Who were the Knights Templar and what have they got to do with Bray? This post is the first in a series that will investigate this interesting connection. It discusses the Knights as an organisation, their role in Ireland and their land holding at Ballyman, north of Bray, most likely granted to them by Walter de Ridelesford in the late 1100s.
The Knights Templar
As part of the First Crusade, the city of Jerusalem was seized from its Muslim rulers by Christian forces in 1099. The Templars were founded shortly afterwards, from a group of knights who came together, sometime between 1118 and 1120, dedicating themselves to the protection of Christian pilgrims travelling to and from the Holy Land and, by extension, to the defence of the territories seized by the Crusaders (see Figure 1).
The Knights had their initial headquarters in a building in Jerusalem known as Solomon’s Temple, from which they got their ‘Templar’ name. A number of similar orders were established around the same time, such as the Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights and the Spanish Order of Calatrava, all of whom had a military character, unlike most religious orders before or, indeed, since.
The Templars are probably the best known of these orders largely because, about 190 years later, they came to a spectacular and controversial end, amid accusations of bizarre initiation rites, financial irregularities, and heresy. Much of the evidence against them came from confessions extracted under torture which were often subsequently retracted. The Grand Master and others were burnt at the stake (see Figure 2 below), members were arrested and imprisoned across Europe, including in Ireland, and the Order’s assets were confiscated. The Pope finally issued a Bull in 1312 suppressing the Knights ‘by an inviolable and perpetual order’.
The Order was not simply a military force. To enable them to finance the massive fighting effort required, the Knights were given charitable grants of lands and other assets and they became heavily engaged in agriculture, trading and particularly finance, even lending money to European monarchs. Many members of the Order never left their home areas but worked and prayed for the Order (see Figure 3 below). In some respects, they came to resemble a multinational financial corporation as much as a military religious order and, as a result, may have faced an uphill battle in defending themselves against a range of vested interests. The effective loss of the crusader states in 1291 would also have dented their prestige and left them vulnerable. (A comparison with the Knights Hospitaller is interesting in this regard, as the Hospitallers tended to emphasise a more charitable and public service role and survive down to this day as the Knights of Malta.)
The Knights in Ireland
Reconstructing the activities of the Irish branch of the Knights Templar in Ireland in a precise way is a very difficult task but the broad outlines are clear. The military orders arrived with the Normans in 1169 and the role that they played was similar to that in other parts of Western Christendom. The fighting role of the Templars was in the Middle East, explicitly directed against non-Christians, while the very significant economic activities that supported this fighting machine were located in Christian Europe.
Many of the knights who came with the initial Norman invasion probably felt an obligation to support the Templars in the same way members of the elite did across Europe. Rather than going on Crusade themselves, more often than not, they did this by granting assets, mostly land, to the Knights to enable them to fund their military operations. Interestingly, the Knights are hardly referred to at all in the Gaelic annals as they were not militarily engaged in Ireland as such, although, in practice, lands seized as part of the Norman expansion sometimes ended up in the Knights’ hands.
Bray and the Knights – the connection
One of the significant figures that accompanied Strongbow when he came to Ireland in 1169 was Walter de Ridelesford. Walter was granted lands in a number of locations but the one of most interest to us is the grant of land in and around Bray which subsequently developed into the manor of Bray, probably under his son, also Walter. We know that lands at Ballyman, just north-west of Bray, were in the hands of the Knights at their dissolution in 1312 and we also have earlier references to their holdings in the manor of Bray, but precisely when the Knights acquired their land holding is not documented. There are convincing reasons, however, for thinking that the grant was made quite early, before 1200, and probably by Walter de Ridelesford senior himself.
There are four reasons for supposing this to be the case.
The first is that a member of the extended de Ridelesford family, Gerard de Ridefort, became Grand Master of the Order internationally in 1185 and remained so until his execution during the Siege of Acre by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1189 (see Figure 4 right). It seems reasonable to think that Walter either might have felt obliged, or was even asked by the wider family, to support the Order when Gerard de Ridefort was at its head. (As an aside, the character of Gerard de Ridefort features in many books and films, factual and fictional, about the Templars and his is an interesting story in his own right.)
A second possible reason is that a donation of land to the Knights may have made sense in terms of the development of the area around Bray. The Knights would have brought expertise and experience in clearing land and setting up an efficient operation, which would have benefitted this border land.
A third possibility is that, even if Walter did not give a grant of land as early as the 1180s, the accession of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) in 1189 (see Figure 5 left), might have prompted him to do so, as the new king went into a flurry of examining charters and grants to finance his own participation in the Crusades. It might have been a wise move on Walter’s part to make a grant, as it could have helped to strengthen his hold on his own lands, by diverting any attention from his grant and supporting the Crusades.
Finally, it is quite possible that Walter felt a genuine desire to assist the Knights, he was once a young knight in Strongbow’s service and might have felt the urge to go on Crusade himself but did not. He might have subsequently compensated for this in his own mind by a grant of land to the Knights.
It is quite possible, if not likely, that a number of these reasons combined to prompt the land grant.
A further post will deal in more detail with how the Irish branch of the Knights operated and what is likely to have actually gone on at Ballyman in medieval times.
A general source for further reading is –
Byrne, N. (2007) The Irish crusade: a history of the Knights Hospitaller, the Knights Templar, and the Knights of Malta, in the south-east of Ireland. Linden Publishing: Dublin
As regards the Bray connection, these posts reflect the work of David McIlreavy, Director of the Medieval Bray Project.