Documents on Knights Templar to be Released

In 1307, the Knights Templar, an order of military monks who had achieved great wealth and power, were ordered by the King of France to be arrested for heresy. They were tried and found guilty. Some members were burned at the stake, and the order was disbanded. The Vatican will soon release newly discovered documents pertaining to the trial of the Knights Templar. Professor Helen Nicholson speaks with Liane Hansen about the group and whether they were really guilty of heresy.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

You can't beat this story. It has corruption, conspiracies and Vatican intrigue. No, it's not "The Da Vinci Code," but it does share one of the players in the novel: The Knights Templar.

The Templars were an order of warrior monks. The order was formed in 1118 to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem after the First Crusade. The Templars became powerful and wealthy, perhaps too wealthy. France's King Phillip IV owed the Knights Templar a lot of money.

On Friday the 13th, 1307, the King ordered the arrest and torture of many Templar leaders. The charge was heresy. Pope Clement V put the Templar leaders on trial, some were burned at the stake and the order was disbanded.

Now, newly discovered documents in the Vatican Secret Archives showed that the Pope initially absolved the Templars of the heresy charge. Historian Helen Nicholson teaches at Cardiff University. She's the author of "The Knights Templar: A New History."

And Dr. Nicholson is on the line from Wales. Welcome to the program.

Dr. HELEN NICHOLSON (Senior Lecturer in History, Cardiff University; Author, "The Knights Templar: A New History"): Thank you.

HANSEN: Remind us, how was it that the Templars came to be accused of heresy? Was it simply a pretext by King Philip basically to get out of his debt to them?

Dr. NICHOLSON: That is the opinion of most contemporary scholars now and then.

HANSEN: But there's no evidence really that they had committed heretical acts.

Dr. NICHOLSON: No.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. During this period, the papacy was located in Avignon, France rather than Rome and it considerably weakened the papacy because of the location. Is that why Pope Clement basically acquiesced to the suppression of the Templars?

Dr. NICHOLSON: Yes. The king of France could, in fact, manipulate the pope as he wished.

HANSEN: So explain to us what these documents from the Vatican Archives, these new ones reveal that wasn't known before about the papal hearings on the Templars.

Dr. NICHOLSON: Well, the documents that have just been released are a long version of documents that we knew about before, but we now have far more detail of the hearings that took place at Chinon in France in August 1308. And these documents are a full account of those hearings and what the leading Templars confessed to.

HANSEN: What were some of the specific charges against them?

Dr. NICHOLSON: Well, they were accused of denying Christ when they were admitted to the order, and spitting on the cross and committing sodomy. They were also accused of acquiring property for the order illegally and having their meetings at night and other things, which we now regard as being quite minor.

HANSEN: And were these charges true or were they trumped up?

Dr. NICHOLSON: They were trumped up. The whole purpose of the Knights of Templar was to fight on behalf of Christ - in defense of Christ's people - and the knights were absolutely dumbfounded. They didn't know what to say when they were first faced with these charges. But the Templars in France were tortured into confessing to them. And then having once confessed to charges of heresy, even if under torture, you couldn't go back on your confessions. If you then turn around, as the Master of the Templars did later and say, actually I was forced into this confession, you were regarded as a relapsed heretic and you'd be burned at the stake.

HANSEN: Are there other remnants of the Templars today?

Dr. NICHOLSON: Well, there's a number of groups who claim to be descended from the Templars. Of course, its ideals lived on. The modern Templar groups - I don't think that they protect pilgrims on the road anymore like the Templars did. But some of them are involved in charitable activities. They provide grants for students to study. They organize pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

HANSEN: There's no cache of wealth hidden somewhere from back in the 14th century, is there?

Dr. NICHOLSON: I wish.

HANSEN: Helen Nicholson is the author of "The Knights Templar: A New History." The trial documents will be published by the Vatican later this month.

Thank you very much.

Dr. NICHOLSON: Thank you.

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