Jacques de Molay, alternatively spelt “Molai”, was a member of the Knights Templar and served as its 23rd and final Grand Master between 1292 and 1312. While very little information is available on his personal life and deeds before he became the Grand Master, he is one of the most famous Templars in history. As Grand Master, his ultimate objective was to bring about drastic reforms to the Order. He also wanted the Order to adapt to the new circumstances in the Holy Land in the waning days of the Crusades. The powers in Europe had become reluctant in their support for the Crusades, and various forces had begun actively campaigning for the Order to be dissolved, so they could lay claim to the wealth of the Templars. King Philip IV of France, who had incurred massive debt to the Order, imprisoned Molay and several other Templars in 1307 and put them through severe torture to acquire false confessions. Philip eventually executed Molay by burning him upon a scaffold on an island in the River Seine in front of Notre-Dame de Paris in March 1314. This brought the two-hundred-year-old order to a sudden and violent end. Since then, both the Templars and Molay as its last leader have become subjects of stories and legends.
Childhood & Early Life
Not much is known about Molay’s childhood and upbringing. He was originally from Molay, Haute-Saône, in the County of Burgundy, and was likely born at a time when the region was controlled by Otto III as part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
The exact year of his birth is a matter of scholarly debate. According to some sources, he was 21 years old when he was knighted in 1265 and was about 70 years old when he was burned upon a scaffold in 1314. This implies his birth year to be 1243 or 1244.
In 1265, he was made a member of the Knights Templar in a chapel at the Beaune House, by Humbert de Pairaud, the Visitor of France and England. The ceremony was also attended by Amaury de la Roche, who served as the Templar Master of the province of France.
Like most other Templars, Molay likely hailed from a minor noble family. Around 1270, he travelled to the East (Outremer). Little is known about his activities in the ensuing 20 years.
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The Grand Master of the Knights Templars
In 1291, after the Crusaders lost the city of Acre to the Egyptian Mamluks, the Catholic Europeans or “Franks” fell back to the Island of Cyprus. It served as the base for the dwindling Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the starting point for all military excursions by the Crusaders against the Egyptian Mamluks. During this period, the Templars were led by Thibaud Gaudin, their 22nd Grand Master.
In the autumn of 1291, during a meeting in Cyprus, Molay revealed the reforms he was going to bring to the Order if he were to replace Gaudin as the Grand Master. Gaudin passed away in 1292, and in the absence of any other serious contenders, Molay was selected as the 23rd Grand Master.
In the spring of 1293, he visited various European kingdoms to garner more support to take back the Holy Land. He fostered close friendships with the likes of Pope Boniface VIII, Edward I of England, James I of Aragon, and Charles II of Naples.
His immediate objective was to fortify the defence of Cyprus and recreate the Templar forces. Because of his travels, he was successful in acquiring the permission from some of the rulers for the transport of supplies to Cyprus but failed to secure a firm commitment for a new Crusade.
Between 1299 and 1303, he organized and executed a new attack on the Mamluks. The idea was a collaboration between the Christian military orders, the King of Cyprus, the nobility of Cyprus, the forces of Cilician Armenia, and a new possible ally, the Mongols of the Ilkhanate (Persia). The coalition was supposed to reclaim the coastal city of Tortosa in Syria.
In 1300, Molay and the Templars took part in raids along the Egyptian and Syrian coasts. Later that year, the Cypriots mustered a larger force to mount an attack on Tortosa. They used the Ruad island as their launching point. However, the Crusaders suffered a drastic defeat at the Siege of Ruad in September 1302. They lost the island, their last foothold close to the mainland.
After the Crusaders were routed from Ruad, Molay decided to change tactics and advocate for a new crusade. He also sought to increase the influence of the Templar authority in Cyprus and helped Amalric depose his brother, Henry II of Jerusalem, and become the new king of Jerusalem.
Dispute with Philip IV of France
In 1305, Pope Clement V, who had newly assumed the office, wanted to know the opinions of the leaders of the military orders on a new crusade and unification of their orders. Molay submitted memoranda on both issues. While he supported the notion of a new crusade, he refused to entertain the thought of merging the orders.
King Philip IV of France had amassed a huge debt to the Templars. He advocated for the Orders to be merged under his leadership. That would have made him Rex Bellator or War King. Molay rejected this as well.
Furthermore, Philip was disputing the papacy at the time. He had briefly imprisoned Pope Boniface VIII and possibly poisoned his successor, Pope Benedict XI. Benedict’s successor Clement was French, and Philip controlled him.
During this period, there were accusations against the Order of misconduct during the initiation ceremony, made by expelled former members. Molay requested the pope to conduct an enquiry on the matter, hoping that the Order would be quickly absolved of the charges. He also met Philip and received some reassurances from him.
Arrest, Torture, and Execution
Initially, the Templars faced five charges, including the renunciation of and spitting on the cross during the Order’s initiation ceremony. Later, the number of charges increased by several times. Amidst all the rumours and allegations, on September 14, 1307, Philip made his move, ordering a mass arrest of all Templars present in his domain. His agents were to execute the order at dawn of 13 October.
On 12 October, Molay attended the funeral of Catherine of Courtenay, serving as a pallbearer. He and sixty other Templars were apprehended on the following dawn. Philip levelled heresy and other charges against them, most of which were similar to the charges he brought against Pope Boniface VIII when he was in French custody.
Molay was put through severe torture by royal agents at the University of Paris on 24 or 25 October, and was forced to admit that the initiation ceremony of the Templars was comprised of, among other things, "denying Christ and trampling on the Cross".
Furthermore, he was compelled to write a letter demanding every Templar to confess to these acts. Philip coaxed Clement V to issue an arrest order of all Templars throughout the Christendom.
The pope still sought to interrogate Molay himself. Molay subsequently retracted his confession in front of papal agents. However, in another interrogation, conducted in the presence of both papal and Philip’s agents, he reverted to his forced admissions of 1307. On March 12, 1312, a papal decree perpetually suppressed the Order.
Philip confiscated all the property and wealth owned by the Order and its members, effectively nullifying the debt he owed them. On March 18, 1314, Molay was burned upon a scaffold on an island in the River Seine in front of Notre-Dame de Paris.