl spitted over the fire, crocks of stew, and fresh bread was dizzying. He swallowed repeatedly, praying silently to Saint Lazarus to keep him from fainting before he could eat.
“I was beaten and robbed in the forest as I returned to Paris last week. By other students, I think. But that was all I had for my burses—my parents are poor. So, I…”
The approach of the tavern-keeper, bearing trenchers covered with flat loaves soaked in stew, so distracted him that he could not finish.
” the pilgrim muttered piously, at the same time removing a knife from his belt.
“Amen!” Robert choked out.
The pilgrim grunted and sliced off a morsel of the savory. Lacking a knife, Robert tore nervously at the edge, trying to appear less ravenous than he felt. It was probably civet or squirrel, for all he knew, but as the hot juice touched his tongue, it could have been ambrosia. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes.
“So you beg.” The pilgrim reached over the table and turned the boy’s face to inspect the bruise still evident on one cheek.
Robert nodded, his mouth crammed too full of the broth-soaked bread to speak.
“Wait, messire!” The tavern-keeper’s high-pitched voice cut stridently through the smoke and murmured conversation. “You have not yet paid.”
Chewing blissfully, Robert twisted around. A tall figure in an odd, belted tunic, conspicuously patched but not soiled or heavily worn, was poised to leave, his hand on the door latch. The tavern-keeper approached gingerly, wiping his hands on his apron.
“When a man has reached the great and high knowledge, he is no longer bound to pay for food and drink,” the man replied in a steady, smooth tone. “For he has become one with God.”
“But sire, I have expenses!” the publican objected shrilly. “You have eaten well, and such food is not free!”
Now aware of the other customers’ attention, the man pulled himself up to loom even higher over the landlord.
“God created all things to serve those who are free in spirit,” he proclaimed. “Everything that God ever created is our property. Others must serve and obey. If they refuse, they alone stand guilty.”
Without warning, the man struck the tavern-keeper across the face with the back of his hand. Stunned, the little man staggered back. The serving girl stifled a shriek, and several of the other customers half rose from their benches. None, however, came to the publican’s assistance as his attacker pursued and began to kick him.
Robert turned back to the pilgrim. His place was vacant. But the booming voice he heard was familiar enough.
Snapping around again, Robert saw that the pilgrim had quietly slipped off his seat during the scuffle and had circled the tables. Springing with a deftness and speed that belied his bulk, he grabbed the taller man by the tunic with both hands, spun him around, and shoved him against the door with a force that rattled the hinges. Then, grasping a hank of hair, he pounded the man’s head twice sharply against the thick boards.