The history of the Swingfield Preceptory has been summarised by Page (1926) and Cotton (1930). The Preceptory was established after 1180 when a nunnery of the Sisters of the Order of St John of Jerusalem at Swingfield was dissolved. The nuns, along with the other members of their Order throughout the country, were moved to Buckland in Somerset and their possessions at Swingfield were granted to the Hospitallers. The Preceptory appears to have been established within a decade as Cotton (1930, 601-61) records a number of benefactions to it before 1190. The surviving Hospitallers' preceptory chapel is thought, on architectural grounds, to date from the mid 13th century.
SWINGFIELD PRECEPTORY IN 1338
The entry in the Extent for Swingfield (Bajulia de Swenefeld) (Larking and Kemble 1857, 91-2) begins by listing a manerium or manor house with a garden valued at 6 shillings and 8 pence. There is a dovecot valued at 5 shillings and a windmill valued at 30 shillings. Other sources of income were rents, church dues, voluntary contributions and farm lands.
The Reprise lists the personnel as the preceptor (M), another brother (S), a pensioner, a parish chaplain and two secular chaplains, a squire, two clerks, a cook, a baker, a porter, a bailiff, a farm worker, two boys serving the preceptor and a page; 17 people in all. The only other item relevant in the present context is a charge of 20 shillings for repairs to the house.
With one major exception little is known of the history of Swingfield Preceptory between the early 14th century and 1540 when it passed into secular hands. The exception is provided by a report compiled in March or April 1529 into the 'State of the Commandery of Swingfield' by officials of Sir William Weston, the last Prior of the Order in England. Apparently there had been some abuse and misappropriation by a recent Preceptor. This document, published by Grove and Rigold (1979), provides a fascinating insight into the state of the preceptory more than a decade before the dissolution. However, it needs to be born in mind that it was written nearly two hundred years after the 1338 Extent and significant changes can be expected to have occurred during the intervening period. In fact, the occasion for the report was the fact that a recent preceptor appears to have been treating the preceptory and the whole estate as a private manor and had developed the main preceptory building as a Tudor mansion.
SWINGFIELD PRECEPTORY IN 1529
The report takes the form of an itinerary, the authors moving from room to room and building to building describing each room and its contents. They began in the Hall which was contiguous with the west end of the chapel and contemporary with it. It is the only building for which dimensions are given, being said to be 42 foot (19.07m) in length and 30 foot (8.3m) broad. Rigold in his commentary on the report (Grove and Rigold 1979, 123) suggests that it was an aisled hall. From the Hall they moved to the New Parlour and the Lord's New Chamber which was above it. The use of the term 'New' implies pre-existing rooms of the same function. From the Lord's New Chamber a gallery led to the Chapel and a room described as a Study. The description of these rooms suggest they may have been at the partly floored-over, western end of the Chapel. Indeed the Study may be the small room over the Chapel porch. The Chapel is described as having a 'faire quire' and a Master's Pew. From the chapel they went back into the ground floor of the Hall and into the chamber block to the south of it. This and outshuts to the south included the Old Parlour at the west end, the Pantry to the east and the Buttery. The Chamber over the Old Parlour must have been the original Great Chamber at the southern end of the aisled hall. Other buildings referred to include the Kitchen to the south of the main range and to the east of it a range of timber framed lodgings for the menservants including the Chaplain and referred to as the Yeomen's Gallery. Further lodgings lay apparently to the west including one for womenservants and various agricultural buildings, most of which lay to the south-west. These included a Storehouse, a Stable, a Hay-barn and a Mill-house. At right-angles was situated the Great Barn said to be 136 feet long and 30 feet broad compared with the 120 feet by 30 feet Hay-barn. Beyond the Great Barn lay the Dovecot while the itinerary ends on the north at the Gatehouse with a building described as the Long House to its west.
Swingfield Preceptory, also known as St John's Commandery, is situated in Swingfield Parish (TR23234401) five miles north of the port of Folkestone. The standing remains consist principally of the preceptory chapel, which is a Grade II* Listed Building and in the Guardianship of English Heritage.