Abbas and Templecombe - a history 
(taken from articles written by Audrey Dymock Herdsman that appeared in the Blackmore Vale Magazine dated 18/01/02 & 15/03/02)

To be recorded in the Domesday book of 1086 is usually enough to give a village the distinction of great age, but the records of Abbas Combe go even further back into history.

In 888 AD, King Alfred's abbey at Shaftesbury was consecrated, with his daughter Ethelgiva as its first abbess.  St. Mary's, in Combe, was built as a daughter church to the great nunnery, and received its patronage from it until the Reformation 700 years later.  King Alfred was not only a military genius who sent the Viking invaders out of England, but also a devoted Christian, who preferred to convert his enemies rather than to kill them.  He was too a man of learning, and a lover of music, literature and the decorative arts.  All these interests would have been reflected in the life of his abbeys, and Shaftesbury was the most important of these.

The church in our village was one of the closest of their subsidiaries, and their influence must have been felt at Abbas Combe, as it became known in later years.  A little way from the village there is Abbey ford, which was probably the crossing made over the stream by the many people who journeyed between the two religious houses.  There is also Abbey row here, but for how long this has been so named, is uncertain.  In the church itself, though often since rebuilt , some of these ancient foundations are almost certainly still contained under the South walls and beneath the tower.  The 9th century was still a time of danger and uncertainty for the people of Wessex, and it is understandable that the abbey at Shaftesbury was set high and on massive fortress-like walls that can still be seen from Gold Hill.  From it a watch could be kept on the length of the valley around, and possible communication could have been made with our village from its highest point.  Shaftesbury, unlike the King's earlier foundation for men at Athelney, was an immediate success, and over the years attracted many postulants.  As a result, it grew in wealth and land ownership.  Although the nuns were bound to austerity by their Benedictine rule, the community became the strongest influence in Wessex.  As landladies to many of the villages around, they seemed to have been well liked on the whole.  Compared with some the monastic landowners tended to be stable and just.  Great monasteries were bound to provide hospitality to travellers, to dispense charity to the poor and sick, and to provide education as well as a continual round of church services for the people, so a substantial income was needed.  At first, like ours, the Abbey church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary alone, but when a century after its beginnings, it received the body of the young King Edward, who was murdered at Corfe Castle, the dedication was shared by "The Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Edward, King and Martyr".  So it came about that in 1086, when the Domesday survey was made our village is described as the "Land of Saint Edward".  It reads "St. Edward's Church holds Combe".  Before 1066 it paid tax for 5 hides.   "Land for 5 ploughs, of which 2 hides are in lordship".  There was meadowland there, and as there is today, woodland.  Perhaps some of the oak trees in the North Side Wood were saplings even then.  Over the stream, in the southern part of Combe, the Domesday book tells us that the land was in Norman hands: "The Bishop of Bayeaux holds Combe, and Samson the Chaplain from him".  These two landlords were high in the order of Norman Society.  The Bishop was half brother to William the Conqueror himself, and Samson was his Chaplain said to be the compiler of the Domesday Book.  One Earl Loefwin, had held the manor before them, and though we are uncertain whether he had much contact with the village, it would seem unlikely that the Normans who took over from him ever reached this far corner of their vast estates.  So that in this respect the two sides of our village were probably very different in those days.  The one under the abbess landlady, only eight miles away and the other ruled from afar by the conquering aristocrats.

From these years we have the font still standing in St. Mary's Church.  In its strong design and simple structure it is typically of the Norman stonemason's work.  Already we have covered 200 years but it was yet another century before the event occurred that gave Temple Combe its distinctive name.  In 1185 the landlord of the time, Serlo Fitz-Odo, gave the land on the south side of the stream to the Order of the Knight's Templar.  These knights were both monks and soldiers, who were dedicated to the protection of pilgrims and relics and holy places of Christianity, as well as to the articles of the faith.  These included the seven Sacraments, fourteen articles of belief, the apostles and anasthasian creeds, the scriptures, with Church approved interpretation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the perpetual virginity of the Mother of Christ.  Also to perform military service overseas when called upon.  From its earliest days the Church was under constant attack from dissenters as well as from more physical dangers from the "infidel" in the East.  Until this order and their contemporary Order of Knights Hospitallers were formed, religious members were forbidden to fight.  The Benedictines, and the Cistercians, who were an order closely associated with the Templars, worked to support themselves and their Abbeys, but never took up arms.  With the growing strength of the Muslim people and the threat to Christians and their churches abroad, a new breed of monk was established.  Highly disciplined and professional soldiers, they filled a much felt need for leadership and organisation amongst the often straggling Crusader and pilgrim groups.  They were known for their immense courage in battle.  Having no families or lands of their own, they gave all they had to the cause they believed in.  It was said that the Templars stood always "where the arrows fell the thickest, and where the swords flailed most fiercely".  As men, rather than soldiers their reputation has varied from the ruthless to the gentle.  In Scott's novel 'Ivanhoe', a Templar was chosen for the villain of the story, which has done the order no good in the minds of many people.  But there are many stories testifying to the other side of their reputation.  They have been criticised for being both too harsh and too easy on their occupied cities in the East.  A Frankish soldier was thrown out of a mosque by a Templar it is said, because he was mocking a Muslim at prayer.  They were accused by some of fraternising too much with the enemy, even going so far as to learn his language and respect his culture.  In theology, they were said to venture into what was then unconventional ground when they thought it possible that the Grace of God might be extended to unknowing pagans.  Some Templars were even known for their kindness to animals.  A Grand Master, whose tomb is in Hereford, became a patron of sick pets, and people brought their animals to his shrine for intercession and healing.  But, as is inevitable with so immense a body of men, their characteristics are as varied, and in time covered as wide a range, as those of mankind itself.  Two things were agreed, however, the Templars were strong and they were secretive.  Both qualities probably helped bring about their eventual suppression.  At the preceptory in Temple Combe they would have followed the rule of life laid down by the Cistercian, St. Bernard, in 1128.  They vowed to poverty, obedience and chastity.  But as with many orders, community, if not personal wealth was to come their way in their many houses throughout Europe and in the East.  The offices of the Church, starting with Matins and ending with Compline were recited at intervals throughout the day and night, for the men were dedicated first to God.  They were forbidden to wear finery, or expensive ornament, to hawk or hunt game, or to eat meat more often than three days a week..."because the accustomed feeding on flesh is dishonourable corruption of the body".  Their food was to be frugal.  The house here in Temple Combe was their main centre in the West Country, and here men were trained in military horsemanship, before leaving for service overseas.  It has been gathered from Crusader histories that Poole was a port much used by the knights.  The number of trainee knights at any one time in the preceptory would have varied, but there would have been a large number of ancillary workers in the village to service the house and the horses, and their elevated masters amongst the senior knights in residence.  Daily services and office recitals would have been made in the chapel, which was an important feature of every preceptory.  These were often fairly small buildings, simply made, unlike the larger round churches.  An example of the latter being the Temple, in London, which was used for special ceremonies.  Their chaplains were not knights, although affiliated to the order.  They lived in houses usually a little distance away from the preceptory.  A separate hostelry was also needed for the many travellers which the priory, like the abbey at Shaftesbury, were required to entertain.  The preceptory stood on the site of the present manor house and tradition holds that the long building which runs at right angle to the house was the knights cookhouse.  The beam across the fireplace in one of the kitchens is famed for its great size and length.  The three walls which remain of what has traditionally been known as the chapel are now separated from the main buildings, but pictures of these walls exist dating from 1846, 1870 and 1923, each showing Gothic doors and windows still intact.  Efforts to have this remnant of the chapel protected by the Ministry have so far been unsuccessful.  The house where many passing travellers and visitors to the priory were entertained may have been the old 'Blue Boar', former public house, close by the Yew Tree.  Until the 1960s it had the shape of a central area with two projecting arms partly enclosing a yard or forecourt.  The design is similar to other Templar houses in England.  The presbytery, or priest's house, could well have been what is now the three cottages known as West Court, next to the old inn.  This building has been known locally as the Old Rectory for many years, although it is felt that the chances of it having been the rectory for St. Mary's are slight, being on the side of the stream not owned by Shaftesbury, and being in fact on Templar land, it would have been well sited for the preceptory.  Above all this in significance, the central one of the three cottages is the one where, during the last war, Mrs. Mollie Drew discovered the strange and impressive panel painting, presumably of Christ, which was given to the Church by the owner of the cottage Mrs. Topp, and unveiled there in 1956.  Recently carbon-dated to 1280 AD, this panel painting is the subject of tremendous speculation.  It was almost certainly a Templar treasure, hidden for safety and amazingly surviving through the last seven hundred years. (Click here for image)

For almost 200 years the Templars fought for their faith and maintained castles and territories throughout Europe and the Middle East.  Without them there would have been little hope for the straggling parties of Christian pilgrims, who had been attacked and often murdered by the Saracens.  The knights battled to retain long-held rights in a far off land, in much the same way as the British forces fought in the Falklands Islands.  From the start of their mission there had been those who questioned the use of the sword in the service of Christ, as we do today.  St. Anselm had begged the crusaders to seek a spiritual Jerusalem, and renounce the real, which could only be attained through bloodshed. But this was a Small voice against the mass of people who loved the knightly ideal,  and enthusiastically supported the Crusades. They admired the professional soldier - the well-born man who gave his life readily when required.  An appealing new concept was developing too, one, which advocated generosity towards the weak, and unarmed, which softened the picture of the knight at arms - it is called Chivalry.  So the orders of soldier monks received support and many gifts of lands, which, together with their strength and independence of any authority but the Pope's, attracted also envy and enmi­ty from many.  Their ultimate enemy was King Philip IV of France.  Known as Philip the Fair, he had been handsome and popular in his youth but sank to despotism and greed with age.  He quarreled with Pope Boniface, and actually had him seized and imprisoned for a time, causing his death soon after.  Philip then set up a Pope of his own choice and in his own country, at Avignon, and caused a rift in the church, which split Christendom.  Having got control, he then set about the destruction of the Templar Order.

In 1307 on 13th October the unsuspecting knights of France with brothers and priests were set upon, imprisoned, and accused of many crimes. When under torture, they did not surrender and denied the offences and 54 were burnt. So the remaining Templars abandoned their own defence. In England and most other countries, apart from France, sentences were more lenient, and authorities were skeptical as to the truth of the charges brought against the Templars. But the order to suppress had come from above and it was obeyed. William Raven of Templecombe said at his trial that he had been a Templar for 15 years, and that 100 people had been present at his ceremony of admission. These had been lay people, which showed that not all Templar ceremonies were secretive. He denied the accusations, including that of worshipping a cat. It is felt this last is in much the same league as the cases against old women supposed to have turned themselves into cats and hares in witchcraft trials that continued for  centuries.  The panel painting which was dated to 1280 AD and is therefore very probably a Templar painting of Christ, and had been attributed to them by more than one expert, tells us about the sort of thing they did in fact venerate, treasure and hide from their persecutors. Sadly they could not tell the courts of these possessions without putting them at risk, and the strange survival of this painting to the present day pleads eloquently for their integrity. Through the years the Templars lived in Somerset, their only disputes in civil courts had been over average offences. One was for harbouring a man wanted for larceny.  Another more serious but not deliberate offence owned a horse, which broke from its tether and accidentally killed a boy. The typical comments from historians such as Thomas Gerard of Trent, who, wrote in 1633: "their infinite wealthe corrupted their virtues" were belied by the inventories of the Templar possessions when their houses were seized. The furniture was of the simplest and crudely made, their clothing sparse, and except for the master, they owned no plate or ornament.  There could have been breakaway groups who called themselves Templars, perhaps in France. There was a so-called Templar section of the Nazi party set up in Germany in the 1930s. Equally there have been revivals of the name in such respectable areas as that of the Freemasons.  And there is an Order of Knights Templar, which flourishes openly, using insignia and performing the ceremonials of the medieval order.

Some years after the sup­pressions, civil tribunals officially acquitted the Templars of the charges brought against them in England, Spain, Portugal and Germany.  But this was too late to save either the knights or their good reputation.

In 1312 the final order was made and the knights and brothers disposed of their properties, including the pre­ceptory in Combe, to their rival order, the Knight's Hospitaller of St John.  These events must have come as a shock to the local people. They had probably regarded the Templars as beyond reproach, if sometimes arrogant and proud. But the new occupants were men of a similar calibre who stayed on for 200 years.  The banished Templars were kept in monastic houses as prisoners "for discharge of penance".  Clearly if they had been found guilty crimes including licentiousness, blas­phemy and idolatry, they would have been given more severe sentences. The Order of Knights Hospitaller of  St. John was an old established as that of the Templars.  Choosing St. John of Jerusalem as their patron, they cared for the poor and sick amongst pil­grims in the Holy Lands.  They held that the sick were their masters and that to serve them was the aim of their lives. Together with this work they also added military protection pilgrims, like the Templars, and fought with them in the Crusades. The two groups more often regarded each other as rivals than as broth­ers unfortunately, but both orders usually upheld the highest standards of knighthood.

The St. John's Knights opened hospitals and almshouses all over Europe and women were included in the organisation as nursing sis­ters.  In England their houses near Taunton had a division for both men and women.  It was known as Buckland Sororum, or Minchin - being translated, the sisters of Buckland.  Revivals of the order have survived in England as the St John's Ambulance Brigade the Order of St. John, which is centred at the old headquarters in Clerkenwell.  The original Catholic order has survived unbroken, mainly in Catholic countries, where the monasteries were never destroyed as they were under King Henry VIII.  like king Philip of France two centuries before his time, Henry had degenerated  from a handsome and well-liked king, with many talents, to a greedy and despotic one.  Like Philip he quarreled with the Pope.  The main opponents to his divorce and many marriages were churchmen.  So, aided by his henchman Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell of a later date) he proceeded to destroy the monasteries, priories and convents, and mutilate the cathedrals and churches which were, as they are now, the pride of England.

He gained revenue, and the esteem of those of his followers that succeeded to the manors and lands he had taken from the Church.  Dubious evidence was collected as it had been against the Templars.  There was probably a lot of easing-off of discipline in the monasteries, and many had become too wealthy, but for certain they were not all bad.  For those who attempted to resist, or to defend the churches they loved, England became a place of terror.  Priests who refused to submit to Henry as head of the Church were stretched on the rack, or hung in some cases from their own churches.  In Glastonbury the ancient abbey was shattered and its gentle Abbott dragged to the top of the Tor on hurdles, and executed.  Abbeys at Mells, and at Bruton were suppressed, including at Bath a house founded in 1180 "for poor strangers", and the Commandery at Templecombe.  It was not until many years later that parishes began to take care of the poor, in place of the monasteries.  The last prior of the England Knight's Hospitaller, William Weston, seeing the ruin of all he had lived for, died soon after the suppression "from a broken heart".

From 1311 until 1530 there were 30 priests in charge at St. Mary's Church.  They were Catholic and Mass was their main service.  They also visited their parishioners and undertook many of the same duties as the clergy today.  they were appointed by the Abbess of Shaftesbury.  After the abbeys were destroyed, the rectors were appointed by the new Lords of the Manor who changed as the manor was passed from one to another.  They used the New English prayer book for their services.  Throughout the troubled 1500s it is probable that our Church underwent the same changes in appearance as others in Somerset.  Yeovil. for instance, still has accounts which describe  these.  In 1547 workmen were paid for removing "idolatrous objects".  These included the high altar, images and crosses and the walls which probably were painted, were whitewashed.  A few years later, during the five year reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, payments were made to restore the altar, the holy water stoup, and for "mendyng" the windows.  Then when Queen Elizabeth entered her long reign, "Popish articles" were again banished.  Crosses were "sawn down", and the "Trinity in the glassen windows blotted out".  But the brass lectern was allowed to remain, being in keeping with the emphasis on the reading of the Bible rather than "Popish" ceremonies at the altar.

After the confusion of Tudor extremes, the Stuart kings brought a return to some of the Christian symbols in the churches.  Altars filled their original places, crosses and a moderate amount of decoration such as we expect to see today, returned.

During the Tudor years the fine waggon roof was built over St. Mary's Church and possibly the set of old oak pews which may however date from even earlier.  During the "purifying" times all the bells were removed except for the one , which still rings for us and is inscribed. "Sancta Maria Ora pro mobis"..."Holy Mary Pray for us".

After the Abbey ay Shaftesbury was destroyed and the nuns pensioned off, the manor at Abbas Combe was granted to William Sherrington, and was later bought by Richard Duke who also owned Templecombe and Henstridge estates.  When the Hospitallers were expelled from Templecombe manor it was granted to Richard Andrews and Leonard Chamberlain, who quickly sold it to Edward Lord Clinton who later became the Earl of Lincoln.  In 1584 it passed to Richard Duke , mentioned above.  He had an only daughter Christiana, who inherited the manor with her husband George Sprinte.

For further information on Templecombe visit the British History Online site (click here)

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