The Paris Temple was in the area known today as the Marais, which is on the Right Bank just west of the Bastille. The Marais is one of the most atmospheric parts of Paris; it was left largely untouched by Baron Haussmann, the nineteenth-century planner whose love of the straight line and the grand vista led him to demolish great swathes of the old city to create the long broad boulevards lined by six- to seven-storey buildings with uniform grey facades and mansard roofs that are the architectural hallmark of Paris today. Instead the Marais is a warren of enchanting narrow streets which preserve magnificent Renaissance mansions built round intimate courtyards and humbler but no less appealing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century streets of stucco facades and slatted shutters. Yet the area was nothing more than a riverside swamp (marais) until the Knights Templar drained the land in the 1140s and built their headquarters in its northern part, then outside the city walls, in what is now called the Quartier du Temple.
Now nothing remains of the Paris Temple except the name itself. But the rues du Temple, Bretagne, Picardie and Beranger more or less define the place occupied by the Templars’ French headquarters, which was a considerable compound fortified with walls and towers to which they added, in the late thirteenth century, a powerfully built keep which was nearly twice as high as the White Tower, the keep at the heart of the Tower of London. The Templar keep in Paris was the main strongroom for the Templar bank, which was also, in effect, the treasury of the kings of France.
The close relationship between the French crown and the Templars probably explains why King Philip IV’s officials were able to walk right in to the Temple at dawn on Friday 13 October 1307. Their action was so sudden, and the shock and surprise so complete, that there was no resistance. The keep, which had been the Templars’ stronghold, immediately became their prison, and the two thousand or so Templars arrested simultaneously throughout France were also brought here for incarceration, examination and torture.
After the abolition of the Templars, the Paris Temple became the abode of artisans and debtors eager to avoid official regulations by living outside the city walls. But a new wall built in 1357 brought the Temple within the embrace of the growing city where it remained standing for four and a half centuries more. During the French Revolution King Louis XVI was imprisoned in the Templar keep and it was from there in January 1793 that he was led out to the guillotine in what is now the Place de la Concorde. In 1808 the keep was demolished by Napoleon, who was eager to eradicate anything that might become a focus of sympathy for the royal family.
Ile des Javiaux: the Burning of the Last Templars
On the evening of 18 March 1314 James of Molay, the Templar Grand Master, and Geoffrey of Charney, the Templar’s master of Normandy, were burnt at the stake on the Ile de Javiaux in the Seine. It is said that as James of Molay was bound to the stake he asked to be allowed to face the Cathedral of Notre Dame. You can revisit the scene, but you must make allowances for changes in the river. Medieval maps of Paris show four islands in the Seine. The westernmost is the Ile de la Cité with the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The next two islands to the east are shown as uninhabited; they have since joined together to form the Ile St Louis. The easternmost island of the four, which is also shown as uninhabited, is the Ile des Javiaux–but there is no island there today. Instead the island has become attached to the north bank of the Seine, and what was once the river channel to the north is now the Boulevard Morland. Along the Quai Henri IV, which follows the outline of what was the southern side of the Ile des Javiaux, there is a plaque which reads: A cet endroit Jacques de Molay dernier grand maitre de l’ordre du Temple été brulé le 18 Mars 1314–‘On this spot James of Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on 18 March 1314’. The Cathedral of Notre Dame still forms part of the view.