The Order was born of the Crusades, being founded in 1119 with the expressed intention of protecting pilgrims to the Holy Land.
They took their name from their headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem which was believed to be on the site of Solomon’s temple. The Templars were warrior-monks, dedicated professional soldiers, whose valour gained them the reputation of an elite fighting force. In 1128, the great Cistercian abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, gave them a rule or code of conduct which committed them to poverty, chastity and obedience. They wore a white robe as a symbol of their purity of life. To it was later added a red cross. In 1139, a papal bull made them independent of any secular or ecclesiastical authority apart from that of the pope, and granted them exemption from taxation.
Within 50 years, the Templars became extremely powerful and acquired vast wealth. They held an estimated 7000 manors in Europe. Contact with Islamic and Judaic culture introduced them to ideas then new to the West, particularly in the fields of military engineering and surveying. They had their own military and merchant fleets and were amongst the first to use the magnetic compass.
In England there were about 50 Templar manors and a very large number of smaller landholdings. Many of the more important sites like Cressing include the word Temple in their name. Their English headquarters was in London, initially in Holborn but soon after moved to the site of the existing Temple church near Fleet Street in the City. Cressing was the first grant of rural land that they received in England, and the largest and most important of their Essex landholdings.
It is estimated that by 1300 Cressing was the centre of an estate of some 2000 acres which included five mills, two markets and an annual fair. Such an estate would have been in the charge of a preceptor accompanied by two or three resident knights or sergeants-at-arms, together with a chaplain, a bailiff, and numerous household servants. In addition the estate would have employed agricultural labourers, shepherds, millers, gardeners and craftsmen. Thus Cressing functioned as a large estate farmed for profit to help the Order pay for the war effort in the Holy Land.
Regrettably we know relatively little about the Templar buildings on the site. Only the two great barns and the stone well alone survive. The clearest picture of the buildings which would have accompanied them is to be found in an inventory of 1313. This mentions a chapel, two chambers, a hall, a pantry, a buttery, a kitchen, a larder, a bakehouse, a brewhouse, a dairy, a granary and a smithy. The stock included horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, geese, hens and peacocks. Excavations have uncovered the foundations of the chapel, the hall and two stone chambers which were ranged north-south in the space which lies between the Granary and the walled garden.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, many landowners sought to increase their profits by founding towns and markets. The Templars were no exception. Realising they were missing the opportunities created by traffic along the London-Colchester road inasmuch as Witham market was some distance away at Chipping Hill, in 1212 they founded a new town with a market and fair on the main road in the area that came to be known as Newland Street. About 45 acres were allocated to the townspeople in half-acre plots.
Templar wealth led to the development of an international banking organisation almost a century before the rise of the Italian bankers. By the 13th century they were acting in this capacity for the rulers of Europe. Christian rules against usury were circumvented by charging fees rather than interest. With their network of houses throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, the rapid transfer of funds could be arranged over great distances. They also provided safe deposit facilities. The London Temple was the precursor of the Bank of England, being used for the deposit of the royal treasury as early as 1185. The picture that emerges of the Templars in the 13th century is rather different to the ascetic warrior-monk envisaged at the time of their foundation. At almost every political level they acted as official arbiters in disputes, and their role as lenders and bankers made them influential even with kings.
In the early years of the 14th century, the Order was suppressed by Pope Clement V at the instigation of Philip IV of France. The Templars were accused of blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, devil worship and witchcraft, although none of these charges have ever really been substantiated. The real reasons for the suppression were rather different. Philip, like many other European princes, was in debt to the Templars, and suppressing the Order would not just annul his debts but also provide the opportunity to seize their wealth in France. Lending money to the powerful was a dangerous business in Middle Ages, as the Jewish communities found. In addition, the Templars were mistrusted because of their power and influence, and their wealth and privileged position aroused jealousy and envy. Their reputation at this time was also at a very low ebb. With the fall of the town of Acre in 1291, their last foothold in the Holy Land had gone and the Knights were forced to move their headquarters to Cyprus. Now that they were no longer actively defending the Holy Land, many people queried what the role of the Order was. Given that they had a reputation for arrogance and corruption in the sense that they no longed lived up to their vows of poverty and chastity, the position of the Templars had become very vulnerable.
In October 1307, Philip IV ordered the arrest of the Templars in France. This secretly planned operation was a dramatic success: the Templars were taken by surprise, few escaped and, subjected to prolonged interrogation and even torture, most confessed. In the light of these events, Pope Clement, a Frenchman subject to the influence of king Philip, ordered the arrest of the Templars elsewhere and an investigation into the conduct of the Order. The trial was prolonged, and concluded in March 1312 when a bill of suppression was read out at a public ceremony in Avignon. In May the pope ordered that all Templar properties should be transferred to the Knights Hospitaller. In March 1314, the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake. He is said to have called on his persecutors to account for themselves before God within the year. One month later Pope Clement was dead, and by the end of the year so was Philip IV, killed in a riding accident whilst hunting.
In England, Edward II at first defended the Templars but he was eventually forced to conform, ordering their arrest on 10 January 1308. Unlike in other countries they were treated decently. The English Master, William de la More, was imprisoned but also granted a royal pension. The only time the Papal Inquisition ever operated in England was in 1309 during the interrogation of the Templars.
Edward commenced asset stripping the Order’s estates within a month of the Templars’ arrest and continued to do so until they were suppressed in 1312. He sold their wool, used their stores of grain for his war against Scotland, drew upon Templar resources of meat and fish for his coronation feast and used Templar funds to pay arrears to his retainers. In many cases the estates were even stripped of their timber.