Jacques de Molay
The Knights Templar were formed in 1119 following the First Crusade. They were a religious military order, sometimes described as ‘warrior monks’, whose main purpose was to protect pilgrims travelling from Europe to the Holy Lands. They also fought in the Crusades or Holy Wars there.
They lived like monks and swore oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience. They were granted special privileges by the Pope which, as well as being exempt from taxes, meant that they were exempt from laws and subject to the Pope’s authority alone.
The Templars spread across Europe and became a powerful organisation with large amounts of land and wealth, which they generated through rent, produce and services. But their fate was about to change. With the fall of Acre in 1291 and the decline of Christian control in the Holy Lands, the Knights Templar were losing popularity.
The head of the Knights Templar was known as The Grand Master and on April 16 1292 this position was granted to Jacques De Molay, who became the 23rd and final Grand Master. While very little information about Jacques’ earlier life exists, he is thought to have been born in Haute-Saone, Burgundy, in 1244, to a minor noble family. He was initiated into the Knights Templar in 1265 at a chapel in Beaune, France, by Humbert de Pairaud, a high-ranking Templar.
As Grand Master, Jacques had bold ideas about reforms he wished to implement within the Templar Order and sought to retake the Holy Lands, with an immediate objective of fortifying and defending Cyprus. But while he was successful in getting transport and supplies, Jacques failed to secure enough support for a new crusade.
Elsewhere, King Philip IV of France was incurring large debts and the Templars were his main creditors. He had already expelled the Jews from France, confiscating their property and money, and had imposed taxes on the clergy, which upset Pope Boniface VIII, who threatened to excommunicate the King. Philip responded by attempting to arrest the Pope on charges of heresy and sodomy. Protected by Knights Templar, the Pope escaped but died shortly afterwards. His successor didn’t last long, dying of suspected poisoning, and, under Philip's influence, the next Pope, Clement V, was French.
King Philip saw the Knights Templar as a threat. He believed he possessed divine power and was chosen to rule his kingdom by God, so he didn’t like that he had no authority over the Templars. A suggestion was made to combine the Templars and their contemporaries, the Knights Hospitaller’s, under a new name, the Knights of Jerusalem, and a single commander, a role King Philip wanted for him and his heirs.
Jacques de Molay and his Hospitaller counterpart, Foulque de Villaret, were due to meet Pope Clement in Paris to discuss the merger, a plan Jacques was against. At the same time, rumours were spreading through France that the Templars performed strange practises, an accusation that was already under investigation by Jacques and the Pope. Philip, however, took matters into his own hands and, using a loophole in the law to bypass the Pope's authority, arrested the Templars under charges of heresy. On Friday 13 October 1307, around 2000 men were arrested in France alone.
Under torture and the promise of a pardon, many Templars confessed. Jacques de Molay, appearing before inquisitors on 24 October 1307, admitted to abandoning Christ and spitting on the cross, as many Templars had, but declared that he had ‘renounced with his mouth but not with his heart’.
The Pope reacted strongly to the King’s actions, declaring that the King had acted unlawfully and could only make amends for his actions by donating the seized Templar wealth to the Church. The King, obviously, refused. In response, in November 1307, the Pope called for all Templars throughout Europe to be arrested, with their property held for the benefit of the Church. This way, the Pope could investigate the Templars himself and retain power over proceedings. When the Pope’s cardinals were eventually allowed to visit Jacques de Molay, Jacques, confident that the Church would protect him, revoked his confession, showing the cardinals his bruised and tortured body.
In the summer of 1308, after much bargaining, King Philip agreed that 72 Templars, including Jacques, would be sent to the Pope at Poitiers. In return, the Pope would begin an investigation into his predecessor, Boniface VIII, and start talks with the Hospitallers about a new crusade, while Philip would retain the Templar wealth to pay for it. But, during transit, Jacques and four other Templar leaders were secretly diverted to Chateau Chinon in the Loire Valley. Here, under interrogation from the Pope’s cardinals, Jacques repented, renounced his errors and was absolved. It's thought that Jacques changed his plea again so he could be reconciled by the Church. It was only in 2007 that a parchment with detailed recordings of this investigation was discovered in the Vatican.
A wider papal commission was subsequently set up to investigate the Templars, with the promise that the Templars would be protected, regardless of their plea. Consequently, by Feb 1310, there seems to have been a general move by the Templars to defend their Order, saying that it was good and holy.
While it is possible that the commission were sincere in their offer of protection, the Archbishop of Sens, Philip’s royal appointee, quickly accused any Templar who revoked their previous confessions of being relapsed heretics. As a result, 54 Templars were handed to the authorities and sentenced to be burned to death. Unsurprisingly, when news of these executions spread, the Templars started to withdraw their defence of the Order. No longer able to guarantee protection, the papal commission ended in June 1311 and, in March 1312, the Pope finally suppressed the Order. The following conditions were laid out for its members: those who confessed their errors and persisted in their confession would be forced to do penance; those who continued to deny would be held in prison; and those who had confessed but then said they had lied would be burned at the stake.
By this time, Jacques de Molay was approaching his seventies and had been in prison for seven years. In March 1314, he was brought before the gates of Notre-Dame cathedral. Here, Jacques and three other prominent Templars, Hugues de Pairaud, Geoffroy de Charnay and Geoffroy de Gonneville, all openly admitted the crimes that they were accused of and were sentenced to life imprisonment. But Jacques de Molay and Geoffroy de Charnay began to defend themselves, changing their pleas and denying they had ever confessed. As a result, on 18 March 1314, both were burned at the stake, on an island beneath the gardens of the royal palace, on the southern branch of the River Seine.
During his execution, it was said that Jacques called on Christ to prove the Templars’ innocence and bring its persecutors to the judgement of God. Perhaps coincidentally, Clement V died 33 days later and King Philip IV died shortly afterwards. The King’s heirs never bore children so Philip’s dynasty ended, adding to the legend of the curse of Jacques de Molay. A plaque now sits near the site of his execution.
Jacques de Molay in Royston Cave
In Royston Cave, to the south-west, there is a carving suggested to be a depiction of Jacques de Molay. The figure is seen to be wearing a heretic’s cap on their head and their arms appear to be bound behind their back, as if tied to a stake. While most Templars had a beard, and this figure appears clean shaven, it has been noted that prisoners at the time were shaved prior to their execution. Behind the carving are two rows of crudely-etched figures, which may be a Templar army or simply spectators of the execution. Two niches below it have been blackened by candle smoke, possibly burnt in the figure’s memory.
Sylvia Beamon, a local historian who studied the cave for over fifty years, theorised that Royston Cave was used by the Knights Templar, perhaps as a place of storage or prayer. They are known to have travelled regularly to Royston to sell their goods at its market. It is interesting to note that at Chateau Chinon, where Jacques de Molay was held, there are similar inscriptions on the walls, believed to have been made by its Templar prisoners, including crosses, soldiers and geometric figures. Some of these symbols, such as the Palestinian axe head, are also present in Royston Cave.
Jacques and the Turin Shroud?
More recently, a new theory about the origin of the Turin Shroud has been put forward by authors Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight.
In the late 80s, carbon dating of the Turin shroud, requested by the Vatican, suggested that the shroud was made between 1260 – 1390. Examination of the type of weave used in the cloth also indicated it was medieval and not from the time of Christ.
The Turin Shroud was first exhibited in the church of Lirey in 1357, by the widow of Geoffrey de Charnay, nephew of the Templar burnt alongside Jacques de Molay in 1314. Lomas and Knight have therefore hypothesised that the image on the cloth is actually the face of Jacques de Molay, passed down as a relic via Geoffrey de Charnay. It is believed that Templars used a shroud in their symbolic death and resurrection ceremonies.
When Jacques de Molay was arrested in 1307, he was taken to the Temple building in Paris. Here, the inquisitors would not have had access to their normal tools of torture, and improvisation would have been required. From the marks on the shroud, it appears that the body that had been wrapped in it was nailed up by the right arm over his head, with his left arm thrown sideways. Lomas suggests that maybe the torturers performed this on Jacques de Molay to re-enact the crucifixion. At the point of near death, the body may have then been lowered and wrapped in the shroud as a final act of mockery.
Technically, the image of a face on the Turin Shroud was produced by a process called the Volckringer effect, where heat, sweat, acids and oxygen free radicals scorch the cloth. It is thought that under extreme conditions, such as torture, the body can force oxygen atoms apart to give off pinpricks of atomic energy.
Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
Haag, M. (2008). The Templars: History & Myth. London: Profile Books Limited.
Houldcroft, P.T. (2008). A Medieval Mystery at the Crossroads. Royston: Royston and District Local History Society.
Demurger, A. (2018). The Persecution of the Templars: Scandal, Torture, Trial. London: Profile Books Limited.