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.
RELIGIOUS SERVICES AT TEMPLE DINSLEY FROM 1218
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).
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEMPLE DINSLEY
TREASURE AND THE TEMPLARS
‘Rumour murmurs a half-forgotten tale how somewhere in that garden, perhaps beneath
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.’
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
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.
HOW THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR FELL FROM FAVOUR
THE MANOR OF MINSDEN FROM DOMESDAY UNTIL THE FIFTHTEENTH CENTURY
Lest we become obsessed with the domination of Preston by Temple Dinsley, it is time
for a reminder that the district around Preston was also governed by other manors.
One such was Missenden or Minsden.
Domesday reported that ‘King William holds Mendlesdene. It is assessed at 4 hides
(480 acres). There is
land for 8 ploughs. In the demesne (the Lord’s holding) there are 2 hides and 2½
virgates. A priest with 8 villeins and 2 cottars have 3 ploughs between them and
there could be 2 more. There are 6 serfs.
Meadowland there is sufficient for the livestock of the vill. There is woodland to
feed 30 swine.
The manor belonged and still belongs to Hiz (Hitchin). Earl Harold held it.’
If anything, the origins of the Hospitallers slightly predated the Templars as their
Order was established in the 1070s.
If the Templars kept the routes to the Holy Land open, then the Hospitallers tended
those who who fell by the wayside. They opened a hospice (as distinct from a hospital)
at Jerusalem which ministered to sick and injured pilgrims – they eased their plight
rather than treating them.
They were a quasi-religious Order who took vows and donned distinctive clothing and
existed to provide a positive service for others, together with an emphasis on spirituality.
In 1113, their role was acknowledged by the Pope when he issued a papal decree granting
the Hospitallers protection and privileges. They were supported by gifts from crusaders
and from well-meaning donors in Europe, who had an eye on their own salvation earned
by their ‘charitable’ gifts.
I have found one comment that both effigies were ‘said to be brought from Temple
Dinsley’. If true, this is an indication of the continuing prominent part Dinsley
played in the history of the region.
THE MANOR OF MAIDENCROFT IS CREATED FROM PART OF THE MANOR OF DINSLEY
PRESTON AND THE PLAGUE 1349
Preston, indeed the whole of Hertfordshire, felt the virulent grip of the Black Death.
It was so severe in Hitchin that everyone died in one district and ‘a street became
known thereafter as ‘Dead Street’.
The BBC documentary, Christina - a Medieval Woman, described the remorseless march
of the contagion across Hertfordshire. It travelled at a kilometre a day and struck
Codicote, which is almost five miles south-east of Preston, on St Dunstan’s Day,
19 May 1349. It embraced Preston a few days later. Graffiti on a stone pillar of
Codicote Church describes the pandemic as ‘pitiable, ferocious and violent. Only
the dregs of the people are left to bear witness’.
During the reign of Richard Ii (1367 - 1400), Hospitallers continued to reside at
Temple Dinsley as the preceptory is mentioned during this period. However, the holding
of religious service here appears to have become spasmodic and had probably lapsed
by 1498. At this time, the manor was leased (for the duration of his life-time) to
John Tong, a preceptor, who undertook to find a chaplain to perform religious services.
Two years later Prior Robert Kendal and the Chapter granted a chaplain, Robert Shawe,
his board at Dinsley at the table of gentlemen. He was paid 5 marks to perform services
in the chapel.
TEMPLE DINSLEY FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY
THE SADLEIR FAMILY - OWNERS OF TEMPLE DINSLEY (1542 - 1712)
Henry VIII evidently was uncaring of the religious privileges of his subjects at
Preston – he sold them to one of his principal Secretaries of State and Privy Councillor,
Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507 - 1587), together with Temple Chelsin, for £843 2s 6d - one
twentieth of a knight’s fee. He paid an annual rent of £4 9s 4d.
Sadleir was employed in dissolving religious houses such as Temple Dinsley and was
wealthy. He was a diplomat who was frequently employed at the Court in Scotland.
He was entrusted with Mary Queen of Scots while she was a prisoner at Tutbury Castle
but was rebuked by Queen Elizabeth I for taking Mary hunting beyond the environs
of the Castle.
As Sir Ralph had been granted the Manor of Standon, Herts by Henry VIII, he lived
here rather than at Preston. However, his son, Edward Sadleir lived at Temple Dinsley.
Following Ralph’s death, Temple Dinsley then passed through five members of the Sadleir
family over the next 170 years: Sir Ralph; Anne (Sir Ralph’s daughter-in-law); Thomas
(grandson of Anne); Sir Edwin (son of Thomas) and Sir Edwin jnr.
Thomas Sadleir (a baptist) was at Dinsley during the time of the English Civil War
(1642 - 1651). At this time, many in the country were deeply dissatisfied with their
monarch, Charles I, and supported the Parliamentarians organised by Oliver Cromwell.
After Charles was executed in 1649, England was ruled by a republic until 1660 when
control was wrested back by Charles II.
Benedict Ithell was the deputy treasurer of Chelsea Hospital. In August 1712, he
bought Temple Dinsley for £3,922.
Possibly Ithell bought the estate for the hunting potential of the land surrounding
the building rather than the house itself. The Sadleirs had evidently not been able
to maintain the house in a good state of repair because two years later, in 1714,
Ithell demolished Dinsley and built a new mansion close-by. The house had a heraldic
badge in the form of a rising bird and the inscription ‘1714’ on rainwater heads.
According to archaeological findings and radar surveys in 2000, the mansion was just
to the east of the old building which was sited under the present-day rose garden.
Ithell also restored estate cottages in Preston.
The hilltop of Minsden. The chapel is to the right of the copse
INTRODUCING THE KNIGHTS HOSPITALLER ( the Order of St John and the Knights of Malta)
THE OCCUPANTS OF TEMPLE DINSLEY FROM 1312
There is a connection between Edward and Elizabeth de Kendale and the manor of Maidencroft.
Maidencroft manor did not exist at the time of Domesday as it was then part of the
manor of Dinsley. However, by the middle of the fourteenth century there had been
a partition of Dinsley and the new manor of Maidencroft (which was also known as
Dinsley Furnival) had been established. Thus, in 1347, it was recorded that when
Margaret de Kendale died, she owned ‘a tenement (house) called Madecroft in the manor
of Dynsle Furnival’. Edward de Kendale then became the new Lord of Maidencroft manor.
It follows from this that size of manors was not set in stone. Indeed, when the Hitchin
manor of Welei ceased to exist, its land was incorporated within its neighbouring
manors which included Temple Dinsley.
Maidencroft manor lay within the parish of Ippollitts although Salmon noted that
it also extended into the parish of Hitchin. In 1427 it was assessed at 287 acres
of arable land and 193 acres of pasture. It included 14 houses, 5 cottages and a
dove house. It encompassed land to the north and east of Preston.
During this period, the independent religious spirit of Preston villagers was demonstrated
by events at Minsden Chapel (shown right).
The houses of Preston seem to be shown to the left and outside of the mansion’s grounds
on the right are a collection of buildings which probably include stables. It is
likely that a mill is also shown here in the right foreground - the building has
a medieval hood-mould which may date from the thirteenth century.
The mansion of Temple Dinsley ‘partly pulled down’
BENEDICT ITHELL PURCHASES TEMPLE DINSLEY
Thomas Harwood’s remarkable social elevation is well mirrored in the Hitchin Militia
List (Link: Militia Lists). From 1758 he was described as ‘servant’, ‘gentleman’s
servant’ and even ‘labourer’. Then, in 1768, he is Thomas Harwood, ‘Esquire’!
But tongues were wagging. Why had Thomas received this windfall? When he in turn
left his estate to a Joseph Darton, even in the twentieth century, a newspaper reported,
‘some suggested that Joseph Darton was his son by a secret marriage to Martha Ithell
or that he was a nephew or cousin. The Preston Village web-site relating to St Martin’s
Church states that Joseph Darton was the ‘secret son’ of Martha and Thomas.
I do not have access to any documents which support this claim. It may be true or
it may be tittle-tattle that has been handed down in the village. However, there
is some evidence that refutes these rumours - Thomas may well have had a nephew named
‘Darton’. This information emerges from the details in his will.
Benedict Ithell snr (above) died on 8 July 1737, aged 67. He was interred within
St Mary’s Church immediately below a magnificent monument (shown above, left). His
son, Benedict jnr was also buried at St Mary’s and a reader about him is on a wall
(see above, right). Benedict snr’s will was proved 14 September 1737. He asked to
be buried ‘in the vault lately made by me in the parish church of Hitchin’. He bequeathed
each of his daughters, Elizabeth, Mary and Martha a legacy of £2,000. His estate
was left to his son, Benedict jnr and thence, if he died without issue, to his daughters.
They later died without marrying and were all buried at St Mary’s. The estate of
Temple Dinsley was bequeathed by the sole survivor, Martha Ithell, to Thomas Harwood
in her will of 3 April 1767. Harwood was her ‘faithful friend and steward’.
The reading of her will caused uproar. Her cousin, Benedict Clarke of London claimed
in Chancery that Martha was of unsound mind – but lost his case. (Part of the document
signed by Martha at Chancery is reproduced left) Thomas Harwood was installed as
the new Lord of Dinsley Manor.
During the Ithell’s residence at Temple Dinsley, another colourful character
strode onto the Preston stage - Robert Hinde of Preston Castle.
So, wonderful details of Thomas’ immediate family are provided by his will.He had
a brother John (who was a mere servant at Great Wymondley with a lame/sore leg).
He had a sister Ursula (who married Michael Darton at Shephall, Hertfordshire on
16 May 1749. This couple had at least one child, Sarah). Thomas’ origins can also
be confirmed from this information - he was born on 17 January 1725 at Bennington,
Herts, the son of John and Sarah Harwood. Thomas was therefore 62 years old when
Two undeniable facts are apparent. Firstly, Thomas showed generosity towards several
nephews and nieces in his will. Secondly, it was possible that he did indeed have
a nephew with the surname, ‘Darton’ towards whom he also showed extreme favour -
he certainly had a niece named, ‘Darton’. But, I would be happier if the baptism
of Joseph Darton could be found in parish registers - but there again, Sarah Dartons’
baptism also cannot be located.
There is a further indication that Joseph Darton’s father was Michael. When Joseph
baptised his children, evidently following a naming pattern, he had his fourth son
christened, Michael - a relatively unusual name at the time.
The achievement of arms (or heraldic insignia) of Thomas Harwood in St Mary’s, Hitchin.
The motto means, ‘There is peace in heaven’
A possible explanation for the absence of Joseph and Sarah Darton’s baptism is that
perhaps there was a Quaker influence in the family. This would mean that they would
not be have been in an Anglican Church. Joseph Darton’s wife, Elizabeth was a Quaker.
On balance, from the facts outlined above, I am inclined to think that Joseph Darton
was indeed Thomas Harwood’s nephew - until evidence is presented which refutes this.
There is one further curious detail: the Court Baron for Maidencroft recorded in
1787 that John Harwood of Great Wymondley was Thomas’ ‘only brother and heir’. John
promptly surrendered Thomas’ property to Joseph Darton.
Thomas Harwood’s will was drawn up on 10 January 1786. It was witnessed by William
Wilshire, Isaac Coxall and Joseph Halstead. Thomas left annuities (from his property
at Shadwell, Stepney, Middlesex) to his brother John Harwood (£100) and his sister,
Ursula Darton (£50). He bequeathed his manor and property in Hertfordshire to his
‘nephew, Joseph Darton’. Legacies were left as follows: nephew, Thomas Harwood -
£100; the other children of brother John Harwood - £30 each; niece, Sarah Kitchener
(‘wife of Benjamin’ - Benjamin Kitchener married Sarah Darton at Knebworth, Herts
on 19 January 1782) - £400; friend, Edward Kitchener (a farmer at Preston) - £100;
Robert Heathcore - £20; his servants at the time of his death - £10 each ‘for mourning.
The residue of his estate was given to Joseph Darton.
Thomas signed a codicil on 9 February 1787. He left further legacies to Thomas Harwood
- £100; the other children of John - £20 each; Edward Kitchener - £100; Robert Heathcote
-£20. Further legacies were given to William Wilshire - £20, ‘for a new wig’ and
to housekeeper Mary Roberts - £40. The will and codicil were proved on 5 March 1787.
Whitherby still had some cards to play. On the Monday morning, he summonsed both
the carpenter, for malicious damage, and Ithell’s coachman, for trespass. They escaped
on the grounds that no apparent annoyance had been visited on the corpses in the
While this makes for a good story, if this was typical of the man, one wonders how
such a squire behaved towards the ‘poor people’ of Preston.
Carriages and Benedict also featured in another historical tit-bit: he ordered the
manufacture of a carriage from London. The makers requested a measurement of local
ruts so that his carriage should run smoothly.
Ithell was appointed as Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1727 and was also made a trustee
of Hitchin Grammar School. He formed a bond with Ralph Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory.
The pair drove to St Mary’s Church at Hitchin on Sundays in a style guaranteed to
upset the church wardens. Their gilded coaches were ‘emblazoned with arms and their
crests glittering in silver radiance from every part of the harness where a crest
could possibly be placed’. They swung through the south gates and along the gravelled
path of the graveyard to the entrance of the porch to the accompaniment of the tolling
church bells. The pageant was ‘brought up in style with straining and struggling
of horses, cracking of whip, glistening of harness and flashing of wheels through
gravel, horses fretted into a foam, dashing the pebbles against the poor pedestrian
This ‘flaunting parade of petty lordings’ so incensed a churchwarden, Richard Whitherby,
that without consulting the vicar or his fellow churchwardens, on Saturday night
(9 November 1734) he drove a great beam into the centre of the gravelled way and
girdled three chains and padlocks around the entrance gates. That would fix their
He reckoned without the resourcefulness of Radcliffe. He sent his carpenter to break
the chains and saw down the offending beam - all this just in time for Ithell to
drive through in triumph.
Present-day Preston may retain a memorial of these days. Hine wrote of ‘the village
green at Preston, then known as Cromwell’s Green’ in 1691. I do not know the source
of this information, but suggest that in fact Hine may have meant what is known today
as Crunnells Green - an area in the village adjacent to the grounds of Temple Dinsley.
It was known as Cranwells Green in 1713.
Meanwhile, at Temple Dinsley after 1540, without the patronage of the nuns of Elstree,
the chapel at Preston soon fell into decay and ruin. By 1700, it was reported that,
‘no trace of this building now remains’.
In the first few years of the eighteenth century, Sir Edwin Sadleir was forced to
sell Temple Dinsley to offset his debts.
During the winter of 1643-4, the army was billetted at Hitchin, much to the town’s
peoples’ annoyance, and Sadleir was in the party dispatched to Parliament to lobby
that their soldiers be removed and that the taxation for their upkeep levied upon
Hertfordshire, be abandoned. Thomas himself, despite his mansion and 600 acres of
land, was no longer able to maintain his son because of these dues.
Cromwell raised another army of 3,000 men from Hitchin, Cambridge and surrounding
villages. His recruits came in with ‘ incredible speed and alacrity’ and fought during
the Roundhead’s victorious battle of Nazeby.
Afterwards, the attention of the Parliamentarians was drawn to Ireland where Sadleir
served as Adjutant-General with some of his Hitchin soldiers. He stormed Ballydoyne,
Graney, Dunhill and Clonmell and was made Governor of Galway.
During this period of turbulence, Hitchin (despite its having been a royal manor)
and its neighbourhood were solidly behind the Parliamentarians - it was a Parliamentary
stronghold. Thomas Sadleir was an ardent supporter, not least because Sir Ralph Sadlier
had been received into the family of Thomas Cromwell. However, one of his younger
sons at Temple Dinsley on the outbreak of war, fled from his father and joined up
with Royalist, Prince Rupert.
Hertfordshire saw more of the organisation of the Parliament’s armies than any other
county in the Eastern Association (formed by five counties including Hertfordshire)
which was formed to raise an army and prevent war from encroaching on their districts.
Thomas Sadleir as the grandson of a famous military engineer, Sir Richard Lee, was
part of the Council of War for Hertfordshire and served on the Committee of the Eastern
Although battles swirled around the Hertfordshire borders, the county saw only a
few skirmishes. When the Royalist army led by Rupert threatened Hitchin in 1643,
a force of three to four thousand Trained-Band Volunteers were mobilised which, in
view of Sadleir’s involvement, may well have included men from Preston. Several of
this force were killed in the fields around Hitchin.
But, just seven years later, in 1507, the manor was let to Thomas Hobson (and then
later to Reginald and Dorothy Adyson ) who were also asked to provide the chaplain
– the implication being that Shaw was no longer performing this duty. An inventory
of the contents of the chapel was taken in 1514. Among the items listed were: a high
altar, and two smaller alters; images of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist; three
mass books – one being new; two, old; various vestments; 8 alter cloths; a copper
cross and a pair of censors. It seems that even if the will to worship was not constant,
the accoutrements were available. Another tenant was John Docwa. He asked to be buried
at either Temple Dinsley or St Mary’s, Hitchin.
In 1525 there was a bizarre incident which indicates that Temple Dinsley was moving
from its monastic life to a regime of hunting which continued into the nineteenth
century. ‘Henry VIII. visited Hitchin and stayed several days there hawking and then
went to Temple Dinsley ; while following his Hawk, in leaping over a ditch with a
pole, the pole broke, so that if one Edmond Moody, a footman, had not leaped into
the water and lifted up his head, which was fast in the clay, he would have been
The involvement of the Hospitallers at Temple Dinsley ended in 1540 during the dissolution
of the monasteries by Henry VIII. They had owned the manor at Preston for almost
two centuries. Because of the lapses in providing divine services at Dinsley, apart
from the change of ownership, there was probably little difference to the daily routine
As an example of the local impact of the plague Hine, when writing about Stagenhoe
(which is a little more than a mile from Preston) said ‘the tenants dwindled to a
mere handful and the Lord’s demesne was left derelict and untilled. The villeins
and serfs forsook their manors and with fear of death in their eyes wandered over
the country living in woods and hillsides like wild beasts’. Sixty villages disappeared
from the map of Hertfordshire as a result of the Black Death.
Preston has its own reminder of this virulent pandemic - Dead Woman’s Lane. Local
legend has it that it was named after the plague victims that were buried at nearby
During this period the Hospitallers became owners of property by virtue of a statute
of 1324. As they now had access to the fund-raising activities that were one of the
main reasons that the Templars had so much land, in effect the two Orders were merged,
despite the fact that the Knights Templar had fallen from grace. The Hospitallers
continued to fight Muslims in the Middle East and the line of battlefronts ebbed
and flowed - but the cost of warfare escalated as innovations were introduced - plate
armour was more expensive than chain mail, for example.
From the viewpoint of the villagers at Preston, probably little changed when the
Hospitallers became their lords and masters, apart from the personnel at the mansion.
Indeed, the Hospitallers inherited the debts and obligations of their predecessors.
However, as we will see, although owning Temple Dinsley, the Hospitallers let the
estate to a succession of tenants and the holding of religious services became less
There is one curious historical note that refers to the Lord of the manor of Hitchin
from 1348, Edward de Kendale and his wife, Elizabeth. The effigy of Bernard de Balliol
in St Mary’s, Hitchin has already been featured, but there are also two other effigies
there - of Edward (below left) and Elizabeth.
There was an interval between the disbanding of the Templars in 1312 and the granting
of Temple Dinsley to the Hospitallers in 1348. R P Mander asserts that in 1307, Temple
Dinsley was given to a money lender, Geoffrey De La Lee probably in settlement of
an outstanding debt. The Victorian County History states that after 1312, the
manor was ‘occupied for some years by the lords of the fee’ and that it was then
let by them to William de Langford for an annual rent of 27 marks. He was still a
tenant in 1338.
The basis for this observation was a report dated 1338 by Prior Philip de R Thame
to the Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Elyau de Villanova. It stated, ‘there is
a manor of 3 carucates of arable land at a rent of 100 shillings per annum, 60 acres
of underwood destroyed by the occupiers of the Temple. The worth of the aforesaid
manor with all outgoings beyond maintenance for the services of a chaplain for the
chapel – 27 marks.’ This was ‘remitted to William, the farmer of Langeford, who says
that the manor was occupied of the Lord’s fee and he who seized it had occupied it
for many years after being annulled by the Templars. The rent of the same – 27 marks.’
Increasingly, the Hospitallers became involved in the Holy Land war effort – prevention
of injuries was as important as curing them. Instead of concentrating on the after-care
of the wounded and dying, they sought to protect travellers from attack in the first
place by providing an armed escort.
This stance evolved so that in the third crusade (1189 -1192) they played a major
military role for the first time. As mentioned earlier, there was rivalry between
the Templars and the Hospitallers – the Templars alleging that the Order was created
in their image. When the Christians were repulsed from the Holy Land in 1291, both
sets of Knights were criticised for their rivalry which it was considered contributed
to their defeat - ‘...divided they fell’
The Hospitallers were not included in the witch-hunt against the Templars, however,
and when the latter were dissolved, the majority of the Templar estates (except those
on the Iberian peninsular) were given to the Hospitallers. They were required to
to find ‘yearly two chaplains to celebrate divine service in the chapel of the manor’
at Temple Dinsley.
All that remains of Minsden is the ruined chapel of St Nicholas. It was a chapel
of ease to St Mary’s at Hitchin and served villagers from the village of Langley.
As it lay near the pilgrims’ route of St Albans Highway (being clearly visible from
the road, perched on a hillside) it also would also attract travelling worshippers.
Did Prestoners worship at Minsden? As we will see, there is no doubt that they attended
services there in the sixteenth century. However, from before Domesday, there had
been a religious house at Preston and the Templars had established a preceptory at
the village from the end of the twelfth century. Was this for the exclusive use of
the Templars, excluding local folk? Probably not - as already noted non-Knights (albeit
august personages) such as the de Balliol family worshipped at Dinsley. Perhaps Preston
worshippers only drifted to Minsden when regular services at Dinsley were interrupted
several centuries later.
Minsden manor was owned by Guy de Bovencourt until the King claimed it back in 1204.
Then, Minsden was included in the holdings around Hitchin which rested with the de
Balliol family until 1295. Robert de Kendale then assumed ownership until was ousted
by the King on a point of law – of which possession was not nine points in this case.
In the fourteenth century, Minsden was conferred upon John de Beverle ‘for services
rendered’. Then, it was passed down to his wife and two daughters. In the early 1400s,
the manor was sold to the Langfords, Robert then his son, Edward, followed by later
generations of this family. We will return to Minsden later.
Thus, significantly, a priest lived at Minsden together with around 38 other people
in 16 homes. We might conclude that there was a church at Minsden in 1086 (although
Bishop suggests that Minsden Chapel was built in around 1300).
The manor comprised mainly of meadows and included a compact wooded area. Gerry Gingell
described it as ‘a very small hill-based community which struggled for survival up
until the seventeenth century.’
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.