Weird Middle Ages: Templars and the Origins of Friday the 13th

By Paula R. Stiles

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On this day in October 1307 (and yes, it was a Friday), almost every member in France of the military religious order the Knights Templar was arrested in a pre-dawn raid by agents of King Philippe IV, known as “Le Bel” (“The Fair,” mostly because he was blonde). Philippe claimed that the arrests had been motivated on the spur of the moment by distressing allegations that the Templars were devil-worshiping heretics. As the confessions piled up to include weird things like ritual kisses on the buttocks, spitting on the cross, and denying Christ, it appeared he was right.

Of course, all was not as it seemed. In fact, the raid had been carefully planned and the charges written up in detail a month before the arrests by Philippe’s sinister head minister and Keeper of the Keys, Guillaume de Nogaret. Guillaume was already pretty notorious for having beaten up a pope (the Templars’ boss) a few years before and had used the same charges with great success in 1306 against Jews and Lombard bankers, resulting in a mass expulsion of both groups and a general crash of the French economy.

At the same time he was trying the Templars, Nogaret was busy suppressing a harmless group of poor mendicants known as the Beguines and the Beghards, led by a woman whom the King had burned at the stake for heresy. Nogaret was also notorious for suing his poorer neighbors and (reputedly) engaging in a bit of black magic, himself. He was a thorough scoundrel.

All of this skullduggery was intended to gain the perpetually cash-strapped Philippe some money. Philippe was a stern, autocratic, unpopular fanatic, obsessed with power and avid for ready cash to fill the coffers depleted by his sainted grandfather Louis IX’s crusade. Though he was eventually able to force his new, hand-picked pope to suppress the Order in 1312, the landed property eventually went to the Templars’ sister order, the Hospitallers. It also turned out that the Templars themselves were cash poor.

Fate had not yet had the last laugh on Philippe. Months after having the last Grand Master of the Order burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314 (and in the middle of an adultery scandal centered on his daughters-in-law, no less), Philippe died, suddenly and in his prime, as did the Pope. Nogaret had mysteriously died the year before.

Philippe left three strong sons, but by 1328, after three centuries of an unbroken line of male succession in the French royal family, all three had died with no heirs. The royal Capetian line was extinct. Rumors abounded that the parties involved had been cursed by God, root and branch.

Philippe did have one grandson, who claimed the throne through his mother, Philippe’s daughter. Problem was, that grandson was already King of England. The scandalized French nobility decided to give the crown to Philippe’s brothers rather than become subjects of their traditional enemy across the Channel. The King of England objected. This resulted in the Hundred Years War, which devastated the French nobility and nearly destroyed France.

To add posthumous insult to fatal injury, in his famous Divine Comedy, Dante put Philippe in Hell for his crimes against the Templar Order and even stuck Philip’s ancestor Hugh Capet in Purgatory just for having been his forefather.

Moral of the story: Don’t be a royal creep on Friday the 13th.


Curious about the Knights Templar? Check out my book, Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia, available on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Weird Middle Ages: Templars and the Origins of Friday the 13th”

  1. Kind of like trial by combat ‘proved’ somebody innocent. The fact that they all died in weird ways.

    AND the fact Philippe’s line died out (the whole Capetian monarchy was OVER) was just frosting on the cake. They were retroactively ‘proven’ innocent.

    (I reread my original comment and I used the word SON when I meant SONS…and what kind of jackasses permit themselves to be declared cuckolds in order to get daddy more money? ALL of them were unfit to be king. )

  2. That business with the daughters-in-law (that Phillippe claimed ALL of them were cheating on his son so that he could get the marriages annulled and marry his sons to new rich princesses) is just the pits.

    My understanding was he got the idea for all this was that he was a crap king, there was a riot in Paris when he went out on the streets and the only place he ‘could’ be (or maybe ‘would’ be let in in the first place) safe was the Templar refrectory (? is that the right word) and he saw that they had ‘better’ ‘stuff’ than HE had. He assumed that there was a big treasure someplace. But the treasure was in the fact they had land that they were managing well. They were living on the interest or wealth from LAND they were managing.

    Anyway that is the reading that I got out of that period. AND the cachet of Jacques de Moley saying, I summon you to a Tribunal in Heaven before the year is out. The fact that everybody involved was dead in a year gave the Templars an actual ‘proof’ of innocence.

    1. I think Philip had the idea for a long time. He likely wouldn’t have seen a whole lot of exciting stuff in the Templar preceptory (think you were thinking of “refectory,” but that’s a different word), though I’m sure they went all-out to make him comfortable in royal style with what they had. The Templars sent everything they could to the Holy Land and it had only been a decade and a half since Acre had fallen. Financially, they were always stretched very thin.

      The aftermath of the Order’s suppression (very different from condemnation or abolition; the Church could still reinstate the Order at any time) is a curious historical mystery. The truth is that we simply don’t know how and why that happened. Yes, individually, there were signs to indicate each actor’s demise. Clement V was chronically and terminally ill. I’ve seen people speculate it was stomach cancer or lupus. Philip had a seizure during a hunting accident (he was obsessed with hunting) and never recovered. Nogaret was greatly hated pretty much universally, and also a choleric personality. A stroke or poisoning are equally possible.

      But the timing of the deaths is very strange and hostile contemporaries definitely picked up on it. A lot of Templar legends don’t pop up until centuries later, even the 20th century, but this one is very old. One legend has Nogaret being cursed by a group of Templars who were being sent off to be burned at the stake–except that really, that only happened to one group, who were labeled “relapsed” heretics and burned to cow the others. Poisoning of all three seems extremely unlikely. In fact, considering how the surviving Templar brethren were farmed out to the Hospitallers and a few other orders, a Templar curse seems really unlikely, too.

      So, the legends grew up. People knew something odd had occurred (the deaths of these three historical figures are well-documented, though the nature of Nogaret’s death is less clear; all we really know is that he disappears completely from the documents after 1313), and there was a general consensus that the world was a much better place without them, but people had no explanation for such a strange coincidence. Personally, I think this is one of history’s great examples of karma biting back, but there is, of course, no way to prove that historically.

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