After the Fall of Acre in 1291, the Crusades into the Levant ended and the crusading orders of Christendom dispersed throughout Europe. The Knights Hospitaller turned to the sea and continued their fight from the islands of the Mediterranean, first Cyprus, then Rhodes, and finally Malta, against the spread of Islam. The Teutonic Knights turned to the pagan lands of the Prussians, the Lithuanians, and the Baltic tribes of Eastern Europe. The Knights Templar went back to Europe to protect pilgrims on the road, and in the process, immersed themselves in banking and politics. They had chapter houses and churches in every major town and city, and widespread influence at even the local level.
At the end of the 13th Century, the ambitious Phillip IV “the Fair” of France attempted to centralize the French monarchy, place his relatives on the thrones of his powerful neighbors, and consolidate control under his rule of the disparate fiefdoms of the former Angevin Empire. But these tasks were expensive, especially when it came to war. Phillip IV might have been a shrewd and cunning administrator, but he was not a great military mind. He lost a very expensive war in Flanders against the English.
To pay for his ambitious plans, and to further the centralization of his power, Phillip first turned to the French clergy, and confiscated lands and taxed them for half their wealth. This of course brought Phillip into conflict with Pope Boniface VIII. But even threatened with excommunication, Phillip didn’t back down and prevented the clergy from remitting gold and silver to Rome, upon which the Papacy depended. Furthermore, Phillip went on the attack and accused the Pope of all sorts of heinous crimes, such as heresy, sodomy, use of magic, worshiping false idols etc. Boniface also wouldn’t back down. Eventually, Phillip had Boniface abducted and beaten, after which Boniface died. Phillip then used his money and influence to make sure his friend and relative, Raymond Bertrand de Got, was elected to the Holy See in 1305, as Pope Clement V. (After the convenient and untimely death of Benedict XI, who was only Pope for eight months. Also, Clement V refused to move to Rome, so the Papacy moved to Avignon, France, where it would stay until 1376.)
But the Church’s wealth wasn’t enough. Phillip required significant loans from Jewish moneylenders and the bankers of the Knights Templar, to whom he became massively indebted. Unable to repay, Phillip seized Jewish assets in France and forcibly expulsed all Jews from his lands in 1306. However, he could not do the same to the Knights Templar. They were much better armed and open warfare would result. He planned to do it in secret and by surprise.
On Friday, the 13th of October, 1307, Phillip’s agents simultaneously arrested nearly 5000 Knights Templar across France. Phillip accused them of all of the same crimes he had accused of Boniface and had them thrown into his vassals’ dungeons. However, most of the gold and valuables that Phillip expected to seize were gone. It is speculated that Grand Master Jacques de Molay got word of the impending mass arrests and spirited everything away. (There is a single reference of ships that departed France in secret that morning, but the destination is unknown. Popular speculation ranges from the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland to Oak Island in Nova Scotia. In any case, from this single reference, the author Dan Brown built his entire career.)
At Phillip’s behest, Pope Clement V issued a Papal bull ordering all Christian monarchs and rulers to arrest Templars in their lands. Most did to some degree, but many refused. Over the next years, the captured brothers were systematically tortured, especially in France, and “confessed” to their crimes. At their trials, no evidence was presented, except for their coerced confessions. Most of the captured Knights Templar were burned at the stake.
In 1308, Clement realized the folly of his ways, and recognized the consequences of Phillip’s power grab. He formally exonerated the Knights Templar of any wrong doing (“The Chinon Parchment”). However, the damage was done. The Knights Templar were finished as a holy order, and were disbanded in 1312 at the Council of Vienne. As Phillip couldn’t afford to administer the seized Templar lands, Clement managed to transfer most of the Templars’ holdings to the Knights Hospitaller to replace the Templars as a bulwark of the Papacy. However, some rulers formed their own knightly orders from Templar assets and refugees, such as the Order of Montessa in Aragon, and the Order of Christ in Portugal.
On 18 March 1314, the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake. He maintained his innocence until the flames consumed him. Legend has it that he cursed Phillip and Clement with his dying breath. Whether or not this is true is unknown. Nevertheless, both Clement V and Phillip the Fair were dead within a month.