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The Trial of the Templars in Cyprus

by Anne Gilmour-Bryson


The hearings or trials at which the members of the Order of the Temple, and the Order itself, were charged with various offenses against morality and the Church began in October 1307 when Templars across France were arrested. The arrests were ordered by the French king, Philip IV, although in November of that year the pope, Clement V, took over at least ostensibly the conduct of the interrogations. He ordered the arrest of all members of the Order throughout Latin Christendom, a process which was carried out much more slowly outside France. On the island of Cyprus which was in the Christian frontline against the infidel, or Saracens as they were commonly referred to, the arrests occurred in 1308.

The allegations against the Order itself, and its members, were detailed in general in a statement by king Philip in his order of arrest to be opened on the day of the capture of the French Templars. The specific accusations were sent out to those responsible for the arrests in a papal pronouncement referred to as Faciens misericordiam on 12 August 1308. The most serious charges were those of heresy, in particular spitting on the cross, denying the divinity of Christ, God, and the Blessed Virgin, denying that Christ died to redeem humanity from sin, and teaching that Jesus was not the true God. Had Templars actually believed any of this, had the Order taught this to new members, it would have most definitely constituted grave heresy, a fundamental lack of belief in the most fundamental doctrines of the fourteenth-century Church.

The second most important series of allegations were those which suggested that when new members were inducted into the Order, at their reception ceremony or sometimes afterward, they were told that they could have carnal relations with other men in the Order. In fact, according to the list of charges, they were instructed that they ought to do this and that it was not a sin.

The third serious group of charges was that relating to idolatry, specifically that Templars adored an idol, or even several of them, at ceremonies, venerating the idol as though it were God himself. Other accusations said that they believed that "the head could save them; it could make them rich; it could make the trees flower and the land germinate." In order to link the notion of idolatry more closely to the brethren, the cords which they, like most monks, wore around their waists were supposedly wrapped around an idol before they put them on. (An English translation of the 87 accusations originally used in Cyprus can be found in my book, The Trial of the Templars in Cyprus, Leiden, 1998, pp. 45-51; a translation of the full list of 126 accusations is in Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars, Cambridge, 1978, pp. 248-52. A list in Latin, accompanied by the numbers of each charge, is in Gilmour-Bryson, The Trial of the Templars in the Papal State and the Abruzzi, Città del Vaticano, pp. 74-84.)

The Order of the Temple had been present in Cyprus since 1191, when it had bought the island from king Richard I of England. Very little is known about their activities during the year they were there. There seems to have been some friction between them and the local Greek population, since a bloody riot broke out in Nicosia at Easter. The Templars obviously decided that they could not keep the island with the reduced manpower available, and sold it to Guy of Lusignan in the spring of 1192. From then until theywere arrested in 1308 a certain number of Templar knights, sergeants, and priests remained on the island, primarily in their fortresses in Nicosia, Limassol, and Gastria. (See the many articles and books by Peter Edbury on medieval Cyprus, especially The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191-1374, Cambridge, 1991; his essay "The Templars in Cyprus", in Malcom Barber, ed., The Military Orders, vol. 1, Aldershot, 1994, pp. 189-95; and my article "Testimony of non-Templar witnesses in Cyprus," also in Barber, The Military Orders, vol. 1, pp. 205-11. )

In 1307, when the first arrests occurred elsewhere, Cyprus was undergoing a period of turmoil. Amaury of Lusignan, brother of king Henry II, had engineered a coup which resulted in Henry’s being sent into exile in Armenia while Amaury ruled in his absence. Many of the barons appear to have supported Amaury, who was a much more dynamic individual than his brother, and so did the Templars. The Hospitallers (Order of St John of Jerusalem), on the other hand, supported the king, as did some of the leading nobles. Perhaps because Amaury favored the Order, the Templars were not arrested until 1308, although the papal letter ordering the Templar arrest and trial was dated November 1307. Other Templars managed to hold out on the island until 1310. They do not seem to have been mistreated or tortured, unlike their brethren imprisoned in France and Italy. For no known reason, the hearings did not commence until 1310 or 1311. The long delay may have been caused by the fact that it took a long time to capture all Templars on Cyprus, and to gain control of their fortified property.

The only manuscripts which remain of the Inquisitionary process (listed as Vatican Archives Castel Sant'Angelo, D-223 and D-228) have the date listed only as 1310, but much of the parchment is completely unreadable. And to muddy the waters further, some of the witnesses at this hearing, important Cypriot nobles such as Philip of Ibelin the seneschal and his relative Baldwin, were in Armenia as hostages who accompanied the exiled king. How then, could they have appeared in Nicosia in May 1310? Could it have been May 1311? But we know from other evidence that the Templars themselves, seventy-six of them, did testify in May 1310. Is it reasonable that the trial was suspended and reconvened exactly twelve months later? I very much doubt it. At any rate, it is the evidence given and not the date which is significant.

The hearing or trial, like all such courts of the Inquisition, was held according to strict protocol. A number of "silent witnesses" or observers, often members of other religious orders, attended each session. A series of notaries wrote down the testimony, which normally was later read back to the witnesses for their confirmation. Two bishops presided over the sessions: Peter Erlant, bishop of Limassol who was administering the diocese of Nicosia in the absence of the bishop, and Baldwin Lambert, bishop of Famagusta.

It all began with the testimony of twenty-one non-members of the order, a relatively unusual practice. Not one of these men believed the Templars to be guilty of anything serious whatsoever. Some of them were nobles supporting the king and they, one would have thought, would have been very angry at the Order and its members for helping to overthrow the king. Yet even these men failed to implicate the Order in any serious fault or error. They frequently stated that no one thought ill of the Templars until the papal letters arrived in Cyprus, the ones which would have contained the sensational allegations of heresy, illicit sexual activity, worshiping idols and cats, for example (witnesses 1, 4, 8, 18, 20). They did agree generally that secrecy was prevalent: the receptions were held in the presence only of members of the Order (witness 1 and most others.). The most interesting feature of these witnesses' testimony is the favorable view they have of the Order and its members. I will discuss a few of the most important elements of this testimony.

The king's marshal in Cyprus, Reynald of Seisson (witness 3) said that the Templars did, in contrast to the allegations, believe in the sacraments and hold proper and legitimate religious ceremonies.

James of Plany, the seventh person to testify, spoke passionately about the Templars who died for their faith, shedding their blood in the many battles in the Holy Land. He insisted that they were as good men of religion as you could possibly find anywhere.

Raymond of Bentho (witness 9) told a marvelous story of what he was sure had been a miracle. He had been assigned to guard the prisoners after they had been captured at their rural property of Chierochitia. He had expected them to be evil, terrible men after what he had heard about them. He tried to stay away from them as much as possible. Since he had nowhere else to attend mass, he finally decided that there could be no harm in attending the Templar service. When the priest elevated the Host (the communion wafer) above the altar, Raymond was astounded to see that it was huge, much larger than normal, and white as snow. Troubled by what he had seen, he returned the next day to talk to the priest about what had occurred. The priest showed him his stock of wafers and Raymond saw that they were perfectly normal in size. It was then that he concluded that it had been a miracle caused by the Almighty because of his own unfounded assumptions about the Templars' guilt.

Rupen of Montfort, an important noble of the king's party, testified as tenth witness that "he frequently saw brothers of the Temple in Nicosia and Limassol be devout in their churches and elsewhere, and...honor and adore the cross just as any other christians he had ever seen." Percival, lord of Mar, a Genoese, was one of the few outsiders to testify at this stage. He recounted a story he had heard from someone else about Templars' bravery when captured by the Egyptian sultan. It seems that this story, one which can be found elsewhere, actually refers to Templars who were captured when the island of Ruad fell to the Saracens in 1302, a mere eight years earlier. According to this tale, the sultan offered the Templars their freedom if they would deny their God. The Templars responded: "that they would not deny the Christian faith, but they wanted to die in that good faith of Christ, and live all their days there in captivity...rather than to do anything against the health of their souls, and that they would rather be decapitated than deny Jesus Christ." The result of their defiance was that their jailers were instructed to deny them all food and water from that moment on. They all perished. Percival, quite reasonably, stated that he could not believe that the Templars were committing errors of doctrine, errors against the faith such as those in the accusations. If they had been acting in that manner, they would have obviously not chosen death over denying the faith.

This story was echoed in the testimony of Thomas, lord of Pingueno, witness 17, a knight from Acre, who said that after the Templars lost the castle of Saphet to the enemy "many brothers of the order were captured...who [as witnesses of the faith, not wishing to deny Christ] were decapitated."

Balian, lord of Montgisard, witness 18, said as did most witnesses that in his view Templars did believe in all the sacraments of the Church. He had lived with them for a month or more which means that he had first-hand knowledge of them. "He saw them attend services devoutly and concentrate on the divine office. Those who knew their letters (most Templars would have been illiterate) at times used to say the Our Father with the Ave Maria." He was one of the few who had seen a book which contained the Templar Rule. "He did not see anything of the said errors contained there. On the contrary, everything written in the book was good, honest, efficacious, and useful. Nor was there any Christian in the world who would hear these words but who would consider and hold the rule to be holy and good."

This first group of non-Templar witnesses ended with two abbots, an Augustinian and a Benedictine, who praised the religious devotion of the brethren and said nothing substantive against them. This group, then, composed of two high-ranking clerics, seventeen nobles, and two merchants, did not believe in the allegations. In fact, they stressed just how truly good and devout the Templars were, and importantly, most of this testimony came from eye-witnesses.

The next stage involved the seventy-six Templars themselves: forty-two knights, two priests, thirty-two sergeants or serving-brothers. This is a much higher proportion of knights than is found in the Order’s western preceptories. These men were asked different questions on their first appearance than they were when all but one of them reappeared to answer the specific numbered accusations. They all had to testify about where they were received, when, who was present, and whether any illicit acts occurred at that time or later. They were also asked what they knew, if anything, about the presence of idols in houses of the Order.

The marshal in Cyprus, the leading dignitary, Ayme of Osilliers gave testimony which varies totally from the confessions made by the Templars in France. As usual, he specified that only members were present at receptions. He promised only the usual vows: chastity and obedience. Most witnesses, like the second Templar, added the vow of poverty to the other two. The Order possessed no idols.

All stressed that since there were no errors in the Order they could not correct them or reveal them to the Church (accusations 115, 116 of the usual set, accusation 75 in Cyprus). These men were testifying not only about receptions which had occurred in Cyprus (very few had been received on the island), but about ceremonies which had taken place in Armenia, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slavonia (Croatia or Yugoslavia), and Spain (Aragon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia.)

The Templars on Cyprus were a quite different cohort from those found anywhere else. They were younger, a much greater number of them were of high rank, more had taken part in fighting than Templars to be found anywhere else. And as I have noted, they came from almost every part of Christendom where the Order was established.

All seventy-six men reiterated that the Order had committed no serious errors. The short preliminary depositions concentrated on the important matter of the reception, who was there, when and where it took place. It was correct that receptions were held in secret, with only Templars present, but it was simply their custom, some said. In general, the reception took place at a chapter meeting and in all religious orders chapter meetings were held in presence only of members of the group. The main reason for this was that at these gatherings members accused others of faults against the Rule, or brothers accused themselves of faults. Similar to what is said in the confessional, these were private matters not to be discussed in public. And as has been noted elsewhere, this practice may have come about because their chapter meetings in the Holy Land were also the place where military strategy was discussed. Obviously, they could not allow any strangers to be present.

After these short depositions, the inquisitors heard all but one of the men a second time, this time asking them the 123 questions of the normal 126 interrogation questionnaire used in France. The order of the questions was slightly different, a few minor charges were left out, but generally the questions took the same form as they had done at other hearings. To the dismay of any intending to find them guilty, the answers succeeded one another in a constant reiteration of innocence. According to the seventy-five who testified, the reception ceremony was held absolutely according to the Rule, reverently, with no illicit acts taking place either then or later. The cord which allegedly hadbeen wrapped around idols was used only to remind the brothers to keep their vows of chastity. It was not true that they could only confess to priests of the Order. They could confess to any sort of priest including Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites. Regarding the allegation that they did not offer charity and hospitality as they should, the men insisted that one-tenth of the bread cooked in a Templar house was given to the poor, as was money, clothing, and other food. "About offering lodging, he responded that the order is not obliged to offer hospitality...nevertheless, if good men came for hospitality to the...Temple, they were generously housed." And if any of the dignitaries had confessed to these crimes, "they have confessed and confessed against the truth, and against justice, and their soul." This statement was in relation to the widely publicized confessions of the last Grand Master, James of Molay, and other dignitaries in France.

After the Templars had made their second and much longer depositions, it was the turn of another group of thirty-five non-Templars to add the last word. This group lacked the presence of the higher nobility who had formed such a large part of the first cohort to testify. There were at least nine nobles, however, including the viscount of Nicosia. The highest ranking cleric was the bishop of Beirut, accompanied by at least twenty-one other clerics, abbots, canons, and monks. Three merchants were called to the stand along with two civic officials. Their testimony was very short and they made no serious charges against the Order.

The bishop's deposition was particularly important as he had lived with the Templars for forty years. He swore that "brothers of the order...believed in the sacraments of the altar and of the church." How could they then have committed the alleged sacrilegious and blasphemous acts? According to a priest, archdeacon of Beirut (witness 11), the priests did indeed say the proper words of consecration when they celebrated mass. He too had seen them often offer charity to the poor, both money and leftover food. Another priest (witness 12) had acted as the chaplain of a high-ranking Templar. This man had made his confession four times a year (much more often than usual) and attended mass daily, not a common occurrence at the time. A secular priest (witness 14) related that he had served mass with Templar priests on various occasions and that the service took place in a completely normal fashion.

The only vague statements made against the Order came from witness 35, the prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, the last witness. He said that he had heard from some unknown person that Templars did not believe in the Eucharist or the sacraments of the Church. He too had only heard these things after the papal letters came to Cyprus. He had heard some gossip about idols but had no specific information. Given that the Order of the Hospital and the Order of the Temple were often rivals, and that the Order of St John undoubtedly hoped to inherit the Templars' property, as it did, this man's information may have been understandably prejudiced.

As far as we know from the only extant manuscript, that was the end of the trial. Obviously, the Templars had admitted no guilt. Equally, the preponderance of evidence given by the non-Templars did not implicate them in any serious guilt either.

The fate of the members of the Order was obvious after pope Clement V gave his final statement in a bull on the matter at the Council of Vienne, a general universal council of the church held in 1312. In spite of the fact that no clear judgement could be made about guilt or innocence, the pope said, the Order had been so seriously defamed by the testimony of many of its members, including the high dignitaries that it must come to an end. No man was ever more to enter it. The members were to live out their lives in other religious orders. Another bull gave the Templar properties to the Order of St John of Jerusalem. The king was indemnified for his expenses in arresting Templars and keeping them in prison for up to five years.

As far as the Templars on Cyprus, we have no real idea about what happened to them. No contemporary document makes clear what was done to them after the hearing ended. The much later chronicle known as the Chronicle of Amadi stated that in 1316 many Templars in Cyprus died in prison. Other narrative sources suggested that the Templars had been drowned as a punishment for their crimes. What really happened to them? We are still uncertain. (The best book on the Templar trials as a whole is Barber, The Trial of the Templars, mentioned above.)

This trial is important because it is the only one in which we have substantial information from important men who were not part of the Order. It is important also because we have the testimony of Templars from every part of Christendom, all of them insisting vehemently that the charges were false, often in some detail. It gives us precious contemporary information on the state of the Order at the time of its suppression.

This trial, like the hearings in England and Spain, leads to the distinct impression that the guilty testimony was the result of torture in France and Italy and that the Order was basically innocent of the serious charges imputed to it. The hearing in Cyprus is just one small part of a significant body of evidence, but it is an important part of it.



© 2000 Anne Gilmour-Bryson (University of Melbourne), annegb@home.com.

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