Reprinted from Newsletter 128, dated 2009 April

The Knights Templar in Somerset

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Juliet Faith and Robert Williams

The Order of the Knights Templar was founded in 1119–20 in the Holy Land to protect pilgrims, crusaders and resident Christians, the Antiquarian Society learned from Juliet Faith and Robert Williams on February 27.

In 1129 the order was approved by the Pope, to whom they owed sole allegiance. It gained lands and privileges throughout Europe, developing a banking system — most of the kings of Europe eventually were in their debt. In 1291 Christian settlers were driven out of the Holy Land, and in 1307 King Philip of France seized the Templars’ lands, followed by an order from the Pope instructing monarchs to arrest the Templars. In 1312 the Grand Master was burnt at the stake in France and the Order was suppressed.

In Somerset, Templar holdings were widely dispersed. The county held a middle position in the list of Templar property. They ran their scattered holdings from preceptories, and their income was immune from taxes. The Knights themselves were usually of aristocratic background; their estates were populated by tenants and servants of the Order, who saw themselves as Templars, but were otherwise indistinguishable from the general population.

Examples of Templar holdings in Somerset include the Temple Meads area of Bristol — one of their earliest grants in England, which included a hostelry, church and farm. Textile manufacture and dyeing was a feature of this site. Templecombe, granted in 1185 and the ninth richest Templar holding in England, possessing 400 acres, became the main preceptory in the southwest. Little now survives, though an early photograph shows substantial remains of their chapel. The famous panel painting is now preserved in the parish church.

On the Mendips, Temple Down Farm was an important sheep-rearing centre, with 1,000 sheep and 60 other beasts. Fleeces were taken to the preceptory at Temple Newbury, near Coleford, where three water-powered fulling mills produced white broadcloth. The oldest recorded corn mill in England was here too. Templar estates were also established at Temple Cloud and Cameley, where in the church of St James is preserved a wooden carved head believed to be of Templar origin and possessing a possible relationship to the Templecombe painting and Turin shroud.

An aura of mystery surrounded the Templars — their power and secrecy contributed to misinterpretation of their ceremonies and their ultimate demise. A book to be published later this year will give further insights into the Somerset Templars.