The Knights Templar
The Knights Templar were a religious military order of knighthood established in 1119 at the time of the Crusades. They took their name from their headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem which was believed to be on the site of Solomon’s temple.
Originally founded to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, the order assumed greater military duties during the 12th century. The Templars became extremely powerful and acquired vast wealth. They held an estimated 7000 manors in Europe. In England there were about 50 Templar manors and a very large number of smaller landholdings. Many of the more important sites like Cressing include the word Temple in their name. Cressing was the first grant of rural land they received in England, and the largest and most important of their Essex landholdings. Large estates such as this were farmed for profit to help the Order pay for the war effort in the Holy Land.
Regrettably we know relatively little about the Templar buildings on the site. Only the two great barns and the stone well alone survive. The clearest picture of the buildings which would have accompanied them is to be found in an inventory of 1313. This mentions a chapel, two chambers, a hall, a pantry, a buttery, a kitchen, a larder, a bakehouse, a brewhouse, a dairy, a granary and a smithy. The stock included horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, geese, hens and peacocks. Excavations have uncovered the foundations of the chapel, the hall and two stone chambers which were ranged north-south in the space which lies between the Granary and the walled garden.
In the early years of the 14th century, the Order was suppressed by Pope Clement V at the instigation of Philip IV of France. The Templars were accused of blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, devil worship and witchcraft, although none of these charges have ever really been substantiated. The real reasons for the suppression were rather different. Philip, like many other European princes, was in debt to the Templars, and suppressing the Order would not just annul his debts but also provide the opportunity to seize their wealth in France.
In England, Edward II at first defended the Templars but he was eventually forced to conform, ordering their arrest on 10 January 1308. Edward commenced asset stripping the Order’s estates within a month of the Templars’ arrest and continued to do so until they were suppressed in 1312. He sold their wool, used their stores of grain for his war against Scotland, drew upon Templar resources of meat and fish for his coronation feast and used Templar funds to pay arrears to his retainers. In many cases the estates were even stripped of their timber.
In accordance with a Papal Bull of Pope Clement V, the Templar lands passed into the hands of the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist of Jerusalem. The Hospitallers, as they are known, were the oldest of the three great crusading military orders, originating in the 11th century before the First Crusade. They had been founded to provide medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but they came to assume a military role as well.
Like the Templars, the Hospitallers achieved great wealth and power. In England their principal Commandery was at Clerkenwell in London, and they had approximately 60 other major properties scattered throughout the country. In Essex they had a number of manors, of which the most notable survival is the round church at Little Maplestead. None of their Essex properties were as large or as profitable as the estate based on Cressing. In a survey of the Hospitaller lands carried out in 1335, Cressing Temple is recorded as being staffed by two chaplain brothers with three other chaplains, a steward, three servants, two pages and two lads. There were 800 acres of arable land, and pasture for 600 sheep and 32 cattle.
The later 14th century was a difficult time. The Black Death of 1349 is estimated to have killed one third to one half of the population. There were subsequent outbreaks of plague in 1361 and 1369. The result was a labour shortage, to which were added a series of poor harvests, rising prices and an economic depression, all of which combined to create unrest amongst the peasantry. The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1351 limiting wages to the levels existing before the Black Death. The final straw was the imposition of a series of poll taxes leading to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when the South-East erupted in open rebellion.
At that time the Master of the Hospitallers in England was Sir Robert Hales who was also Treasurer of England and therefore one of the prime targets of the rebels. A contemporary description states that at Cressing he had ‘a fine and pleasant manor which he ordered to be filled with victuals and other necessities for the holding of his general Chapter, so it was well supplied with wines and suitably stocked for such an important lord and his brethren, and at this time (10th June), the commons arrived and at the manor, ate the food, drank three casks of wine and threw the building to the ground’. They also burnt documents and carried off a quantity of vestments, armour, gold and silver. Fortunately they left the barns untouched. Four days later the rebels dragged Sir Robert from the Tower of London and executed him. Control was soon re-established, and when the king visited Chelmsford in early July, nineteen of the leading rebels were hanged.
Whether these events, or the difficult economic circumstances, had any serious effects on Cressing Temple and the way it was managed is uncertain. Many landlords began to lease their lands rather than farming them directly or in demesne, but clear evidence has yet to be found for this practice at Cressing in the 14th and 15th centuries. What has been shown by tree-ring dating is that in c.1420 the Hospitallers carried out extensive repairs to the great barns and also erected new buildings.