Penhill Preceptory – Chapel of the Knights Templar

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Penhill Preceptory, a site of significant historical intrigue, was one of the northern preceptories of the Knights Templar, a religious military order founded in the 12th century. The preceptory, located in Yorkshire, was established by Roger Mowbray around 1142 and served as a hub for the Templars' activities in the region. The Templars, known for their role in the Crusades, were a wealthy and powerful order that created a network of such preceptories across Europe, which acted as farms, recruitment centres, and revenue sources to support their endeavours in the Holy Land.

The history of Penhill Preceptory is closely tied to the dramatic rise and fall of the Knights Templar. The order was initially founded to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, but over time, they amassed great wealth and influence, which eventually led to their downfall. In the early 14th century, the Templars were suppressed by King Philip IV of France, who coveted their wealth. The order was accused of heresy and other crimes, leading to the arrest of many Templars and the seizure of their assets.

In Yorkshire, the Templars established at least ten preceptories, including Penhill. The preceptory's chapel, the central part of the complex, is where the Templars would have conducted their religious rites. The remains of the chapel, uncovered in 1840, reveal the austere life the Templars led in these remote locations. The exposed tombs at the site, with their lids drawn back, provide a stark reminder of the order's once formidable presence.

The Templars' influence in Yorkshire was so significant that a 'chief preceptor' or 'master' was appointed to oversee their affairs in the region. However, this influence was not to last. Following the arrest of the Templars in 1308, the preceptory at Penhill, along with other Templar holdings, was confiscated by the Crown. In 1312, the order was officially dissolved by Pope Clement V, and much of their property, including Penhill, was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller, another military order.

The remains of Penhill Preceptory include the ruins of a chapel and several graves, which were uncovered in 1840. These remnants are indicative of the preceptory's rich history and its role within the Templar order.

The site is also notable for an earlier field system at Temple Farm, suggesting a landscape steeped in agricultural as well as religious history. The preceptory's second iteration, established in 1202, featured a stone-built chapel, the dimensions of which were 17.5 meters by 6.8 meters, with walls 1.3 meters wide and up to 1.1 meters in height.

Within the main floor of the chapel, archaeologists discovered three stone coffins with cover slabs, and in the chancel, the stone base of an altar was found, further attesting to the religious functions of the site. Surrounding earthworks hint at the presence of additional contemporary buildings, though their exact nature remains a subject of archaeological inquiry.

The preceptory's history is intertwined with the Knights Hospitallers, who deemed the site worthless in 1328 due to its dilapidated state. Today, the Penhill Preceptory is recognized as a Scheduled Monument, a designation that underscores its importance and affords it legal protection. It stands as a silent witness to the enigmatic and often turbulent times of the Knights Templar, offering a tangible connection to the past and an enduring subject for both academic study and public fascination.

Penhill Preceptory stands as a testament to the enigmatic history of the Knights Templar. The site, though only partially excavated, continues to fascinate historians and visitors alike, offering a glimpse into the lives of the knights who once walked its grounds. The preceptory's story is a poignant chapter in the broader narrative of the Templars, reflecting both their immense power and their sudden, dramatic demise.

Relationship with The Temple Folly and Temple Lane

The Temple Folly at West Witton and Penhill Preceptory are intriguing historical sites that invite speculation about their interconnected pasts. The Temple Folly, with its evocative name and architectural whimsy, stands as a testament to the follies' tradition in the 18th century, where such structures were built for their aesthetic appeal rather than practical use. Its connection to the Knights Templar, however, is not immediately apparent from the structure itself but rather through the historical tapestry of the area. Penhill Preceptory, on the other hand, has a well-documented association with the Knights Templar, serving as a preceptory where the Templars lived and managed their agricultural estates and other affairs. The preceptory's location, perched on the slopes of Penhill, suggests strategic considerations, offering a vantage point that could serve both defensive and observational purposes. The Knights Templar, known for their role in the Crusades, were also recognized for their financial acumen and the establishment of an early banking system, which could have facilitated pilgrimages by providing necessary resources to pilgrims.

The suggestion that The Temple Folly could have been created as a new target of pilgrimage is a fascinating one. Pilgrimage routes have historically evolved, with new sites of veneration emerging as others fell out of favour or became inaccessible. The presence of Temple Lane, potentially a pilgrimage route, adds weight to this theory.

It is conceivable that after the dissolution of the Knights Templar, local memory of their presence lingered, and the construction of the folly could have been an attempt to rekindle or preserve the spiritual and historical significance of the site. The folly, therefore, might have served as a symbolic gesture, honouring the legacy of the Templars and providing a focal point for continued pilgrimage and veneration.

Moreover, the act of pilgrimage is not solely about the destination but also the journey. The route taken by pilgrims often holds as much importance as the endpoint, with the act of travelling itself being a form of devotion. Temple Lane could have provided a path that connected the old with the new, leading pilgrims from the ruins of the preceptory, imbued with the history of the Templars, to the folly, a newer construct that captured the romanticized essence of the past. This continuity of sacred landscape, from the preceptory to the folly, would have allowed pilgrims to engage with the Templar legacy in a landscape that was both historical and reimagined.


Site Visit Notes:

The notice at the site reveals."Penhill Preceptory- These walls and graves belong to a chapel in a preceptory of the Knights Templars, built in c.1200 and handed over, on their suppression in 1312 to the Hospitallers. The chapel, the remains of which were uncovered in 1840, served adjoining residential buildings that have not been exposed." The Templars, along with their arch rivals the Hospitallers, or Knights of St. John, were religious orders of knights of great military prowess who had taken priestly vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The origins of these military orders of soldier/monks lay in Outremer,'The Land beyond the Sea', which was the mediaeval name for the Holy Land at the time of the Crusades. According to the Frankish historian Guillaume De Tyre, the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was founded in 1118 by one Hugues De Payen, a vassal of the Count of Champagne. According to legend, De Payen, with 8 comrades at his side, presented himself to King Baudoin I of Jerusalem (whose elder brother Godfroi De Bouillon had captured the Holy City 19 years previously). The declared purpose of the Templars was to protect the highways leading to Jerusalem in order to ensure the safety of pilgrims en-route to the Holy Sepulchre. Baudoin was so pleased with this noble objective that he placed a wing of the royal palace at their disposal. According to tradition, their quarters were built on the site of the ancient Temple of Solomon, and it was from this that the order was to derive its name. From such humble beginnings the order grew to fame and fortune, and by the middle of the 12th century they had established bases all over Europe. In 1128 their Constitution was drawn up by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and with such powerful support their influence and numbers grew accordingly. Scott's 'Ivanhoe' gives us a good description of a Templar. Haughty and arrogant he wore (as his Rule dictated) a long beard and a mantle of white linen with a distinctive red cross. Often Templars might be seen as advisors to princes and kings. With the fall of Jerusalem to the Saracens the Templars set up their headquarters first in Cyprus and then in France. Under papal authority they enjoyed exemption from taxes, tithes and interdict, becoming as a result increasingly powerful, wealthy and arrogant. From their traditional stamping grounds in Palestine their sphere of influence became increasingly the political arena of mediaeval Europe. The Templars were essentially a secret society. Ruled over by a Grand Master, their rites and inner mysteries were known only to initiates of the brotherhood. Unfortunately this deliberate veil of secrecy created not only a tightly knit brotherhood but also a fertile seeding ground for the accusations of their enemies. In 1307, supported by Pope Clement IV, Philip the Fair of France (who had long cast covetous eyes on the Templars' vast assets) accused the Templarsof heresy and witchcraft. Arrests were made and 'confessions' extracted by torture.The Templars were said to have worshipped a Devil called Baphomet, a bearded head, which had given them occult powers. There were charges of homosexuality and obscene rites. The outcome was never in doubt; between 1307 and 1314 hundreds of Templars were burnt at the stake, their assets confiscated and the Order scattered. In March 1314, the Order's Grand Master, Jacques De Molay, was roasted to death over a slow fire. The Templars had passed into the obscurity of history. In England the Templars fared better. Philip's own son-in-law, Edward II of England at first rallied to the Order's defence, but was eventually persuaded to suppress them. In the scramble to get hold of their assets some Templars were arrested, and it is reported that John De Bellerby, Master of the Penhill Preceptory was imprisoned with others in York Castle in 1309. The majority however, were simply ejected from their preceptories, which were handed over to the Hospitallers and we must assume that their ultimate fate was considerably less unpleasant than that of their European brethren. The Penhill preceptory was excavated by Mr. Anderson of Swinthwaite Hall, who found spurs and fragments of armour. Prior to this it had been just a mysterious mound. Preceptory churches are unusual in that they were circular in plan. The Penhill Preceptory is even more unusual in that it is not. The outline is of a rectangular building with a door at one end and a small chancel at the other. In front of the chancel lie three stone coffins the size of which makes us marvel at the smallness of our mediaeval ancestors. It must have been a tight fit for a dead knight!!

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