Introduction to the Knights Templar
The Knights Templar, the fabled, fantastically rich, and powerful organisation that rose spectacularly in the Middle Ages, fell as dramatically.
The “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” order, known more commonly as “The Knights Templar”, was founded in Jerusalem in 1119 AD to protect pilgrims bound for the Holy Land, and dissolved by the French King and the Pope in 1312.
In just under two centuries, the Templars became powerful, important, and famous as an order of fighting monks. They were far from the only military knights who were also subject to a monastic rule, but they became (and remain to this day) the best known.
Everyone loved them, from the Pope, Kings and Princes to the peasants and labourers, and their success and visibility was unparalleled.
Their fall 200 years later was equally dramatic, and the Papacy was forced by the French King (who was, in effect, in control of the Pope) into eliminating them.
Visiting Knights Templar sites in England today
Cressing Temple – significant remains and buildings survive
Cressing Temple is in Essex, England. It’s a scheduled ancient monument, owned by Essex County Council, and open to the public. A lot is left, and it’s a great place to visit to get a sense of the Knights Templar organisation and property.
It was the largest and most significant of the properties the Knights Templar owned in Essex, and was in the charge of a “Preceptor”.
This was the title of the Knight who had charge of an area and a number of monks under him; he was answerable only to the Grand Master of the Order.
Cressing Temple was given to the Templars in 1137 by Matilda, wife of King Stephen, not the rival claimant to the throne, the Empress Matilda.
The astonishing buildings at Cressing Temple, standing today
Two great barns were built by the Templars at Cressing. The first is now called the Barley Barn, and is thought to have been built some time around 1210 A.D.
The Wheat Barn was built in about 1260 to 1270 A.D. It is built directly on top of a Bronze Age settlement.
The Barley Barn is an immense structure built from oak, and was made from an estimated 480 oak trees. Tree science, dendrochronology, has dated the felling of these trees from between 1205 and 1235.
The Barn was originally larger even than it is today, but it seems to have been repaired later and made smaller at that time. It now measures about 36 metres long by 13½ metres wide.
Although it’s been repaired over the years, the original structure of the Barn still holds it up today. The arcade posts and main ties are the ones built by theTemplars.
The Barley Barn at Cressing is the oldest timber framed barn still in existence in the world.
The Wheat Barn is larger, 40 metres long and 12½ metres wide. It was built from 472 different oak trees, and there are identical trusses with braces meeting at a scissor above the collars.
Records and research into Cressing Temple
More is known about Cressing Temple than many Templar foundations because inventories made by both the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller have survived.
There has also been extensive archaeological research, with Essex County Council excavating the site between 1987 and 1996.
The archaeological excavations have shown that when the Templars took over the land they cleared it, and set up drainage systems, and started to build.
Evidence has been found of post holes, timber slots, gravelled surfaces outside, and latrine pits. The foundations of an original timber chapel built in about 1145 was discovered. This was replaced by a stone chapel a few years later.
The Templars also dug a very deep well, about 45 feet deep. It was lined with Reigate stone. There is also evidence that they filled in some existing ditches, and dug new ones to drain the land more efficiently.
The Well House was only built at the end of Victorian times, but the well itself is undoubtedly a Templar structure.
There is evidence from Carbon 14 dating to show that trees were cut down partly in order to make room for the buildings, and partly in order to provide the timber to build them.
There is also what appears to be a clay quarry which may have been used for tiles for the floors of the barns and other buildings.
The quarry appears to have been used as a rubbish dump and filled up by the Templars in the years after it was opened.
Three large ponds were also dug and presumably stocked with fish. The Knights Templar, like other monastic orders, did not eat meat many days of the year and ate fish instead. It was common for large houses or organisations to have their own fish ponds.
A very complete inventory from 1313 mentions a church, two chambers (almost certainly used as bedrooms) a great hall, a pantry, a kitchen, a buttery, a larder, bakehouse, brewhouse, dairy, granary, smithy, a well, and two barns.
The Templar holding at Cressing Temple was originally about 14,000 acres. It was very fertile land, good for agriculture, and the produce could be easily moved by river.
The Templars employed over 160 tenant farmers on the Cressing Temple site, and also established a market.
In 1309, before the estate was handed to the Knights Hospitaller the Cressing Temple was recorded as having a mansion house, bakehouse, brewery, dairy, granary, smithy, gardens, a dovecote, chapel, cemetery, watermill and a windmill.
After the suppression of the Order, the Cressing Temple passed to the Knights Hospitaller in 1313.
Visiting Cressing Temple
Cressing Temple’s address is Witham Road, Cressing, Braintree, Essex, CM77 8PD.
It’s about 50 miles from central London, and 4 miles from the nearest railway station, Witham (trains take about 45 minutes from London Liverpool Street station).
From April to September Cressing Temple is open from 10am – 5pm Sunday to Friday, in March and October from 10am - 4pm Sunday to Friday, and from November to February, 10am and 3pm Monday to Friday.
The site’s details, opening hours, and travel directions can be found here.