The Knights Hospitaller

In accordance with a bull of Pope Clement V, the Templar lands passed into the hands of the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist of Jerusalem. The Hospitallers, as they are known, were the oldest of the three great crusading military orders, originating in the 11th century before the First Crusade. They had been founded to provide medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but they came to assume a military role as well. Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, the greatest of all the Crusader castles, was built by them. Their rule was based on that of St. Augustine, and was less severe than that adopted by the Templars. For their dress they adopted the Augustinian black and added a white cross.

Hospitaller shield

There was often rivalry between the Templars and the Hospitallers, resulting even in their fighting on opposing sides in the complex political squabbles that beset the occupiers of the Holy Land. However, at the fall of Acre in 1291 all three military orders (the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights) fought side by side with outstanding valour before the defeat which led to the collapse of Christian rule in the Holy Land. The Hospitallers then transferred their headquarters to Cyprus, and then from 1309 to Rhodes until it was captured by the Turks in 1522. Thence they moved to Malta in 1530 where they withstood the Great Siege by the Turks in 1564 and where they remained until Napoleon’s occupation in 1798. The Hospitallers survive today as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta with bases in Malta and Rome. As well as being an order of chivalry, the Order carries out charitable works in many countries. In England an initiative to revive the tradition and spirit of the good works practised by the Hospitallers led to the foundation of the St. John Ambulance Association in 1877.

Like the Templars, the Hospitallers achieved great wealth and power but were more subtle and circumspect in their activities. In England their principal Commandery was at Clerkenwell in London, and they had approximately 60 other major properties scattered throughout the the country. In Essex they had a number of manors, of which the most notable survival is the round church at Little Maplestead. None of their Essex properties were as large or as profitable as the estate based on Cressing. In a survey of the Hospitaller lands carried out in 1335, Cressing Temple is recorded as being staffed by two chaplain brothers with three other chaplains, a steward, three servants, two pages and two lads. There were 800 acres of arable land, and pasture for 600 sheep and 32 cattle.

The later 14th century was a difficult time. The Black Death of 1349 is estimated to have killed one third to one half of the population. There were subsequent outbreaks of plague in 1361 and 1369. The result was a labour shortage, to which were added a series of poor harvests, rising prices and an economic depression, all of which combined to create unrest amongst the peasantry. The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1351 limiting wages to the levels existing before the Black Death. The final straw was the imposition of a series of poll taxes leading to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when the South-East erupted in open rebellion.

peasants revolt 2

At that time the Master of the Hospitallers in England was Sir Robert Hales who was also Treasurer of England and therefore one of the prime targets of the rebels. A contemporary description states that at Cressing he had ‘a fine and pleasant manor which he ordered to be filled with victuals and other necessities for the holding of his general Chapter, so it was well supplied with wines and suitably stocked for such an important lord and his brethren, and at this time (10th June), the commons arrived and at the manor, ate the food, drank three casks of wine and threw the building to the ground’. They also burnt documents and carried off a quantity of vestments, armour, gold and silver. Fortunately they left the barns untouched. Four days later the rebels dragged Sir Robert from the Tower of London and executed him. Control was soon re-established, and when the king visited Chelmsford in early July, nineteen of the leading rebels were hanged.

Whether these events, or the difficult economic circumstances, had any serious effects on Cressing Temple and the way it was managed is uncertain. Many landlords began to lease their lands rather than farming them directly or in demesne, but clear evidence has yet to be found for this practice at Cressing in the 14th and 15th centuries. What has been shown by tree-ring dating is that in c.1420 the Hospitallers carried out extensive repairs to the great barns and also erected new buildings.

Portions of the estate were leased in 1515 to John Edmondes for 24 years, and then in 1539 to Sir John Smyth. This agreement was confirmed by Henry VIII when he suppressed the Hospitallers in 1540.

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