Knightfall is the new blockbuster drama series from the History channel featuring the Knights Templar in their final days and a quest for the Holy Grail.
It mixes fact and fiction to tell a compelling story. Some of the characters existed while others are fictional or a blend of people from that period.
I’m going to closely examine some of the factual characters in Knightfall. And I’m starting with King Phlip of France, played by actor Ed Stoppard.
King Philip the Fair of France
The villain of the piece, if you’re a Templar fan! King Philip was a capricious monarch with a track record of squeezing money from different social groups in France to pay off his debts. The Jews, the church and Lombard merchants had all been given a shaking down by the king’s enforcers eager to snatch their loot.
But it took some daring to take on the Knights Templar.
Why did Philip come after the knights? After all, the last Grand Master – Jacques de Molay – had been a trusted individual who had even helped to bear the coffin of his sister-in-law – Catherine de Valois – at her funeral, days before his arrest.
Philip had first become aware of the Templar’s wealth when he had taken refuge in their Paris headquarters during severe rioting. The disturbance was his own fault. He had devalued the currency and Parisians felt short changed. So, they took to the streets and fearing for his life, Philip scuttled into the Paris Temple. What he saw there set him on a course that would destroy the order.
The huge amount of money Philip believed the Templars owned made them a target for his avarice. However, the Templars were sitting on cash that they held in trust for their rich clients. They didn’t own vast amounts – they held it to be paid back to knights on crusade who could withdraw the money using a primitive version of bank cheques while they were abroad.
Philip didn’t grasp this. You could say he was financially unsophisticated. Instead, he just saw lots of loot he could get his hands on if only he could trump up some charges against the Knights Templar, shut them down and grab their assets. And that’s exactly what he did.
When the king’s soldiers arrived at the Paris Temple expecting to cart off enormous sacks of treasure – they found next to nothing. The fabled wealth turned out to be exactly that – a fable. Most likely there had been a run on the Templar bank as the order’s military fortunes declined. They were losing battle after battle in the Middle East and so what was the point in banking with them?
That didn’t stop Philip spending years putting pressure on the Pope and his inquisitors to find the Templars guilty and end up burning Jacques de Molay at the stake in front of Notre Dame cathedral.
This spectacular act of vindictiveness has astonished people down the ages. It’s left people wondering what ulterior motives the king would have had for such brutality. Did he think, as some have suggested, that the Templars were planning a coup against the monarchy in France? Were they hoping to carve out their own kingdom in southern France? Had they hidden their wealth abroad even as far as Scotland or modern day Portugal?
And what of the outlandish charges made against the Knights Templar – that they engaged in sodomy, denounced Christ, worshipped a strange head and desecrated the crucifix? Most historians think these were standard issue trumped up charges used to discredit enemies of the state.
But – could the king really have believed these charges? Philip seems to have genuinely thought he was continuing the saintly legacy of his grandfather, Louis IX – a crusader king who had brought Christ’s crown of thorns to Paris. Could Philip have sincerely felt the Templars were heretical and had to be crushed?
Whatever the truth, King Philip certainly succeeded in suppressing the Templars but it didn’t prove to be the major cash boost that he had hoped for. And it left him with a reputation for paranoia, sadism and greed.