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The Past Life of Cressing Temple

The Saxons.

The Roman Empire collapsed in the beginning of the fifth century and England became unstable. In an effort to prevent anarchy a Saxon authority was created in 440AD but England effectively stepped into the Dark Ages. The settlement at Cressing Temple was abandoned and the farmland forgotten. There is no evidence for Saxon occupation and the site reverted to woodland.

Records show that the site belonged to King Harold. After the Norman Conquest of 1066AD the land became the property of Eustace of Bologne and then of his daughter Matilda, the wife of King Stephen. In 1137AD Matilda granted the manor to the Knights Templar, a donation confirmed and expanded to include Witham by Stephen a decade later.

The Templars

The Knights of the Temple of Solomon were formed early in the 12th century by nine prominent knights who petitioned the King of Jerusalem to allow them to live in the temple. One of their founders, Andre de Montbard, was related to the very influencial cleric Saint Bernard de Clairvaux who represented them across Europe and gained many important concessions including exemption from taxes.

The growth of the Order was phenomenal and at their height they owned over 3000 donated properties in Europe and over 300 in England of which Cressing Temple was the first recorded. The Knights Templar embraced technology, had their own fleet of ships using magnetic compasses and enclosed the land for economic farming long before anyone else. They founded a bank at Temple, London inventing the promissary note now known as the cheque.

To them Cressing was to become part of their money making empire and with its excellent communications to the coast and London it was an ideal centre to operate from.

When the land was granted to the Order in 1137 their first task would have been to clear the land, establish good drainage and set up some preceptory buildings. Post-holes, timber slots, gravelled surfaces and deep latrine pits attest to their presence in the twelfth century. The buildings were no doubt more functional than comfortable and also temporary, for the order envisaged something more grand than a mere outpost.

The mediaeval chapel pictured by Frank Gardiner.

A humble timber chapel built after 1145 when a papal bull gave the Templars dispensation to build their own chapels and burial grounds, was replaced by a stone one built on heavy compressed gravel foundations and a second stone building was built to the south. These were linked together by either the original or new timber buildings.

Looking up the Templar well

A beautifully crafted well some 45 feet deep was dug and lined with Reigate stone, an impressive engineering feat in itself. They also filled in some of the ditches in a landscaping exercise and dug new ones.

The Barley Barn c. 1206.

It was some seventy years before they put up the first of the two great barns. The Barley Barn is dated to circa 1205-35AD. The Wheat Barn built around 1259 -80AD sits on a raft of puddled clay up to a metre deep which was laid directly onto the Bronze Age features thus implying a scathing episode of ground clearance.

Also a large tree hole found in excavations attests to the felling of trees to make way for the buildings. In the Garden excavations a huge rectangular pit was surrounded by several smaller conical pits all thought to be clay quarries for the floor of the barn. They were allowed to silt up before all being filled in one operation in the thirteenth century with smithying waste and pottery in the backfill.

As well as digging drainage and latrine ditches three large stock ponds were set out and excavated to the south of the site and these remained open until the sixteenth century

The Hospitallers take up residence.





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