Jacques de Molay, the final Grand Master of the Templars, has become a figure of legend. To some he was a martyr, to others a heretic. He was either the victim of a plot or justly punished for the crimes of the order. Plays have been written about him. A Masonic youth group is named after him. Was he the last master of a secret society? Was he a heretic who denied the divinity of Christ? Or was he just a devout soldier caught up in the snares of the king of France, a relic of a dying world?
Who was this man who presided over the Templars in their last days?
In many ways, the last Grand Master of the Temple is also the least well known. Almost all the personal information on him comes from his own depositions, which were made after he was arrested in 1307.
In the first record that we have, made on October 24, 1307, eleven days after the arrest, Jacques states that he has been a Templar for forty-two years. He was received into the order in the town of Beaune, in the diocese of Autun, by Humbert de Pairaud and Amaury de la Roche.1 If he had been around seventeen when he became a Templar, that would put his age at around sixty at the time of the arrests, but he could have been slightly younger or much older.
The place of his birth is not certain, either. He seems to have been from a village in Burgundy, but there are several there named Molay. His biographer, Alain Demurger, has narrowed it down to two towns.2 But one can’t be certain about even that.
If he was born in Burgundy, then he was not under the jurisdiction of the king of France, for Burgundy was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. But it is likely that Jacques considered himself French.
Jacques’ family and early life are a complete mystery. We don’t know why he decided to join the Templars. There isn’t a mention of him in any surviving Templar documents that might tell us what he did before he was elected Grand Master. It seems ironic that the most famous of the Templar Grand Masters is also the one we have the least information on. It’s very likely that there was much more about his early years in the documents lost when the isle of Cyprus was conquered by the Turks in 1571. But knowing wherethe information was doesn’t help us to know what it was.
Jacques de Molay became Grand Master at a critical time for the Templars and the crusader kingdoms. He must have been in the East at the time of the Fall of Acre in 1291. He may have even been one of the few who escaped from the city, although it was never mentioned. It’s more likely that he was stationed at one of the outposts, such as Sidon or Cyprus.
After the death of William of Beaujeu, who fell defending Acre, the commander in the East at the time, Thibaud Gaudin, became master. He was probably elected because he was the highest-ranking member surviving after the slaughter.3 Only a few letters survive from Gaudin’s short tenure in office. He apparently died sometime before April 1292, for at that time Jacques de Molay sent a letter to Spain authorizing the sale of some property in Aragon. He signed it as master of the Temple.4
But what was there left for him to be master of?
Although the Templars had fought bravely at Acre, when the city fell they seem to have taken most of the blame for it, at least in the eyes of the West.5 Therefore, Jacques’ first order of business was to regain as much of the old Latin kingdoms as he could. To do this, he had to ensure the survival of the last of the Eastern Christian kingdoms, that of Armenia, now the southeastern part of Turkey.
Early in 1292, Pope Nicholas IV had written to the Templars and Hospitallers ordering that “They must come to the aid and defense of the Kingdom of Armenia with the galleys which, by the command and ruling of the apostolic see, they hold to counter the enemies of the cross.”6Unfortunately Armenia had been weakened by power struggles within its ruling family and the loss of support from the Latin kingdoms. The attempts to aid the Armenians were also hampered by a war going on between the Venetians and the Genoese.7 These two merchant powers controlled a great deal of the shipping of men and supplies. Their private war hampered all sea travel in the eastern Mediterranean.
For a time the Templars still held the island of Ruad, just across from the town of Tortosa. From here, Jacques de Molay hoped to prepare an invasion force to begin the reconquest. Ruad was never intended to be anything more than a jumping-off place for a garrison. It is a small, rocky island, with no fresh water.8In 1300 the island was a staging ground for a proposed invasion in which the crusader forces would attack from the west and the Mongol army would come in from the east. For a variety of reasons, including weather and problems among the Mongol leaders, the invasion never occurred. The Templars and their allies did capture the city of Tortosa but, without help, they couldn’t hold it. They had to retreat to Ruad again.
The Templars managed to hold Ruad until 1302, when the island was invaded by an Egyptian fleet. It was headed by an emir, Sayf al-Din Esendemür, who was “born of a Christian man and woman in a land called Georgia.”9 That is, he came from slavic lands and had been captured as a slave to the Egyptians. The Templars had no ships large enough to fight at sea or to escape in. After a short battle, the Templars and their dependents were forced into surrender. They were promised safe passage but “the Saracens had the heads of all the Syrian foot soldiers cut off, because they had put up such a stiff defense and had done great damage to the Saracens and the brethren of the Temple were dishonourably conducted to Babylon.”10 This is the chronicler’s metaphor to tell the reader that, like the Jews who were stolen from Israel, the Templars were also sold into slavery. In this case, they were probably taken to the slave markets in Egypt.
Jacques wasn’t on Tortosa when it was taken. He was in Cyprus trying to arrange for ships to be sent to relieve the garrison. But he might have wished that he had been. The loss of Ruad and the capture of the Templars were to be used against the order at thetrials.11
In the face of disaster and chaos in the East and a lack of funds or reinforcements coming from the West, Jacques de Molay felt it was necessary to do some personal recruiting for the order. He left the new Templar headquarters in Cyprus in 1293 to see if he could spark some enthusiasm among the heads of Europe for retaking Jerusalem. He also needed to oversee some disputes about various properties held by the Templars. Finally, he intended to hold a general meeting of the commanders and other officials in Europe.12
The next two years were spent in a tireless crisscross of the countries in which the Templars were most invested: France, Provence, Burgundy, Spain, Italy, and England. In August 1293, he held the general meeting of the order in Montpellier. In June 1295, he held another general chapter meeting in Paris.13 Since it was traditional that these meetings be held in secret, we don’t know what was discussed at them.
We do know that Jacques was in Naples for the coronation of Pope Boniface VIII and that he seems to have had a good working relationship with the pope. This would not have endeared him to the pope’s mortal enemy, King Philip IV, but the friendship doesn’t seem enough to explain why the Templars and Jacques were singled out for the king’s vendetta.
However, there is a possibility in something that happened around 1297 to make the king think that Jacques had to go. A short time before, King Philip had borrowed 2,500 livres from the Temple. That was a usual amount for the French kings. But, according to a Cypriot chronicler, the treasurer of the Templars also gave Philip a loan of 200,000 florins. When Jacques found out about this enormous loan, he expelled the treasurer. Even the pleas of the king could not change his mind.14
The trouble with accounts like this is that we don’t know if they are true or something the chronicler made up. The records were lost long ago. However, if it is true, it would mean that Jacques knew that King Philip was a bad credit risk. For Philip, it would be a reason to have the Templar records conveniently misplaced. It would also indicate that there was bad blood between the king and the order before the arrests.
Jacques returned to Cyprus in late 1296 and stayed in the East for the next ten years. He conducted naval raids on Egypt and participated in another ill-fated expedition to Armenia around 1299, in which the last Templar holding in that kingdom was lost.
By early 1306, Jacques was aware of the effect that all these losses were having on public opinion in the West. He was also embroiled in the politics of the kingdom of Cyprus, just as his predecessors had let themselves become involved in the feuds among the lords of the Latin kingdoms. When the letter came from the new pope, Clement V, telling him to come up with a plan for merging the Templars and the Hospitallers, his heart must have sunk. The idea of combining the military orders into one had been around at least since the Second Council of Lyons in 1274,15but Jacques may have feared that this time there would be no reprieve for the Knights of the Temple.
If he couldn’t convince the pope that there was a reason for the Templars to continue, he knew they would be swallowed up by the Hospitallers, their old rivals. If so, he could see no place for himself in the new order.
When Pope Clement V ordered Jacques to come to the papal court at Poitiers to discuss the matter, Jacques wrote a letter explaining his position on the subject.16 His arguments against the union must have seemed thin even to him. He tells the pope that it’s not right to ask a man who has joined one order to suddenly become part of another and that there would be bickering and nastiness between the members of the two orders if they had to live together. The famous (or infamous) rivalry between the two orders would be lost, and with it healthy competition for each to be braver, more honorable, and more charitable than the other. “For, when the Hospitallers made an armed sortie against the Saracens, the Templars would stop at nothing until they made a better one, and likewise for the Hospitallers.”17
Jacques does admit that it might be cheaper to have one order, but he feels that the resultant squabbling wouldn’t be worth it. All in all, it wasn’t the most forceful defense he could have made. But, while he was extremely concerned about the proposal, I believe that his main goal in returning to Europe was still to raise enough men to put Jerusalem back in Christian hands.
An interesting point in the opening to Jacques’ letter is something that casts doubt on the reliability of his memory, even when he was not subjected to imprisonment and the threat of torture. He mentions that in 1274 he had attended the papal council at Lyon with William of Beaujeu, who had recently become Grand Master.
Now the inquisitors might have done well to study this letter before they began questioning Jacques, for he tells Pope Clement that he remembers seeing King Louis IX (Saint Louis) at the council.18Louis died in 1270, four years before the council was held. If this had been pointed out at the trial, it might have put an entirely different spin on the case. A man who has a vision of a dead saint isn’t likely to be a heretic. On the other hand, a man who remembers an event that incorrectly might not be very reliable on other matters.
It wasn’t until Jacques reached the port of Marseille in late summer of 1307 that he heard about the rumors that were being spread about the Templars. Up until then, he had assumed that any complaints were just the old ones: Templars were proud; they were greedy; they didn’t give enough to charity; they wouldn’t tell anyone about what happened in their chapter meetings, etc., etc. Imagine his horror at being told that they were being accused of denying Christ, spitting on the cross, and gross obscenity.19
How these stories began is impossible to say, which doesn’t mean that scholars haven’t tried. Some say that a brother with a nagging conscience confessed to a friend about what he had been required to do upon joining the Temple. Others, that men who had been expelled from the order made up the stories to get even.20
Some sort of tale about irregularities in the Templar initiation seems to have been circulating by early in 1307. But Jacques de Molay acted as if he were no more than mildly concerned. He told Pope Clement that he wanted a papal commission set up to investigate and disprove the slanders.21He then went on about his business. This was as late as August of that year.
The secret order for the arrest of the Templars was sent out a month later.
All of the contemporary chroniclers state that the Templars, Jacques de Molay in particular, had no idea that they were about to be taken by the king’s men. There was no warning. There was no time to prepare, to flee, to hide any important documents or treasure. On Thursday the twelfth of October, Jacques went to sleep as the head of a prestigious religious order. On Friday the thirteenth, he was in prison being interrogated for infamous crimes against Christ.
What must he have felt when Guillaume de Nogaret and the soldiers started beating down the doors at the Paris Temple? Did he think it was a fire, an invasion, news of some disaster in Cyprus? When the soldiers burst into his sleeping quarters and dragged him out into the streets, did he understand what was happening?
The report of his first interrogation was made on October 24. It is a stark legal document, a confession that when he was received into the Templars, forty-two years before, he had been told to deny Christ and “he, although unwillingly, did it.”22 When asked if he then spit on the cross he answered, no, he had spit on the ground.23
Jacques admitted to these things but denied that he had been told he could “join carnally with the brothers and he insisted under oath that he had never done such a thing.”24
That was all. But it was enough for his adversaries. The next day they had Jacques repeat his confession before the masters of the University of Paris. They also made him write an open letter to the other Templars, stating that he had admitted his guilt and repented. He begged them to do the same. Some of them did, but by no means all.25
Why did Jacques confess? He later said that he had been starved and threatened with torture.26I suspect that in those first days, he was simply in a state of shock.
At some point he must have realized that the king of France had no legal power over him or the order. In all later interrogations, he refused to answer any of the questions, insisting that he be taken to the pope, who alone could judge him.27
For the next six years, Jacques de Molay stuck to that position. The trials and defense of the Templars continued without him as he remained silent in prison.
There is no doubt that his “confession,” such as it was, damaged the defense of the order. I think that if he and the other officers of the order had held fast, it would have been much harder to convince the general public of the Templars’ guilt. Many people were doubtful that they were as evil as Philip and his councilors insisted and the knowledge that the master of the order refused to admit to the truth of the accusations might have kept the pope from issuing the command for the arrest of Templars outside France. Sadly, we’ll never know what might have happened.
Jacques gave no leadership to the more than six hundred Templars who soon came forward to defend themselves and the order. On October 25, 1307, he did recant his confession in the presence of two cardinals sent by Pope Clement. However, in August 1308, the cardinals questioned him again at Chinon, where he was now imprisoned. At this time, he admitted to the same errors as before.28
Had he been tortured in the meantime? Was prison wearing him down? It is intriguing that he never admitted to more than the irregularity of his reception into the order. He spat next to the cross and denied Christ and then got on with the job as a good Christian knight.
At the interrogation of 1309, he again insisted that he be judged only by the pope. When reminded of his confession, “he seemed to be stupefied by this.”29 The image is of a man emotionally and mentally broken.
It’s hard not to be critical of Jacques de Molay, sitting silent in his cell while so many others risked, and lost, their lives defending the Templars. 30He seems to have placed his entire defense on the belief that only the pope could judge him. He did at one point defend the order as a whole, saying that the priests were orthodox, that he knew of no other religious order that gave so much to charity and that he knew of no other order, nor people, who were willing to put their lives on the line defending the faith against infidels.31 But he retreated back into horrified silence as the accusations became more numerous and more bizarre: that the Templars worshipped a black cat; that they worshipped an idol that they believed could make them rich as well as cause crops to flourish; that every Good Friday they urinated on a crucifix.32
After being questioned by the papal commission, Jacques was imprisoned for the next four years at the royal chateau at Gisors. Along with him were Raimbaud de Caron, the grand commander; Geoffrey of Charney, the commander of Normandy; Geoffroy de Gonneville, commander of Aquitaine-Poitou; and Hugh de Pairaud, Templar Visitor of France. These were the highest-ranking Templars in custody and Pope Clement had insisted on judging them himself.33
The pope took his time about it.
There is no information about Jacques and his colleagues during the time that the pope was deciding how to handle the matter. Finally, in December 1313, a year after the Order of the Temple had been officially disbanded, Clement decided to delegate the problem of Jacques and the others to three of his cardinals. They gathered in Paris in March 1314.
Before a group of church dignitaries, including the archbishop of Sens, who had allowed fifty-four Templars to be sent to the stake in 1310, Jacques and the others confessed to everything. “On the Monday after the feast of St. Gregory [March 18] in the public place before the cathedral of Notre Dame, they were condemned to perpetual imprisonment. But, just when the cardinals thought the whole affair was finished, all at once, two of the Templars, the Grand Master and the Master of Normandy, defended themselves tenaciously against the cardinal who pronounced the sentence and against the archbishop of Sens. And without any respect, they denied everything they had previously sworn, which caused many people to be greatly surprised.”34
King Philip was at his palace nearby and was immediately informed of the stand taken by Jacques and Geoffrey of Charney. The king had had enough. The chronicler, Guillaume de Nangis, says, “Without telling the clergy, by a prudent decision, that evening, he [the king] delivered the two Templars to the flames on a little island in the Seine, between the royal garden and the church of the Hermit brothers.”35
Guillaume continues by saying that “they endured the suffering with such an air of indifference and calm that . . . to all the witnesses it was a matter of admiration and astonishment.”36
One of the witnesses was Geoffrey of Paris, a cleric in the employ of King Philip. He included the episode in his verse account:
The Master, who saw the fire near
Removed his clothing without fear
And then, as I saw with my own eyes
He went, naked in his shirt
Freely and with a brave face;
Never did he tremble,
Even when they shoved him this way and that
As they took him and tied him to the stake.
He let them bind him without fear.
They tied his hands with a rope
But he said to them, “Lords at least
Let me join my hands a little
To make a prayer to God
For it is now the season
Here I see my judgment.
And death suits me well.
God knows who is wrong and who has sinned
The time will come soon for evil
To those who have wrongly condemned us
God will avenge our deaths . . .
And he went so softly to his death
That everyone there marveled at it.37
Jacques de Molay made a good death. Whether he actually gave a speech on the pyre, I don’t know. Geoffrey of Paris is the only witness who mentions it and he was a poet and therefore inclined to license. But it is agreed that the manner of his death caused many to question his guilt and that of the order.
After reading the few records that are left—the letters he wrote, his statements during interrogations, the accounts of his travels—I get the impression that Jacques de Molay was a man of average intelligence and courage. He was reasonably pious and genuinely devoted to the Templars and the goal of recapturing Jerusalem for Christianity. He knew that the order needed reform, but not because of heretical rites. He seems to have had in mind making the Rule clearer to the many Templars who were not educated and may have misunderstood things.
At no time did he give the impression that he had a secret agenda. On the contrary, Jacques appeared stunned by the charges against the Templars. This may have been because he was not the kind of man who was good at intrigue. His misfortune was to come up against a king who was a master at it.
Georges Lizerand, Le Dossier de L’Affaire de Templiers (Paris, 1923) p. 34.
Alain Demurger, Jacques de Molay: Le crepuscule des templiers (Paris: Biographie Payot, 2002) pp. 1-5.
Ibid., p. 94. For more on Gaudin, please see chapter 22, Grand Masters 1191-1192/93.
Ibid., pp. 96-97.
Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars (Cambridge University Press, 1978; rev. ed. Canto 2006) p. 233.
Reg. Nicholas IV t. II, p. 913, n. 6834-35, quoted in Demurger, p. 114, translation mine.
The Templar of Tyre, tr. Paul Crawford (Ashgate, 2002) p. 130ff. The Templar was neither a Templar nor from Tyre but someone in the nineteenth century called him that and the name stuck. He was in Acre and Cyprus during the time of the events he chronicles.
Paul Crawford, private correspondence, Aug. 26, 2006.
The Templar of Tyre, pp. 160-61.
Ibid., p. 161. The Templars were not actually taken to the city of Babylon. This is a biblical reference meaning that they were sold into slavery. They were probably taken to Egypt.
J. Michelet ed., Le Procès des Templiers (Paris, 1841) pp. 36-39.
Demurger, p. 118.
Ibid., p. 364.
Henri de Curzon, La Maison du Temple de Paris (Paris, 1888) p. 257.
Hefele and Leclerq.
Text in Lizerand, pp. 1-15.
Lizerand, p. 8, “quia si Hospitalarii faciebant aliquod bonum exercitium armorum contra Saracenos, Templari numquam cessabant nisi fecissent tantumdem vrl plus et e converso.”
Lizerand, P. “Certe recolo quod papa Gregorius, dum esset in concilio Lugdunensi et sanctus Ludovicus cum eo.”—“I definitely remember that Pope Gregory was at the council with Saint Louis and others.”
Whether you believe the Templars were guilty of these things or not, it still must have been a shock.
Demurger, pp. 214-19. Demurger seems to feel that the allegations were true but that the entry ritual was just a test of the recruit’s obedience, a sort of fraternity prank. I disagree. I give my reasons in chapter 30, The Arrest and Trials of the Templars.
Ibid., p. 230.
Ibid., p. 34, “qui, licet invictus, fecit.”
Ibid., “sed spuit ad terram.”
Ibid., p. 36. “Interrogatus . . . si sibi fuit aliquid dictum quod commiceret se carnalier cum fratribus, dixit per juramentum suum quod non nec umquam fecit.”
Guillaume de Nangis, Chroniques capétiennes: Tome II (Paris: Paleo, 2002) pp. 93-94.
Jules Michelet, Le Procès des Templiers (Paris, 1841; rpt. Paris: Éditions du C.T.H.S., 1987) pp. 32, 42, and 87 for three different interrogations.
Demurger, pp. 246-49.
Michelet, p. 34, “videbatur se esse valde stupefactum de hiis.”
Please see chapter 30.
Michelet, p. 45.
Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars (Cambridge University Press, 1978; rev. ed. Canto, 2006) pp. 248-52.
Demurger, p. 265.
Guillaume de Nangis, p.128.
Ibid., pp. 128-29.
Quoted in Demurger, pp. 268-69 (my translation).