The bad news is, you're on fire anyway

On August 20 of 1308, Jacques de Molay was formally absolved of heresy by Pope Clement V. Which seems kind of nice given the tangled bad feelings between the Grand Master of the Knights Templar and the Roman Pontiff, who had dissolved his order a year earlier partly because Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Templars and naturally figured that if he could just, you know, grab all their cash he’d be a much richer if not necessarily a better man. Uh, except for the bit where Philip had de Molay burned for heresy anyway.

Did I mention that Philip’s nickname “the Fair” pertained to the colour of his hair not his moral conduct? (Yes, on July 31.) He was also called “the Iron king” though in this case “the red hot Iron king" might have been more appropriate. He did not have de Molay burned all at once and not instantly, to be sure. He had him tortured in 1307, along with many other Templars, as a result of which they confessed to whatever to make it stop, giving Clement the rationale to dissolve the order and Philip to dissolve their bank accounts.

After that things get a bit obscure as well as bloody. Apparently the Pope and the King agreed to split the court proceedings that resulted from De Molay recanting his forced confession. And during the subsequent investigation into the crucial question whether the Templars denied Christ and Philip could get all their money, the king had 54 of them burnt at the stake in 1310.

De Molay and a few others were kept in a mouldy jail cell, from which they were dragged on March 18, 1314 to be told that as heretics they would spend the rest of their lives in a mouldy jail cell. But to the wonderment of all, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy for the Templars, staggered to their feet and said the only thing they were guilty of was a cowardly confession under torture to save their own hides at the expense of the Order. They said the Order was pure and holy and innocent, which led to the elaborate French legal proceeding of the king ordering them burnt immediately or rather, set on fire immediately and burnt slowly that very day.

They were, rejecting all offers of a pardon in return for retraction and managing to retain their composure within reason, thus earning themselves the status of martyrs and their charred bones were collected as relics.

Philip got the money though. And as for the Pope’s pardon, which you were wondering when I’d get to, regrettably it was discovered by an Italian paleographer named Barbara Frale in September 2001 in the Vatican Archives, at which point it was a bit late for de Molay’s secular prospects to perk up.

As for the other kind, surely the case gives one pause. Obviously it is not a great bargain to spend the rest of your life in a cell at the mercy of Philip the Fair in Name Only, and besides de Molay was 71 so he might have gotten out soon anyway. But for a man to whom torture was not just a word but a hideous personal reality, in the face of which he had once renounced all he believed in, to step forward a second time and risk among other things the humiliation of once again being unable to bear the pain is a very impressive act.

Who today might do such a thing? Not, one fears, those enjoying the loudest applause and most fulsome praise particularly from themselves. I suppose there have always been more willing to act the role of Philip the Fair or support it than Jacques de Molay. But I have little confidence that all the progress we congratulate ourselves on having experienced has improved that situation.