The Templars of Whitkirk
There are stories everywhere, waiting to be found. Some can take you to the ends of the Earth and beyond, and others just outside your doorstep...
FEBRUARY 13th, 2020
Photogrpahy supplied by © Reed Gallery
here were signs all around me. They had been there silently, muted by the modern world which had grown and evolved around them. Simple crosses embellished on stone tiles, built into the quaint exteriors of the cottages which had stood for centuries. An old manor house which garnered no attention as you drove on by. A medieval church – one which I had seen its tower rise high behind the rows of modern houses for 28 years – yet never fully taken notice of. And finally, a majestic Tudor mansion whose presence had dominated the landscape for hundreds of years. This village of Whitkirk, which I had always called home, that I had always arrogantly deemed mundane, was anything but.
The village which had raised me had a history rested deep within the fabric of Britain’s identity. A secret hidden in plain sight. A unique story which can still be traced today, for those who are willing to search for it. And a founding connection to a Holy Order steeped in secrecy and intrigue, famed as the protectors of the Holy Grail – the Knights Templar.
It may seem like a plot from an Indiana Jones movie or a Tomb Raider game, but the arcane wonder of Whitkirk, had whispered in my ear for years. And it wasn’t until I began to scratch beneath the wholesome and quintessentially British exterior, that I discovered an enchanting story that no one knew of, a story which was so easily accessible that anyone can experience it too.
This story begins with the famed Doomsday Book Survey of 1086 AD on orders of William the Conqueror. Whitkirk Church (also known as St Mary’s Church), alongside the Temple Newsam Estate are listed under the ownership of Ilbert de Lacy, a loyal friend of the iconic King. But it wouldn’t be until 1155 AD that the land would be gifted to the Templars.
Highly valuable, Whitkirk would reap the benefits of its association with the Holy Order, swimming in riches and receiving certain privileges and immunities from taxation. The larger estate of Temple Newsam would become a renowned stronghold of the Templar’s wealth and power, and would lead to a dramatic power grab from the reigning King Edward II and Pope Clement V.
Deemed too wealthy, and with powerful allegiances with Jerusalem, King Edward II would reluctantly call upon the dissolution of the Templars. The trial and persecution of the Templar knights would conclude in the Chapter House of York Minster in 1310. Unlike France, whereby all Templar Knights were arrested and subsequently condemned to death on Friday, 13th of October 1307 – which is why every Friday the 13th afterward is deemed unlucky – in England were deemed innocent.
Though due to the intensity of the trails and the eradication of the order across Europe, it would spell the dissolution of the Knights Templars in Whitkirk, ending their hold on their beloved village.
Due to the speed in which the Order vanished, many theories have arisen as to why, adding to the mystique which encapsulates these historic knights. That magic has created a unique and undying legacy to places connected with the Templars, and Whitkirk is no different.
This indifference is evident in the unseen serenity of St Mary’s Church, it radiates a touch of antiquity and holy majesty. Its historic roots run deep into the village’s DNA and every so often, through open days and services, you can experience its distinctive and rare ambience. There is a feeling that the walls have seen much, and add gravitas to the saying, “if walls could talk.”
Inside there are the ornate stained-glass windows, the alabaster tomb of Sir Robert Scargill and his wife Joanna, as well as the tomb to the ‘father of civil engineering’ John Smeaton. But it is the lands ensuing connection to the Templars which magnified my interest.
A short walk from the church is Whitkirk Manor House – home of the Templar courts. Its link to the Holy Order is identified by a large stone cross placed upon the edge of the building’s roof. This iconic cross became the Templar’s signature and was placed on buildings built on the land they owned. Throughout Whitkirk these crosses can be seen, and their significance can still be felt today. Even my local high school Temple Moor, uses the Templar cross as its logo, commemorating the owners of the land on which it is built.
The evidence of the presence of Whitkirk’s forgotten history is also identified in the street names which exist today. Kingsway, Knightsway, Baronsway and Temple Gates are just some examples of the Templar’s ancestry, and the village of Colton is built upon the remnants of a Templar village which was left abandoned after the Order’s dissolution.
Towards the end of the Knight’s ownership of Whitkirk, their courts would transfer to The Brown Cow Inn. Today the original public house no longer exists, instead a modern pub built in the 1930’s stands in its place, though the name has remained as another example of the echoing spirit of ancient times.
Away from the church and manor house is perhaps the jewel of the Templar’s Yorkshire crown - Temple Newsam. Though the Tudor/Georgian house we see today looked very different. In place of the grandeur of majestic architecture and magnificently priceless artefacts, which grace the splendour of Temple Newsam House today; the Templar’s valued substance above style. Their value was in farmland and Temple Newsam was extremely lucrative to the Order.
The estate would transform long after the Templar’s were dissolved and would forge its own unique historic path. From the birthplace of Henry, Lord Darnley – husband to the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots – to becoming the inspiration for the acclaimed novel Ivanhoe, Temple Newsam harbours an eclectic assortment of history. With the doors to the house open throughout the year, much of it is on display for all to see.
But walking the path of the Whitkirk Templars, you realise that their physical remnants are rare. In their place is the ethereal and unseen presence of these knights. Hidden in plain sight and just out of reach, their story adds a touch of mythical wonder to a village whose history has long been forgotten.
Though it is a history we can aim to rediscover again.
As the centuries have moved on and the modern world has developed into a domineering force, the legends of the Templars have become a cacophony of unknowns. And it is that secrecy which has forged a safe space of myths and conspiracies to thrive, with even Whitkirk being pulled into the allure of a long forgotten folk tale.
Amongst the farmers of the Temple Newsam Estate, many questioned the Templar’s devotion to the area, which in-turn gave birth to the belief that the landowners were hiding a secret. Across the strongholds of the Templar Order, a story grew that a map detailing the existence and location of the Holy Grail was split into four and each piece buried with a chosen knight of the Order.
Part of that story was said to stem to the very estate of Temple Newsam and there is faint evidence which adds intrigue to the tale.
Nearby Whitkirk Manor there are records of a Beadhouse – a prayer house for those who worked on the Templar’s farm – in a will by Lady Joanna Wombwell. Local myths were whispered around this place of worship, that a Templar Knight was buried inside with one of the four pieces of the alluded map. No one has ever been able to locate the existence of this Beadhouse or tomb and the answer to whether it exists or not has been lost to history. But even so, it creates a distinctive atmosphere to Whitkirk.
Irrespective of what is fact or fiction, the path of the Templars is potently present in this small homely village. Though transformed by modern expansion, Whitkirk and Temple Newsam Estate is touched by the undimming hands of the past, and one open for all to discover. This village is my home, where I was raised. Whitkirk Church is the place I was baptised and Temple Newsam, the parkland I explored as a child.
You never really know what lies beneath your feet, who has walked before you or who else has called your village home. There are stories everywhere waiting to be found. Some can take you to the ends of the earth and beyond, and others just outside your doorstep. History has a way of revealing itself in areas you never thought it would, through the pages of a book, the corridors of a Tudor mansion, or in some cases, the window of your bedroom, looking out towards the spire of a church, surrounded by the village you’ll always call home.
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