Happily walking through the nice English garden of Square du Temple, in the III arrondissement, it’s difficult to believe that this part of Paris could hold some of the most dark and grim memories of its history. The well-kept flower beds, the children running and the cafés full of people all around have nothing of the dull atmosphere that weighed on this side of the city until 1810.
In the fateful year 1291 the powerful Templar Order, born to defend the pilgrimage roads and free the sacred christian places of worship in the Holy Land from the “infidels” (we’re in the 1128 here), was finally defeated, and retreated from Palestine. The Grand Master – who had to feel not so “grand” at the time – made sure to secure the legendary treasure of the Order, and his own life, behind the walls of their most well-protected headquarters in Europe: Paris. Really, at the time, the Temple was an actual fortified city inside the French capital, and the small garden we’re walking in is a small part of it, the western part, which was right in front of the great tower.
The Temple was completely self-sufficient, impregnable and, in many ways, untouchable. The castellated walls and its legendary tower were so impenetrable that King Philippe IV, Le Bel (‘The Handsome’, 1268-1314), had no choice but flee behind them to escape an angry mob. The last unwise financial decisions of the monarch had exhausted the people, and the beautiful ice-blue eyes of the King weren’t enough to quench the riot. This suggest not only that the Temple tower was safer than the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, where the king lived, but also safer than the royal fortress of the Louvre.
(To learn the intriguing building history of the famous Louvre read: Louvre Ghosts: everything began with a small castle).
The Templars gladly welcomed the endangered king and, for once in their life, made a terrible rookie mistake. His visit between the walls of that cumbersome State-within-a-State gave him the time to get an impression of the richness of the Order. The Treasure got his complete attention and admiration, not to mention an incredible allure since the royal coffers were crying out loud and needed to be filled with something more than hopes and cobwebs. Not to mention the great power that the Order yielded, gathered in years of wise financial operations – not like his ones – which had led them to create a proper international deposit bank, operative in the whole of Europe.
His Majesty’s gracious host was Jacques de Molay (1244/49 – 1314), Grand Master of the Order. The relationship between Philippe and the Grand Master had always been great, almost informal, but how could the Iron King not abide by the “Reason of State” – even if Giovanni Botero still hadn’t invented it -? France was drowning in debts which were, for a great part, with the Order itself. As sad as it could be, the solution couldn’t be more obvious to the rigid Iron King whose eyes, it appears, weren’t the only icy part of his anatomy.
On Friday 13th October 1307, a date that made the history of legends and superstitions, the Templars were arrested. For the next seven years, the Knights of the Temple were constantly persecuted, put on trial, tortured under the weight of the shameful accusation of blasphemy and heresy. The Order was definitively abolished in 1312 by order of pope Clemence V.
Jacques de Molay spent seven years in the royal prisons and, for a time, he was imprisoned even here, in the Square du Temple, in the same tower he once protected. The last Grand Master was put at the stake on March 18th, 1314 with his brother-in-arms Geoffroy de Charnay. The pyre was erected on a small island of the seine, today incorporated by the Île-de-la-Cité, the Island where you can find Nôtre-Dame Cathedral.
Legend says that Jacques de Molay cast, from the flames, a curse which called Pope Clemens V and Philippe IV to answer for their actions in front of God before a year would pass, and what actually happened: the first died of a fever, the second probably for a stroke. It appears that, along the centuries, tradition and tales made the words of the Grand Master – although already clear enough – incredibly explicit. They were, in fact:
God knows who’s right and who’s wrong: and misfortune will hastily fall on who has, wrongfully, sentenced us. God will avenge our death! People, know that, in truth, each of our enemies, because of us, will suffer. Sure of this, I want to die.
From the deposition of
Geoffroy de Paris, the King’s Chancellor.
The grim silhouette of the Temple’s tower remained an important part of Paris’s skyline for the next 500 years and during the centuries, it is known, sad stories tend to pile up.
In August 1792, the deposed monarch Louis XVI, his wife Marie-Antoinette, their fourteen-years-old daughter Marie Thérèse, the ex-dauphin Louis-Charles, barely seven, the king’s sister Madame Èlisabeth and the last servant of the king, Monsieur Henet Cléry, were imprisoned in the Temple’s prison. Many misfortunes had led this small group to cross the threshold of such a grim place, but the worst ones were still to come. Just like, outside the walls, nature became more and more gloomy, with darker and colder days as winter was coming, the prisoners’ hopes became weaker and weaker.
With the fall came the news of the horrible September Massacres, and of the lynching of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s best and most faithful friend: Madame de Lamballe. When a guard brutally told the news to the ex-queen, she fainted.
Later, in the heart of winter, the tower echoed with the terrible farewells of a man torn from his family. Louis Capet – so they called the deposed Louis XVI – was leaving to face the guillotine.
Next summer, the heart-breaking howls of Marie-Antoinette, who was being separated from little Louis-Charles, would forever be burned into the memories of those who were there.
The child was moved to another cell to face the most terrible destiny. He died after almost two years of solitude, without being able to see any member of his family anymore.
He was too dangerous for the revolutionary government and too young to be executed. Louis-Charles, called King Louis XVII by the loyalists, was kept more and more isolated until fear, abuse, sickness, and sorrow killed him. (To know more about the imprisonment of the royal family I suggest you read: A Guide to Marie-Antoinette’s Paris).
Sometimes I marvel at how some idyllic places could hide the most bloody memories, but for Square du Temple the clearing of the remembrances is explained by history.
The Temple had become a place of pilgrimage for royalists right after the Monarchs’ death. To avoid that the tower would become a downright sacred place for the monarchist faction – who considered Napoleon Bonaparte none other than a usurper – it was demolished in 1810.
Later on, it was decided to definitely expunge the sad memories with a beautiful town hall with a garden, a very popular vital center of the quarter, that today resounds of more happy screams.