The tale of the Knights Templar is a story with a larger-than life aura of myth, that finished in an abrupt and almost unbelievable tragedy. Founded in 1119 by nine crusading French knights as a tiny band of dedicated protectors of Christians in the Holy Land, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon shot across the political landscape like a meteor, vaulting from obscure guardians of pilgrims in Jerusalem into the most powerful and influential force of their age. They were fierce warriors, devout monks, skilled diplomats, and international bankers. Within just a half century of their birth, they walked with kings and advised popes, brokered treaties, and built castles and preceptories on a massive scale. Then, even more inexplicable than their rise came their fall, less than two centuries after they began, in a harrowing plunge into arrest, trial, flight and execution that shocked the medieval world, both East and West.
The end began for them at dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307. The sealed order to King Phillip IV's seneschals and bailiffs had gone out a full month before. It was accompanied by a personal letter from the king, filled with lofty prose about how heart-rending it was to be compelled to do his duty, while detailing frightening accusations against the Templars. The letter would have had an eye-popping effect on the king’s men, and their secrecy was undoubtedly assured. The sealed arrest order was not to be opened until the appointed day.
At this time, France was the most populous nation of Europe, even greater than Russia. France took up more than 40,000 square miles, an enormous area to cover from the back of a horse. Yet Phillip IV managed to carry off his own Night of the Long Knives, in a country without telephones, trains, or automobiles. It was a stunning piece of work. Hundreds of the king’s men simultaneously opened letters all over the country that morning, ordering them to converge on every Templar castle, Commandery, Preceptory, farm, vineyard, or mill.
It was shockingly effective, instantly chopping off the head of the Order. Phillip obviously had a hit list of the most important knights to capture. Accounts differ wildly, but the most respected ones agree that 625 members of the Order were arrested in the first wave. These included the Grand Master Jacques de Molay; the Visitor-General; the Preceptors of Normandy, Cyprus, and Aquitane; and the Templars’ Royal Treasurer.
The vast majority of the literally thousands of Templar properties in France were small manors and farms, tended by as few as two or three aging brethren. Often, a small Preceptory with a few serving brothers and the occasional aged knight was all there was to meet these armed bailiffs of the king. The average age of those arrested was 41. They were not, as a rule, the cream of the Order’s hardened fighting force, and many of those tending these unfortified properties were in their 60s and 70s.
The Templars were put into isolation, and immediately subjected to the gruesome tactics of medieval interrogation on the very first day of their arrest. The technique of the strapaddo was common. It involved binding the victim’s wrists behind his back, passing the rope over a high beam, pulling him off of the ground, and suddenly dropping him, snapping his arms and dislocating his shoulders. Stretching the victim on the rack was another favored method. Perhaps the most horrible was coating the victim’s feet in lard or oil, and then slowly roasting them over a flame. More than one knight was handed the tiny bones that fell from his burned feet by his dedicated torturers. Subjected to these agonies, the overwhelming majority of the knights confessed to any charge that was put to them.
Phillip’s goal was to arrest all the Templars, subject them to torture immediately, and exact confessions from them on the very first day. He knew that the pope would be livid over his actions, and that Church officials would be wary of agreeing to the kinds of interrogations Phillip had in mind, so time was of the essence. He wanted to hand Pope Clement V a stack of confessions so damning that the pope would lose his stomach for siding with the Order.
The pope reacted just as Phillip had planned. His outrage over the arrests turned to dread and resignation as the “evidence” was presented to him. Phillip leaned on Clement to issue papal arrest warrants all across Europe, which were largely ignored or skirted around by other monarchs. Very few show trials went on outside of France, and there were no cases (outside of the tortured knights in France) of Templars who admitted to any charges of heresy.
In an outburst of courage and remorse, most of the arrested Templars subsequently recanted their confessions, and proclaimed to Church officials that their statements were made under the pain of torture and threat of death. To intimidate the remaining Templars, Phillip ordered 54 of the knights to be burned at the stake in 1310, for the sin of recanting their confessions.
In 1312, Clement finally decided to end the situation at a council in Vienne. Just to make certain the decision went the way he intended, Phillip stationed his army on the outskirts of the city. The pliant pope officially dissolved the Order, without formally condemning it. (In truth, he had secretly absolved the Order of all wrongdoing after his own investigation at Chinon in 1308 in a document that served to at least save the knights in the hereafter, even though he was powerless to stop Phillip in the temporal world.) All Templar possessions apart from their cash were handed over to the Knights Hospitaller, and many Templars who freely confessed were set free and assigned to other Orders. Those who did not confess were sent to the stake. Phillip soothed his loss of the Templars’ tangible assets by strong-arming a yearly fee from the Knights Hospitallers, to defray his costs of prosecuting the Templars.
By 1314, both the pope and public opinion had completely abandoned the Knights Templar. The four senior Templar officers in Phillip’s custody had been waiting in prison for seven grim years. All of them were old, the youngest being Geoffroy de Charney, who was almost 60. Jacques de Molay was in his 70s and had spent four years in solitary confinement. The four men were finally led onto a platform in front of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral to hear the charges and make their public confessions. The charges were read, and two of the men accepted their fate of perpetual imprisonment and were led away.
But Jacques de Molay and his trusted follower Geoffroy de Charney did not follow suit. Weakened with age and imprisonment, de Molay shouted in a voice that startled the assembly that he and the Templars were innocent of all the charges. They were returned to their cells at once, while Phillip called together his council and quickly pronounced sentence, using the insane logic of the Inquisition; if they had recanted their confessions, then they were considered “relapsed heretics,” and the penalty was the stake.
Late that afternoon, de Molay and de Charney were led to the place of execution, which was a tiny isolated island adjacent to the Île de la Citè, called the Île-aux-Juifs (Island of the Jews) in the middle of the River Seine. The condemned men could see Notre Dame Cathedral in the east, but the site was not chosen for their view. Rather, it was chosen so that King Phillip could enjoy the entertainment without leaving his palace just across the river.
Each man was stripped down to his shirt and tied to the stake. Jacques de Molay, with unbelievable courage, asked not only that he be turned to face the Cathedral, but that his hands be freed, so that he could die at prayer. His request was granted. The two men were roasted alive by the Inquisitional method that began with hot coals, so that their agony could be prolonged as much as possible. It was dusk on March 18, 1314.
When the Pont Neuf was built, the Île aux Juifs was joined to the rest of the Île de la Cité, and today there are not one but two plaques near the bridge to commemorate this event. Jacques de Molay did not go to his God in silence. Legends insist that he died defiantly shouting his innocence and that of the Templars, calling on King Phillip and Pope Clement to meet him before the throne of God in one year’s time, where they would all be judged together. Indeed, both men, relatively young, would be dead within the year. One month after the death of de Molay, Pope Clement V, age 54, died, it was said, of cancer. Phillip the Fair, age 46, died in a hunting accident probably brought on by a stroke. He died on November 29, 1314, managing to get in just under the wire.
The gruesome death of Jacques de Molay is the last act of the Templar story. At least, the last act of the accepted, scholarly story of the Knights Templar that is told, in names and dates, between the covers of the history books. But in reality, his death is only the beginning. It’s the beginning of the myth of the Knights Templar, which is the maelstrom around which an endless stream of fact blended with speculation swirls, unabated.
(Excerpted from The Templar Code For Dummies)
(Excerpted from The Templar Code For Dummies)