Torture of the Templars: New book on the famous knights

The times were medieval but there was something surprisingly modern about the way the scandal broke – via a low-life with a salacious story to sell to the highest bidder.

The man’s name was Esquin and he came from south-west France, where, for some routine misdemeanour, he had been locked up in prison with a cellmate who kept him entertained with tales of profane goings-on among warrior monks from a secretive order known as the Knights Templar. 

Originally, they had been set up to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.

In a co-ordinated dawn action on Friday, October 13, 1307, the king’s men raided every religious house belonging to the unsuspecting Templars from Normandy to Toulouse

The man had been a member of the order and told of indulging in blasphemy, devil-worship and initiation ceremonies that involved intimate kissing and much more besides.

Esquin knew the Templars had opponents in high places who would pay handsomely for such inside information. So, once he was freed, he first approached a contact in the entourage of the King of Aragon, in Spain, offering his story for 3,000 livres (pounds) cash and a further 1,000 every year once it was verified. He was sent packing.

Then he took his tittle-tattle to the court of the King of France, Philip IV. And there he struck gold.

Philip was a money-grabbing monarch who had already filled his royal coffers by shaking down the Jews in his kingdom for their silver and expelling them. Now he had set his avaricious sights on the vast wealth the Templars were known to possess.

He had ordered a secret dossier to be compiled on them and Esquin was exactly the sort of whistleblower his spies had been dying to find.

With his allegations of depravity to work from, they launched a full-on witch-hunt and over the next two years unearthed more moles and compiled more damning and lurid gossip from disgruntled members of the order who had been expelled or otherwise left under a cloud.

Then they pounced on their prey. In a co-ordinated dawn action on Friday, October 13, 1307, the king’s men raided every premises and religious house belonging to the unsuspecting Templars from Normandy to Toulouse.

Torture of the Knights Templars, organized by Guillaume de Nogaret under King Philip IV (1285-1314)

Torture of the Knights Templars, organized by Guillaume de Nogaret under King Philip IV (1285-1314)

They were seized on the pretext, as the royal warrant said, of being ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing, vilely insulting our religious faith’.

They were denounced as ‘a disgrace to humanity, a pernicious example of evil and a universal scandal’. Rounded up en masse, they were charged with the sins of sodomy, heresy and anything else that would cause outrage and disgust and puncture their image of holiness and righteousness. All their possessions were seized.

Yet as broadcaster and medieval history expert Dan Jones reveals in a new book tracing the story of this mysterious sect, the Templars were innocent of the charges Esquin had laid against them.

At the heart of the allegations was nothing more than the so-called ‘kiss of peace’ that the knights openly admitted giving to initiates, often on the lips.

This was translated into a ceremony of orgiastic depravity in which they stood naked to kiss each other all over, including on the backside. Black magic — ‘offerings to idols’ — was also alleged.

In a remarkably short time, an order of knights which had fought the cause of Christendom for nearly two centuries was ruthlessly crushed out of existence.

This was done not by the Muslims — sworn enemies whom the Knights Templar had slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands — but by the order’s fellow Christians, who might have been expected to back them.

By the third decade of the 14th century, the battling Templars were no more.

But who exactly were these persecuted ‘holy’ knights with distinctive red crosses on their shields? And why have they remained a subject of fascination even into the 21st century, when they have been presented variously as heroes, martyrs, thugs, bullies, victims, criminals, perverts, heretics, depraved subversives, guardians of the Holy Grail and protectors of Christ’s secret bloodline?

Jacques DeMolay was the twenty-third and last Grand Master of the Knights Templar

Jacques DeMolay was the twenty-third and last Grand Master of the Knights Templar

In his book, Dan Jones informs us that the sect — dubbed God’s holy warriors — was founded in 1119 with the specific task of protecting European pilgrims who journeyed to the Holy Land in the Middle East to visit Christian shrines.

As a semi-monastic order, they took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their name came from the temple in Jerusalem, which was their shrine.

They then became the leading arm of the Crusades, those gruesome religious wars in which Christian kings aimed to wrest the homeland of Jesus Christ from Islamic rule. Much of their history is therefore a long succession of battles and massacres in which heads were lopped off by the thousand and blood was spilt in profusion on both sides.

In those days jihad — holy war — was a clash of mutual hate and destruction in which both sides revelled in their task of ‘exterminating the perfidious pagans’ and little quarter was given. The English crusader King Richard the Lionheart — wearing on his tunic the red cross of the Templars — thought nothing of summarily slaughtering 2,600 Muslim prisoners outside the town of Acre in a fit of pique.

There were terrible sieges that dragged on until the desperate defenders were starved into submission. At the port of Damietta on the Nile estuary, crusaders finally forced their way in after two years to find ‘streets strewn with bodies of the dead, wasting away from pestilence and famine’. The smell ‘was too much for most people to bear’.

Nevertheless, the victors held their noses and went about God’s business, plundering gold, silver, silks and slaves, and grabbing 500 surviving children who were forcibly baptised into Christianity.

But the Muslim forces had their revenge with a particularly vicious weapon called ‘Greek fire’ — a sticky resin in pots that could be hurled, grenade-style, by catapults. It burst into flame on impact and clung to clothing. The crusaders were terrified of it.

An English knight, fighting on foot after his horse was killed under him, was hit directly with a burning missile which set alight his coat, the flames searing his face and then his whole body, ‘as if he had been a cauldron of pitch’.

In all this blood-letting, the Templars proved notably good at their job — disciplined, ruthless, fearless and sworn to die rather than surrender. In one battle against the Muslim leader Saladin, 140 knights, shouting out in unison ‘Christ is our life and death is our reward’, charged 7,000 Saracens and ‘died in a shower of their own gore’.

On another occasion, Templar knights barrelled into the narrow streets of a town in pursuit of a fleeing Muslim army, only to find they had run into a trap and were outnumbered and surrounded. In savage hand-to-hand fighting, one knight’s nose was sliced so badly that it hung loose by his mouth.

Blood flowed freely ‘like a freshly tapped barrel of wine’ as nearly 600 knights died in the savage street-fighting.

Because of deeds such as this the Templars quickly became semi-legendary figures, featuring in popular stories, works of art, ballads and histories.

The Templars quickly became semi-legendary figures, featuring in popular stories, works of art, ballads and histories

The Templars quickly became semi-legendary figures, featuring in popular stories, works of art, ballads and histories

Such was the potency of the myth that grew around them that an admirer even cut off the genitals of a Templar killed in battle ‘and kept them for begetting children so that, even when dead, the man’s member might produce an heir with courage as great as his’.

As a result of their fame and dedication to God’s work, charitable funds and bequests of money and property rolled into their coffers. And their wealth snowballed, as they had the special protection of the Pope and were exempted from the rules and taxes that monarchs imposed on everyone else.

Soon, Templars could be found across vast swathes of Europe and beyond — from the battlefields of Palestine, Syria and southern Spain to towns and villages in Italy and especially France, where they managed extensive estates to fund their military adventures.

In England they owned manor houses, sheep farms, watermills, churches, markets, forests and fairs in almost every county.

Such vast riches gave them influence, and they numbered kings and queens, patriarchs and popes among their friends and supporters. England’s Henry II used the Templars as a bank, depositing coins, jewels and valuable trinkets with them, while knights were seconded to his court as diplomats.

Their tentacles were everywhere.The order helped finance wars, loaned money, collected taxes, built castles, ran cities, ports and fleets of ships, raised armies, interfered in trade disputes and carried out political assassinations.

Although there were rarely more than 1,000 knights at any one time, they became, in Jones’s words, ‘as mighty an outfit as existed during the later Middle Ages’.

And that inevitably brought them enemies.

To some of their more pious contemporaries, their constant wars were a corruption of the supposedly peaceful principles of Christianity. Others thought them dangerously unaccountable and self-serving, not to be trusted or admired.

Rumours of their secret vices were also rife.

King Philip IV of France who butchered the Knights Templar 

King Philip IV of France who butchered the Knights Templar 

An English chronicler by the name of John of Salisbury recorded his belief that ‘when they convene in their lairs late at night, after speaking of virtue by day they shake their hips in nocturnal folly and exertion’.

Such thoughts became more and more commonplace, particularly after the Templars’ core activities switched away from crusades in the Holy Land (where Muslim forces were increasingly in the ascendancy, entrenched and not easy to oust) to the exercise of wealth and power at home.

So it was little surprise that someone like Esquin would hear the rumours and sell them on.

When that out-and-out thug Philip IV of France swooped in his dawn raids, God’s warriors caved in. Hundreds, many of them middle-aged men long past their warrior days, were placed under lock and key in dungeons.

To make them confess, they were tortured — starved, deprived of sleep, shackled, racked, burnt on the feet and hauled up in the strappado, a device that dislocated the shoulders by lifting the victim up by his wrists tied behind his back.

Most submitted to these horrors, including James of Molay, the order’s Grand Master. From teenagers to wizened old men, from the highest-ranking officers to the meanest labourers, Templar brothers lined up before their black-clad interrogators and told their tormentors exactly what they wanted to hear.

They admitted denying Christ and spitting on the cross during ‘the foul rigmarole’ of their initiation ceremonies.

One senior knight confessed to allowing some in the order to relieve what he called ‘the heat of nature’ by carnal deeds with other knights.

All the accused seemed to be following the same script in their confessions, and any who deviated were racked until they got their story right.

As an added incentive, they were promised a pardon if they confessed their heresies and returned to the faith of the holy Church; otherwise they would be condemned to death.

No one stepped forward to offer them help or even speak on their behalf, despite their two centuries of heroic deeds.

The Pope tried to rein in the persecution, though he himself was under Philip’s thumb. The best he was able to achieve was to acknowledge their confessions and offer them forgiveness and absolution.

In England, the unreliable King Edward II at first derided the accusations against the Templars as absurd but then, for his own political reasons, went along with the condemnations.

More and more ‘confessions’ were forthcoming.

By then, two-and-a-half years had elapsed since the original arrests and a handful of Templars, believing themselves wrongly accused and mistreated, determined to fight back, led by one Peter of Bologna.

He stood up and bravely told a papal commission that the allegations against them were ‘obscene, false and mendacious’ and had been proposed by ‘liars and corruptors’. So-called confessions corroborating the accusations had been obtained by torture and threats of death.

Aware that his case against the Templars was in danger of collapsing, Philip acted like the tyrant he was.

There were 54 Templars currently on trial before an ecclesiastical court in the city of Sens, not far from Paris. Suddenly, he announced they were to be burnt at the stake without delay.

Despite frantic efforts by Peter of Bologna to launch a legal challenge, the royal will trampled over due process of law.

The Templars of Sens were strapped to wagons and taken to a field where dozens of stakes and pyres had been set up. Every one of them was burnt alive.

Peter of Bologna simply disappeared and was never seen again.

Faced with this brazen show of power and treachery, rank-and-file Templar resistance broke. Philip had won and the Templars were no more. Their property had been impounded, their wealth seized, their reputation shredded. Their members were imprisoned, tortured, killed, ejected from their homes and humiliated.

Those who survived this process either died in prison, were uprooted and sent to new homes, or in a few rare cases redeployed to new military orders.

The once-mighty order simply ceased to exist, its ruin precipitated by Esquin’s ‘kiss and tell’ stories less than a decade earlier.

It was an astonishingly quick fall from extreme power and wealth to zero.

Yet the legend lived on.

The Templars still provide rich material for cranks, conspiracy theorists and fantasists. Their supposed secrets were at the heart of the blockbuster novel and film The Da Vinci Code.

The Norwegian fascist and terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in 2011, claimed to be part of a revived international Templar cell founded by nine men in London but with a growing worldwide membership of several dozen ‘knights’ and many more lay followers.

There is, says historian Dan Jones, a thriving industry in ‘what-if’ history about them, much of it resting on the false supposition that an order so wealthy and powerful could not simply have been rolled up and dissolved.

Alluring alternative histories have been concocted.

Did a small group of knights escape persecution in France with a stash of treasure? If so, did that include the Turin Shroud or the Ark of the Covenant?

Did the Templars set themselves up as a secret organisation elsewhere? Are they perhaps still out there, running the world from the shadows?

The answer to such questions is emphatically ‘no’ — but there is still no denying the seemingly timeless allure of God’s warriors and their treasured place in our imaginations.

  • The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones, is published by Head of Zeus at £25. To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to October 25, 2017, P&P free), visit or call 0844 571 0640.