700 Years Ago...March 18, 1314...A Solemn Anniversary: The Execution of Jacques DeMolay
700 years ago, Knights Templar leader Jacques DeMolay was presented to the public near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Held in chains by the French king for seven years, DeMolay was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, known then as the Holy Church's own warrior-monks. At that time, DeMolay, who was by then quite elderly, was expected to publicly confess the many alleged and supposedly sordid "crimes" of the Templars, many of which had been supposedly admitted to under torture by the imprisoned knights.
As DeMolay cleared his throat and began to speak, the world would never be the same.
The tale began like this: On Friday, October 13, 1307, the Templars in France were rounded up under the orders of the French King Phillip IV "The Fair" and put into dungeons and chains (which is where we got the Friday 13th "bad luck" legend). Within hours, and under torture, confessions were allegedly extracted from the imprisoned knights, attributing all manner of horrible deeds and beliefs to the secret Templar organization.
As the tale continues, although incensed that his warrior-monks had been put into chains, the Pope was nonetheless persuaded to permit the investigations to proceed. Indeed, there was little that he could do, as the French king had already moved the Seat of the Papal Court from Rome to Avignon, France.
High drama and politics were, of course, involved with all of this. The French king had supposedly sought the aid of the Templars and had been denied. The Templars, it seems, were a fairly independent bunch, even reportedly helping to force the English King John to sign the Magna Carta a century before. Back then, you did not push kings around, but the Templars, under the protection of the Church, were rather independent for their time, and that was apparently what got them into hot water.
Anyway, when the captive DeMolay began to speak, he proclaimed that the Templars were completely innocent of all that they had been accused of. At that point, DeMolay was quickly ushered by the French soldiers over to an island in the Seine River, where he was burned alive that same evening, along with a fellow knight. As historians will tell you, those burnings could be slow or fast, and DeMolay's burning was ordered to be as slow as possible. A legend has it that from the stake DeMolay cried out for the French king and the Pope to join him before God that year for judgement, and indeed both King and the Pope died shortly afterwards.
What happened after DeMolay's death we do not know for certain. Some believe the Freemasons were born out of the surviving Templars. (There is even a Masonic Knights Templar group still around these days.) Others like to tell the tale about later that year when the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce, was at the point of losing the Battle of Bannokburn with the English when a group of Templars on horseback took the field to save the day. One Templar emblem, a skull with crossed bones, became a symbol of pirates, and reportedly the French king never captured the Templar fleet of ships (or the Templar treasures). There are stories as well that the Templars secretly came to America. There is a round stone building (Templar churches were often built in that manner) here in Rhode Island that some feel was a Templar edifice. Many Templar-related questions like these remain unanswered.
How true any or all of this is we may never know for sure, although volumes have been written both in support of and against the Templars. One thing we do know: Since the death of DeMolay on this date 700 years ago, and putting aside the question of Templar guilt or innocence, the absolute power of governments was shattered forever. From that point on, governments would have to be much more responsible and responsive to the people whom they served.
Since the birth of our own nation, from the Boston Tea Party forward, there have always been people (whether liberal or conservative or whatever else their personal political beliefs might be) who have been unwilling to stand for governmental injustice. Freedom of conscience and thought, protection for the weak, compassion for the less fortunate, protection for the virtuous, and a strong spirit of justice for all continue to be timeless human goals that were brought into high public focus with the death of Jacques DeMolay.
Lakewood's DeMolay youth organization, meeting at Lakewood's historic Masonic Temple, has been around for many years. Founded in Kansas City, Missouri, by Frank S. Land in the early years of the twentieth century, the DeMolay organization continues to honor the memory of Jacques DeMolay and his contribution to our world.