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A 1910 map showing the location of the Knights Templar preceptory

A 1910 map showing the location of the Knights Templar preceptory

Photo: Re-use: CC-BY (NLS).

The Knights Templar at Sandford-on-Thames

9 August 2023

The Knights Templar were a religious order shrouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion by many. Their activities are more often associated with the Middle East and renaissance Europe and few people realise that until the 14th century, the Knights Templar had a substantial presence right here in Oxfordshire.

Who were the Knights Templar?

The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon (to give them their full name) was founded in the early 12th century, shortly after Christian forces had captured Jerusalem during the first crusades. Their original purpose to provide protection for pilgrims travelling to the holy land, but their leaders travelled throughout Europe, gathering support and funds for further crusades as well as setting up Templar preceptories. These preceptors were often funded by wealthy local patrons. In the case of the Oxford Templars, this patron was none other than Queen Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who gifted the Templars land at Cowley and pasture in Shotover Forest.

The seal of the Knights Templar

The seal of the Knights Templar. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Knights Templar in Oxfordshire

In 1239 Robert de Sanford gifted land at Sandford-on-Thames to the Cowley Templars, and the order moved its base from Cowley to Sandford. The Templar preceptor at Cowley was allowed to fall into ruin and nothing remains of it today, although its memory lives on in many local names such as Templar Square, Temple Cowley and Templar Road.

Although there were smaller Templar preceptories at Merton near Bicester, Hensington near Woodstock and Sibford near Banbury, the preceptory at Sandford flourished to become one of the largest English Templar preceptories outside of London. Although the Templars are often celebrated in popular culture (Assassin’s Creed anyone?) as an order of warrior monks, most of the Templars' battlefields were in far off lands. The main purpose of the Templar properties in England was to generate funds to support their mission and consequently it is likely that in many ways its activities at home in Oxfordshire were akin to those of any other major landowner. The Templars in England managed agricultural land, collected rent and produce from their tenants and the profits were sent southeast towards the holy land to fund crusades and expand the influence of the Order.

What happened to the Knights Templar?

For nearly 200 years, the Knights Templars were one of the most powerful factions in Europe. They acquired a huge amount of land, including at one point the entire island of Cyprus, and became wealthy through innovative banking practices.

The Templars also enjoyed surprising privileges. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent II stated that the order was exempt from all forms of tax, could travel freely through all lands and were subject to no authority except the pope!

However, when later crusades failed, support for the Templars waned. When the Templars lost control of Jerusalem in 1180 it was a great blow to the order. Attempts to retake the city failed and with Templars no longer able to guarantee safe passage for European pilgrims, the their original purpose no longer existed.

Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templars, burnt alive as a lapsed heretic in Paris.

Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templars, burnt alive as a lapsed heretic in Paris. Credit: Public domain, via the Wellcome Collection

By the early 14th century, some European leaders began to view the existence of the Templars as a threat. Why should the order enjoy such wealth, influence and privilege? The first monarch to act against the Templars was King Philip IV of France, who was at the time heavily in debt to the order. In 1307 he had many of the orders leaders arrested. In order to justify this, he spread wild rumours, painting them as a heretical, almost satanic order. He had members of the order tortured to elicit false confessions that backed up his accusations, before having some of them hanged or even burned at the stake!

King Edward II of England was initially sceptical regarding the French king’s accusations about the Templars, but the following year, after the Pope interceded to back up King Philip’s hardline stance, King Edward had number of Templar leaders in England arrested and questioned. While the interrogation and punishment they faced was nowhere near as brutal as in France, it did spell the end of the Knights Templar in England.

The dissolution of the Knights Templar at Sandford

Among those arrested at Sandford were the preceptor William Sautre, a priest named William de Warrewyk and Richard de Colingham, one of the Knights based at Sandford. At their trial, various accusations were levelled at the order, such as that the Templars believed the president of their order could grant absolutions, a heretical suggestion. Other questions concerned some of the more unusual customs of the Templars, such wearing of a ‘mystic girdle’ and belts called ‘girdles of chastity’.

The Templars were known to be very secretive about the rituals of initiation that all new members were expected to take part in. This secrecy bred rumours that Philip IV had previously exploited. In France he had illicit confessions that said that Templars were expected to deny Christ during these initiations, and even take part in an ‘obscene kiss’!

It’s not clear is a similar level of cruel coercion was involved during the trial of the Oxfordshire Templars, but one, named Robert de Sancto Justo of Beauvais, stated that when he joined the order at Sandford, he was ordered by to spit on a cross and deny Christ. Robert said that he went along with this but denied Christ ‘only with his mouth’, not his heart, and that he only pretended to spit on the cross and in fact spat on the ground next to it!

As with all the Templar confessions, it’s hard to say how willingly these statements were made and to what extent the individuals involved were willing to lie to save their own necks. The result was a foregone conclusion anyway. The Knights Templar in England was disbanded, many of the order instead joining another similar order, the Knights Hospitaller. Much of the Templars land and property was also given to the Hospitallers.

Herbert Railton's illustration of the Earl of Pembroke's tomb

The tomb of Gilbert le Marshall, 4th Earl of Pembroke, a prominent English Templar. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What remains of the Templar precptory at Sandford-on-Thames

The Templar preceptory stood on the banks of the Thames, and after the Templars were disbanded, the buildings fell into disrepair and were repurposed as farm buildings at what became known as Temple Farm. The old preceptory chapel was used as a barn.

Today the site is home to the Volvo Oxford Thames hotel. I’ve not visited, but according to some sources, a shield bearing the cross of the Templars can still be spotted in the brickwork over the door of one of the buildings.