Temple Balsall is located within Warwickshire’s legendary Forest of Arden. To myself as a boy brought up in post-war urban Birmingham even the name conjured up visions of a rural idyll that I could never share. Shakespeare knew it, of course, and probably set “As You Like It” within it, although others claim if for the Forest of Ardennes in France. Nonsense, I say! I’d l.ike to think, by the way, that his inspiration for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream also came from here.
Temple Balsall is a rarity: one of the few places in England that has an indisputable link with the Knights Templar. I say “indisputable” because there is more nonsense talked about the Templars in England than about almost any other subject. Templar connections are claimed on the flimsiest of “evidence”. That’s not to mention those who search the world for their supposedly hidden treasure. I blame Dan Brown.
Anyway, there was a Templar preceptory in Temple Balsall from the 1160s when the manor was donated to the Order by Roger de Mowbray. He was an ardent supporter of the order, was himself a crusader and was one of the few survivors of the disastrous Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Templars made an exception to their very twenty-first century disdain for the ancient practice of ransom and bought his release.
The Church Guide suggests that the church was built in the 1330s. As the Order was supressed in 1312 this would mean that the Templars did not build it. Pevsner believed it to be late thirteenth century. Simon Brighton in his book “In Search of the Knights Templar” concurs. What we do know is that like many Templar properties it passed to the Hospitallers in 1322. There must have been some sort of church here during the Templar era. Was it demolished by the Hospitallers? It’s possible. Or perhaps, and most likely in my view, it was adapted by the new owners.
The Hospitallers were here until the 1470s when they installed a lay tenant. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was, like the property of all religious communities, seized the the Crown. At one point the lands here were given by Henry VIII to Catherine Parr as part of her marriage settlement. The church, now effectively redundant, probably fell into disrepair until the second half of the eighteenth century when Lady Anne Holborne restored it and established a hospital and school nearby. .
The interior of the church has several knights’ heads. They are all bearded. This is an argument for the Templars since beards were compulsory for them. It was popularly believed that Hospitallers were clean shaven but it might well be that they were simply not compulsory so this argument is not conclusive.