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A knight to remember

This week a rare archive of land grants to the Knights Templar and Hospitaller will be going under the hammer in London at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions’ Mayfair saleroom. This is the first time in 50 years that we have seen a comparable archive of documents linked to the mysterious and shadowy Knights Templar and Hospitaller.

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions

The Knights of Templar and Hospitaller were both founded in Jerusalem in circa 1119 AD and were the most important of all the military orders in terms of their duration and the wide reaching scope of their control and influence. During the 12th century they comprised highly skilled fighting forces and were commissioned as the defenders of the Holy Land. In addition, the non-combatant members of the Orders introduced financial techniques that were essentially an early form of banking. A nobleman who was interested in participating in the Crusades might place all his assets under Templar management while he was away.

The Knights of Templar’s existence was tied closely to the Crusades. However, when the Holy Land was lost, support for the Order declined as Muslim forces became more united and dissent had risen among Christian factions. In 1307, under King Philip IV’s rule, many of the Order’s members in France were arrested for­­­­ heresy, tortured and then burned at the stake. Under pressure from King Philip, Pope Clement V disbanded the Order in 1312. After the dissolution of the Knights of Templar, much of their vast wealth then passed to the Knights Hospitaller.

The sudden disappearance of a major part of the European infrastructure gave rise to speculation and legends that still exist to this day. With the help of blockbuster films such as The Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Knights of Templar in particular have been credited with the development of secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati. Old wives’ tales aside, this archive is a rare insight into their elusive history.

We speak with Simon Luterbacher, Director of Manuscripts & English Literature at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions to discuss this rare archive:

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions

1.       The Knights of Templar and Hospitaller are shrouded in mystery and secrecy. What light, if any, do these manuscripts shed on these societies?

These charters throw light on the extraordinary power of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller in that relatively modest landholders were prepared to give them various parcels of land as a gesture of piety. The size and extent of these lands, many accumulated in these smallholdings, gave the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller extraordinary wealth and influence in England and across Europe.

2.       The legacy of these grants can be seen throughout London’s modern landscape, such as the Museum of the Modern Order in Clerkenwell, the Temple Church and the Inner and Middle Temple of the legal profession. What significance do these grants have for the modern Londoner?

These grants are significant as they demonstrate how the Knights of Templar and Hospitaller used their vast wealth to build these large buildings in London, which were were funded by their enormous holdings across England. They built magnificent buildings as an indication of that wealth and status, which we can see to this day.

3.       This collection is extraordinarily rare. Have you ever seen a comparable archive? If not, why not?

I have never even seen one document relating the Knights Templar or Knights Hospitaller, let alone an archive of 28 such documents. Knights Templar documents in particular are scarce as the order only existed in England for less than 200 years before being suppressed in 1308.

4.       The grants are on vellum paper and comprise 12 intact seals (one with original protective fibre bag) in red and white wax, impressed with various family marks. Considering the age of the grants, it is remarkable that they have stood the test of time.

The grants are on vellum, or more properly on parchment, sheep skin which has been treated and is remarkably durable. As long as they are not in contact with fire or water they have a durability far exceeding paper.

Deeds were commonly made out of vellum until the 20th century and, I believe, are still used by the Houses of Parliament for their statutes. Deeds also tend to survive long after they were first written as most of the time they are the only proof of ownership of land and property and for a historian they are an invaluable source of social detail.