On 18th March, 1314, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake. He was the 23rd Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a seasoned warrior, and a man of seventy years. But though he was old, his voice had clout, and as his tortured body melted in the flames, he bellowed out a curse that was to be satisfied within just a few months.
Troublesome times at the turn of the century
The Templars, a monastic order of knights who were THE fighting force of the day, had become both a combative and financial power to be reckoned with. They had a strength that had been cultivated over the previous two hundred years and it was one that came with a fearsome reputation.
They’d also cultivated a few fearsome enemies too, though, and by 1314 that included King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V. Through their success during the Crusades, and their accumulating activities in trade, they’d not only become a force to be reckoned with but a monastic institution that was ripe for toppling.
Philip began to wield his extraordinary power
By the start of the fourteenth century, though the Templars no longer controlled any parts of the Holy Land, talk of their wealth stretched to rumours they’d discovered King Solomon’s treasure; such rumours reaching the King of France’s ears too. For various reasons, he decided to borrow some money from the Templars, a substantial sum, and so the beginning of their downfall commenced. It’s unlikely that Philip ever intended to repay what he owed, but being in debt to the Templars would not have been something he savoured.
To set the scene… Having already deposed various popes, Philip had relocated a nicely compliant Clement V’s papacy to Poitiers, in France. He’d also made a point of trying to unify the Templars with the Hospitallers – a rival order whose remit was to care for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. The merger would have brought the united order pretty much under Philip’s power, and this in turn would have made the nullifying of his debt an easy thing to arrange, as well as making him almost invincible. This was something that Jacques de Molay had strongly resisted.
De Molay’s opposition to Philip’s plans was to seal his fate. Additional growing rumours of inappropriate behaviour by the Templars gave Philip the excuse he needed to put his puppet pope into action. Clement V announced that he was to undertake an investigation into the allegations and the clock began to tick.
Dawn raids and imprisonment
It was an extraordinarily well-organised and quietly-organised project. One particular dawn morning was chosen and plans were made with meticulous detail. On 13th October, 1307, Templar knights across France found themselves arrested and charged with a mixture of corruption and immoral behaviour. A heady combination that would ensure the destruction of their reputation and the confiscation of their wealth.
De Molay, now in his mid-sixties, was interrogated. His torture will have been brutal; interrogators took great pride in causing maximum distress without death. Within a short time, de Molay confessed to the acts of heresy supposedly committed by the Templars, acts such as denying Christ, abusing the crucifix in a sacrilegious way, homosexual activity, and idolatry of a mummified body shaped like a cat. If ‘spin’ had been recognised in those days, these charges were most certainly about ‘spin’. To the largely illiterate populace, complex crimes regarding finances were beyond them, but religious atrocities captured the zeitgeist perfectly. Though it may have simply been hearsay, heresy was how it was branded, metaphorically and quite possibly literally. And how does one actually refute such a thing? Only God knows the answer to that… The Templars’ fate was assured.
De Molay, a man of conviction
The trial was a drawn out affair, lasting over five years. And the nightmare wasn’t over for them when a papal decree was announced on 22nd March, 1312, that the Order of the Knights Templar was abolished. Many of those arrested, including de Molay, were imprisoned throughout, and frequently subjected to the rack and other horrific methods of torture.
De Molay’s original confession haunted him, however. And perhaps the years of suffering in jail with his fellow knights weakened his body but hardened his resolve. After seven years, having rotted day by day, he revoked his confession. The heavy boys were called in and the interrogation was ramped up, but this time de Molay remained firm. For the record, he refused to accept he was guilty, and other masters rotting alongside him found inspiration from his strength and recanted their confessions too. There was only one response Philip had for that… for them to be burned at the stake. No further trial or hearing was required.
The curse of the kings
18th March, 1314, de Molay and three other masters were taken to Ile des Juifs, a small island in the Seine. The pyres had been prepared, and it’s said that de Molay’s had had particular attention with regard to the slowness of its burning. It’s also said, however, he showed no fear and resisted the pain, but in the last minutes before his death, his voice was heard to invoke a curse upon Philip and Clement V. He called upon Christ to prove the innocence of the Templars by bringing judgement from God on their persecutors. Within one year and one day, he cried, may both Philip and the pope be dead, and Philip’s bloodline reign no more.
Karma’s spine-tingling response
Whether you put credence in such superstitious practices is up to you. However, within thirty three days, Pope Clement V had died of an unspecified disease. And within seven months, Philip had fallen victim to a terminal stroke whilst hunting. De Molay’s additional clause regarding Philip’s bloodline took a little longer to fulfil… but it was fulfilled. Over the next few years his Capetian dynasty, The Accursed Kings as they came to be known, too disappeared as each monarch died childless.