Island of the Templars

On a hot summer’s day after exiting the famous bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, I am greeted by the sight of Notre Dame cathedral. Contrary to the gothic sense of gloom so often portrayed, the Notre Dame stands valiant and bright in the Parisian sunshine.



Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, Paris
IMAGE CREDIT:  Devika Lishanin

I find it easy to get lost in the chaos; weaving amongst the crowds of tourists eager to explore a cultural metropole.

On the plaza of the cathedral is a bronze equestrian statue of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, now a deep turquoise due to oxidisation over time, having been completed in 1878.

After absorbing more of the typical tourist sites, I cross the road and continue through the busy pavements of Paris, eventually winding up at the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the Seine.

I make my way down a set of stairs which are situated next to another oxidised equestrian style statue – this time King Henry IV of France.



Left: Statue of Charlemagne, King of the Franks – Paris.
Right: Statue of King Henry IV of France, Pont Neuf, Paris
IMAGE CREDIT:  Devika Lishanin

The bottom of the staircase leads to the entrance of a small park, the Square du Vert Galant.

Historically, Île aux Juifs, literally translating to “Island of the Jews” due to the numerous executions of Jewish people which took place during the Middle Ages, used to be part of the Square.

An alternate name, Île des Templiers, or “Island of the Templars” pertains to its position as the execution site of Jacques du Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

By the staircase lays a plaque dedicated to this very event:

‘A cet endroit / Jacques de Molay / Dernier grand maître / de l’ordre du temple / a été brûlé le 18 Mars 1314’

(‘In this location / Jacques de Molay / Last grand master / of the order of the temple / was burned on 18 March 1314’).

Across, at the entrance of the park is another commemoration plaque establishing the little park as a part of the “Histoire des Paris”.


Île des Templiers – Isle of the Templars – Square du Vert Galant, Paris.
IMAGE CREDIT:  Devika Lishanin

The park is near enough full of occupants, but still manages to maintain a languid and leisurely air, providing for a gentle stroll with close view of the Seine – close enough to dangle your feet over.

In the heat of a Parisian summer, it is almost surreal to imagine this secluded, picturesque park as the site of such brutal political executions, which stemmed from the loss of the Holy Land in the aftermath of the Crusades, for which the Templars were blamed.

Because of this, the once celebrated Order garnered a sense of wariness and distrust from the monarchies of Europe, only maintaining Cyprus as their main stronghold in the East.

The relationship between the Templars and the French monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, was further antagonised by Molay’s opposition to Pope Clement V’s proposal of forming a coalition between the military orders in the event of a new crusade.

Molay’s assertion of his belief in the strength of the separation of the various military orders, completely countered the interests of Pope Clement V and those of France’s King Philip IV, who was already in abysmal debt to the Templars.



Detail of a miniature of the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars and another Templar. From the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, BL Royal MS 20 C vii f. 48r/h


IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

On 13 of October 1307, the arrests and interrogations of the Templars began under the command of Philip IV, with their trials continuing for the next seven years, eventually culminating in the 1314 execution of Molay.

The initial charges included renunciation and spitting on the cross upon initiation into the Order, along with several other concocted allegations of blasphemy, idol worship, obscenity and heresy.

Eventually the charges would be greatly increased, spearheaded by the King’s intent to demolish the order, and upon doing so, seize their wealth, with the religious nature of the charges also helping to maintain the King’s façade as a servant of God, further cementing the concept of his Divine Right to rule.

By 24 of October, most likely under torture of the King’s inquisitors, Molay confessed to the crimes during his interrogation.

He apparently admitted that the initiation into the order included the denial of Christ and “trampling on the cross.”

Molay was additionally made to write letters to all the Templars, asking them to admit to the charges, thus giving justification for King Philip to escalate pressure on the Pope, who would call for the arrest of all the Templars within the Christendom.

In December, the Pope, willing to take into consideration Molay’s version of events, sent two cardinals to Paris, where Molay would take back his earlier confessions, instead claiming they had been exacted by torture.

However, the damage had already been done. Another questioning, this time in the presence of royal agents, resulted in Molay turning back to his admissions of heresy made under force.

Although he again disavowed his previous admissions two years later by refusing to acknowledge the allegations against his order, King Philip already had enough in the form of the previous confession to sentence fifty-four Templars to their deaths at the stake in May 1310.

Interestingly though, it was not King Philip who gave the final order for Molay’s grisly demise.

Molay, along with fellow Templar Geoffroi de Charney, was sentenced to death under the jurisdiction of the cardinals in France representing the Pope. 

On 18 March 1314, Jacques de Molay and fellow Templar leaders Geoffroi de Charney, Hugues de Peraud, and Godefroi de Gonneville were released from their seven-year captivity and brought to a scaffold on Île aux Juifs in the river Seine, which was located across from the King’s palace, making a more convenient viewing for him.

Molay also requested to be facing the Notre Dame Cathedral so that he could die in prayer.

However, before their deaths, Molay and Charney proclaimed their innocence once again – the only crime they were guilty of was the betrayal of their own Order to save themselves.

In contrast to the typical arrangements of the time in which those sentenced to the pyre would die from asphyxiation, Molay’s pyre was prepared in the inquisitorial method so that he would slowly burn alive from the feet upwards to prolong his suffering.

Despite this degree of cruelty inflicted upon him, eyewitnesses to the execution said that Molay showed no fear in the moments leading up to his death, with French chronicler Guillame de Nangis recounting that;

“They [the Templars]  were seen to be so prepared to sustain the fire with easy mind and will, that they brought from all those who saw them much admiration and surprise for the constancy of their death and final denial…” 



The execution site of Jacques du Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights’ Templar bears a plaque with the epitaph ‘A cet endroit / Jacques de Molay / Dernier grand maître / de l’ordre du temple / a été brûlé le 18 Mars 1314’ (‘In this location / Jacques de Molay / Last Grand Master / of the Order of the Temple / was burned on 18 March 1314’). Photos: Devika Lishanin
IMAGE CREDIT:  Devika Lishanin

The martyrdom of Molay, which for some drew parallels to the crucifixion of Christ, gave way to legend of a curse.

Upon proclaiming his innocence at his execution, legend says that he cursed the Pope, King Philip IV, and all his descendants.

Geoffroi de Paris, a chronicler who served as a clerk in King Philip’s court recounted the last words of Molay in verse as:

 “God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned. Misfortune will soon befall those who have wrongly condemned us; God will avenge our deaths. Make no mistake, all who are against us will suffer because of us…”

On 29 of November 1314, King Philip IV would die of a stroke whilst out hunting in the Forest of Halette, and within fourteen years, all of his sons and grandsons would also die, bringing an end to the dynastic House of Capet which had reigned over France for three hundred years.

Pope Clement would succumb to illness and die in April of 1314. In “A History of The Inquisition of The Middle Ages, Volume 3”, American publisher and historian Henry Charles Lea states that;

“…Philippe’s death was spoken of as a retribution for his destruction of the Templars, and Clement was described as shedding tears of remorse on his deathbed for three great crimes, the poisoning of Henry VII, Holy Roman Emperor, and the ruin of the Templars and Beguines.”

To further galvanise the air of mystique surrounding Molay’s curse, rumours arose that the church where the Pope’s body lay in state was set alight after being struck by lightning from a storm.  

However, a discovery over five centuries after Molay’s death would cast a new light on the circumstances of his demise, and call into question whether his brutal execution could have been prevented after all.

In 2001, palaeographer Barbara Frale discovered a document entitled The Chinon Parchment in the Vatican Secret Archives, which confirmed Pope Clement V’s absolution of Molay and the other Order leaders in August of 1308 after their extended interrogation by his trusted cardinals.

Upon hearing the Templar’s defence against the accusations, for example spitting on the cross, which was justified by the argument that it prepared them in the event of capture by a Muslim enemy during the Crusades, would capture the Pope’s sympathies and result in their absolution. It stated that:

“we decided to extend the absolution of these acts to brother James of Molay, the Grand Master of the said order, who in the form and manner described above had denounced in our presence the described and other heresy, and sowre in person on the Lord’s Holy Gospel, and humbly asked for the mercy of absolution, restoring him to unity with the Church and reinstating him to communion of the faithful and sacraments of the Church.”

This absolution, which had the potential to save Molay and the other Templars from their fate was never released to the public, instead being hidden away and documented in 1628 under a vague description.

The dissolution of a centuries’ old Order and its leader came to a conclusion on this meagre island.

For some, it is a place to delve into a shrouded Parisian past floating on the banks of the Seine.

For others it is a place to lay on a patch of grass, watching the bustling streets of Paris hurry by underneath the watchful eye of the summer sun.

Molay’s shouted proclamation of innocence and his curse has settled into the murmurs of lovers sharing a cigarette, the chatter of schoolchildren unable to stand still.

The Parisians who rushed to rummage through the ashes of the Templar leaders, now rush with the same sense of vigour through the restless streets of the metropole, in search of their own holy relics for the day.

Devika Lishanin is a student of English Literature, Modern History, and Fine Art. Her love of travel, history and culture is encapsulated in her travelogue writings.

The Templars: The Secret History Revealed

By: Barbara Frale

With a Foreword by bestselling author Umberto Eco, The Templars chronicles the rise and fall of the organization against a sweeping backdrop of war, religious fervor, and the struggle for dominance,

Barbara Frale gives us an explosive, exhaustively researched history of the medieval world’s most powerful military order, the Templars. At its height, the Order of the Knights Templar rivaled the kingdoms of Europe in military might, economic power, and political influence. For 700 years, the tragic demise of this society of warrior-monks amid accusations of heresy has been plagued by controversy, in part because the transcript of their trial by the Inquisition—which held the key to the truth—had vanished. The table of contents includes:
1. Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Temple
2. An Order of Holy Warriors
3. The Templar Code of Honor
4. In Service to the Holy Land
5. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Papacy, Philip the Fair, and Jacques de Molay
6. On Trial
Historian Barbara Frale happened to be studying a document at the Vatican Secret Archives when she suddenly realized that it was none other than the long-lost transcript! It revealed that Pope Clement V had absolved the order of all charges of heresy. Let her finally lift the centuries-old cloak of mystery surrounding the world’s most intriguing secret society.


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