The story behind the story: Les rois maudits (the accursed kings)

Philip the Fair, King of France

Philip the Fair, King of France

A while ago I read in a French interview with George R.R. Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones, that one of his inspirations for his saga was Les rois maudits [The Accursed Kings], the seven-volume historical fiction series written by Maurice Druon between 1955 and 1977. Apparently Druon wasn’t terribly proud of them, having dashed them off to make money. He went back later and rewrote the first few, which are amazingly well researched.

I love sagas, and as a fond reader of ancient Chinese history, which resembles them somewhat in its vast sweep, fascinating stories, lovable heroes, and sudden brutality, I had enjoyed the Game of Thrones books (in spite of two or three “he looked at her with loathing” in the first book….). So I plunged into the first volume, Le roi de fer [The Iron King] on a plane to the U.S. at Christmas, and just finished the last book yesterday. I feel bereft! That’s what a good saga does to you.

Les rois maudits opens with a bang. The strong, effective king Philip the Fair, grandson of Saint Louis, has united France, dominated the Papacy, which was then installed in Avignon, and rules with an iron fist. Coveting the riches of the powerful Knights Templar, he forces the Pope to declare them heretics, seizes their fortresses, and burns the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay at the stake. The king is watching from his stand.

The Grand Master curses the king for burning innocents

The Grand Master curses the king for burning innocents

Suddenly, the voice of the Grand Master rose through the curtain of fire, and, as if speaking to every single person, hit everyone in the face. With a stupefying force, as he had done before Notre-Dame, Jacques de Molay cried,

“Shame! Shame! You see innocents dying. Shame on all of you! God will judge  you.”

The terrified crowd had become silent. It was as if a mad prophet were being burned.

From this face on fire, the frightening voice declared:

“Pope Clement! Chevalier Guillaume! King Philip! Before the year is out, I call you to appear before the tribunal of God to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! All accursed till the thirteenth generation of your race!”

And before the year is out, the pope, the chief prosecutor Guillaume de Nogaret, and the king do indeed die.

On this spot, Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on the 18th of March 1314

“On this spot, Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on the 18th of March 1314”

In real life, as in the book, the Grand Templar met his end with great courage, and the common people collected his ashes with reverence. Today, in Paris, you can see the plaque marking this spot on the side of the Pont Neuf.

to be continued

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