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«The Last Templar», Michael Jecks

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Michael Jecks



There was a subdued feeling in the crowd in front of the great cathedral of Notre Dame that morning, an air of tense expectancy, as if the people knew that this was not just another public humiliation of a criminal. It was more important even than an execution, and it seemed as if the people of Paris knew that the occasion would be remembered for centuries as they turned out in their thousands to come and see; standing and waiting with the restless expectation of a crowd waiting at the bear pits for the baiting to begin.

If these had been ordinary men, if they had been thieves or robbers, the throng would not have been so heavy. The Parisians, like most inhabitants of northern cities, liked to flock to see the punishments meted out to wrongdoers, enjoying the carnival atmosphere and the cheerful, busy trade in the market. But today was different and it seemed as if the whole city was there to see the end to the Order that they had all revered for centuries.

The sun occasionally flared out from behind the clouds and gave brief flashes of warmth to the people in the square, but mostly the crowd waited beneath a grey and leaden sky filled with thick, heavy clouds. The intermittent gleams of brightness merely served to add to the air of gloom and dreariness in the square, as if the sudden bursts of sunshine were teasing the men and women milling slowly by highlighting the sombreness all around. But then, when the sun did flash from behind its cover and brighten the area, catching the people waiting for the arrival of the convicted men, catching the colours of the clothes and the flags, it offset for a moment the cool of the March day and gave the whole area an aura of almost summery gaiety, as if the men and women were there for a fair and not for the destruction of thousands of lives. It was as if the sun was trying to detract from the grave reason for the gathering and attempting to lighten the spirits of the crowd with its life-giving warmth.

But then, almost as though it too was nervous and fearful of the outcome of the day, it would take cover again, like a man peering out from a secure hiding place to look for danger before quickly scurrying back behind his shelter, as it dodged back to the security of the clouds. To the tall, dark man standing alone, leaning against the wall of the cathedral, the dark clouds and sudden flashes of daylight simply added to his sense of unreality and dejection.

He was a lean and rangy man, with an arrogant air that seemed curiously muted among the common people all around, as if he was not used to the company of such men and women. He was quite broad under his cloak, looking to many like one of the itinerant knights who were so common then, who, having lost his lord, was now without either income or reason for existence. He was not dressed for battle, not arrayed in his master’s uniform with proud insignia on display, but clad in a worn tunic and dirty, grey woollen cloak, looking as if he had spent too many days and nights in the saddle or sleeping out of doors. But his hand was never far from the hilt of his sword, always ready to reach for it, as if he expected a threat at any time and was constantly on alert for it, although his eyes were rarely upon any of the people close by. It was almost as if he knew that no man near could present any danger to him, that he was safe enough from humans. No, his eyes were mainly fixed on the makeshift stage beside the cathedral wall, as if it was the wooden construction itself that symbolised his jeopardy.

It had begun so long ago now, and yet he could still recall the day when the unimaginable had happened: Friday the. thirteenth of October in the year thirteen hundred and seven. It was a date he knew he could never forget, a date created by the devil himself. Oh, he had been lucky, he had been out of the Temple with three companions, visiting the ship at the coast, and had missed the arrests that had caught so many of the other members of his Order. He had not even heard about the events until he had been travelling back to Paris, when, just outside a small hamlet, he had been warned not to continue, that if he went back he would be arrested as well and questioned by the Inquisition.

It had been a woman who had warned him about the crime being committed against his Order. He, his friends and their esquires, had stopped by the side of the road to eat when the woman had seen them. She had been walking past, one of a group ranged about an ox cart, a small, ashen-faced woman, who seemed to be well-born in her rich clothes, for all that they were grey and travel-stained now. As she and her companions passed by the quiet group of knights, she had appeared to be despairing and in deep misery, walking with her head cast down and stumbling in her pain and sorrow, but when she glanced up and caught a glimpse of them through her tears, she had started at the sight of the bearded knights with their helmets off as they sat on the verge. Initially she had seemed struck senseless with hope, her eyes quickly passing from one to the other of the men quietly eating as her mouth gaped, before she had rushed over, her optimism giving way to grief, weeping loudly and ignoring the cries from her companions.

She had begun calling to them before she had approached more than a few paces, her voice broken and her speech faltering, making the knights stop their meal in their astonishment and wonder whether she was mad as they heard her wailing tirade, but then her words hit them with the force of a hammer-blow. Her son was a Templar too, she told them, and she wanted to help them, to protect them. They must avoid Paris and get away to safety, to Germany or England – anywhere but Paris. They were not safe in Paris, maybe not anywhere in France. The knights sat, astonished, while she spoke, her thin body wracked with sobs for the son whom she knew was being tortured, for the son she knew she could never see again unless it was at the stake.

At first the knights could not believe it. All the brothers of the Temple arrested? But why? She could not explain: she did not know; all she knew was that the Order had been arrested and that the knights were being questioned by the Inquisition. Aghast, the knights watched as she was dragged back to rejoin the travellers around the cart, still calling out her warning to them, begging them to save themselves, while the patient oxen hauled at the wagon and the people followed as quietly and slowly as a cortege. Deeply troubled, heeding her menacing counsel, the men slowly continued on their way, but not now to Paris. Now they headed west, to the duchy of Guyenne. It was there, at the camp they made with another small group of Templar knights they had met on the road, that they started to hear the reports.

It still seemed inconceivable that Pope Clement could have believed the tales spread against them, but he seemed to be supporting the French king, Philip, in his campaign and did nothing to save the Order that had existed solely to serve him and Christianity. The stories had spread like a tidal wave, smothering all argument and giving no opportunity for defence; for to deny the charges would have brought down the weight of the Inquisition on the defender, and that could only mean destruction. Against the Inquisition there could be no defence.

At first it had seemed ludicrous. The knights were accused of being heretics, but how could they be heretics, they who had given so many lives in the defence of the Christian states? Their whole reason for existence was to defend the crusader state of Outremer in Palestine and they had fought and died for centuries in that cause, many of them choosing death in preference to life – even when they were caught by the Saracens and offered the chance to live in exchange for renouncing Christ, they chose death. How could anyone have believed that they could be heretics?

There was a rumour that even the common people found it hard to believe. For two centuries they had been taught that the Order was unsurpassed in its godliness, ever since Saint Bernard had given it his support during the crusades. How could they have fallen so low? When the orders for the arrest and imprisonment of the knights were sent out, the king had been forced to explain why he was having to take this action. He obviously felt that otherwise his orders might not be carried out. After all, the accusations were so shocking as to be almost unbelievable. The king had given a written statement to each of the officers in charge of the arrests accusing the knights and their Order of inhuman and evil crimes, and ordering that their goods should all be taken and the knights and their servants arrested for questioning by the Inquisition. By the end of that Friday, all the men in the temples were in chains, and the Dominican monks of the Inquisition began their questioning.

Could they be guilty of such crimes? Surely it was not possible? How could the most holy of all the Orders have become so amoral, so wicked? The people could hardly believe it. But disbelief transformed itself to horror when the confessions began to filter through. After the unimaginable tortures inflicted on them by the Inquisition, after hundreds had suffered the agonies of weeks of unremitting pain and many had even died, the admissions began to seep out to the ears of the populace like ordure leaching from a moat to pollute a clean well, and like all such filth, the rumours contaminated all who were touched by them. Their guilt was confirmed.

But who could doubt that after seeing comrades lose feet and hands in the continual anguish of the torture chambers that they would confess to anything to stop the pain and horror?

The torture lasted for days and weeks on end, the pain ceaseless, in cells created inside their own buildings because there were not enough prisons to hold so many.

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