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Temple Balsall

Dedication : St Mary the Virgin    Simon Jenkins: Excluded                        Principal Features : Templar and Hospitaller Church

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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.

Anyway, unless you are a devotee of one order or the other you won’t be too concerned. This is a church that owes it existence to one or both of the great  military orders. It was not designed to be a parish church so it is effectively a single-celled church on a scale that would have been inconceivable had it been designed or for the local community.

George Gilbert Scott was here to restore it again in the mid-nineteenth century. It is far from clear how much of today’s church is his and how much is original. The windows are large and unorthodox. They are in the geometrical Decorated period style. But which are original and which are not?

All in all, this is a somewhat puzzling place. Its Templar provenance is unimpeachable, however. For that and for the knights’ effigies this is a church that deserves more visitors. I must apologise, by the way, that there are not more photographs of the interior. Children from the primary school next door were practicing for some sort of end-of-term service and I and my camera were about as welcome as a wasp at a picnic.

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Above: The Knights of Temple Balsall - all bearded.  Each carries a shield. Each is holding in his right hand what one can only assume to be sword hilt.

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Left: Looking towards the east end. Note corbels with the knight images. The east window has five lights and some spectacular tracery for which this church is also noteworthy. Right: The piscina is elaborate and original and to the right (out of picture) is a triple sedilia.

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Left: The east window from the outside. The glass dates only from 1907. Centre: This window on the south side has really splendid tracery. Pevsner says some of the tracery here is “scarcely believable” and it is not clear whether he is simply referring to its quality or whether he has doubts about its age.  Right: The south west corner showing the elaborate bell stair. This is surely the work of Gilbert Scott.

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The sub-cornice frieze depicts only human heads. In this it differs from the East Midlands and the Oxfordshire Schools that have far more exuberant and varied motifs (see, for example, Adderbury or Ryhall). How old is it? I think we can assume that it is mediaeval. If the church was built in 1330 as the Church Guide then it could be that the frieze was added then. That date, however, implies that this was not a Templar Church in the first place which I think is highly unlikely. Yet I wouldn’t expect to see such a frieze earlier than 1330 - and even that’s pushing it. My suspicion is that it was added during some unrecorded changes to the roof - probably the use of lead.

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The buttresses have some  appealing beasts

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Inside this innocuous (and pretty) row of cottages very close to to the north west of the church are the remains of the aisled Templar Hall. The aisle pillars are made of timber and have been dated to the late twelfth century, so the hall considerably predated the church.

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Left: Temple House is south of the church and dates from the seventeenth century. Right: East of the church is the Hospital that was established in 1677 by Lady Anne Holborne.