Knights Templar in the Yorkshire Dales
Updated: Nov 14
I’d thoroughly enjoyed watching the TV series Knightfall on Netflix a couple of years ago, the story of the rise and fall of the Knights Templar and was fascinated at the story of these warrior monks and their exploits during the Crusades.
By co-incidence, I was looking at some maps at the same time as part of a recce for a tour of Wensleydale when I saw that between Aysgarth and West Witton on the A684 marked on an OS Map near a Temple Farm the words – “Remains of Preceptory – Knights Templar).
Always looking for something new to explore, I persuaded my wife to head out with me to find the site and set about exploring the web for what I could find out about the history of the site.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Knights Templar, they were a religious order founded in 1118 with a fascinating history in their own right.
Known as “God’s Holy warriors”, the Knights Templar were one of the most powerful and certainly wealthiest military religious orders during the days of the Crusades into the Holy Lands.
After Christian fighters captured Jerusalem during the first crusade, many pilgrims set out to visit Jerusalem. Many were killed crossing Muslim controlled lands during their journey causing a French Knight – Hughes de Payens to found an order with its main purpose to protect travellers to the Holy Lands. The order was initially called The Poor Knights of the Temple of King Solomon which eventually became known as the Knights Templar.
The Knights were well armed, swore vows of poverty and wore white habits emblazoned with a red cross. The order grew as did their reputation as fierce warriors driven by religious fervour and a vow to never retreat. If they should die in battle they believed in martyrdom and it being a glorious way to die which tied into their never surrender ethos (now where have I heard that before?).
Not all Knights Templar were warriors and for many their mission was support and raising funds. There was also a priest class acting almost as military chaplains.
The order grew and so did religious donations of lands, livestock and money. This new found wealth led to them setting up some of the first banks, where pilgrims could deposit money in Europe but access it along their route to the Holy land and in Jerusalem.
As the Knights Templars power grew they started making loans to nobles and even kings. The pope even granted that they need pay no tax to their monarch either, all of which put them at odds with both the King of France and England.
Eventually, the orders reputation and importance declined and by the early 1300’s the order was disbanded. With the Muslim army retaking Jerusalem, the Knights lost their foothold in the Holy Lands. When they retreated to France and considered setting up their own state in Southeast France – the then French King Philip IV became concerned about their wealth and power.
This relationship was further strained after the Knights Templar refused the indebted king additional loans which resulted in him campaigning against the order for heresy, devil worship and corruption as revenge.
Many Knights Templar were arrested, tortured for confession and burnt at the stake, the French King eventually persuading the then Pope – Pope Clement to disband the order in 1312.
Incidentally, the date the King had ordered for the initial arrest of the Knights Templar was Friday 13th October 1307 - this is the original the "Friday 13th" superstition!
So what has Yorkshire got to do with this holy order?
Let’s start by looking at the remains of the Knights Templar Preceptory. This is actually known as Penhill Preceptory. Preceptory actually means a house or community of Knights Templar.
We had parked the car by the side of the road and it was only a 20 minute hike up a well defined path onto the valley edge to get to the ruins so they were very easy to find.
The ruins we see now were the 2nd Preceptory on the site, apparently the first having been built closer to the roadside in 1142 funded by Roger Mowbray, but rebuilt in a grander style as donations to the Knights Templar came in.
At the site which was uncovered in 1840, we were able to see the remains of a small chapel, the base of the altar and three stone coffins built 1202. The church is unusual in that it has a round nave which was apparently copied from that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Whist founded in France, the order came to England during the reign of King Stephen, and started to acquire land in Yorkshire in the 1140s where ten Preceptories were established.
Preceptories were founded to raise revenues to fund the crusades to Jerusalem and support the order in protecting pilgrims. In addition, the preceptories of the Templars functioned as recruiting and training barracks for the knights.
It is believed that the Penhill Preceptory complex also had hospital buildings, workshops and agricultural buildings. These were normally arranged around a central open space, and were often enclosed within a moat or bank and ditch.
When the Knights Tempar were disbanded their buildings were passed to the Knights Hospitaller, another religious fighting order who perhaps are better known for providing alms and care for the poor (Hospitaller- Hospital).
The Knights Hospitaller abandoned the site in 1312 and records show it had fallen into disrepair by 1328. The lands were eventually taken over by the Le Scrope family from Castle Bolton across the valley.
There is still much mystery associated with the Knights Templar and rumours that they never disappeared and just went underground. There are stories about them having found the Holy Grail and the popular Dan Brown book The da Vinci code gives them a mention to add to the myth.
But I still find it fascinating that this famous fighting force of warrior monks can be traced back to this quiet tranquil spot in the Dales. The vast wealth of history in Yorkshire never ceases to amaze me!
One of my fellow Blue Badge Guides - John Darby informed me that there is another Knights Templar connection very close to the Preceptory. Just down the road in Aysgarth where the famous Aysgarth Falls are, is The Aysgarth Falls Hotel. But for centuries the Hotel was called the Palmer Flatt Hotel. A Palmer was the name given to a Crusader who had returned from the Holy Land with palm leaves which were used as their emblem.
Some returned with illness and required fresh air and water for their convalescence. On the site of the Palmer Flatt Hotel there had previously been a hospice run by the Knights Templar for their returning crusaders to recuperate in. Just another interesting link to this mysterious brotherhood!