The Archaeology of the Knights Hospitallers in England

1. Introduction

1.1 Historical Background‚Äč

 The Hospitallers were a religious order founded in the mid 11th century to maintain a hospital in Jerusalem. Its members followed the   Augustinian Rule. It welcomed people in need whether Christian, Jew or Muslim. However, many of these were Christian pilgrims  trying to visit the Holy sites at a time when travel in the region was extremely dangerous. At an early stage the age old adage of 'prevention is better than cure' was adopted and staff of the hospital began providing armed escorts for groups of pilgrims and emerged as a military order, like their contemporaries the Templars. Although men of war, the Hospitallers were also monks and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and were expected to observe the Holy offices when not on campaign. The hospital in Jerusalem was dedicated to St John the Baptist and the full title of the Hospitallers was 'The Sovereign Military and Hospitallers Order of St John of Jerusalem', more commonly referred to as the Knights Hospitallers.

The Knights Hospitallers were never more than a few hundred in number, but along with the Templars they became the crack troops of the crusades, fought in all the major battles and maintained a series of strongholds throughout the region. But the Christian hold on the Holy Land was relatively short-lived and the Hospitallers carried out a strategic retreat over the next four centuries, moving their headquarters from Jerusalem first to Acre, then to Cyprus, Rhodes and eventually to Malta, nevertheless maintaining their role throughout of combating the spread of Islam and providing hospitality to those in need. In anything other than a token sense, the Order came to an end when Malta was ceded to Napoleon in 1798. The Templars only survived into the early 14th century, having fallen victim to political intrigue and royal avarice.

1.2 Organisation

The military orders were supranational organisations, being answerable to no head of state and in some respects were similar to multi-national companies in the modern world. The Hospitallers had three grades of brethren; milites or knights, servientes armorum or sergeants at arms and capellani or chaplain brothers. The head of the Order was the Grand Master who was the equivalent to both chairman and chief executive. It was his job and that of the other officials of the Order to insure the support of the Order's work. This was achieved through the productive administration of the numerous estates that had been granted to the Order by pious landlords and sovereigns seeking to benefit their souls in the afterlife. The Order held estates throughout Western Europe. It was established in England by the 1140s and was treated for administrative purposes as a Priory, albeit scattered across many individual sites. It was under the overall control of a Prior based at the Order's English headquarters at Clerkenwell in London. 

In the early part of the 14th century the Order in England and Wales experienced acute financial difficulties due to mismanagement. This was somewhat alleviated by the fact that the Order was granted a large number of the former Templar estates when that order was suppressed in 1312, although it took a number of years before the full effect of this was felt. In 1338 the Grand Master in Rhodes, Elyan de Villanova, required the head of the Order in England and Wales to submit a report on the financial state of the English Priory. This was prepared, in the form of a manorial extent, by Phillip de Thame, the Prior. This document, in Latin, has survived and was published by the Camden Society in 1857 (Larking and Kemble). This, and the surviving archaeological evidence at Hospitaller sites, provides the basis of the present study.  

1.3 Hospitaller research

The main authority on Hospitaller studies in Britain is Prof Helen Nicholson of Cardiff University History Department. Her 2007 volume should be consulted for a general introduction to the field. She includes an extensive bibliography to the wider field of Hospitaller studies throughout Europe and the Middle East.  Gilchrist (1995) provides a useful summary of the archaeology of both Templar and Hospitaller sites. Individual studies have been undertaken at a number of sites and these are referred to in the entries for the sites in question, listed in the Site Index, as the entries are compiled.  In 2013 Sebastian Fry presented a thesis for an Architectural Association post-graduate diploma entitled Function, Tradition, Ideology or Patron: What Influenced the Architecture of  the Knights Hospitaller Commandery Chapels and Associated Churches in Britain 1140-1370? This is unpublished but may be consulted online: (issu.com/aaschool/docs/seb_fry_aa_thesis). Fry restricted his research to the Hospitaller chapels and associated churches and provided detailed case studies of four chapels and six churches. In cases where Fry's work overlaps with the present project, his thesis should be consulted for an authoritative account of the chapels' architecture.