A Stain On History: The Burning Of Jacques De Molay, Grand Master Of The Mysterious Knights Templar, 700 Years Ago Today

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Jacques de Molay, head of the most controversial order in Christian history – the Knights Templar, accused of satanic crimes but themselves victims of a cruel conspiracy …

The execution of Jacques de Molay

The fall of Acre in 1291 was one of the defining battles of the medieval world. As the Mamluks smashed down the city’s walls, Christendom’s 195-year experiment with crusading crashed into the sea along with the vast blocks of defensive masonry.

When the overwhelming forces of Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil massed around the city, most dignitaries fled by sea, leaving only the Templars and a crowd of terrified civilians. The Templars’ Grand Master fell fighting, so a senior Templar, Peter de Severy, went to the sultan to surrender on condition the civilians were given safe passage to Cyprus. The sultan agreed, but when the Templars opened the city’s gates, the attackers began committing atrocities against the women and children. The Templars immediately slammed the gates shut and loaded the panic-stricken civilians onto their remaining ships. Then, with their last transports gone, they turned to face the enemy. The sultan called for de Severy to come to his camp again so he could apologise. When de Severy arrived, there was no apology. Instead, the sultan had him beheaded in full sight of the Templars on Acre’s walls.

The Templars defended Acre for as long as they could. But the result was never in question. The city fell, and the Holy Land would not come under Christian rule again until Britain and her imperial allies took it in 1917. The fall of medieval crusader Acre was a seismic moment in European history. As late as 1853, the Royal Navy commemorated it with a ship — the HMS St Jean d’Acre.

There were barely any survivors. But a man named Jacques de Molay was almost certainly one. Before long, the Templars elected him their Grand Master.

To the local Latin Christians, the Templars were heroes. But when the knights returned to Europe, they suffered the fate of many of history’s soldiers.

No one fought more valiantly than the Templars

Two millennia earlier, when Odysseus finally reached Ithaca after a decade fighting at Troy and another battling his way home, he barely recognised the society he found. And, more tragically, few recognised him through his beggar’s clothes (save for his faithful Argos, who only had the strength to wag his tail before dying).

American soldiers returning from Vietnam faced a similarly disconnected homecoming. And so did Jacques de Molay and the last crusaders. Europe had moved on, and the battles they had bled for no longer seemed valued by most of the people or rulers in whose name they had fought.

Today’s 700-year anniversary of the burning of Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, marks one of history’s most vivid and poignant stories of the discarded soldier.

For two centuries, the Templars waged the bloody wars for Christian Jerusalem that Europe’s people demanded. But when the defeated crusaders came home, early 1300s Europe was preparing for Dante, Giotto, Marco Polo, Petrarch, Boccaccio, de Machaut, Chaucer, and a world of new discoveries. There was no room for knights bent on recapturing an oriental desert 3,000 miles away.

On Thursday the 12th of October 1307, de Molay was an honoured pall bearer in Paris at the royal funeral of the titular Empress of Constantinople, sister-in-law of King Philip IV of France. But the following dawn – Friday the 13th of October — King Philip’s men kicked in the doors of the Templars’ commanderies all over France, and arrested all but a handful who evaded capture. (It is still popularly believed that these arrests are why Friday the 13th is unlucky.)

Philip charged the Templars with offences designed to scandalise and horrify the public: denying Christ, spitting on the crucifix, idol worship, blasphemy, and obscenity. He struggled to believe it himself, he said, but his priority was to protect the fabric of Christendom. It was:

A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, an offence to the divine majesty, a universal scandal. (Philip IV’s arrest orders)

Naturally, Philip had invented most of the charges, along with his phony remorse, as he needed to get people heated up in order to drown out the papacy’s inevitable outrage at such a blatant and unprovoked attack on the Church.

Nevertheless, Philip was feeling confident. He had played the game well. Pope Clement V could huff and puff, but Philip had wangled the papal throne for the untalented Clement two years earlier, so the rules of cronyism applied. None of this was lost on Dante, who railed against Clement’s toadying to Philip, his lust for power, nepotism, and simony. He accused Clement of being a lawless shepherd, of turning his office into a cloaca del sangue e de la puzza (sewer of blood and stink), and he specifically saved a place for him in Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell.

When Clement heard of the arrests, he was furious at the full-frontal attack on his sovereignty. But he had no room for manoeuvre. So, rather than confront Philip (as Gregory VII or Boniface VIII would have), he opted to salve his wounded pride by trying to take charge of the matter.

As October ran into November, the French Templars were tortured mercilessly. Virtually all (including de Molay) confessed to Philip’s charges. Vindicated and flushed with self-righteousness, Philip wrote to the kings of Europe, inviting them to follow his most pious example.

Over in England, King Edward II was in no mood to play Philip’s cynical game. He knew and liked Jacques de Molay, and the Templars had served England and its kings with distinction. Instead, Edward went onto the attack, writing to Europe’s kings to rubbish Philip’s claims.

Baphomet, the supposed demon of the Templars

Meanwhile, in his attempt to steer events, Clement issued the bull Pastoralis praeeminentiae ordering Europe’s kings to arrest all Templars in the name of the pope.

In England, Edward felt he ought to comply, but had no real appetite for it. He gave the Order two weeks’ notice of the arrests, before rounding up a few Templars and relocating them to comfortable lodgings, while leaving the remainder in their commanderies.

Back in France, Clement dispatched cardinals to interview de Molay and a key lieutenant. To King Philip’s horror, now the two knights were talking to the pope’s men and not royal goons, they promptly withdrew their confessions and confirmed the Order was innocent of Philip’s charges.

Emboldened, Clement suspended the enquiries. Incensed, Philip threated Clement with violence, and insisted he reopen the enquiries. Clement eventually acquiesced, and announced that final judgement would be given in October 1310 at Vienne.

However, Philip was too experienced to attack on a single front alone. To keep the pressure on, Philip forced Clement to move the whole papal court to Avignon. This was the infamous “Babylonian Captivity” (1309–1377), in which seven French popes ruled from Avignon in an environment so luridly described by Petrarch.

To leave Clement in no doubt who was boss, Philip also forced him to open a posthumous trial into Pope Boniface VIII, who had died from shock a few years earlier after Philip’s men had violently kidnapped him. Philip’s lawyers even drafted the usual trumped-up charges: heresy, idolatry, homicide, simony, fornication, and sodomy.

The Palace of the Popes at Avignon

In London, Edward was still not taking the charges seriously. The Inquisition had never set foot in England, but on Pope Clement’s insistence, two French inquisitors arrived in September 1309 and began examining the Templars in London, York, and Lincoln. No confessions were forthcoming, as even though the inquisitors eventually forced Edward to allow them to use torture, they could find no skilled or willing torturers.

In a request with a familiar and sinister post-9/11 ring, they asked to transfer the English Templars to the County of Ponthieu in Picardy, which was an English crown possession but subject to French law. There, they explained, they would be on English land, but free to apply as much torture as they needed. Edward refused.

Back in France, Clement wanted to talk to de Molay, who was now at the French royal castle at Chinon. However, de Molay was too weakened by the prolonged torture to travel, so Clement sent three cardinals to interview him. It was here, in the Loire valley, that the cardinals drew up the so-called “Chinon parchment”, which provoked such excitement when discovered in the Vatican’s Secret Archives in 2001. (The archives are not actually secret. Secretum means “private” in the sense of belonging to the pope rather than any specific Vatican department.) However, despite the hype, the parchment’s content has always been known from other documents.

It records that five of the most senior Templars, including de Molay, with no torture, of their own free will, all openly and voluntarily confessed.

However, what really matters is exactly what they admitted. Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, it is not much. They said that new Templar recruits were pulled aside after their ceremonies. Geoffroi de Gonneville gave a description:

His receptor, after bestowing the mantle of the Knights Templar upon the newly received member, showed him a cross depicted in some book and said that he should denounce the one whose image was depicted on that cross. When the newly received did not want to do so, the receptor told him multiple times that he should. And since he completely refused to do it, the receptor, seeing his resistance, said to him: “Will you swear to me that if asked by any of the brothers you would say that you had made this denouncement, provided that I allow you not to make it?” And the newly received answered “yes”. He also said that the receptor told him that he should spit on the aforementioned cross. When he did not wish to do so, the receptor placed his own hand over the depiction of the cross and said, “At least spit on my hand!” And since the initiate feared that the receptor would remove his hand and some of the spit would get on the cross, he did not want to spit on the hand, but instead chose to spit near the cross. (Chinon parchment, 1308)

This bizarre tradition may have been part of some long-forgotten character test or psychological preparation for capture. Geoffroi de Gonneville had two suggestions of his own. He had heard the denial was in imitation of St Peter. Or that a former Grand Master had been captured by the enemy, and a condition of his release was that he introduce this ritual — as a humiliation, and a foretaste of what awaited any captured Templar.

Whatever the extraordinary tradition’s origin and function, de Molay and the others confessed to it and begged forgiveness from the cardinals, who granted them absolution and reconciled them to the Church.

We will never know what truly happened at Chinon. Maybe the senior Templars made up these small admissions in order to gain absolution? Or maybe they knew that professing innocence would lead to their execution as relapsed heretics? Alternatively, perhaps the cardinals made it up, either to implicate the Templars or to prevent them from relapsing? Who knows. The following year de Molay insisted that he had not confessed to anything serious at Chinon. And, most oddly, one of the others confessed to seeing the famous idol (usually known as Baphomet) at Montpellier, which almost certainly takes the parchment into the realm of fantasy. The only question is: whose?

Towards the end of the year, something very significant began to happen. Slowly, the Templars started to fight back. One by one, they withdrew their blood-soiled admissions. By May, some 600 Templars had withdrawn their confessions. Sensing no end in sight, Clement postponed final judgement at Vienne by a year.

The oldest known depiction of King Philip

In Paris, King Philip immediately saw that the tide was turning against him, and that he needed to do something decisive. He therefore summoned the bishop of Sens and forced him to re-examine the Templars in his diocese. When 54 Templars insisted on their innocence, the bishop dutifully denounced them as relapsed heretics.

As Philip had known all along, a heretic who confessed was welcomed as a lost sheep, given penance, and reconciled to the Church. But if the penitent then slipped back into the heresy, he had rejected all grace, spurned salvation, and was a direct threat to Christian society.

On the 12th of May 1310, as Philip knew he would, the bishop of Sens burned the 54 Templars alive. This appalling cruelty gave Philip the shot in the arm he needed. The remaining Templar resistance petered out.

The sorry tale was drawing to a close. In October 1311, the long-awaited Council of Vienne opened to give final judgement. The evidence did not amount to much. The only Templars who had comprehensively confessed to Philip’s 127 charges were the ones tortured in his dungeons or those in territories loyal to him. There were virtually no confessions from abroad.

True to form, Philip showed up to threaten Clement with physical violence unless he shut down the Templars. There were protests from the other church delegates, who felt the Templars had not been given an opportunity to defend themselves. They also pointed to the suspicious similarity of the charges with those Philip had recently brought against the dead Pope Boniface VIII. None of this helped Clement, who threatened anyone who spoke further with excommunication.

Finally clear to impose Philip’s will, in March 1312, with Philip and his son flanking him, Clement issued the bull Vox in excelso. Citing the irreparable damage done to the Templars’ reputation, he pronounced judgement with a formula that completely sidestepped the question of innocence or guilt:

We suppress, with the approval of the sacred council, the order of Templars, and its rule, habit and name, by an inviolable and perpetual decree, and we entirely forbid that anyone from now on enter the order, or receive or wear its habit, or presume to behave as a Templar. (Vox in excelso)

It was over. All that remained was to tie up the loose ends. Templars who had confessed crimes were sentenced to imprisonment. Those who had remained silent were sent to other religious Orders.

To draw down the final curtain, on the 18th of March 1314 the four most senior living Templars were hauled to Paris. On a rostrum erected on the parvis before the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, they were publicly condemned to perpetual imprisonment. Hugues de Pairaud and Geoffroi de Gonneville accepted the sentences in silence. But Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney stunned the crowd by talking over the cardinals and professing their innocence and that of the Temple.

The electrifying news was rushed across the city to King Philip at the Louvre. Desperate to crush this dangerous new defiance, he abandoned all legal procedures and ordered the two old Templars to be burned without delay.

So as dusk fell and the canons of Notre-Dame lit the candles and incense for the lucernare before Vespers, the provost of Paris’s men torched two nearby pyres and sent de Molay and de Pairaud up in smoke alongside the canons’ prayers.

A royal chaplain eyewitness described de Molay’s last words (in verse):

“God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned. Misfortune will soon befall those who have wrongly condemned us; God will avenge our deaths. Make no mistake, all who are against us will suffer because of us. I beseech you to turn my face towards the Virgin Mary, of whom our Lord Christ was born.” His request was granted, and so gently was he taken by death that everyone marvelled. (Geoffroi de Paris)

Rumours began to circulate that, at the end, de Molay had also shouted out, summoning Philip and Clement to meet him within a year and a day before God, where they would be judged for their crimes.

A medieval picture of the execution, in the British Museum

De Molay and de Pairaud quickly came to be seen as martyrs. In the cold dawn light, Parisians foraged in the pyres’ ashes for relics. Medieval writers took up the popular outrage. Dante accused King Philip of undermining Christendom. A Tuscan chronicler even declared that the abolition of the Templars was one of the leading causes of the Black Death.

It had taken Philip seven years, but he finally had what he wanted — the Templars’ vast treasury he had coveted for so long, and a demonstration that he could destroy one of the Church’s most powerful organisations. But, as it turned out, he did not live to enjoy either victory.

Clement and Philip were both dead within the year. The “curse” of Jacques de Molay had been fulfilled.

De Molay’s death was more than just the brutal execution of a 72-year-old soldier. It was the culmination of a cynical, politically-orchestrated miscarriage of justice masterminded by a ruthless king and facilitated by a craven pope — both of whom owed de Molay and the Templars far better.

If de Molay had ever learned the skills of high politics, he may have saved his Order. But he was a simple monk and soldier who trusted in authority and the chain of command — believing up to the end that the pope would come through for them. He relied on the notion, as soldiers do, that on coming home from fighting the battles he had been ordered into, his masters would recognise and respect his contributions.

Today should perhaps stand as a national day to remember former members of the armed forces. Not a memorial for the fallen, but for the living — those who are all too often written off as having fought yesterday’s conflicts. It is easy for observers to look back over history and exercise twenty-twenty hindsight, judging which conflicts were just and worthwhile and which were not. But perhaps on “De Molay Day” we can recognise that many in the armed forces do not have the luxury of this choice. And there should be an appropriate time to remember that.