A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The Knights Templar arrive at Preston
A detailed history of Preston: Part two
Many, influenced by movies and novels such Daniel Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, associate the Knights Templar with treasure, mysterious symbols that point to its location and a frenetic chase by opposing ruthless secret societies to discover it with disfigured corpses strewn along the way. As a result of this frenzy of interest, students of the Knights Templar subdivide the many books about them into two categories: ‘Orthodox’ (above left) and ‘Speculative’ (above right). This ‘history’ concentrates on the orthodox view of the Knights, but, tantalizingly, a little speculation may creep in later. In the eleventh century AD, many devout Christians from Western Europe undertook a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Among the revered, holy sites at the city were the Garden of Gethsemine, Mount Calvary and the tomb of Christ. The pilgrims made their journey to sight-see, worship and ultimately to have their sins forgiven However, what was already a gruelling trek became increasingly dangerous and impossible. Jerusalem was in the grip of non-Christian Turkish overlords who blocked the approach of worshippers to the sacred shrines. Pilgrims were attacked – many were slaughtered; others were sold into slavery. Responding to this religious hostility, in 1095, the Pope launched a popular and powerful campaign to free the Holy Land from the infidels using soldiers of Christ. The Crusaders were born. The rampaging knights were later distinguished by the scarlet cross emblazoned on their coats. Within four years of bloodshed the Turks had been ousted and Jerusalem was in Christian hands. The first Crusade of 1099 had been a satisfying success for Christians. With the promise of a safer journey, worshippers again streamed towards the Holy City, but other perils lay in their path: ambushing robbers, marauding Muslim Saracens and voracious wild animals. Matters came to a head in the Easter of 1119 when 300 pilgrims were massacred by Saracens near Jerusalem. As a reaction to this butchery, nine knights (most, if not all, were French) pledged to protect Christian travellers. The recently-installed King of Jerusalem provided a home for the knights in the Temple – the intrepid few became known as the Knights Templar. .
The Knights Templar - Monkish Knights or Fighting Monks?
This subject is relevant as it may explain why the Templars decided to establish a preceptory at Preston. We return to the field of conflict at Jerusalem - the Templars needed reinforcements and money to wage their war. In 1127, the first Templar Grand Master, Hugh de Payens, after visiting Normandy, crossed the Channel to England and was ‘welcomed by all good men. He was given treasures by all...’. He called for people to go to Jerusalem. The recruitment drive was a success. This is the first mention of the Knights Templar in Britain. The Templars were also brothers in a religious Order who led a monastic life. ‘They dedicated themselves to God, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience’. In fact, the foremost aim of the Knights is debatable – were they warrior monks or monkish warriors - where should the emphasis to be placed? These descriptions may appear paradoxical as monks eschew the spilling of blood. But the Templars viewed fighting infidels as an act of devotion. War was a version of prayer. Their battle was just and righteous as it defended the Holy Church. So, ‘onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war’! Their attire was symbolic - they were commanded to wear white mantles and cloaks to show that they had emerged from darkness into the light of purity. The red crosses on their mantles were added later to distinguish them from other fighters. The knights kept their hair short with short hair, but they did not shave their beards. To understand the impact on Preston of the Templars, one should discern their religious aspect because (as we will see) this explains both how they acquired their land in the hamlet and also their manner of life there.
The Knights Templar and Preston
How did Temple Dinsley become established? As the Templars were a significant religious body, they were bestowed grants of land in return for their awarding redemption of sins and absolution to the donors. These awards eased the recipients conscience and gave them confidence of being accepted in heaven after their demise. Thus, spiritual well-being and deliverance was effectively purchased by the gift of land. The gift of Temple Dinsley was a spiritual back-hander. There is documentary evidence which indicates that the Templars had a foothold at Dinsley before 1142, and during the seven years between 1142 and 1148, there was a flurry of five separate grants of rights and land to the Templars at Dinsley: These were described in Part One of this history.
Why Dinsley at Preston suited the Knights Templar
Given that Dinsley was a grant, the most likely reason for the Templars establishing a base there was the site’s seclusion. Preston is perched on an elevated ridge of the Chilterns. Even today, there are swathes of woodland in the area at Wain Wood and Hitch Wood. Nine hundred years ago, the forests in the district were even more extensive. Today, the site nestles in a natural hollow (see modern-day photograph below) – it ‘stands at the head of a long ravine that slopes gently toward the east in the direction of Minsden Chapel’.
As a result, Dinsley was isolated – a most suitable location for a withdrawn monastic order and it might be bourne in mind that Preston had religious roots as noted earlier. Despite its isolation, Preston was a mere thirty miles from London (as grateful, modern-day commuters know) and reasonably close to the major ancient highways of the Great North Road and the Ichnield Way.
The birth of Temple Dinsley
Soon after acquiring the land (and before 1200, as a chapter or meeting was held there between 1200 and 1205), there was a preceptory at Preston (a cross between a monastery and a chapel). Whether this was adapted from the original ‘priest’s tun’ at Preston or built by the Templars is not known. Huyshe writes, ‘The chapel would probably (my italics) be among the earliest of the buildings to be erected for the fraternity’. Whatever its background, there was a community and religious house here and thus Temple Dinsley was created. The Victorian County History remarks, ‘Not much is known about the preceptor, but it was perhaps fairly important’.   The first historical reference to ‘Dynesle Temple’ was in 1294. Its Master or Preceptor was answerable to the Grand Master of Templars. Preceptors at Dinsley included Richard Fitz-John (c1255), Ralph de Malton (c1301) and Robert Torvile (1308).
Life at Temple Dinsley
Although there are no plans of the original buildings if the normal practices of the Templars were followed, there would have been ‘a large complex of buildings’. This is what documents convey. The buildings included a chapel, hall, smithy, bake-house and a graveyard (after 1543, the graveyard became the kitchen yard). The Templars’ preceptories were guarded by strong walls and a gatehouse. Outside were the demense (or lord’s) estate and their tenants. As well as the brothers, there was a resident bailiff, a carter, four ploughmen, four labourers, a cook, a gardener and six pensioners. In the time of Bernard de Balliol, fifty people were listed as holding land and cottages on the estate. They included a cottager, a forester, a smith, a cloth-comber and a blood-letter. The brothers lived simply in walled enclosures that had a hall in which they ate and which contained a table, trestles and a washbasin. They also had chamber or bedroom that was furnished by beds and clothes bags. Here, the knights slept fully clothed and silent in dormitories with lamps burning. If the inventories of 1308 are accurate (they may have been taken after the preceptories were plundered) the Templars lived a frugal life with few possessions or comforts. The brothers were dedicated to prayer, observed the office day and night, fasted and preserved silence. When they sat at their table, they observed rank. Theirs was a fairly elderly community as the younger men were fighting overseas. The precise location of the chapel is unknown, but its existence is confirmed by three substantial artefacts. Firstly, at St Mary’s Church in Hitchin is the ‘battered effigy in Purbeck marble of Bernard de Balliol’ (discovered in 1728) which would originally have occupied pride of place at the (Dinsley) chapel’ (pictured earlier). Herbert W Tomkins states that this is in the recess of one of the windows of the north aisle of the parish church at Hitchin and describes it as ‘a mutilated, featureless effigy’. (See above) The figure was re-united with the second  artefact, a foot (‘part of a sculptured foot bearing chain mail and spur’) which was found at Dinsley in February 1899. A third artefact from Dinsley is displayed at St Martin’s Church, Preston (below). It is a grave-stone cover, ‘carved with a floriated cross that once marked the resting place of a Templar Master’.
In 1913, Tomkins added some information about this find: ‘Fortunately for me, a discovery was made a few days back which has set others thinking once again of the men who held this manor so long ago. Leaving the village green, I obtained entrance to the private gardens of Temple Dinsley and here lying upon the ground near the house, in a spot shaded by pines and guarded by an effigy of Father Time with his scythe and hour glass, is a large stone coffin lid which was found by some workmen when digging in the grounds. The coffin itself was missing. On that lid is a filial cross upon a rod or staff with a central disc and foliated extremes’. Tompkins claimed that this specific pattern was among the insignia of the Knights Templar. This discovery reminded him of another find nearby, the ‘sculptured foot’, which was mentioned earlier. Preston was agog: ‘...I find no small interest is evinced by them in those stories which they have heard from time to time’. Tompkins sat by this ‘old,old stone’ and listened to all that the gardener had to tell him. ‘...not far from where I am sitting is the mouth of a subterranean passage. It has been opened, as I am  told, from time to time, but never fully exposed. The story runs that it leads from here to Minsden Chapel and that, “once upon a time”, a second passage ran from the Priory at Hitchin and met that at Temple Dinsley almost at right angles’. Now, a note about the Templars and tunnels: National Geographic filmed a documentary about the Templars that featured the tunnels they built at Jerusalem. So, the Templars were tunnellers. There is also a rumour that beneath Hertford there is a honeycomb of passages dug by the Templars to facilitate secret movement about the town. R J Pilgram wrote this about the Stagenhoe House (which is little more than a mile from Temple Dinsley): ‘There has been recurring talk of a secret passage at Stagenhoe to Temple Dinsley, nearby. Mr Bailey-Hawkins (owner 1895-1922) tried to investigate it with some of his men, but they were driven back by foul air. When Mr Dewar owned the place he stated that he was extremely interested to reach the end of the tunnel, which had collapsed in many places. It seems unlikely that he ever did so. Hine himself did not regard the passage as having any significance. It was moreover a danger and Mr Hawkins car, leaving the forecourt, caused it to collapse.’ However, when describing how Stagenhoe mansion was underpinned by girders in the cellars, Hine wrote, ‘It was when these girders were being installed that a secret passage was discovered leading (so it was said) in the direction of the Church. It is a pity that it was then bricked up, for speculation as to its course, destination and purpose has been rife ever since. For the most part, one is inclined to be sceptical about such passages...’
Two floor tiles dated mid-thirteenth century found at Temple Dinsley and given to North Herts Museums by historian Chris Sansom. (Left) the Agnus Dei tile. (Right) the arms of a brother. Images used by kind permission of NHDC Museums
Further evidence of the original Temple Dinsley has been discovered in the form of a few of the floor tiles of the chapel, embellished with heraldic designs (see below). Skeletons of some of the monks have been dug up in the kitchen yard. (A skull was used by Lord Hampden, Henry Brand,on his study table as a reminder of his mortality (a memento mori) when he was tenant of Temple Dinsley.) Lodged with the bones was a pewter chalice of the early fourteenth century: this was discovered on 17 February 1887. When Douglas Vickers owned the estate, a fourteenth century bronze jug was unearthed (presented to Hitchin Museum by Mrs Barrington-White). Away from the main buildings, there were farm buildings in the enclosure at Dinsley which confirms that the knights led both a religious and an agricultural life. The Templars owned a large holding of land at Preston next to Dinsley. Only a quarter of the Templars land at Preston (27%) of land at Preston was held in demense, (that is, set aside for the Templars’ use) and for centuries this was referred to as ‘Temple Land’. The rest of the manor was tended by their tenants: freemen, villeins (with holdings from a few acres to 1-2 virgates) and cottars who had a house and a small piece of land and probably worked for the other two classes. The Templars received further grants of land: 13 acres in Kings Walden, some at Charlton (1244-5 from Maud de Lovetot) and 2 marks rent in Welles at Offley from John de Balliol. They also enjoyed fishing rights on the River Hiz, and free warren (from Henry III in 1252-53) in their demesne lands of Dinsley, Stagenhoe, Preston, Charlton, Kings Walden and Hitchin. This enabled them to kill game in those districts. Even in the twentieth century, the Lord of Temple Dinsley had the right to stand on the steps of Stagenhoe House on Christmas Day and discharge a shotgun. The Templars also had the right to erect gallows. They hung a man at Baldock in 1277, which indicates that their jurisdiction extended to this district. In 1286, they hung Gerle de Clifton and John de Tickhill for stealing a silver chalice and four silver teaspoons from Dinsley priest as well as Peter, son of Adam, for taking and torturing a woman.
Religious services at Temple Dinsley from 1218
The niece of William the Conqueror, Judith, formed the Benedictine abbey of Elstow, Bedfordshire (depicted above) towards the end of the eleventh century. It was seen as a royal foundation and its property, which included St Mary’s, Hitchin, was large and scattered. The nuns had the right to appoint a priest of the St Mary’s. In 1218, the Templars agreed with the nuns of Elstow that they should provide a resident chaplain at Dinsley who would celebrate matins, mass and vespers on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the morning, followed by vespers in the afternoon. The nuns thus provided a silver mark each year and four pounds of wax for the candles in the chapel. The Templars paid for services rendered by the nuns, giving a tithe from all the land that they ploughed in Hitchin as well as any land that was ‘newly broke up and sown’. However, if we imagine Temple Dinsley as a complex populated by knights in resplendent armour, this would be a mistake. Even Reginald Hine has been criticized for painting a romantic picture in his Early History of Temple Dinsley This was triggered by his observation that there is a meadow close by called Pageant Field. He suggested that ‘we shall do wisely, I think, to follow the prompting of that word (pageant)’. He then dreamed of standing on Preston Hill and watching a ‘procession of the ages’ looming through ‘the mists of time and standing out in bright armour’. Along came (spoilsport, but correct) Evelyn Lord in 2002 and dumped a douche of ice-cold water over this fanciful whimsy – she wrote dismissively, ‘Pageant Field did not get this name until 1729...holding tournaments would have been against the Order’s Rule as encouraging competition and pride’. Do get a grip, Reginald! Rather, Temple Dinsley had the trappings of a trapist-like monastery.
For further information about the Nuns of Elstow, see this link: Nuns of Elstow
The importance of Temple Dinsley
Temple Dinsley at Preston is recognised as ‘the most important preceptory (of the Templars) in the British Isles outside London’. The preceptory ‘became the most important in South East England’. (BBC History) The administration of the Templars  outside London was through provincial chapters. By the end of the thirteenth century, these important assemblies were held at Temple Dinsley. Chapters (or AGMs in today’s language) were held  between 1200 -1205;1219 - 29;1254 - 59; 1265; 1292; 1301 and 1310. As a result there is an impressive list of visitors to Preston and Temple Dinsley. These included Henry III and the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. In 1270, the last English Master, William de la More was received into the order at Preston. Twenty year later, in 1290, the following dignatories graced Temple Dinsley: master Robert De Torvile, Thhomas de Bary (chaplain), Robert Daken (preceptor of Scotland), Thomas de la Fenne ( from Bisham), Robert le Scrop (from Dandford), Robert de Barrington (from York), Roger de Cranford (from Bruer),Robert de Gloucester (preceptor of Ireland) and Thomas of Toulouse (preceptor of London).
Treasure and the Templars
The Templars are often linked with hidden treasure. In the twentieth century, a girl from the Princess Helena College (PHC) was found at class-time wading ‘up to her middle in the lower pool in the sure and certain hope that at any moment her toes might touch the bars of gold and the fabled iron casket’. Hine reported in the 1920s that men and women in ‘agonies of baffled expectation have been digging for 600 years the buried treasure’ that still eludes them. How was this fantasy of buried bullion created? The Templars evolved a system of banking. This was due to practical necessity – it was simply not feasible to travel any distance, let alone thousands of miles to the Holy Land weighed down with gold, a tempting target for any bandit. So, the Templars evolved a monetary system which allowed money to be transferred between their preceptories on paper. As a result, an amount written in France and England could be drawn upon in the Holy Land - it was effectively a credit note. It wasn’t just the Templars who needed this facility. Their services were used by kings and noblemen to collect and store taxes, pay ransoms and act as money couriers. The Templars offered a safe deposit service and were trustees for the payment of annuities and pensions. Of course, large deposits of money still had to be carted around, against which paper could be raised and the impression was given that the Templars were incredibly rich to those witnessing this ancient Securicor-like business in transit . They missed the point - the hefty bags did not contain the Templar’s money – the Knights were mere custodians. They were they like the security guard who earns £200 a week and who carries £100,000 into a bank: this is not his money. The revenue that the Templars earned was sunk into the bottomless pit of financing their army in the Middle East. It was this misconception of their part in the banking world that created the fiction of their wealth and hidden treasure. The reality was that they were poor (that is, financially poor) monks. When the Templars were attacked in the early fourteenth century, little of worth was found, not because it had been spirited away, but because it had never been. Perhaps this knowledge was included in the curriculum of PHC to deter further watery treasure hunts. Even the King of England was not immune from enticing rumours about treasure troves. After Dinsley was wrenched from the Templars in 1309, a commission was issued to ‘inquire touching goods of the Templars in the county of Herts’. Nothing was found. In the fourteenth century, believing that possibly Temple Dinsley had a complex of underground passages and buried treasure, Edward III sent a team to Preston to dig for the buried fortune – the foragers were to have a half share of the spoil. Another blank. Wentworth Huyshe in The Royal Manor of Hitchin described an conversation with Mrs Anstruther who lived with her husband (most appropriately, a Lord of the Treasury) at The Cottage on the Hitchin Road at Preston, which was part of the Temple Dinsley estate:
‘Rumour murmurs a half-forgotten tale how somewhere in that garden, perhaps beneath the straight grass walks, perhaps beneath the sunflowers and the pansies, the clumps of daisies and of dahlias – somewhere in that garden – lies a wealth of hidden treasure; jewels, rich and rare, rubies and diamonds, emeralds and sapphires and gold and silver galore hidden centuries ago by desperate men whom the King was despoiling of their own..But the exact spot where that treasure lies, no man wots of today, though some of the old folk in the village babble still of a certain oak tree, so many feet to the eastward of a certain pool; yet despite their babbling it is a fact that whereas men in the course of their daily labour have dug and trenched every inch of that garden, nothing have they brought to the surface, except some human skulls and bones which seem as though the bones of men. But never yet the treasure.
Why the Knights Templar fell from favour
In 1291, despite all their battling, the Christian armies were repulsed from the Holy Land. This created a fundamental crisis for the Templars: their essential raison d’etre was non plus pas. Furthermore, the recruitment stream was drying up and theirs was an aging force. Their rock (petra) in this time of need was, appropriately, the Pope. The military problem in the Holy Land was exacerbated because the Christians had splintered into separate armies – each rivals, yet with the same aims. Among the contenders of the Templars were the Knights Hospitallers, who were to feature later at Preston. The Grand Masters of the Templars and the Hospitallers met the Pope in 1306. The two main bullet-points on the agenda were how to merge the two orders and the launching of a new crusade. However, there was another more influential power struggle brewing. The Pope’s authority was being challenged by kings, notably Philip IV of France. As many of the Templars lived in France they were squeezed between their king and their increasingly weakened protector, the Pope. Added to the cauldron were the jealous glances Philip directed toward the Templars’ supposed wealth and his perception that they were religiously corrupt and evil and that he was Mr Right. Matters came to a head at dawn on 13 October 1307. Philip ordered the arrest of all the Templars in France. They were accused of terrible crimes: of sodomy, heresy and apostasy. Permitted to torture his victims in France, under extreme duress some ‘confessed’  that the charges were true. This gave Philip still greater power to spread his attack abroad. The ‘Rock’ crumbled. The Pope issued a Bull or edict against the Templars. This spiritual tsusami created a wave of attack even in the backwaters of secluded Preston. Despite his reservations, the King of England, Edward II, had no choice but to also arrest the English Templars because of the papal Bull - to ignore it was to put the well-being of his very soul at risk. Thus, on either 9 or 10 January 1307, the rural calm of Preston was shattered by the arrival of the Sheriff of Hertfordshire’s men at Temple Dinsley. They seized six Templars and dragged them away to face trial. (Perhaps Reginald Hine would have been on surer ground if he had pictured this wintry raid while standing on Preston Hill.) Two of the brothers were taken to the Tower of London and the other four were escorted to Hertford Castle. The known Templars arrested at Dinsley, included Henry Paul, Richard Peitvyn who had been at Dinsley for forty-two years), Henry de Wicklow and Robert de la Wold. At the time, there were six other men living as pensioners at Dinsley, together with two priests,(who acted as chaplains) and three boarders. Little wealth was recovered during the raids on Templar property in England. The  inquisition of the English Templars was held in the Tower of London. By English law, torture was not an option for the interrogators (a position resurrected recently by the American treatment of prisoners at Guatalemo Bay) however they were chained in solitary confinement. Temple Dinsley came under the spotlight when Stephen of Stapelbridge gave evidence that, when he was received at Dinsley and pressured by a ring of Knights with drawn swords, he had been told to spit on the cross and deny God. He claimed that this was a common practice at Dinsley. Stephen’s testimony was corroborated by Thomas de Tocci who added that the Master at Dinsley, Brian de Jay, had denied that Jesus was the Son of God many times. Although the charges described against them were trumped up and not clearly proved, the result of this probably unjust persecution of the Templars was that they were found guilty and disbanded by the Pope on 22 March 1312. What was the effect of this on Temple Dinsley? The Templars had been given property to help them defend the Holy Land. They were discredited and the raison d’etre for their holding land no longer existed. The Pope decided to give the majority of the Templars property, including Dinsley, to their rivals, Knights Hospitallers.