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Templars at the Tower

Date: 12 August 2021

Author: Rory MacLellan

Why is Friday 13th thought of as an unlucky date? One possibility is the arrest of the famous Knights Templar on a different Friday 13th, over 700 years ago. This set in motion events which saw the Tower of London becoming a prison for the Templars, an order of soldier-monks who fought in the crusades and are today the subject of countless conspiracy theories. Postdoctoral researcher Rory MacLellan writes about this fascinating story of the imprisonment of the Templars at the Tower.

The Templars arose in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1096-99), which saw four new Crusader States established in Palestine and Syria, states that were desperately short of manpower. Hugh de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer, two knights from northern France, banded together with several other knights to help defend pilgrims visiting the region's many pilgrimage sites. They would combine the religious vows of a monk with the military role of a knight.

Recognised by the Pope in 1129, the Order of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights Templar, quickly grew, gaining support across Europe and receiving lands and estates to fund their campaigns in the East. By the end of the 12th century, the brethren had holdings throughout Western and Central Europe and had begun to become important landlords and political figures in their respective kingdoms. When the Crusader States finally fell in 1291, the order's headquarters moved to Cyprus, but whatever chance the Templars had at recovery was cut short.

Image: The seal of the Knights Templar. Public domain.

Design showing the seal of the Knights Templar.

Arrested on charges of heresy

On Friday 13th October 1307, Philip IV of France had all of the Knights Templars within his kingdom arrested in dawn raids. The order was accused of 127 heresies, ranging from spitting on the cross to illegally granting confession and absolution. Historians do not think that the Templars were guilty, and Philip was probably more interested in acquiring the order's wealth. Pope Clement V soon took over the trials and the order's arrest elsewhere in Europe followed. Edward II initially disbelieved the charges but his need to keep the support of the Pope and Philip IV, whose daughter he was engaged to marry, forced him to go along with these attacks upon the order. In December, Edward II ordered the arrest of the Templars in Britain and Ireland, those in England were seized on 9th to 11th January 1308.

Transferred to the Tower

The captured Templars were initially held at local royal castles throughout the country. Those arrested in Kent, for example, were held at Canterbury Castle. On 27th November 1308, Edward ordered the sheriffs of London and Middlesex to have all Templars in their jurisdiction transferred to the Tower. The Templars were not put on trial until October 1309, and some had evaded arrest. On 14th September 1309, Edward II ordered his sheriffs to seize any remaining Templars, with those found in southern England to be brought to the Tower of London. He also wrote to the Constable of the Tower ordering him to hold the Templars safely and securely. Forty-eight Templars were eventually put on trial in London, including William de la More, grand commander of the Templars in England, and Himbert Blanc, grand commander of Auvergne in France, who may have been in England to promote a new crusade.

We don't know where exactly in the Tower the Templars were held, but records from the mass imprisonment of Jews at the Tower in the late 1270s show that prisoners could be held all over the site, including in smaller towers on the inner curtain wall or even in the stables or the elephant-house. The Tower was already home to many Scottish and Welsh prisoners in 1308, including knights and minor nobles. With the more obvious places likely already taken, some Templars may have been imprisoned in the Tower's stables and cellars as the Jews had been thirty years earlier. In August and October 1310, Edward tried to move the Templars from the Tower to the gates of London, but the sheriffs of London and Middlesex said that the gates were not royal property. They belonged to the city and so could not be used as a royal prison. The Templars remained at the Tower.

Their incarceration was probably harsh. Several of the brethren were elderly and died in prison. From March 1310, the Templars held at the Tower and elsewhere were imprisoned separately, something the inquisitors interrogating them had requested, probably to prevent them from coordinating their testimony. Torture was eventually used towards the end of the trials, from June 1311, but only on the Templars interrogated in London. Those in York, Ireland, and Scotland were spared.

In the end, most of the brethren agreed to 'confess' to heresy and to abjure, that is, to renounce the heresies that they were accused of, promising to be true Catholics in future. A detailed account survives of one such abjuration. On 13th July 1311, five elderly Templars, Richard Peitevin, Henry of la Volee, William of Welles, Robert of the Wolde, and William of Chesterton, were too weak to travel from the Tower to St Paul's Cathedral to abjure. Instead, the bishops of London, Chichester, and Winchester went to All Hallows by the Tower, the small church that still stands outside the Tower today, to receive their abjuration. The brethren were brought in, escorted by the Constable of the Tower's men. Unable to stand due to their age, they 'sought with many tears' to confess to the charges of heresy and abjure. After giving their 'confessions' in private, the five Templars swore public oaths in English and French rejecting their heresies and were then absolved by the bishop of Chichester.

The aftermath

In 1312, the Council of Vienne ruled that the order had to be dissolved. William de la More, who refused to make a confession, was still held at the Tower. He died there on 20th December 1312. Himbert Blanc was to be transferred to the archbishop of Canterbury in April 1313 to be retried, but he later disappears from the record. In March 1314, Jacques de Molay, grandmaster of the Templars, who had taken back his confession, was burnt at the stake in Paris. The Templar leadership was now gone, and its surviving members were sent to live out the rest of their lives in monasteries across Europe. As an organisation, the order of the Temple was over, but this dramatic end ensured that the fame of the Templars would last for centuries.

Rory MacLellan
Postdoctoral Research Fellow Historic Royal Palaces

Suggested further reading

Helen J. Nicholson, The Knights Templar on Trial: The Trial of the Templars in the British Isles, 1308-1311 (Stroud, 2009)

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