The Inquisition and the Knights Templar

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

(Credit: Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templars, burnt alive as a lapsed heretic in Paris on 11 March 1314. Wood engraving by J. David. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.)

The trial of the Knights Templar demonstrates how unjust the Inquisition could be. The charges of heresy against them were almost certainly fabricated. No real evidence was ever produced to support the accusations. The best that could be managed was hearsay evidence such as that of a priest (William de la Forde) who had heard from another priest (Patrick de Ripon) that a Templar had once told him, under the inviolable seal of confession, about some rather improbable goings on. Inquisitors obtained the most damning evidence through the use of torture. In countries where torture was not permitted, the Templars denied the charges, however badly they were otherwise treated and however long they were imprisoned. As soon as torture was applied the required confessions materialised. Inquisitors refused to attach their seals to depositions unless they included confessions, so that only one side of the case appeared in official records. In France, where torture was applied freely, there were many confessions, and also many deaths under torture. Accused templars who retracted their confessions faced death at the stake as relapsed heretics.

Wherever the charges were investigated without applying torture, no confessions were made and no other evidence found. When no English Templars could be induced to confess, the Pope insisted that torture be applied when the Archbishop of Mainz delivered a verdict favourable to the Templars at a provincial council, the Pope simply annulled it. When it looked as though the Templars in Cyprus might be acquitted, the Pope ordered a new trial backed by torture. When the fate of the Templars was considered at the Council of Vienne late in 1311 the cardinals had “a long dispute” as to whether a defence should be heard at all. In the event no defence was heard and the Pope enforced the King of France’s demand that the Order be suppressed.

Under torture, the Templar Grand Master himself, Jacques de Molay, confessed — though it is likely that his confession was fabricated or at least added to, since he was dumbfounded when it was read out to him. When he tried to mount a defence on behalf of the Templar Order, he was told that “in cases of heresy and the faith it was necessary to proceed simply, summarily, and without the noise of advocates and the form of judges”. Since all of the Order’s assets had been seized there was in any case no way for him to mount an effective defence. By asking to do so he invited death at the stake, as a number of churchmen pointed out at the time.

After years in prison and unknown amounts of torture he confessed in exchange for the promise of a sentence of perpetual imprisonment. The sentence was to be delivered in public, but did not go as planned. As an expert on the Inquisition, put it:

“The cardinals dallied with their duty until 18 March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy, Hugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offences which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.”

(Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages Vol. III, NY: Hamper & Bros, Franklin Sq. 1888, p. 325)

Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney were roasted alive, slowly, over a smokeless fire. (A document known as the Chinon Parchment, discovered in September 2001 by Barbara Frale in the Vatican Secret Archives, confirms that Pope Clement V knew Jacques de Molay and other leaders of the Order to be innocent as early as 1208).

Templar assets were divided up between Church and State, and interest in the fates of individual Templars immediately subsided.

The activities of the Medieval Inquisition were so terrible that the memory of them has survived throughout Europe to the present day. Some Christians acknowledge that the Inquisition was one of the most sinister that the world has ever known, and now attribute its work to satanic forces. On the other hand there are many others prepared to defend its record.

More detail, with references and photos at

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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