This is about Jacques deMolay and the Knights Templar, a romantic tale with a certain mystique, but mostly a story of bad luck, of being in the wrong place and wrong time, with the wrong people owing you money. It begins with the First Crusade.
The Crusade was a boondoggle, but a successful boondoggle. After killing nearly everyone in the city, Jew, Muslim and Coptic Christian alike, the Crusaders won control of Jerusalem for about 88 years, from 1099 to 1187. Thus they planted the seeds for centuries of Muslim resentment—a long, wet path of blood which we are following to this day.
They also began a new industry: pilgrimage. European Christians were suddenly keen on visiting the Holy City. Waystops such as Constantinople, and Antioch and Tripoli (the “Crusader States”), saw the opportunity for profit. So did bandits, who made a good living preying on travelers. Muslim raiders saw a chance for revenge. Everyone had a great time—except the pilgrims.
In 1119 two veterans of the Crusade decided to try to protect them. A helpful Jerusalem king set them up in the captured Temple Mount within the Al Aqsa Mosque. This place had a mythology, built as it supposedly was atop the chips and ruins of Solomon’s Temple. To illustrate their vow of poverty, they took the official name of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or “Knights Templar,” and adopted the emblem of two decrepit-looking knights riding a single horse.
Poverty soon ended. After the Church blessed them, the Templars were awash in gifts of land, money, business interests and sons from noble families eager to help. They prospered. In 1139 the Pope exempted the Templars from local laws. Now they could freely pass borders, were immune from taxes, and were above all authority save the Pope. It was good to be a Templar.
By 1150 the Order was less military, more like a bank—in fact arguably the first international corporation. It had fleets of ships. It loaned money, managed farms, built castles, imported, exported, manufactured goods, and at one point even owned the entire island of Cyprus.
A pilgrim could put his estate under Templar control in return for a letter of credit, an encoded document showing the value, to redeem later in the Holy Land. In this way, some historians say, the Templars invented deposit accounts and chequing.
But when Islam recaptured Jerusalem (1187), they lost their headquarters, and fortune shifted. Popular support faded as campaigns floundered. The Pope began looking into charges (probably trumped up) of corruption. Jealous of Templar wealth, and deeply in debt to them after borrowing for his war with England, King Philip the Fair of France hatched a plan.
Jacques deMolay was the unfortunate Templar Grand Master who came to France to answer the charges. Seizing on the most bizarre rumors, the king arrested deMolay and his entourage for heresy and blasphemy. He bullied the pope into going along with the inquiry, which consisted mostly of torture. By thumbscrew, by rack, by boot and hot iron, for the next seven years, Philip drew lavish confessions from his hapless Templar prisoners: stories of blasphemous rituals, magic, sodomy or whatever else might shock the papal court. Some recanted, only to be handed back to their gentle inquisitors. Jacques recanted, confessed again, took a stand of silence, then recanted again when he saw that even Pope Clement V opposed him, and all was lost. The king called for a sentence of death. On March 18, 1314, on an island in the Sein river, Jacques and another Templar dignitary were led to the stake, and burned.
Descriptions vary. Most are horrific. Nearly all describe how deMolay cursed both King Philip and Pope Clement at the end: “Let evil swiftly befall those who have wrongly condemned us—God will avenge …” Interestingly, they both died soon after: Clement V a month later, likely from bowel cancer, and Philip later that year from a strange hunting accident.
Over years the story has engaged romantic historians and conspiracy buffs, by layers forming a rich alluvial humus of the imagination, a soil for mystery and myth. Fleeing Templar knights were said to have joined with Robert Bruce in Scotland, helping to repel the English invasion of King Edward. Semi-secret groups like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians still appropriate the Templar name, teasing history to prove a connection. The pseudo-historical Holy Blood, Holy Grail relates a strange scene from the French Revolution: “… the king’s head fell beneath the guillotine [and] an unknown man is reported to have leaped onto the scaffold … dipped his hand in the monarch’s blood, flung it out over the surrounding throng and cried, Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged!” (p. 80).
A common thread is that the Templar Order never died—it still exists, transformed or subsumed, benign or malevolent, saintly or satanic, heroic or occult: somewhere wrapped in shadow, it works to protect or control us. Such empire and influence could never end with a mere Papal penstroke.
It is a homage, really, a kind of song or poem, not just to lost Templar power, but to human imagination, how we seek patterns in the white noise and random scribblings of history.
Or perhaps the patterns are real. Ah, who can say?