Jacques de Molay: The Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar

Jacques de Molay (1243 – 1314) was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, one of the knighthoods that came into existence during the great Christian Crusades of the late 11th century.

European Christians organized the Crusades as a direct response to centuries of Muslim expansion and belligerence, and many knighthoods were formed to battle against the Muslim warriors and re-affirm Christianity as the world’s most dominant religion.

The Knights Templar were a formidable group that attained extensive power and wealth during this time, although Molay’s leadership was ineffective at the time of the suppression of the order by King Phillip IV.

As many of us know, the Knights Templar is a fraternal order associated with Freemasonry today. In this post, we will learn more about Jacques de Molay and understand why the Medieval crusader is an important historical figure for Freemasons.

Jacques de Molay
Jacques de Molay – Image: Mitchell Nolte

The role of a knight in Medieval Europe

Before we learn about Jacques de Molay’s story and how he ultimately became the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, we must understand the significant role that the Knights played in the brutal Christian Crusades.

The role of a knight in Medieval Europe was prevalent in several countries. In England, a knight was a person of youth who was assigned to the royal court. In time, a knight’s actions may lead to rank and recognition from the Royals, which was of significant value at the time.

In Germany, a knight was a disciple of the royal order and was extraordinarily ambitious and high-spirited. Yet history tells us that it was in France that a knight’s role was revered as chivalric, and it was from the French conception that the ideal of knighthood spread across Europe.

Throughout Medieval Europe, knights performed many tasks and made themselves useful to the rulers of the day. Knights were often used by Earls and Bishops to perform specific tasks and were molded into warriors that could fight battles to protect land and conquer new territories.

While some knights were grouped in orders and were at the commander’s disposal, many wandering knights throughout the continent were seeking adventure and battle. Many of these men joined orders that fought the significant battles of the Crusades.

One of the most successful orders of the Middle Ages was the Knights Templar, the order of which Jacques de Molay would become the final Grand Master.

The convening of the Knights Templar

The Knights Templar was also known by the name of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. The order was formed in 1118 by Hugues de Payns and Godefroy de St. Omer in France.

The predominant task of the early order of the Knights Templar was to protect pilgrims as they journeyed to sacred places across Europe. Pilgrimages in the Middle Ages were sought with danger, so the knights would accompany them on their journeys across the continent.

In the early days of the order, there were less than ten members of the Knights Templar. They were known as aggressive, loyal, and obedient and would stop at nothing to protect the charges in their care.

The knights famously took upon themselves vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty according to the rule of St. Benedict. The knights fought against ignorance, tyranny, and the enemies of the Holy Sepulchre, and this was the sole object of their existence.

As they gained battle experience, the knights were assigned accommodation in the Palace of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, which stood on the site of the Temple of Solomon. It was from this accommodation that their name, Templars, was derived.

In their early battles, the knights wore no recognizable uniform or regalia and wore the garments given to them as charity by the people they fought to protect. This was actually the allure of the order, and they actively sought out the poor and the outcast and created a band of brothers that feared no one and would fight to the death.

The story took an interesting turn in 1127. Accompanied by some of his knights after a Crusade, Hugues de Payns returned to France to secure sanction from the church for some special privileges for the men within the order.

The principal privilege they were seeking for the knights was immunity from ex-communication, which was one of the worst things that could happen to a citizen at the time.

During a meeting between de Payns and Bernard of Clairvaux, the latter inspired the constitution, ritual, discipline, and core of the very order. From this meeting, the Knights Templar formed a new shape, and rumors circulated of a ‘special rule’ within the order.

The power of the Knights Templar

The broad influence and the mystique surrounding the brave Templars spread over Christendom throughout the Crusades. They built and acquired beautiful manor houses and became the primary source of money exchange between Europe and the Muslims from the East.

The Templars were of transactional value to the royals of the time, too. They provided loans to princes, dowries for queens, and safety deposit vaults for the treasures of emperors and popes alike. It wouldn’t be amiss to describe the Templars as the bankers of the time; such was their power and wealth over Europe.

In addition to money, the Templars influence spread to education. The various chapters under the order were the schools of diplomacy at the time, as well as training grounds for potential rulers.

They were also exempt from paying taxes, tithes, or tributes to any power, as they claimed to be the rightful defenders of the church and were therefore carrying out the necessary protection bestowed upon them by God.

They were able to secure themselves immunity from ex-communication and also claimed exclusion from many of the papal decrees of the time, essentially defining themselves as an authority upon themselves, independent of any ruler of the period.

They affiliated themselves to the most influential leaders of the day and provided sanctuary for those under attack from an envious foe.

All told, the Knights Templars grew to be one of the most influential, feared, and respected orders of the Crusades. In their own right, they were immensely influential in social, economic, political, and religious matters and dictated the policy of the day.

With the Knights Templar so influential in all aspects of medieval life, the knights saw their Grand Master as the only authority under God, essentially making the Templar a law unto themselves.

The life of Jacques de Molay

Jacques de Molay was born in Besancon, in the Duchy of Burgundy, France, and was of a noble but poor family. Little is known of his life until he joined the Knights Templar.

His life, therefore, is best understood through his affiliation to the Knights Templar. Records show that Molay entered the order in 1265 and fought his first battle against the Muslims in what is modern-day Syria.

He joined the order under the Grand Master William de Beaujeu to fight for the Holy Sepulchre. He lived in the Holy Land for the majority of his life in the Templar, at least until he was chosen as the Grand Master.

His election to the title of Grand Master of the Knights Templar didn’t come until approximately 1298 after a long and bloody chapter in the history of the Christian Crusades seemed to be coming to an end. He served as the twenty-second Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

After an extended stay in the Holy Land ended after they lost Palestine, de Molay took his knights to Cyprus, where they stayed until he returned to France. Cyprus became the headquarters of the order as they seemingly began to dwindle in power.

When Molay was summoned back to France to discuss the possibility of launching a new crusade, he asked Pope Clement V to investigate allegations of blasphemy and sodomy that had been made against the order. He was accompanied on his return to France by sixty of his knights.

One action that perturbed King Phillip, in particular, was de Molay’s wish to unify the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitaller, which was a rival order that cared for sick and injured pilgrims in the Holy Land. The King wanted to unite the two orders under his own command, not de Molay’s, as this would have essentially made him the undisputed King of War in Christendom.

After investigations were conducted on Pope Clement’s command, all of the Templars in France, including Molay, were arrested and interrogated by Phillip’s men, who wanted to crush the order’s power and steal the wealth they had accumulated from their years of battle throughout the Crusades.

There were five serious allegations laid against de Molay and his fellow knights, mainly alluding to corruption and immoral behavior. Phillip used de Molay’s arrest to cease the order’s considerable assets and had their wealth turned over to the Royal treasury.

The knights were all arrested as soon as they arrived in France, and they were brought before the University of Paris, where the charges were read to them. In the five years that followed, de Molay was imprisoned and was subject to interrogations from the King’s men.

As a result of these investigations, and likely torture, de Molay admitted to some crimes and was ultimately burned at the stake by King Phillip’s men, who judged him to be a heretic and guilty of his crimes.

De Molay admitted to the order’s acts of heresy in his forced confession, which included the brothers’ denial of Christ and even abusing the crucifix in sacrilegious initiation rituals. Whether or not de Molay and his fellow knights were guilty of these practices is not clear.

One could argue that the charge of heresy was carefully orchestrated by King Phillip, as it was nigh on impossible to escape from such a charge at the time. It was often used in the Medieval Ages as a way of ruining an opponent, as it was difficult to prove against.

Before de Molay’s death, the Knights Templar was officially abolished by papal decree at the Council of Vienne in 1312. In 1314, de Molay and three other Templar leaders were led to their grim end.

He was burned on a scaffold in front of a vast audience. He professed the innocence of the order at his death, and with his last words, he shouted that it wouldn’t be long before the Pope and the King joined him for judgment in front of God.

Many took de Molay’s last words as a curse on the King and the Pope, and the events that happened in the short time after his death indeed suggest that it could have been a successful curse.

Just thirty-three days after de Molay burned, the Pope passed away. Seven months later, King Phillip became gravely ill and died of his illness. Whether or not people believed in the curse of de Molay is up for discussion, but the Capetian dynasty of which King Phillip was a part of staggered to its end in the short time after his death, as his childless sons died at a young age also.

Jacques de Molay and Freemasonry

Approximately 400 years passed between Jacques de Molay’s death and the advent of Freemasonry in Northern Europe, so the exact linkage between de Molay and the inception of the Knights Templar may not seem evident at first.

But to understand the link to the Crusades, it’s essential to recognize that Masons circulated grandiose myths about their order. Many of these stemmed from the knights of the Crusades but also went further back to the architects of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

Indeed, the Knights Templar’s secret rituals and initiation ceremonies provided early Masonic writers with significant source material that they could utilize to perpetuate the new mythology surrounding Freemasonry’s beginnings.

According to historian Malcolm Barber, the first connection between Freemasonry and the Knights Templar was made by German Masons in the 1760s, when they:

“Claimed that the order, through its occupation of the Temple of Solomon, had been the repository of secret wisdom and magical powers, which Molay had handed down to his successor before his execution and of which the eighteenth-century Freemasons were the direct heirs.”

From this link, the modern-day Knights Templar order has been formed and affiliated with Freemasonry. Today, the order is a philanthropic and chivalric order that originated in Ireland in 1780 and is still operational today.

Given the Knights Templar order’s significant role in the Christian Crusades, the modern-day Templar is open to Masons of a Christian faith only. As we know, Freemasonry only stipulates that a brother must believe in the Supreme Being, but the Knights Templar affiliate focuses on teaching brothers about the Christian faith.

Within many of the Knights Templars teachings today, much emphasis is placed on the brave defiance of Jacques de Molay after his arrest in France. In Kansas City in the US, there is even a Masonic affiliate known as ‘The Order of Molay,’ which was founded by brother Frank S. Land in 1919.

But generally speaking, very little is known about the details of the initiation ceremonies of the Knights Templar, and much speculation abounds about what indeed took place. That being said, there was likely some kind of cleansing ritual before an oath and accolade. We know that the Templar uttered a well-known pledge that is as follows:

Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini you da gloriam.

Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name be the glory.

Conclusion: Who was Jacques de Molay?

As has been explored, Jacques de Molay was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a powerful order prominent during the great Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages. De Molay’s story is one that represents much of the religious instability of the Middle Ages, and his once-powerful order was disbanded by King Phillip of France.

De Molay’s life is significant to Freemasons because he was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and the title of the order was adopted by the early authors of Masonic history and continues to be an affiliate of Freemasonry today.