Houses of Knights Templars: Preceptory of Denney

Pages 259-262

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

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About the middle of the 12th century Robert, chamberlain of Duke Conan IV of Brittany, held of the duke, as Earl of Richmond, a manor in Waterbeach, of which Godric, son of Radfrid Brito, was tenant-in-fee, with the islands of Denney and Elmeney. (fn. 1) Robert also held Wilbraham and Wendy of the earl, (fn. 2) and, in Richmondshire, property in Kirkby Fleetham, including the advowson of the church. (fn. 3) His first intention may have been to found a cell of Ely at Elmeney, (fn. 4) but before 1159 he had built a church in honour of St. James and St. Leonard on the larger island of Denney. He endowed this with all the land that Godric had held of him, two parts of the isle of Elmeney and 9 acres in the open fields of Waterbeach, and handed it over to the Benedictines of Ely under a monk named Reynold as prior in the presence of Bishop Niel, who dedicated the church. (fn. 5) A little later Conan (fn. 6) confirmed to 'the monks serving God at Denney' his chamberlain's gifts of the tithe of his demesne at Wendy and Wilbraham, Wendy Church, and, with the Bishop's consent, the advowson of all churches on his land in Wendy, Wilbraham, and Kirkby. (fn. 7) Robert himself became a monk at Ely (probably about 1159) and died shortly afterwards. (fn. 8) His priory had a very short existence.

The Knights of the Temple had arrived in England in 1128. (fn. 9) In 1156 the Sheriff accounted for 'new alms' to the knights of the Temple from the farm of Cambridgeshire, (fn. 10) which by 1157 had become elemosina constituta. (fn. 11) In 1159 the Templars were pardoned 9s. 11d., being their share of a fine imposed for a murder on the hundred of Armingford, (fn. 12) where Wendy lay, but the first of their Cambridgeshire estates on which members of the Order lived together under their Rule was at Denney, which was transferred to the Templars by the community at Ely about 1170.

A bull of Alexander III of 17 October (probably 1173) confirms to the Master and Brethren of the Temple the gift of Wilbraham Church made to them by 'Nicholas', Bishop of Ely, with the consent of 'R. and Gilbert his son, founders and patrons of the said church'. (fn. 13) The copy is exceedingly inaccurate, but it would seem that Bishop Niel, who died 30 May 1169, had already transferred part of the gift of Robert (who died c. 1160), and his son George, to the Templars. Another bull, probably of the end of 1174, confirmed to the Templars land given them in Waterbeach by George the chamberlain (who died before Michaelmas 1175) (fn. 14) and Geoffrey, Earl of Richmond, who succeeded to the Honor in 1171, (fn. 15) with the consent of Geoffrey's father, King Henry II. A third bull of 6 May (probably 1177) confirmed an agreement between the Templars and the monks of Ely about the churches of Kirkby, Wilbraham, and Wendy, and the places of Denney and Elmeney. (fn. 16) Three royal charters are more explicit. Henry II confirmed the agreement, said to have been already confirmed by Conan IV, by which the Templars were to hold all that Godric, son of Radfrid, formerly held in Wilbraham and Wendy (the land which Robert the Chamberlain gave to the church of Denney being of the fee of the Bishop of Ely), and also the church of Wendy, and the land in the island of Denney which Aubrey Picot gave to the church there. The isle of Elmeney, which Henry, father of the said Aubrey, gave to the same church, was to remain appropriated for its maintenance, and Richard Hastings, Master of the Temple, agreed that his Order should pay an annual rent of 4 marks to the Prior and Convent of Ely, for the purposes of hospitality on the two feasts of St. Etheldreda: (fn. 17) another royal charter confirmed an instrument by which Niel the chamberlain quitclaimed to the Templars, apparently after his brother's death, all that George had given to them, (fn. 18) which the third describes as 'the whole of Beche', with the churches of Kirkby, Wendy, and Wilbraham. (fn. 19) Conan IV died 20 February 1171; negotiations for the transfer must, therefore, have begun before that date, and have been completed by 1177. The proviso in one of the papal bulls that the three churches were to be under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely was probably intended to safeguard his existing rights when they passed into the hands of an exempt Order.

It is not possible to say how soon Denney became a hospital for sick and superannuated members of the Order, but when Hugh, Bishop of Ely—either Hugh Balsham after 1257, or, more probably, Hugh Northwold between 1229 and 1254—instituted Robert de Swaffham as vicar of Great Wilbraham in the presence of the Master of the Temple, a composition was made by which the great tithes of the church were allotted to the support of the infirm brethren of the Order at Denney. (fn. 20) The only other infirmary for Templars known to have existed in England was that attached to Eagle, (fn. 21) one of their early houses in Lincolnshire, which seems, like Denney, to have occupied a special position in their economy. The Hospitallers' house at Chippenham, which affords a parallel as an infirmary, was founded in 1184, and there also sick brethren are found early in the 13th century. It is quite possible that Denney, with its ready-built church and monastic buildings, was acquired by the Templars with the object of using it for their sick from the first. In 1308, of the 10 or 11 brethren arrested at Denney all but 2 must have been elderly, I was insane, and 2 were crippled by age and infirmity. (fn. 22)

In June 1244 Henry III stayed a night at Barnwell and the next with the Hospitallers at Chippenham. A week later, by a writ dated at Ely, he ordered the sheriff of Norfolk to send 2 tuns of his wine lying at Walden Abbey, one to the Hospitallers at Chippenham, the other to the Templars at Denney, (fn. 23) whose house he must have passed on his journey.

Although Denney occupied an important position in the Order, and the Templars of Cambridgeshire were comparatively numerous, it is improbable that a knight was often, or perhaps ever, preceptor. The management of an estate, which was the purpose of all preceptories, or the care of the sick, which was the special business of Denney, was not primarily the affair of combatants. In England preceptors were more often servitors than knights. Sometimes they were chaplains. Of the 135 Templars brought to trial in the British Isles, 6 only are described as miles and 11 were priests, none of whom came from Cambridgeshire.

The arrest of the Templars and the confiscation of their property took place on 10 January 1308, from which date until 3 June 1309, John de Creke, sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, kept account of the manors of Denney, Wilbraham, Carlton, and Duxford in Cambridgeshire, with two in Huntingdonshire. The list of movables found by him at Denney (fn. 24) gives a clear idea of the furnishing of a Templar's house. Except in the chapel there is no ostentation of wealth. Each brother, of whom there were 11, (fn. 25) counting the preceptor and the invalids, had a bed which, with their tunics and a clothes-bag, was valued in the case of the preceptor at 20s., and for the rest at a mark, and there were 4 mazers and 6 silver spoons. In the chamber, with the beds, stood a chest worth 2s. The hall was furnished with 2 long trestle tables and 2 'tables dormant', 2 wash-basins, and a form; kitchen and bakehouse were well equipped with pots and pans, &c. The church was rather better furnished than the parish churches belonging to the Temple in Cambridgeshire. Of the 3 silver chalices 2 were gilt, as were the 2 cruets; 2 basins, a thurible, and the pyx were of silver; there were only 2 surplices and 2 rochets, and 1 silk altar-cloth, with burses, towels, and an old silk hanging, but there were 4 choir copes, 6 tunicles of silk, and 6 complete sets of vestments. Of the books the most interesting were the 2 missals 'of the use of the Templars'; the rest consisted of a legenda in 2 volumes, and a psalter glossed, 3 other psalters, 2 antiphonals, an epistolar, 2 manuals, 3 graals, and 2 tropers described as 'old'. No secular chaplains are known to have served this church, but priests must have been provided from outside the organization of the Temple, for none are found among either brethren or corrodarians at Denney.

Fifteen Templars in all were arrested in Cambridgeshire: (fn. 26) of these 10 or 11 were sent from Denney and 4, or possibly only 3, from the two other houses. (fn. 27) They were confined at Cambridge Castle in charge of the sheriff until 30 September 1309, when they were handed over to the Constable of the Tower of London, with the exception of one Brother William de Mawringges, who died at Cambridge on 6 December 1308. (fn. 28) He may possibly have been one of the invalids from Denney. The preceptor, William de la Forde, had been custos infirmorum at Eagle, (fn. 29) and may have been appointed to Denney for that reason. He had been received into the Order about 42 years before at Dinsley together with Richard Peytevin and Thomas of Toulouse, who had been arrested in other parts of the country, and must, therefore, have been of advanced age. The names of the Denney brethren suggest a local origin in four instances; William de Chesterton and William de Welles were old and infirm, John de Hauville was insane, and William de Scotho had been preceptor in 1286, (fn. 30) and was probably elderly. Of the rest Roger de Dalton had been received at Balsall, Hugh de Tadcaster was presumably a Yorkshireman, John de Newent and Roger de Ludlow probably came from the Marches, and Alexander de Bulbecke may have been known by his family name. Robert Scot, who had had a chequered career, bore a name indicating his nationality.

The trial of the Templars dragged on until 1311, but, of these 11, 5 were examined rather fully within a few weeks of their arrival in London. None of the Cambridgeshire brethren admitted anything material, and against those from Denney there was little of the outside hearsay evidence which was freely accepted in this country. The preceptor had apparently attended most of the chapters since his admission, for he said he had seen as many as 100 brethren admitted, of whom only Newent and William de Chesterton were, at the time of the arrest, members of his own house at Denney. As infirmarian at Eagle he had seen the funerals of 16 brethren, whereas none of the others gave evidence of having seen more than 1 or 2. Dalton, who had been professed only 4 years, had never seen another admission or a funeral. (fn. 31) It appears that he and Newent, who had been received about 8 years before at Wiloughton, were the only young men at Denney; Chesterton, also received at Wiloughton, had been a Templar for 30 years, Alexander de Bulbecke, received at Templecombe, for 30, and Welles, who was received at Temple Bruer, for 26. Hugh de Tadcaster was porter (claviger) in the Temple as a secular, and asked the master to admit him to the Order; this was done at Flaxflete. (fn. 32) Later he had seen the admission of Michael Baskervile, the London preceptor, who was a servitor, and that of a knight at Dinsley, and he stated that the reception of the knight was in exactly the same form as his own. He had seen two other admissions also, the latest 3½ years before at Sutton in Essex.

Robert the Scot had been twice admitted to the Order. (fn. 33) He had first joined it 26 years before in Syria, but afterwards apostasized ex levitate and remained outside it for two years. He then repented and went to Rome to confession to the Pope's penitentiary, on whose advice he sought readmission. He resumed the habit 'with alacrity and much penitence' at Nicosia in Cyprus, which after 1291 became the Templars' headquarters. He had probably only retired from active service and come to England—where he had been placed with other superannuated brethren at Denney— shortly before the fall of the Order, for he had seen no admission in England. Like Tadcaster and others he testified that all the funerals of which he had had knowledge were held in public. On one of the chief points against the Templars, that of allowing lay absolution, William de la Forde, as preceptor of a house where the confession of the sick and aged made it of particular importance, gave very clear evidence. (fn. 34) He said that lay preceptors absolved their brethren, not from mortal sin, but from acts of canonical disobedience openly confessed in chapter, simply as an act of forgiveness, and that he believed the same was done in all Religious Orders. His evidence was borne out by that of the Preceptor of Duxworth, William Raven of Wilbraham, Scotho, and Dalton.

On 12 July 1311 William de la Forde, Robert Scot, Raven, Scotho, and Tadcaster abjured and were absolved. (fn. 35) On 13 July Newent abjured, (fn. 36) and on the same day Welles and Chesterton with three other aged and crippled brethren were allowed to abjure privately in All Hallows Church, close by their place of imprisonment in the Tower of London. (fn. 37) Robert Scot and Roger Dalton were handed over to John Ketene, Bishop of Ely, 'to place in certain monasteries to do penance', with an allowance of 4d. a day for each of them. (fn. 38)

When John de Creke took over the preceptory its yearly value was within a very little of the 100 marks at which it was valued when, about 20 years later, the manor was granted to the Countess of Pembroke. In addition to the usual expenses of a manor, 'wages' of 4d. a day had to be found for the Templars while they were in Cambridge Castle, and maintenance, at 2d. a day, for three corrodarians. (fn. 39) Two of these, Thomas Giselingham and William de Sutton, had acquired their corrodies by services rendered and contributions in land and money; the third, Ralph Bonet, had been resident at Denney since 1293; all had their corrody at the table of the esquires or free servants. (fn. 40) On 27 April 1308 the king, at their petition, confirmed them all in an allowance of 2d. a day in lieu of food. Bonet was to have 10s. a year for clothing and 40d. for shoes, Giselingham and Sutton yearly stipends of 5s., with 10s. a year for clothing for Giselingham and 5s. for Sutton. (fn. 41) Two pensions to religious houses were also payable from Denney, one of a mark to the Prioress of Wroxall in Warwickshire, which originated in a grant made by Robert the Chamberlain before he gave the manor of Waterbeach to the Templars, (fn. 42) and one of 26s. 8d. to the Prior and Convent of Ely at the Translation of St. Etheldreda. (fn. 43)


  • 1. Farrer, Feudal Cambs. 190.
  • 2. Ibid. 17, 120.
  • 3. C. T. Clay, Early Yorks. Charters, v, p. 169, n.
  • 4. See T. D. Atkinson, Architectural History of Ely, 175.
  • 5. Mon. Angl. vi, 1552, from Cott. MS. Titus A. I; D. C. Douglas, Feudal Docs. from Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, p. xxxviii n, from Liber M. (Ely), fol. 287.
  • 6. The witnesses show the charter to be after 1160: see Clay, op. cit. iv, p. xxxiv.
  • 7. Mon. Angl. loc. cit.; Clay, op. cit. iv. 63.
  • 8. Ibid. v, 170, n. 1.
  • 9. Beatrice A. Lees, Records of the Templars, p. xxxviii.
  • 10. Pipe R. (Rec. Com.), 2 Hen. II, p. 14.
  • 11. Ibid. 3 Hen. II, p. 96.
  • 12. Pipe R. Soc. i, 54.
  • 13. Cott. MS. Nero C. IX, fol. 23.
  • 14. C. T. Clay, op. cit. v, 170.
  • 15. Ibid. iv, 75.
  • 16. These 3 bulls are dated Anagni, 17 Oct., Ferentino, 17 Dec., and Ferrara, 6 May. Alexander was at Anagni in Oct. 1173 (Migne, Pat. Lat. cc, col. 919), at Ferentino in Dec. 1174 (ibid. 1003), and at Ferrara on 6 May 1177 (ibid. 1112).
  • 17. Lees, op. cit. 224-5; Mon. Angl. i, 485.
  • 18. Cott. MS. Nero C. IX, fol. 22.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Ibid. fol. 23.
  • 21. Lees, op. cit. p. clxxx.
  • 22. See below.
  • 23. Cal. Lib. R. 1240-3, p. 245.
  • 24. Exch. L.T.R. Enrd. Accts. 18, m. 19 d.
  • 25. At the New Temple, London, and at Eagle and Dinsley, there were 8 professed brethren; at most other preceptories only 2 or 3.
  • 26. Exch. L.T.R. Enrd. Accts. 18, m. 21.
  • 27. Wilkins, Concilia, ii, 347.
  • 28. Exch. L.T.R. Enrd. Accts. 18, m. 19.
  • 29. Wilkins, op. cit. 353.
  • 30. Select Pleas of the Forest (Selden Soc.), 130. His predecessor, Jordan de Thame, was still living in the preceptory at that time.
  • 31. Wilkins, op. cit. 354.
  • 32. Ibid. 335.
  • 33. Ibid. 345.
  • 34. Ibid. 356-7.
  • 35. Ibid. 391
  • 36. Ibid. 392.
  • 37. Ibid. 391.
  • 38. Cal. Close, 1307-12, p. 365. Other Denney Templars were delivered to the Bishops of Lincoln, Norwich, Salisbury, and Worcester: ibid. Roger de Dalton was keeper of the Hospitallers' camera of Ashley in 1338: Larking, Hospitallers in Engl. (Camd. Soc.), 121.
  • 39. Exch. L.T.R. Enrd. Accts. 18, m. 21.
  • 40. Henry Cole, Docts. Illustrative of Engl. Hist. 156, 158, 159.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Ibid. 199. Wroxall was a centre of the cult of St. Leonard (V.C.H. Warw. ii, 70), and Robert had dedicated his church at Denney to St. James and St. Leonard (see above).
  • 43. Exch. L.T.R. Enrd. Accts. 18, m. 19d.