The Holy See has published a prayer composed by jailed medieval Knights Templar in which they lament being "unjustly imprisoned" and appeal to the Virgin Mary to persuade their enemies to abandon "calumnies and lies".
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said the prayer was further proof that the order, which was dissolved in the fourteenth century, was not heretical, Times Online reports.
The knights were innocent of the charges against them, which included the accusation that they worshipped idols such as a "monstrous statue, half man and half goat", the paper says.
The L'Osservatore Romano article, by Barbara Frale, the Vatican Secret Archives scholar who has made a special study of the knights, said it was untrue that the knights were guilty of "decadence, heresy and immoral practices".
The Knights Templar were founded at the time of the First Crusade in the eleventh century to protect Christians making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Order was endorsed by the Vatican, but when Acre fell in 1291 and the Crusaders lost their hold on the Holy Land support faded, amid growing envy of the order's fortune in property and banking, and rumours about its corrupt and arcane secret ceremonies.
King Philip IV of France, who coveted the order's wealth, arrested its leaders and put pressure on Clement V to dissolve it. Several knights, including the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, were burned at the stake.
However Dr Frale said the arrests by Philip IV were "absolutely illegal". She said "legends and inventions" about the knights had been perpetuated by "fantasies" such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and, "though of a different literary calibre", Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.
She said that in 1312 Pope Clement had declared that the Templars were not heretics, and had explained that he had only dissolved the order to prevent Philip IV from "opening up a schism in the Church". She said proof of the Templars' fidelity to the Pope and Christian dogma lay in the prayer they had composed during their long imprisonment.
It was "beautiful and moving" and "full of poetry", Dr Frale said, but "incredibly has never been studied".
The prayer is addressed to "Holy Mary, mother of God", the "consolation of those who hope", and "humbly implores" her to obtain freedom for the order "through the intercession of the angels, archangels, prophets, evangelists, apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins".
Vatican scholar: prayer proves Knights Templar not heretical (Times Online, 21/8/08)