The Knights Templar in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 13:50 15 May 2019
Nine centuries after the Knights Templar was founded, they still fire the imagination. In Herts, a key temple, land and the creation of a new town are all part of the story and legend
It's 900 years since the order was founded in Jerusalem, but the Knights Templar has lost none of its power to captivate and intrigue us. Speculation and conspiracy about its activities at home and abroad continues to inspire books, films and last year a major television drama, Knightfall, with fans eagerly awaiting season two.
But did you know there are strong connections between Hertfordshire and this most famous, yet mysterious, of religious orders?
Formed in around 1119 (historians can't quite agree the date) after the First Crusade to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, the Templars, or The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon as they are properly called, are best known as an elite fighting force. But their remit over time went much wider than crusading. While knights battled to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands, the growing band of the Templars' non-fighting representatives wielded power of another kind, acting as bankers and advisers to royalty and the ruling classes of Europe; controlling a sizeable empire which stretched across the continent.
It was with a view to recruiting new crusaders that the order's Grand Master ventured to England in 1128. The country was to become an important territory for the Templars. The Middle Eastern crusades drained money and manpower with astonishing speed, and England provided willing recruits for the cause and generated much-needed funds to finance it.
Income came primarily from land holdings. Sizeable plots were gifted to the Templars by noblemen and wealthy landowners who believed that assisting the order was their Christian duty and such a donation would ensure their sins were absolved in the afterlife. Extensive land holdings, including many sites in Hertfordshire, allowed the Templars to accrue rents and produce commodities for trade, and also assisted with its banking operations. The order acted as guardians of money and valuables for pilgrims and crusaders travelling to the Middle East, giving them a letter of credit which could be exchanged for funds in other Templar territories. Its European network of secure estates also made them ideally placed to assist with the transfer of funds between countries. Hertfordshire had a stake in these activities, not least because of its proximity to the capital and its good infrastructure network.
So important was the county in fact, the Templars chose to place a preceptory here - second only to that of its English headquarters, Temple Church, today in the City of London. Temple Dinsley was in Preston, near Hitchin, on land where Princess Helena College (above) now stands. The monastery-cum-fortified manor house hosted the ceremonies at which the majority of Englishmen joining the order were officially received as knights. It was also at Temple Dinsley that the Templars held many of their national chapter meetings, through which the order's activities across England were managed.
On a day-to-day basis, the preceptory was probably home to members of the order who managed Templar land in the area, and ensured the profits were safely transferred abroad. They would have acted much as any conventional lord of the manor: collecting rents from tenants who farmed the land which lay beyond the preceptory's walls, employing labourers and taking advantage of the fishing and hunting privileges the order had been granted. Since these privileges were extensive, and the Templars enjoyed exemption from many taxes, it's likely there was friction between the order and the local community. Evidence suggests the Templars were fairer landlords than some however.
Crusader and Hitchin lord of the manor Bernard de Balliol gave land in the area to the Templars. He probably worshipped at Temple Dinsley, and was eventually buried there. A worn and damaged stone effigy of a knight in armour with sword lying at rest under one of the windows of St Mary's Church in Hitchin is thought to be him, taken from his tomb. It's one of the very few objects that link to the old preceptory. Nothing of the building itself remains.
A more lasting testament to the Templars' time in the county is Baldock. The creation of a new town here by the Templars was a money-making venture, and they chose their location well. By 1185, Baldock was a thriving market town, and one of the order's most profitable sites in England - thanks to its situation on both the main road north from London and the Icknield Way.
The Templars encouraged merchants to relocate to the town with exemptions from market tolls, and divided up the land around it into small plots for lease by tenant farmers, ensuring a steady stream of rental income. The order's handiwork is still evident in the town's layout, which retains a very wide high street - set aside for a market place. At the end of the High Street, the parish church of St Mary's has a relic of the Templar era too. Although the church built on the site by the order was substantially redeveloped in the 14th and 15th centuries, part of the original chancel remains. The name of the town is also a link to the Templars' crusades. It is thought to derive from the Old French word Baldac - Baghdad.
Could it be true?
While Baldock and Preston are indisputably connected with
the Templars, the county also has its share of the myth and speculation which so often surrounds the order.
Under the streets of Royston is a man-made cavern, its walls covered with carvings. That it was once used by the Templars as a secret hideout remains a popular theory, particularly since some of the carvings appear to depict saints known to have been revered by the order. But as cave manager James Robinson says, any link with the Templars is purely 'in the realms of speculation'.
It's been the subject of conjecture since it was discovered in 1742 by workmen. Opinion has now shifted against any link with the Templars - experts believe the carvings were created long after the order was disbanded - but where concrete evidence is lacking, there will always be room for speculation. And given the Templars' ultimate fate, it is tempting to believe they went underground in the face of persecution.
The end game
It was primarily a malign propaganda campaign that led to the order's spectacular fall from grace in 1307 - what historian Dan Jones has called 'medieval fake news'. The Templars were accused of some of the blackest offences of their time, including corruption, blasphemy and sexual crimes. This campaign would not have been so successful, however, if there had not been by this time growing dissatisfaction at its failure to keep the crusader states in Christian hands.
Deeply in debt to the Templars, King Philip IV of France ordered arrests, torture and burning at the stake. In 1308 Edward II of England also ordered the arrest of Templars. Six were seized that year at Temple Dinsley.
The preceptory itself was the subject of a subsequent inquiry, as it was rumoured to be the hiding place of much of the Templars' vast wealth. In fact, what wealth the Templars had in England was chiefly in the form of land and property, most of which was given away to a rival organisation, the Hospitallers, when the order was formally dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1312.
Despite extensive searches no treasure was found at Preston, nor has it been since, although the rumour persists to this day - even the girls of Princess Helena College have been known to take a dip in the school pond looking for the fabled treasure! The Templars might be long gone from the county, but they've certainly never been forgotten.
With thanks to local historian Philip Wray and Royston Cave manager James Robinson.