Jacques de Molay's goal as Grand Master was to reform the Order, and adjust it to the situation in the Holy Land during the waning days of the Crusades. As European support for the Crusades had dwindled, other forces were at work which sought to disband the Order and claim the wealth of the Templars as their own. King Philip IV of France, deeply in debt to the Templars, had Molay and many other French Templars arrested in 1307 and tortured into making false confessions. When Molay later retracted his confession, Philip had him burned upon a scaffold on an island in the River Seine in front of Notre Dame de Paris in March, 1314. The sudden end of both the centuries-old order of Templars and the dramatic execution of its last leader turned Molay into a legendary figure.
Little is known of his early years, but Jacques de Molay was probably born in Molay, Haute-Saône, in the County of Burgundy, at the time a territory ruled by Otto III as part of the Holy Roman Empire, and in modern times in the area of Franche-Comté, northeastern France. His birth year is not certain, but judging by statements made during the later trials, was probably around 1250. He was born, as most Templar knights were, into a family of minor or middle-ranking nobility. It is suggested that he was dubbed a knight at age 21 in 1265 and is known that he was executed in 1314, aged about 70. If correct, these dates lead to the belief that he was born about 1244.
In 1265, as a young man, he was received into the Order of the Templars in a chapel at the Beaune House, by Humbert de Pairaud, the Visitor of France and England. Another prominent Templar in attendance was Amaury de la Roche, Templar Master of the province of France.
Around 1270, Molay went to the East (Outremer), although little is recorded of his activities for the next twenty years.
After the Fall of Acre to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1291, the Franks (a name used in the Levant for Catholic Europeans) who were able to do so retreated to the island of Cyprus. It became the headquarters of the dwindling Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the base of operations for any future military attempts by the Crusaders against the Egyptian Mamluks, who for their part were systematically conquering any last Crusader strongholds on the mainland. Templars in Cyprus included Jacques de Molay and Thibaud Gaudin, their 22nd Grand Master. During a meeting assembled on the island in the autumn of 1291, Molay spoke of reforming the Order and put himself forward as an alternative to the current Grand Master. Gaudin died around 1292 and, as there were no other serious contenders for the role at the time, Molay was soon elected. In spring 1293, he began a tour of the West to try to muster more support for a reconquest of the Holy Land. Developing relationships with European leaders such as Pope Boniface VIII, Edward I of England, James I of Aragon and Charles II of Naples, Molay's immediate goals were to strengthen the defence of Cyprus and rebuild the Templar forces. From his travels, he was able to secure authorization from some monarchs for the export of supplies to Cyprus, but could obtain no firm commitment for a new Crusade. There was talk of merging the Templars with one of the other military orders, the Knights Hospitaller. The Grand Masters of both orders opposed such a merger, but pressure increased from the Papacy.