The Knights Templar in Hertfordshire
The Knights Templar were a religious, military order formed to protect pilgrims travelling from Europe to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They also fought in the Holy Wars there, known as the Crusades. The Templars became an influential order acquiring vast amounts of wealth and land throughout Europe, including in Hertfordshire where Royston Cave is situated.
Templar territories were divided into provinces which were governed by a commander, and each community, known as a preceptory, was headed by a preceptor. The preceptors exercised supreme control over their community and was answerable only to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
The main preceptory in England was Temple Church in London, which was consecrated by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem in 1185. It followed a similar round design to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem but was built with additional halls called the Middle and the Inner. This became their financial centre in England and London’s first bank, as pilgrims deposited their cash and withdrew it with a credit note once they reached Jerusalem.
The main preceptory in Hertfordshire was called Temple Dinsley and was second only in England to Temple Church in London. Located at Preston, near Hitchin, Temple Dinsley was a large manor that housed at least six knights at a time, with a large staff of servants and tenant farmers. The manor was used to receive Englishmen who wished to join the order as knights and held chapter meetings, like modern Annual General Meetings, through which the Order’s activities were managed. It also acted as lodgings and a place to deposit valuables.
As was often the case with preceptories, Temple Dinsley was gifted with land and money, including two mills from King Stephen. The biggest donation came from Bernard de Balliol, a crusader who gifted 450 acres of land. An effigy of Bernard can be seen in St Mary’s Church in Hitchin. Visitors to Temple Dinsley included Henry III and Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars.
The cost of running the Order was high. It is estimated that to have equipped and kept one knight in the field with his war horse, riding horse and support staff, it would have cost the equivalent to the output of a 3750-acre farm. So, to generate revenue, the Templars started creating purpose-built towns and farms to sell produce and collect rents.
Baldock, 8 miles from Royston, was one of these new developments, established between 1138 - 1148. 150 acres of land from the manor of Weston was donated for its creation by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, and a hall, chapel, brewhouse, dairy, forge and agricultural buildings were built. The roads were arranged in a cross to create elongated, triangular marketplaces, and St Mary’s church, built in 1150, overlooked where they met. Merchants were encouraged to settle, attracted by low rents and the tax exemptions granted to the Templars by the Pope in 1139, and goods were either traded at local markets or shipped to mainland Europe. By 1185, Baldock was a thriving market town and one of the most profitable in England.
Templars in Royston
There are no records that the Templars owned property within Royston itself but the Templars from Baldock held a regular stall at Royston’s market. There is also evidence of disputes between the Templars and the monks from Royston’s priory over market fees.
No one could buy or sell at the market without a license from the prior, and traders were charged a fee for the right to sell their produce there. Although usually exempt from such fees, Royston’s toll collector, employed by the priory to enforce payment, made the Templars pay until their exemption could be proven. The Templars paid under protest until they appealed directly to King John who eventually declared that their privilege could not be ignored and that the priory should refund all money taken from the Templars to date, to the sum of 37 shillings. Later, in 1254, the Master of the Knights Templar sued Royston’s prior for ‘imprisoning and beating certain of his men’, who had come to Royston’s market on business.
Local historian Sylvia Beamon, who studied the cave for over five decades, suggested that Royston Cave was used by the Knights Templar as a temporary storage site for their market wares and a place to conduct regular prayer throughout the day, which Templars were required to do. With relations between the Templars and Royston’s priory declining, the cave may have provided a welcome alternative to Royston’s chapel.
Within Royston Cave, Sylvia claimed that a figure on the south-western wall represents Jacque de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars, and believed that a carving of two heads, to the right of the northern shaft, is an unfinished carving of two knights riding the same horse, which is a famous symbol of the Knights Templar. It is interesting to note that at Chateau Chinon, where Jacques de Molay was held captive, there are similar inscriptions on the walls to those present in Royston Cave, including crosses, soldiers and geometric figures, believed to have been made by its Templar prisoners.
Near Royston, the Knights Templar held land and property at Shingay-cum-Wendy, Little Wymondley and Duxford. In 1308, the holding at Duxford had a hall, chamber, buttery and a bakehouse, and was valued at £18 10s and 8d. The preceptor at the time was John Mohun who had lived there for 38 years and had 15 dependents including servants, a squire, groom, porter and cook.
Further afield, in the neighbouring county of Essex, is Temple Cressing. This land was donated to the Templars by Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, in 1137. Here, there was a mansion, bakehouse, brewhouse, dairy and granary. The Wheat Barn and Barley Barn, two vast wooden structures built between 1206 - 1256, can still be seen today, the latter being the oldest existing timber framed building in the world.
Downfall of the Templars
By the end of the 13th century, support for the Templars had dwindled. They had lost control of the Holy Land and were facing accusations of heresy, claims which the Pope had ordered to be investigated. King Philip IV of France, wishing to lay claim to their wealth, took advantage of this and, in 1307, ordered the mass arrest of the Templars.
In January 1308, a sheriff arrived at Temple Dinsley and arrested the six Templars there. Two were transported to the Tower of London while the other four were held prisoner at Hertford castle. John Mohun at Duxford was also arrested.
On the wishes of the Pope, large swathes of Templar land, property and money throughout Europe, including at Temple Dinsley, Baldock, Duxford and Temple Cressing, were passed to the Knights Hospitaller, a religious, military order similar to the Templars. In England, Edward II was not so keen to hand it over, arguing that the property had originally been donated by English nobility, so some of the property passed to the Crown. This is perhaps why, unlike in France, evidence of the Templars can still be seen in England today, like in placenames such as Temple Hirst and Temple Bruer.
Haag, M. (2008). The Templars: History & Myth The Templars.
Beamon, S. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.