After the dramatic fragmentation of the Roman Empire and the tumultuous events of the Early Middle Ages (c. 400-1000), Europe stabilized in many ways during the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300). Population rose, agriculture and warfare improved due to new technology and methods, and the Crusades and long-distance trade connected Europe with the East in a way not seen since the fall of Rome. Many events of the Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500), however, brought additional change and, in some cases, great turmoil. One such event, the destruction of the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, highlights some of the economic and political ramifications of the Crusades and the increasing power of Europe’s monarchs. Destroying the military orders was a deliberate act that combined economic, religious, and political motives.
The Black Death, perhaps the most significant event of the Late Middle Ages, also had profound economic, religious, and political implications. Its devastation affected most aspects of society and altered Europe’s development for decades, if not centuries. It caused some people to question the Church and helped break down serfdom in some parts of Europe, assisting monarchs in amassing greater power at the expense of lesser nobles and the papacy. Thus, while the destruction of the military orders and the Black Death were unrelated events in most respects, they are related in that they exemplify some of the great economic and political upheavals of the Late Middle Ages, particularly the continued growth of monarchical power at the expense of Church authority.
The Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, along with the Hospitallers and other religious orders, were appendages of the Church that looked after the concerns of pilgrims and others in need. They served the dual functions of nursing and arms-bearing during the Crusades and in their aftermath.1 They were fighting brotherhoods of warrior monks, who took monastic vows and were subject to monastic discipline. Their active defense of the Holy Land made them “soldiers of Christ,” who filled the need of a standing army in Outremer.2 In addition, they served the pope as agents to promote the Crusades and to collect “Crusade taxes.”3 The collection of vast sums money either as a payment or a donation for their services allowed the military orders to amass great sums of wealth, which they used to purchase armaments, provide humanitarian relief, and pursue various building projects. To add to their wealth, the Templars ran lucrative sugarcane plantations, sugar factories, and livestock and grain operations on their vast estates in the Levant, despite their commitment to monastic poverty. These activities, in the opinion of Jonathan Riley-Smith, showed that the military orders were “keen for cash,” which made them a target in the years that followed.4
Their military prowess and vast stores of wealth were double-edged swords for the military orders themselves, as well as for the monarchs and popes they served. Both orders of knights thus became the focus of clashes between kings and the papacy, between regnum and sacerdotium.5 Pope Gregory IX temporarily stripped the Teutonic Order of its independence in 1229 out of fear that the knights had allied themselves with Frederick II against the papacy.6 The Templars became economic advisors, bankers, and agents for a number of European monarchs, roles which brought both benefits and contention for the Templars. The great favor they were often shown was occasionally betrayed as English and French kings attempted to usurp Templar wealth.7 Both orders faced grave dangers because of their economic and political positions.
The Templars, who possessed treasuries in various European countries, drew the greatest fire from Philip IV “the Fair” of France. Economic tensions between Philip and the Templars built up during the 1280s and 1290s due to currency fluctuations and Philip’s increasing indebtedness to the Templars. By 1286, Philip owed the Templars an amount roughly one-sixth of France’s yearly revenue.8 While Philip was able to pay off this debt the next year, scarcity of silver and Philip’s continuous military campaigns of the 1290s caused France to once again become indebted to the Templars. To dig his country out of debt, Philip debased his currency, creating inflation and currency depreciation.9 He also targeted the Jews, arresting many of them and confiscating their silver. However, his most unpopular action was to dramatically increase taxes in 1302, a move which led to sporadic revolts across the kingdom. Targeting the Jews and raising taxes failed to solve France’s economic problems, so Philip sought to strengthen the currency by increasing the amount of silver in France.10 To accomplish this, Philip once again turned to the Templars, but this time he turned against them.
The flashpoint of the conflict between Philip and the Templars may have come in 1302 when the Templars and Hospitallers provided military service to Flemish rebels, which Philip viewed as defiance against his authority.11 Philip turned to Pope Clement V for assistance in turning against the Templars. Philip was no friend of the papacy, as his treatment of Boniface VIII showed, but Clement cooperated with Philip against the Templars as part of a monarchical- papal give and take. Clement’s motives against the Templars are anything but clear, but he almost certainly caved in under Philip’s pressure. Jacques de Molay, the grandmaster of the Templars, had been close to Pope Boniface VIII, with whom Philip had often clashed. In addition, de Molay’s “anti-French coup” to gain election to grandmaster of the Templars angered Philip.12 Perhaps the combination of Philip’s negative relation with Boniface, Clement’s cooperation with Philip at the start of the Avignon Papacy, de Molay’s support of Boniface, and Philip’s unhappiness with de Molay’s election as grandmaster caused the perfect conditions for a crusade against the Templars in the early 1300s.
The Templars faced a dizzying array of rumors and official charges, ranging from corruption to blasphemy. The most egregious charges involved a blasphemous rite in which members denied Christ and desecrated the crucifix.13 The knights were also accused of indecent kissing and sodomy, but such charges may well have been exaggerations or outright fabrications.14 Nevertheless, Philip prosecuted the Templars on these charges and enjoyed papal support in the endeavor. As the Templar treasury was perhaps the only remaining source of silver that could provision the royal mints to strengthen France’s currency, the Templar’s fate was sealed.15 Much of the Templars’ wealth no doubt found its way into French mints and then into the French economy. However, in the context of the Avignon Papacy and the tug-of-war between the monarchy and the papacy, Clement V negotiated an agreement that passed a sizeable portion of the wealth to the Hospitallers instead of into Philip’s hands.16 Other European kingdoms turned on the Templars as well, including Edward II of England. His raid on the New Temple secured 50,000 pounds sterling, attesting to the staggering wealth the Templars once possessed.17
The Teutonic Knights witnessed the destruction of the Templars and feared a similar fate for themselves. Thus, in 1309, they moved their headquarters to Marienburg in Prussia.18 Having one of the most sophisticated armies in Europe at the time, the Teutonic Knights helped defend Christendom against pagans in Lithuania and other areas of the Baltic Sea region. After Lithuania’s Christianization, however, the Teutonic Knights felt pressure from the papacy and from Poland that somewhat resembled the Templar’s struggle against Pope Clement V and Philip IV of France. Just as the Templars had been, the Teutonic Knights were a double-edged sword for the papacy and the kings of the region. The Teutonic Knights controlled a vast territory along the Baltic, and leaders such as Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland and Vytautas the Great of newly Christianized Lithuania were determined to reign in Teutonic power and reduce Teutonic meddling in their kingdoms’ affairs. At the battle of Grunwald in 1410, the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania used superior tactics, gained in part through military experiences against the Mongols, to defeat the Teutonic Knights.19 The grandmaster was killed in the battle and the Teutonic Knights lost much of their power forever.
The efforts to destroy the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights were overt, opportunistic attempts by European kings, with the blessing of the papacy, to grab power and wealth.
1 Jonathan Riley-Smith, Templars and Hospitallers as Professed Religious in the Holy Land (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 23, ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=10423290 (accessed November 24, 2015).
2 Rosemary Morris, “Northern Europe Invades the Mediterranean, 900-1200,” in The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, ed. George Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 209.
3 Riley-Smith, 3.
4 Ibid., 48.
5 Nicholas Morton, “Institutional Dependency upon Secular and Ecclesiastical Patrons and the Foundations of the Trial of the Templars,” in Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307-1314), ed., Jochen Burgtorf, Paul Crawford, and Helen Nicholson (Farnham, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010), 41-42, ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=10404114 (accessed November 25, 2015).
6 Ibid., 38.
7 Ibid., 34.
8 Ignacio de la Torre, “The Monetary Fluctuations in Philip IV’s Kingdom of France and Their Relevance to the Arrest of the Templars,” in Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307-1314), ed., Jochen Burgtorf, Paul Crawford, and Helen Nicholson (Farnham, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010), 59, ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=10404114 (accessed November 25, 2015).
9 Ibid., 62.
10 Ibid., 66.
11 Morton, 56.
12 Anthony Luttrell, “The Election of the Templar Jacques de Molay,” in Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307- 1314), ed., Jochen Burgtorf, Paul Crawford, and Helen Nicholson (Farnham, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010), 31, ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=10404114 (accessed November 24, 2015).
13 Riley-Smith, 68.
14 Alan Forey, “Could Alleged Templar Malpractices Have Remained Undetected for Decades?,” in Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307-1314), ed., Jochen Burgtorf, Paul Crawford, and Helen Nicholson (Farnham, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010), 11-12, ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=10404114 (accessed November 24, 2015).
15 De la Torre, 66.
16 Malcolm Vale, “The Civilization of Courts and Cities in the North, 1200-1500,” in The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, ed. George Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 309.
17 De la Torre, 66.
18 Riley-Smith, 69.
19 John Radzilowski, “Medieval Warfare,” lecture posted to students at American Military University, November 21, 2015, http://breeze5.uas.alaska.edu/p32763273/ (accessed November 27, 2015).