The Knights Templar (more correctly, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or The Order of Solomon’s Temple) are a well-known military order of religious knights. Their history (and pseudo-history) is well known, and following their suppression in the early fourteenth century, their properties were transferred to another order, the Hospitallers. As with the Templars, the commonly used name is a contraction of the more wordy The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.

The origins of the Order are complex, but it survives to the present day. Traditionally, the Order began operating about 1099, following the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. They were based in an existing hospice run by a Brother Gérard de Martigues (about 1040-1120). It had been established about 1058 on the site of a Late Roman building traditionally identified as the Church of St John the Baptist, said to have been founded by the Empress Aelia Eudocia (about 401-460), wife of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II (401-450), who lived in the city for the last seventeen years of her life after marriage had broken down. Brother Gérard looked after injured crusaders following their occupation of the city, and those who recovered founded the military order, taking its name from the hospitium he ran.

In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognised the knights as a Sovereign Order, as it had quickly become wealthy and had established daughter houses along the pilgrim route from western Europe to Outremer (the name of the Crusader state). By the later twelfth century, the Hospital had grown to be able to look after a thousand sick and injured knights. They also took on a role similar to that of the Templars, of providing military escorts to pilgrims arriving in Outremer. Of their many possessions, the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria is perhaps the best known and certainly the most spectacular.

After Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin in 1187, the Knights moved first to Tyre and then to Acre in 1191. That city fell to the Mamluks in 1291, ending the existence of Outremer, and the Knights fled to Cyprus. To avoid political disputes on the island, the Knights chose to move to Rhodes, and after a four-year campaign, eventually took it from the Roman Empire (don’t call it Byzantine!) in 1310. Two centuries later in 1552, Sultan Süleyman-ı Evvel (Suleiman the Magnificent, 1494-1566) captured Rhodes and expelled the Knights, who fled to Sicily. Pope Clement II (1478-1534, himself a member of the Order) and Holy Roman Emperor Karl V (1500-1558) agreed to settle the Knights in Malta, Gozo and Tripoli. In 1566, work began on creating a new capital city and base for the Order, which became known as Valletta after its founder, Grand Master la Vallette.

The Order remained in Malta until Napoléon’s invasion as part of his Egyptian campaign in 1798. This was a devastating blow to the Order, as no single European nation was willing to give it land. Russian Emperor Paul I (1754-1801) gave the greatest number of Knights land in St Petersburg, where they remained until the Revolution in 1917. In 1834, some of the surviving Knights settled in Rome, establishing themselves as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (otherwise known as The Sovereign Military Order of Malta), where it continues to operate mainly as a humanitarian charity, with Permanent Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly since 1994. 112 countries regard it as a sovereign state, issuing its own passports but with only three citizens (the three principal officers of the Order). Several other Orders – The Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg), The Order of Saint John in Sweden, Johanniter Orde in Nederland and Most Venerable Order of Saint John in England – claim with varying degrees of plausibility also to be descendants of the medieval order.

As they had across Europe, the Hospitallers gained many estates in England throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their holdings were increased after the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1312. Among those transferred to the Hospitallers was the preceptory at Temple Dinsley, said to have been the largest outside London, which was home to six brethren and twelve visitors in 1309. The manor of Temple Dinsley was carved from part of the lost manor of Waylay before 1147, and the manorial histories of other parts of Dinsley (Furnival Dinsley, now Maydencroft, and Dinsley, now St Ippollitts) make reconstruction of the history of Temple Dinsley challenging. Although many accounts state that the manor passed into various hands, we can never be certain which of the Dinsley manors is being discussed in the primary documents.

We do know that in 1330, the Prior of the Hospital of St John leased the property at Temple Dinsley to William de Langford for the remainder of his life. The Priors held the manor of the lords of the manors of Hitchin, Dinsley Furnival and King’s Walden, showing the complex and scattered nature of their holdings, a good reminder that a manor is defined legally, not geographically. Eventually, the Order was suppressed in England in 1540 and the manor sold to Sir Ralph Sadleir in 1542. He built a new E-shaped house on the site, although a plate in Sir Henry Chauncy’s The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire, published in 1799, seems to show a line of low stone buildings lying to its east, roughly along the former parish boundary between Hitchin (of which Preston was a part) and St Ippollitts. Perhaps these were the remains of conventual structures.

After Sir Edwin Sadleir sold the manor in 1712 to Benedict Ithell of Chelsea, the new owner had a new mansion built immediately to the east. The original house was demolished some time between 1815 and 1832, while Ithell’s was a typical Queen Anne style mansion, the core of which survives to the present. Later alterations include a kitchen in the early nineteenth century, re-roofing before 1840, a drawing room to the west and bay window to the north in the early 1870s, and a new kitchen and scullery block to the east in 1884. After H G Fenwick bought the house in 1908, he engaged Lutyens to carry out extensions and cross-wings at each end between 1909 and 1911, then after it became a school in 1935, further extensive alterations and additions have been made.

During the building work of 1884, skeletons, gravestones and parts of a pewter chalice and paten were found. One of the ‘gravestones’ (actually a coffin lid dating from the early thirteenth century) was taken to St Martin’s Church in Preston, where it is now on display. More discoveries were made during work for Lutyens’s extensions, when medieval floor tiles were uncovered; foundations of the sixteenth-century house were found at the same time, suggesting that the discoveries were made beneath the west wing.

Encaustic floor tile

Six of the tiles are in the collection of North Hertfordshire Museum and five are in the British Museum, which also has the pewter chalice and paten fragments. Although the British Museum identifies them as having been made at Mill Green in Essex (for two of them, it places the production centre in Shropshire!), it is more likely that they were made locally. In many cases, tilers with large ecclesiastical commissions would travel to the site and set up a kiln there, as this was cheaper than trying to transport heavy items across country. If they were brought from outside Preston, then there were tilers in Hitchin who could easily have supplied them.

The style of tile in the photograph was popular in the later Middle Ages, and this example probably dates from between 1325 and 1375. The image is of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) carrying the vexillum (a flag that was originally a Roman military standard), showing the triumph of Christ over death and sin. Other designs from Temple Dinsley include two fleurs-de-lys (symbolising the Blessed Virgin Mary), a shield emblazoned with a bear (?) and lion rampant in chief, lozengy in field, an obscure crouching animal with another above its back, a wyvern and several geometric designs. All seem to be of the same date.

The date of the tile belongs to the early years of the Hospitallers’ tenure of Temple Dinsley. They may be evidence for a refurbishment of existing buildings or for new construction on the site. Work by the Temple Dinsley Archaeological Project, which ran between 2000 and 2010 failed to find any trace of the conventual buildings, either through geophysical survey or trial trenching. While the scale of Lutyens’s landscaping around the house may have removed most traces, it is possible that elements remain beneath Benedict Ithell’s house.

Once again, what started as a simple investigation of a relatively ordinary (if high status) object in the museum’s collection, has raised more questions that we are not (yet) able to answer.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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