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The Knights Templar in Temple Cowley

The Knights Templar in Temple Cowley 

Caroline Morrell


The Knights Templar were present in Temple Cowley from 1139 to 1240, just over a hundred years. They held extensive lands and presumably a number of buildings. However, although there are a number of charters documenting their land holdings, there is little evidence of any buildings or their physical presence in the area. I have located the principal contemporary documents enumerating their land holdings, see below, and from the commentaries on these, and other secondary souces, extracted the few references made to the location of their buildings. In order to set this in context I have included a potted history of the Templars and their time in Temple Cowley, and a description of how their preceptory might have worked. I have also included reports of excavations of Templar sites in other parts of the country which may give a clue as to what might have existed in Temple Cowley. 


The main sources referred to are the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire, the Inquest of Templars lands in England of 1185 and the Sandford Cartulary, compiled in the latter half of the 13th century. The last two, which are both held in the Bodleian Library, are collections of charters, primarily of grants of land and written in Latin - which I can’t read - but there is a very full introduction to the Inquest written in English by Beatrice Lees in 1935.


There is also a very large secondary literature, some of which are serious histories and some of which are concerned with strange mystical theories relating to the Knights Templar. Of the more serious histories, I have drawn mainly on Evelyn Lord’s, The Knights Templar in Britain (2002) which is a historical and archaelogical survey of the existing evidence, and Jack Vivian’s, Temple Cowley and the Knights of the Crusades (no date), written for the Cowley Local History Association.


The Inquest was undertaken in 1185 on the occasion of the appointment of Geoffrey Fitz Stephen to the Mastership of the bailia, or bailiwick, of the English Templars. It is primarily a terrier (register of a landed estate) and a rental, rather than an inventory, and like the Domesday Book, evidence was collected from sworn jurors and collated centrally. It covers a large number of scattered estates and, according to Lees, it is the most important record of the English branch of the Templars and its development into a land-owning power (vii).The subjects of enquiry fall under seven headings: the donors of the land; the possessors of the land; churches; mills; assessed lands (lands assessed for rent as opposed to demesne); demesne lands [land set aside for the lord’s use] and assised rents, or rents fixed by agreement (xxx). It contains 24 charters relating to Oxfordshire, beginning with the Feofamentum M Regine de Manierio de Couele  dated January 1139 - presumably Queen Matilda’s original gift of land to the Templars in Cowley. Lees points out that the records of the English Templars have largely been dispersed and destroyed, but that there are many valuable charters transcribed in the 13th century Cartulary of Sandford Preceptory in Oxfordshire.


The Sandford Cartulary was compiled in the second half of the 13th century, by order of Robert le Eascropp, Preceptor of the Sandford Templars in this period. It was transcribed by Agnes M Leys in 1938 for the Oxfordshire Record Society and she describes it in her introduction as ‘the only complete record of the estates of any house of the Templars in England’ (vi). 

Volume I covers 21 areas in Oxfordshire including Temple Cowley, Church Cowley and Littlemore. It has 35 charters relating to Temple Cowley, the earliest dated c.1139 and the latest c.1250; 13 charters for  Church Cowley and 11 for Littlemore. Volume II contains deeds relating to 42 areas spread through Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.



There is little known physical evidence for the presence of the Knights Templar in Temple Cowley, apart from the name of the area and the street name Temple Road.  I have only been able to trace one archaeological investigation of the area carried out in the 1990s at the Nuffield Press, site of the Temple Cowley Manor House  (Oxoniensia, Vol 64). The excavators dated occupation of the site to the 13th century, with evidence of the construction of a masonry building of that date - which possibly relates to Templars activity there.However, a number of excavations of Templar sites have been carried out in other parts of the country and I have attached a sample of these.


There is also little written evidence of the location of the buildings at Temple Cowley or of the activities carried out there. Below are the few extracts relating to the site contained in the literature: 


Lees Introduction to the Inquest

*In 1185 the Knights Templar were fully established on a four hide estate in Cowley where they had built a Preceptory and a church. Their two Cowley mills were rented to a miller for a mark a year (cxvii).


*They also held property in the city and suburbs of Oxford, near the castle and at Walton, valued at £3.2s.8d.(cxvii).


Victoria County History

 *1217-18 the manor consisted of one and a half knights fee [grant of land for feudal service] held by the Templars of Baldwin de Austray, Constable of Boulogne or of Queen Maud’s gift (p.80).


*The Templars also had a charter for a virgate [old land measure, commonly 30 acres] in Cowley from Ralph Danvers of mid or late 13th century date (p.80).


*The Templars were reported to have two mills, one of which was Temple Mill, on the left hand branch of the Cherwell, just below East Bridge [now Magdalen Bridge?] (p.82).


*Early in the 13th century the Templars built a new sheepfold on Bullingdon Green, just north of Temple Cowley, their older sheepfold perhaps the sheephouse mentioned in 1512 with a shepherds cottage nearby on the west side of Temple Street [road?] near the site of the Preceptory (p.83).


*In the 13th century the Templars had barns and byres in Church Cowley just north of the church, later Westbury Close (p.83).



It is said that the old barn, next to the Cricketers Arms, now demolished, was the site of the Templars chapel, and traces of the Templars fish pond were found when Temple Cowley library was built [in 1939] , (no date, no page number).



*Value of the Templar Oxford estates in 1185: (p.98)

Cowley: £14.4s.10d ; Hensington: £5.3s ; Merton:  £5.11s ; Oxford :  £2.1s.6d.


*The preceptory was on the north side of the road to Dorchester, on the Thames just below the bridge, with open fields to the south and the east of the vill  [a settlement or taxable unit] (p.103) but no reference or evidence given for this.


*The Templars had 11 tenements in Oxford occupied by craftsmen such as a goldsmith, a cordwainer and a smith (p 107) no reference. 


Origin of the Order

The brethren of the knighthhood of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem were formed in the early 12th century in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The first crusades had taken place in 1095 and in 1099 Jerusalem was captured by Christian forces. During the reign of Baldwin I, 1100-1118, two knights, Hugh de Payens and Godfrey of St Omer, formed a small religious society for the protection of pilgrims on their way to the Holy places. In 1118, Baldwin II gave them quarters in his palace near the Temple of Solomon, hence the name. In January 1128 Pope Honorius II recognised the Rule of the Order at the Council of Troyes and assigned the brothers their white habit. An English branch was set up shortly afterwards when Hugh de Payens travelled to Normandy, England and Scotland to gather support (Lees xxxviii). 



After 1066 all the land in Cowley parish was held by Roger de Ivry on behalf of Eustace, Count of Boulogne. With the accession of Stephen in 1135, the Templars influence grew rapidly in England. Stephen was the son of one of the leaders of the First Crusade and his queen, Matilda or Maud, was heiress to the great crusading house of Boulogne which had given two rulers to the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem( Lees xxxix). In 1139 she gave to the Knights Templar at Jerusalem all her land of Cowley with its appurtenances as pure and perpetual alms (Lees cxvi). The Empress Matilda was also a supporter of Templars and in 1141 or 1142 she made a grant of pasture in Shotover Forest, to the Cowley Templars, together with other donations.

The Templars also had three other important centres in the county - at Merton, 10 miles north-east of Oxford, at Hensington in Woodstock and at Sibford (Lees cxiv).



The Cowley Preceptory fell into disuse after 1240 when the community moved two miles south to Sandford, following a gift of land there from Robert de Sandford in 1239. The Sandford Preceptory became one of the largest outside London (as is reflected in the long list of their holdings in the Sandford Cartulary) and Cowley seems to have been reduced to the status of a camera or cell (Tull, 2000, p.71).

After the dissolution of the Templars order in 1312,  a farm house was built on the site of the Templars Manor, known as Temple Farm,  later converted into a country club and in the 1990s into the Four Pillars Hotel. The Templars chapel, which was used as a barn in the time of the farm, still remains there, and over the front door of the farmhouse is a shield bearing the cross of the Templars.

On the Templars suppression all their land was probably temporarily held by Queen Margaret [wife of Henry III], but soon went to the Knights Hospitaller, themselves dissolved in 1541 (VCH p.80)

There is a Sandford Preceptory Facebook group - but I’m not a member and haven’t looked at this.



As the Templars acquired property outside the Holy Land, an organization was needed to manage this and make sure profits were sent to the East. The Order was centralised at Jerusalem with a federative system of provincial dependencies and local preceptories or houses (Lees, lx).

At least five classes of brethren were recognised in the order: knights, who were the wearers of the white mantle with the red cross, and who were the warriors and governors; sergeants; squires, freres casulies, who managed the smaller estates and chaplains (Lees lxi). All male, but interestingly, Lees records that there is ‘a curious certificate of reception of a sister into the order of Templars which may be dated between 1139 and 1193’ (Lees lix).


Lees states that  ‘singularly little is known of the early social and administrative organization of the Templars in England, but perhaps this may be because there is really very little to know. The English province was remote, settled late, and on the whole, less intimately involved with the crusading movement than its neighbours of France and Flanders’ (Lees lx). What does seem clear though, is that the estates in the West were mainly held to raise revenue for the Templars fighting activities in the East, and that they were run along the lines of traditional feudal manors. Lees describes preceptories as the social and economic centres of Templars local influence, modelled on manorial or village husbandry. Many, she says, including Temple Cowley, were merely manors transformed into religious houses and the actual dwelling house of the secular lord probably adapted to new purpose as curia or domus (lxix). Lord states that the Templars were major landowners in the British Isles and acted as manorial landlords, holding manorial courts, collecting rents and demanding labour service and gifts from their tenants just as any manor did, and they employed professionals and servants to look after their livestock (Lord p.109). 



The term preceptory seems to have been applied both to the estate or manor supporting the local community of Knights Templar and to the buildings in which it was housed. The word preceptory does not actually appear in the Inquest of 1185, and the term used in common language was apparently temple, templum, le tempil, hence the many Temple place names in England (Lees xxxiii). 


Lees describes the Templars as half soldiers and half monks (xxxvi) and Brighton says that their preceptories were a cross between a monastery and a medieval manor (p.32). There is some disagreement over who actually lived in the preceptories. Brighton states that ‘few fit knights would have resided long in preceptories, their main purpose was to fight in the Holy Land, along with their sergeants and squires, most residents would be new recruits in training or recovering veterans’ (p.45). Lord, on the other hand, says that ‘most inhabitants of the preceptories appeared to have spent their whole time in the British Isles.... Summary records of the evidence given at the trial of the Templars contain much indirect evidence about length of service and procedures which show how few of the inhabitants belonged to the knightly class.The majority were sergeants or chaplains, and were sparsely spread across the countryside with most of the 34 houses only having one or two occupants.This meant that the Templars must have relied heavily on lay people to administer and work their large estates’ (Lord, pp.18/19). 


Archaeological Evidence - Evelyn Lord, 2002

Preceptories were enclosed conventual precincts which would have included enclosed living quarters, a church and a cemetery and they were generally fortified (p.16). Archaelogical excavations have indicated that there were large complexes of buildings within the preceptory enclosures, often remodelled several times (p.18). Excavations at Temple Bruer in Lincolnshire in 1837 and 1908 showed a complex of buildings including  a circular church and defensive tower, stilll standing, set within a walled enclosure (see Figure 4.1) (p.77).


The preceptory complex we know most about is South Witham in Lincolnshire, now demolished. This was a small preceptory, but excavations show that it had been remodelled at least three times during its occupation by the Templars. It showed the dual characteristics of a monastic precinct and a fortified farm. Entered through a gatehouse ...with the guesthouse immediately opposite to this inside the gate...the hall lay at the centre of the site, the chapel stood to the south of the hall and was reached by a passage from the hall and set within its own garden court. The chapel was rectangular and made of good quality masonry. Domestic offices, including the kitchen with five ovens stood separate from the hall, with a workshop where some iron working was carried on. Like Bruer, it had a defensive tower. Farm buildings included animal houses, barns and a smithy, there were fish ponds to the north of the site and the River Witham was damned to form a mill race. Archaeologists identified at least three main building phases on the site, with some buildings being remodelled up to seven times (p.77).


Further research

Lord suggests following up tithe and enclosure maps. Much Templar land remained exempt from tithes into the 19th century and should be marked as such on the tithe map. Enclosure maps giving field names will also help, and the maps associated with the 1910 Land Survey will help to locate individual holdings through field names and earth works (p.21).



Simon Brighton, In Search of the Knights Templar: a guide to the sites in Britain, Wedenfeld & Nicolson, 2006

Records of the Templars in England in the 12th century, The Inquest of 1185, ed Beatrice A Lees,The British Academy, Records of the Social and Economic History of England and Wales, Vol IX,  Oxford University Press, 1935

Cartulary of the Preceptory of Sandford in Oxfordshire, ed Agnes M Lees, Oxfordshire Record Society,  Vol XIX, 1938

Evelyn Lord, The Knights Templar in Britain, Longman (Pearson Education), 2002

George Tull, The Traces of the Templars, The Kings England Press, 2000

Victoria County History of Oxfordshire, Vol V, the Bullingdon Hundred, Institute of Historical Research, 1957

Jack Vivian, Temple Cowley and the Knights of the Crusades, nd, for the Cowley Local History Association Excavations and building survey at the former Nuffield Press, Temple Cowley, Oxfordshire (site of Temple Cowley Manor House) by J Muir, K Newell & R Kinchin-Smith, Oxoniensia, Vol 64, pp.297-300, 1999