St Bernard of Clairvaux - South and West of England & Thames Valley
The preceptory of St Bernard of Clairvaux enjoys the patronage of members from a wide area extending from Cornwall to the Thames Valley, incorporating Devon, Dorset, Somerset and the area around Bristol and Bath. Meeting at least twice a year for both formal and social events, the preceptory has established a close relationship with its members' local communities and churches, and assists with many local events and charities.
The preceptory's members are drawn from several different Christian denominations.
Templar History in the area
Templecombe was the only Preceptory of the Knights Templar in Somerset. In 1185, the manor was held by Serlo Fitz Odo, and was granted in that year to the Knights Templar. After the initial suppression of the Templars in 1307, the lands were turned over to the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. An inventory from 1338 shows 368 acres belonging to the Manor, supporting cattle and sheep.
The Preceptor was responsible for managing the Templar estates in the West Country, admitting new members to the Order, and training men and horses for service in the Crusades. Poole (Dorset) was a port much used by the knights in medieval times.
Then, in 1539, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Manor was given by King Henry VIII to Wm. Sherrington, and later bought by Richard Duke, Esq. The major part of the Preceptory buildings were then taken down, and a substantial manor house built with the stone.
In 1700, it was the seat of Sir Wm. Wogan, who sold it to the owner of Stalbridge Park, Peter Walter. The property then passed to the Marquess of Anglesey in the early 19th century.
Sadly, very little now remains of the original Templar Preceptory, as is often the case with medieval sites. The major Templar-related site to see today at Templecombe is St. Mary's Church.
St. Mary's Church
The village of Templecombe was once two different parishes- Temple Combe and Abbas Combe - which are now one. At the time of the Domesday records, the Vill of Combe was shared by the Benedictine Nunnery of Shaftesbury, founded in 888AD by Alfred the Great, of which his second daughter, Ethelgeda, was the first Abbess. St. Mary's Church is believed to have been founded during this time; the parent house was the Abbey at Shaftesbury, the major convent in England at the time.
For many centuries, Shaftesbury Abbey had the right of appointing the clergy at Templecombe. In 1539, during the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII, it passed to Richard Duke, Esq., who held the manor.
In the existing church today, only the tower, the nave roof, and transept with piscina and font are old. The tower probably rests on a Saxon foundation and the nave has a 500 year old waggon roof. The Norman font in Purbeck Marble is one of the earliest features. In the church, there are six bells, the oldest of which is of pre-Reformation date, and bears the inscription 'Sancta Maria, Ora Pro Nobis'.
Unfortunately, during WWII, four bombs were dropped on the southern side of the church, which caused extensive damage to the roof, tower, organ, windows, and some arches in the nave.
But probably the most intriguing feature to be seen in the church today is the Panel Painting of Christ's Head. This painting, believed by many to be a portrayal of the head of Jesus Christ, was discovered in the outhouse of a cottage in West Court, off the High Street in Templecombe. The owner of the cottage was Mrs. A. Topp but it was her tenant, Mrs. M. Drew, who discovered the painting in 1945. She happened to look up at the ceiling when inside the shed collecting wood for her fire.
The outhouse, which has since been demolished, was an earth-floored 'lean-to' and the painting had been tied by wire into the roof and concealed by plaster. Some of the plaster had fallen away and had thus revealed a face looking down. The Rector at the time, Bishop Wright, then took the painting away for proper cleaning and restoration, and it was presented to St. Mary's church by Mrs. Topp in 1956. The painting has hung on the South Wall of the church since then, and can still be viewed today.
The key hole and hinge marks on the panel suggest that it may well have been used as a door at some time. This life-size painting, medieval in style, was carbon-dated at circa 1280 AD. The painting may have a possible connection with the Knights Templar, as it has been suggested that during the Crusades, they obtained the prized possession of the Holy Shroud, brought it back to Europe, and from it, copied their paintings. However, upon closer examination, this particular painting and its features do not match those of the Shroud of Turin, as the eyes and mouth are open. This has led some to believe that it is a portrayal of a man who was still alive and well, not crucified or deceased.
But, as others speculate, it may instead be a copy of the Mandylion of the Eastern Orthodox Church, also an important relic of Christendom. The Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot length of linen bearing the imprint of a full-bodied male who bears a striking likeness to a crucified man, obviously very similar to descriptions of Jesus Christ. The Mandylion is generally believed to be a (now) lost cloth that bore only the image of the face of Christ that was apparently made when he was alive and well, not deceased., like the Shroud of Turin. Similarly, the Templecombe painting also bears only the image of a head, and not a full-bodied man, as with the Shroud of Turin.
It is believed that this unique painting was originally one of several portraits in the possession of the Templars. Although the top portion of the panel is missing, the Templecombe painting does not appear to have included a halo.
During the suppression of the Order, the absence of a halo in their portraits, which the Templars maintained were paintings of Christ, appears to have been used by their inquisitors as evidence of 'idolatry'.
An interesting viewpoint is presented by Mr. George Tull, in 'Traces of the Templars': "It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the painting may have been imported into England, via Bristol, and thence brought to this remote Preceptory in Somerset- who knows?". Indeed, it very well could have been, as it is known that in England - unlike the case in France and other countries- there was very little evidence obtained by the inquisitors that the English Templars had actually venerated sacred heads as 'idols'. But, as others believe, perhaps this was largely because King Edward II did not initially allow torture to be used when the Templars were questioned.
This fascinating painting has stimulated much speculation and is clearly also an important painting in the history of religious art today.
Around 1145 Robert Earl of Gloucester gave part of Bedminster to the Knights Templar who renamed it the Temple Fee. At this stage, Bedminster was a separate township in Somerset, divided from Bristol by the river Avon. 200 years later the City walls were relocated and the Temple Fee became part of the City and County of Bristol.
The Knights occupied the Temple Fee for over 160 years, frequently involved in disputes with the local authorities who considered that the Temple Fee shared the benefits of its harbour and should be under its control. Throughout the 13th century Bristol underwent a rapid expansion due to major improvements made to the harbour by King Henry III with the help of the Templars. The resulting opportunities for the Templar shipping fleet meant that the Temple Fee grew in importance and became the administrative centre for the Order throughout south west England.
In contrast to the rural isolation of most of the Templar sites in the South West, Bristol had grown into a major city and port and was essential to the Templars, affording them the opportunity to establish commercial shipping links with the continent and providing an embarkation point for pilgrims, soldiers and supplies to the East and the Crusades.
The Templars in Bristol were landlords, primarily in the artisans' and craftsmen's quarter of the city. A license granted by King Henry III also enabled them to export their own wool from the Severn Estuary, notably to Ireland and the Baltic region. The marshy land in the Temple Fee was unsuitable for sheep-farming so the wool was brought in from the nearby Templar estates in Somerset.
Bristol and the Templars soon realized the benefits of working together. The Templars had a particular interest in improving access to the River Avon as they moored their ships under the castle walls. Joint ventures included the construction of a new wall to enclose the marsh and reduce flooding, and a 700 metre channel to divert the course of the River Frome, improving navigation and providing additional mooring. The Templars also supervised the diversion of the river Avon and the construction of the solid stone Bristol Bridge which was lined with shops and houses. A stone dock was built alongside the bridge for the repair and maintenance of the Templar ships.
The Templars established a major shipping route between Bristol and La Rochelle in France. Galleys and merchant ships regularly sailed from Bristol with wool and bullion for onward transmission to the East, and returned with wine, food and raw materials from their Commanderies on the Continent. This was probably for domestic rather than commercial use.
During the time of the Crusades, Bristol was a natural embarkation point for the beginning of thejourney to the Holy Land. Templar ships would sail out into the Bristol Channel and past Lundy Island to La Rochelle. The spectacle of the Knights departing for the Crusades provided a carnival atmosphere in the city and ensured the popularity of the Templars in the local community. The fanfare of their send-off, however, could not ease their fate as most of the crusaders never returned home and gave their lives for God and the Order.
Of course no Templar site would be complete without its Church and Bristol was no exception. The Templars built a small oval church, 50 feet long by 30 feet wide, based on the form of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was dedicated to the Holy Cross, but is more commonly known as Temple Church. The chancel was rebuilt in the 13th century and in 1299 a second chapel was added for use by the Weavers Guild. Dedicated to St Katherine, the patron saint of weavers, it reflected the importance of the Templars to the local wool trade and became known as the Weavers Chapel.
In 1313 the church was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller who added the famous tower which leans almost 5 feet to the west, making it one of the best-known landmarks in the City centre today. In 1958 the remains were taken into state care and are now owned by English Heritage. The graveyard is a public garden. The poor state of repair makes the church unsafe to enter and it is rarely opened to the public. Sadly nothing remains of the original Templar church except the outline of the oval foundations which have been marked out in stone.
The area has long been built over and few signs of the Templar heritage remain – although the name of the Order is preserved in many local streets such as Temple Back, Temple Bridge, Temple Court, Temple Gate, Temple Way and of course Temple Meads railway station. Today's Knights in Bristol are served by the Preceptory of St Bernard of Clairvaux and the House of Fitzroy, both of which organize regular local events.
"Industry and environment in medieval Bristol" by R H Jones
"Bedminster" by Anton Bantock (edited by Bob Lawrence)
"The Knights Templar in Britain" by Evelyn Lord
"Traces of the Templars" by George Tull
"In search of the Knights Templar" by Simon Brighton
List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest - Bristol 1994
English Heritage 1998 The English Heritage visitors' handbook 1998-99