Possibly everyone has heard of the Knights Templar. As Umberto Eco’s character Casubon in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum announces, ‘the Templar’s have something to do with everything.’ Ranging from lost treasures, guardians of great secrets and possession of the Turin shroud it appears a case for any conspiracy or lost fortunes can be linked to them. The Templars are omnipresent in the media from games to countless documentaries about their exploits and treasures.
Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars from 1292 to its disbandment in 1312, has been named as the image on the Turin shroud by some writers. Others claim he cursed Phillip IV of France and the Pope from the funeral pyre as his life expired by the unforgiving flames. Philip and the Pope died within a year of Molay’s execution. As a result of this confusion and the secrecy of the Templar’s meetings a myriad of conspiracy theories and conjecture has arisen. There is a danger that the Templars become mythologized and their importance, both politically and financially in the Middle Ages is lessened. Molay was arrested, along with all the other Templars in France, on Friday October 13th 1307. This is possibly the originator of the belief that this is an unlucky date. Molay and the others were executed by fire in 1314.
The Templar’s established many churches in the UK, in Wales most are located in the borderland with Herefordshire and only a few were in Wales itself. The borderland tended to be Hospitaller territory—a rival order. Possibly the marcher lords—who retained a level of autonomy in the Marches of Wales and guarded it closely—saw the Templars as being too close to the king and most Templar churches are located in more pacified and less volatile areas of Britain. The Templar’s correct title was: The order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon and were established in 1118 to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy land.
A mere footnote to this perhaps—but an important one—was Molay’s visit to a beautiful part of England in 1294. Why was the Grand Master of the Templar’s there? The reason and the area itself are fascinating. I would like to focus on the little known fact that Molay visited Britain in 1294 and went to St Michael’s church in Garway, Herefordshire. My fascination with the border land of Wales and Herefordshire stems from my grandmother who was born in Kington and moved to Wales when she married a farmer and learnt Welsh.
Garway is a pleasant village in Western Herefordshire, seven miles from Monmouth and If you have an opportunity it is well worth a visit to the area but in particular its church . The church is named St Michael’s, many churches are dedicated to St Michael’s throughout Britain and one of the reasons for this was the fact they tended to be in areas of conflict reflecting St Michael’s battles with demons. They were also given to churches on high ground as St Michael looked down on the defeated fallen angels. Garway lies on a hillside and was in an unsettled area known as the Marches where conflict between the Welsh and Marcher Lords could break out intermittently or between the Lords themselves.
The village of Garway was known as Llanwrfwy or Llangarewi in Welsh. In the Domesday book of 1086 it is referred to as Lagademar. There is a possible reference to the area in a charter of c.615 where king Gwrfoddw gave land to bishop Ufelfwy to establish a church and place for his sacerdos, named Guorboe to serve there. Llanwrfwy originates from the name Llan – a church or religious settlement and the name Guorboe. A mutation after Llan meant that the ‘g’ was not pronounced. The land at this time was in Welsh kingdom of Ergyng which became known as Archenfield .Recent scholarship suggest that in many areas during the period known as the Dark Ages, people were able to continue with their traditions and language but were expected to provide services to the king. It is remarkable that according to a writer in 1893, Welsh survived until the 18th century on the hills near Yazor, eight miles from Hereford. In 1180 it is named as Llangarewi (the church by the Garway) possibly from the name of the stream nearby, the garwy (rough stream).
The church was originally circular, modelled on Solomon’s temple. It was built between 1185 and 1188 and had a wide area of jurisdiction extending to Llanmadog near Swansea. The tower reaches 70 feet an indication of the volatile nature of the border area at this time. The church, befitting a preceptory ( a community of the Knights Templar)is surrounded with strange symbols and carvings. Many point to its beautiful dovecot and those who love conspiracies point to the fact that there are 666 holes in the building—the number of the beast in the Book of Revelations.
Molay visited the Preceptory in Garway in1294. It is unlikely he was understood by the local inhabitants. In 1397 when the church was in the hands of the Hospitallers the parishioners complained that although the priest worked hard serving Wormbridge and Garway daily with services; he could not carry out his duties effectively as he could not speak Welsh and most of the parishioners could not speak English. The priest was appointed by the Hospitaller’s main church in Clerkenwell London and they may not have realised the linguistic make up of that part of Herefordshire.
Why did Jaques De Molay honour Temple Garway with a visit? It is quite clear that Garway was a key site for the Templars. In 1292, Moloy he had been elected Grand Master of the order in Cyprus and for three years travelled throughout key areas of Europe gathering support for the Crusades and regain land that had been lost. He tried to strengthen the support and military backing to protect Cyprus. His visit to England was part of his lobbying for support and backers. When the Templars were arrested in England in January 1308 there were only two knights at Garway: Philip de Meux and William of Pocklington. Philip, the last preceptor at Garway was tortured and accused of heresy. Philip and William confessed to holding false beliefs and were accepted back into the church. Another Templar mentions Garway in his evidence. An interesting confession came from John de Stoke, a former treasurer of the London Temple who claimed when he was in Garway. Molay, de Stoke claimed; had told him that as Jesus was ‘the son of a certain woman and since he said he was the son of God he was crucified.’ John was told to believe in God and not the crucifixion. Therefore he should deny Jesus. This was a clear heresy at the time. Whether this was John of Stoke blaming Molay for the downfall of the Templars and attempting to lay the blame on the Grand Master we cannot be sure. William de Hereford said he was received into the order at Garway c. 1300.
It is clear a meeting was held at Garway and by visiting, Molloy was ensuring the Templars were seen as important, prominent and permanent presence in the border area .The general chapters of the templars were held in secret and as a result it is difficult to gauge what was discussed. Since the second council of Lyon in 1274 merging the Templar and Hospitallers orders had been suggested, the border land had become mainly Hospitaller country. Molay’s presence was a way of shoring support for his order against his rival. In 1306 Pope Clement V summoned Jaques de Molay and Fulk de Villaret, the Hospitaller Grand master to discuss merging the orders. An accusation of heresy against the Templars in 1305 proved to be the undoing of the Templars. Clement asked King Philip IV of france to investigate. Philip , was heavily in debt to the Templars and was this as a perfect opportunity to excuse himself of the debt and take over the wealth of the Templars .Hehad them all arrested in October 1307. The Pope decided to grant all of the Templar lands to the Knights Hospitallers and in 1324 the Perceptory at Garway was taken over by them. The Templar presence had ended in Herefordshire.
If you have time to spare and want to visit one of the most beautiful parts of England why not go to Garway and seek out the strange Templar symbols and carvings for yourself and when you trace the markings in the stone, think about its history and that Jacques de Molay who was tortured and executed in the most brutal fashion witnessed these stones too. If you listen closely you may hear the bird song and as you listen you may be hearing the same sounds as the Templars centuries ago.
Forsyth-Moser, T. (no date) The Knights Templar in Herefordshire, Hertfordshire Through Time. Available at: https://htt.herefordshire.gov.uk/herefordshires-past/the-medieval-period/the-knights-templar-and-hospitaller/the-knights-templar-in-herefordshire/.
Nicholson, H. (2013) The Templars in Britain: Garway and South Wales, Online Research @ Cardiff. Available at: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/49308/.
Nicholson, H. (2012) ‘The Military Orders in Wales and the Welsh March in the Middle Ages’, in Edbury, P. (ed.) The Military Orders, Volume 5: Politics and Power. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
Zaluckyj, S. and Zaluckyj, J. (2006) The Celtic Christian Sites of the Central and Southern Marches. Almeley, UK: Logaston Press.