Temple Church – Knights Templar & Cornwall’s Gretna Green

Temple Church

These days the tiny village of Temple boasts a handful of cottages and farms, a red telephone box and one of Cornwall’s most picturesque churches. But in the 12th century, when the Order of the Knight’s Templar were given a small pocket of land in the heart of Bodmin Moor, there was nothing there but wild, open moorland. From that gift a religious community grew and a church was built, but as the centuries passed Temple became synonymous with lawless, some might even have said ungodly, behaviour. In an area not unfamiliar to strange goings on Temple Church became infamous.

Temple Church

The Knights Templar

This Catholic military order had been founded in Jerusalem in 1119 and although many of the Knights Templar were skilled fighters the vast majority of the order favoured charitable work. The Templars quickly built up enormous wealth and power, with a vast network of houses, land and fortifications throughout Europe and the Middle East – much of it given to them free of charge. In return the knights fought in the crusades and closer to home provided protection for pilgrims making their long journeys to the Holy Land.

The reason for the gift of the land at Temple in Cornwall may have been two fold. To begin with the land given was not as worthless as first impressions might indicate. There were deposits of tin in the area and plenty of cheap labour to harvest it.

In addition, pilgrims from Wales and Ireland, as well as Cornwall itself, frequently journeyed across the moor. It was considered safer to travel over land between the Camel and Fowey estuaries than to risk the treacherous seas around Lands End. The Templars could provide a warm meal and a bed for travellers. And lastly, Bodmin Moor at the time was considered particularly lawless and unruly, the presence of the religious order may have been considered to be a positive influence!

Temple Church

As it was the Knights Templar remained at their community on the moors until the order was disbanded by Pope Clement V in 1312, at which point the property passed to the Knights Hospitallers. Also known as the Order of Saint John, the Knights Hospitallers were founded to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims and so continued to provide a welcome for travellers. By 1340 the community was recorded as having a preceptor (religious teacher) and one brother, as well as two men servants and a chaplain to hold the services in the church. But the wealth and influence of the knights was waning. It seems they may have started supplementing their income in unusual ways while they remained far away from the prying eyes of authority.

Quickie Marriages

“The place seems to have been a regular Gretna Green, where all sorts of irregularities were carried out with impunity.” Charles Henderson, 1925

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The hamlet of Temple was very isolated in the Middle Ages, even more so than today. From the time of the Reformation, when the Order of Saint John was dissolved, Temple Church fell outside the jurisdiction of the bishop and gained a reputation as the place to go if you needed to be married fast, under the cover of darkness and without the necessary permissions.

Temple Church

Weddings would be performed here without the reading of the banns or the need for a licence, and the parsons were happy to receive the couple’s ‘grateful donations’. It was not only illicit marriages that were undertaken, according to John Norton (c1547 – 1625) Temple Church also allowed anyone who had taken their own life to be buried in the churchyard. (The burial of suicides in consecrated ground was not officially legalised until 1823.) Indeed as Pat Munn writes in her book on Bodmin Moor:

“Altogether it was a happy state of affairs enjoyed with true Cornish abandon until 1774.”

So the irregular practices continued until in the late 18th century the church again became subject to normal diocesan discipline and an effort was made to clean up it’s act! Sir John Maclean reported the case of Edith Gilpin of Temple, who around this time, was presented at the Archdeacon’s court for having ‘a base child’ and was sentenced to preform public penance.

“She was required on two succeeding Sundays, barefooted, bareheaded and wearing a white sheet, to make a public confession of her sin . . . at the morning service in the church of Blisland and Cardinham.”

However, inevitably with Temple Church having such an isolated, tiny congregation it soon fell on hard times. It seems likely that the illicit income had been the only thing keeping the roof on!

A howling wilderness

By 1777 it was reported that the fabric of the building had descended into a ruinous state and services were having to be held in neighbouring parishes. From then on no services were held at Temple Church for more than 100 years.

“Fifty years ago the churchyard was a waste place where cattle from the adjoining moor wandered amongst the gravestones and ruins of the ancient abbey church.” West Briton, 12th January 1885.

Several nineteenth century travel writers on their journeys through Cornwall were less than complimentary about the village of Temple and the windswept moors which enclose the church in it’s deep folds.

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“A desert heath called Temple Moor, truly a waste howling wilderness. The parish of Temple is about 6 miles from Bodmin and gives its name to a long tract of wretched downs between Bodmin and Launceston. It contains only three miserable huts and the remnant of a dilapidated church.” Cyrus Redding, 1842.

Murray’s, a travel guide to Devon and Cornwall, was equally scathing. It called Temple “a miserable hamlet” in 1859. At this stage it must have seemed highly likely that Temple Church would disappear beneath the bracken and being consigned to the history books.

A Kind Restoration

During the Victorian era there was a trend for restoring and renovating churches across England. Some more sympathetically than others! Luckily for us enough money was raised to have Temple Church restored by the Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail. Trevail began work in 1882 and reconstructed the church following the original ancient foundations. The Knights Templar often built circular churches but there is no evidence that their Cornish version was anything other than its present day shape.

Temple Church

During the rebuilding an old Ash tree had to be removed from within the ruined walls. When the tree was cut down it’s roots were found to be entwined around the bones of a human skeleton. Whoever it was they must have had a certain status to have been buried beneath the floor of the original church. There is no record as to where Trevail had the bones were reinterned.

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The ‘new’ church was officially opened in June 1883 and a tea party was held in the graveyard after the first sermon had been given and celebratory hymns sung.

Inside the plain whitewashed walls and oak beamed roof are very attractive in their simplicity and the building feels much older than it actually is. The colourful stained glass above the altar is a nod to the original builders, containing symbols of the Knights Templar, including the red cross on a white background which was the emblem they worn on their tunics. And in the tower you will also find a small window decorated with a knight on horseback.

The first wedding in the renovated Temple Church was held on 23rd May 1884. Between Mr. Hedley Augustus Buscomb and Miss Sarah Ann Brockenshaw, it was presided over by Rev. J. R. Brown and as far as we known this time everything was done legally and above board! The first burial was in January 1885. Arthur Rich was 86 years old years old when he died and had been a long standing resident of Temple. The West Briton newspaper reported:

“It was his express wish that he should be buried in the old churchyard, where repose the remains of so many of the Knights Templar of old.”

The only remnants of the original building constructed by the knights are a few pieces of decorated stonework which can be seen just outside the church door in the wall of a small outbuilding.

The Temple Church we see today is very much in keeping with it’s historic past and wonderful surroundings. Trevail certainly did a lovely job in my opinion. The close proximity to the A30 also belies the isolation and peacefulness of this historic valley, tucked away as it is from the modern world. The church still has no electricity and services are conducted by candlelight.

So, if you are crossing Bodmin Moor Temple Church really does make an interesting and romantic place to visit, especially in the spring when the graveyard is a sea of bluebells. It is as welcome a sight to travellers today as it was 800 years ago.

Further Reading:

Neville Northey Burnard – Cornish Sculptor

The ruin of Old Kea Church

Murder in Poundstock Church

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2 thoughts on “Temple Church – Knights Templar & Cornwall’s Gretna Green

    1. thanks for a fascinating report. What a wonderful place temple must be. I think that I read somewhere that the Knights templar built their churches circular.

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