Looming large in Lincolnshire: Temple Bruer and the Knights Templar

Words by:
Eric Bryan
Featured in:
October 2012

The Knights Templar, those mysterious soldier-monks famed for protecting the ancient pilgrim routes and shrines to and from Jerusalem during the Crusades, once loomed large in the rolling green of Lincolnshire.
A Western Christian military order active from circa 1119 to 1314, the Order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon received Catholic endorsement in 1129.

The Templars were created after the First Crusade (1096–1099), when Jerusalem was captured by Western forces. At its height, the order may have consisted of as many as 20,000 members comprised of three ranks or classes: armoured knights, squires or serving sergeants, and chaplains.

The Templars left their mark across the landscape of England both in place names and architecture: Most locations with ‘Temple’ in their names denote a former Templar possession, and Templar churches were characteristically circular. The remaining round churches in Cambridge and the Temple, London, are examples.

The Templars financed their enterprises with income created from preceptories or estates which they owned throughout Europe. The order held several such preceptories in Lincolnshire. These were Willoughton, Horkstow, Great Limber, Gainsborough, and Bottesford in Lindsey; and Aslackby, Eagle, South Witham, and Temple Bruer in Kesteven. There was also Byard’s Leap, which was a part of the Temple Bruer estate. Great Limber, East Mere, and Elsham also have Templar connections, and some theorise a Templar estate in Grimsby.

At a spot six miles north-west of Sleaford, on land bequeathed by William of Ashby, Temple Bruer was founded on Lincoln Heath between 1150 and 1160. Not only were the Templars able to farm the heathlands here (Bruer or bruyère derives from the Norman-French word for heath), but the open space made an ideal military training ground. Due to its placement and growth in importance, Temple Bruer became the Templar’s headquarters for its mid-Lincolnshire estates.

Temple Bruer’s 4,000 plus acre estate featured a large, round church, with other buildings huddled around it. The whole affair was surrounded by a defensive wall with a gatehouse. Outside the wall may have been a village, but there is some controversy about its existence. In their 1971 book, ‘Deserted Mediaeval Villages: Studies’, Beresford and Hurst listed Bruer as a ‘DMV’, but it’s debated whether or not Bruer existed independently of the church grounds as a village.

Temple Bruer made the adaptation from arable farming to sheep farming, and led the industry, breeding Lincolnshire Longwool sheep, vastly enriching Lincolnshire. Temple Bruer also thrived due to the conferring of a Wednesday market, and because of the tax-and-tithe-free way of life they enjoyed under Pope Innocent II’s papal bull, Omne Datum Optimum.

Throughout Europe, all Templar preceptories were allowed to function almost as small, independent states, free of the laws and taxes of their host countries. This enabled estates such as Temple Bruer to flourish and amass great wealth. The bull also allowed the Templars to cross with impunity the borders of any country which recognised the order, and to receive all spoils from conquests of Muslim forces or lands.

So successful was Temple Bruer that it evolved into the richest Templar preceptory in England next to The Temple in London. (One source calls Willoughton the wealthiest, and records a £177 [annual?] income for Temple Bruer.) The estates at Eagle and South Witham, and an establishment at East Mere, all were drawn under Temple Bruer control.

Byard’s Leap, south of the former Bruer estate, with its expansive stretches of level heathland, became the Templar’s tournament grounds. Rather than jousting competitions, the events held here were wargames, with sizeable forces engaged in simulated battles.

An 1185 survey of Templar preceptories listed Bruer in its own separate section, noting thirty-seven tenants living in thirty-four crofts. In 1306, Edward I granted Bruer a royal licence to ‘make and crenellate a certain great and strong gate’ – shortly before the order came under major fire from the King of France and Pope Clement V.

As the era of the Crusades passed, the Templars went into banking. They loaned money to kings, their wealth growing to legendary proportions. By the early fourteenth century, their riches were a source of resentment, especially to King Philip IV of France.

The Templar-indebted Philip spearheaded an effort to investigate and persecute members of the order. He pressed the Church to begin proceedings against the Templars. This campaign led to scores of French Templars being arrested, tortured, and accused of heresy and other crimes.

Philip pressured Pope Clement into creating a papal bull, issued on 22nd November 1307, ordering all Christian European rulers to arrest the Templars and confiscate their holdings. Philip used the forced confessions – many of which the accused afterward recanted – to create a scandal and to prosecute members of the order. He denied some of them the ability to defend themselves at trial, and had dozens of them burned at the stake in 1310.

England responded to the papal bull and Philip’s pressurising in a less zealous manner. On 10th January 1308, knights sent by Edward II – probably accompanied by the Sheriff of Lincolnshire – arrived at Temple Bruer and arrested the Templars, including William de la More, Preceptor of Bruer and Grand Prior of England.

Most of the possibly trumped-up charges failed to stick. Across England, relatively few members of the order were actually taken into custody. Of these, many were reconciled with the Church, and some were allowed to make a sort of sideways move and join the Knights Hospitallers.

Because of the massive debts various kings and rulers owed to the Templars, the order was suppressed by Pope Clement V in 1312. Under another of Clement’s papal bulls, the ownership of the Temple Bruer site was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller order, who administered the property until the 1530s. King Philip executed the rest of the Templar principals in 1314, some of them again by incineration.

Antiquary John Leland visited Bruer in 1538 or 1539, and recorded that ‘there be great and vaste Buildinges, but rude at this Place…’ Tradition has it that during the Civil War, Cromwell shelled the remaining structures with artillery fire.

Temple Bruer as a church was dissolved in or by 1541 (English Heritage gives 1538 as the year of dissolving; Heritage Lincolnshire offers an approximate year of 1540), during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Temple Bruer is one of the only Templar sites in England with any standing remains. Though the circular temple, surrounding buildings and wall have vanished (the foundation of the round church is now beneath the car park!), the ruin at Bruer consists of a square, three-storey south-east tower with a spiral staircase. The tower was constructed of Lincolnshire oolitic limestone, and was partially restored in the early twentieth century and again in 1961. Another tower previously stood at the north side of the chancel. The interior walls of the Temple Bruer tower feature inscriptions and graffiti, some of which may be contemporaneous with the Templars. Select examples of these writings are cryptographs and still await decoding.

In 1832 and 1833 Dr G Oliver, vicar of Scopwick and amateur archaeologist, surveyed the grounds. His digs supposedly detected evidence of live burials, sacrifice of infants, subterranean vaults littered with burnt human bones and a tunnel running for miles to Wellingore.

The Temple Bruer site was excavated again in 1907 by WH St John Hope. The second dig reported no evidence of underground vaults, but did discover two stairways descending to a crypt. Hope’s project also served to provide the ground plan of the church, which has since become the basis for artists’ reconstructions of the building.

However, Hope’s excavation, the members of which included the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, may have been largely intended to disprove Dr Oliver’s findings. The bias against Dr Oliver is clear in Hope’s report of the dig. In one example, asserting he had dispensed handily with Dr Oliver’s claims of underground passageways, Hope wrote, ‘From henceforth it is to be hoped we shall hear no more of them.’

Hope also cited Oliver’s supposed horror of the Templar order, declaring that such feelings influenced Oliver’s deductions and caused him to take leaps of fancy. Though in the Hope-versus-Oliver controversy further conclusions may only be reached via a modern, precise and delicate archaeological investigation, the fact remains that Hope, for whatever motives, did seem suspiciously over anxious to discredit Dr Oliver.

Samuel Buck did an engraving of the Temple Bruer ruins in 1726 which reveals remains of some of the structure which the existing tower attached to. Buck captioned his engraving, ‘The North View of Temple Bruer in the Middle of the Great Heath on the South Side of the City of Lincoln.’ The port of Boston is indicated in the background.

If you visit Temple Bruer, bringing along a copy of Buck’s engraving can help you envision the layout of the church as you contemplate the Templar’s tower in this peaceful and still corner of Lincolnshire farmland.

To see what the original church and surrounding grounds may have looked like, Heritage Lincolnshire has created a fascinating animated video recreating Temple Bruer. You can view the animation here:

In order to get your bearings, note that in the initial aerial view of the twin towers you see, the tower still standing at the site is the tower closest to you. You’ll also notice the crenellated gatehouse and surrounding wall.

In the portion of the video captioned ‘The Presbytery and Side Chapel’, as you move down the walk, the towers are at the end, on either side of the three-light stained glass window.

You can download a higher-definition (recommended) version of this animation, available on the same page.

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