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Knights Templar: Denny Abbey

From the time of St. Augustine’s mission to England in AD597 to the reign of King Henry VIII, monasteries formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in England.  Monasteries were built to house communities of monks, canons and priests, living a common life of religious observance under a systematic form of discipline.  It is believed some seven hundred monasteries were founded in England.  They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy.  As a result, basic appearance and layout differ slightly, but they all possess the basic elements; church, accommodation and work buildings.

Monasteries were woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting as centres of worship, learning, charity, they also held large areas of land, immense wealth and political influence.  Many monasteries acted as the centre of a wide network which included; parish churches, alms houses, farming estates and tenant villages.

Some 225 religious houses belonged to the “Order of Saint Augustine.”  The Augustine’s were not monks, but communities of canons or priests, who lived under the rule of Saint Augustine.  From the 12th century they undertook work in parishes, running alms houses, schools and hospitals, whilst preaching in parish churches.  It was from the churches; they received the bulk of their income.

Denny Abbey is a monastic priory complex, home to three religious orders between the 12th and 16th centuries.  It is the only property in England which was transferred from Benedictine to Knights Templar.

Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire:

As a knights fighting life came to a close, what would happen to him?  An English Knight, would retire from active service, returning home, to the land of his birth, and seek refuge in one of the “Order’s Hospitals.” He would swap the dusty heat of the Holy Land, for the biting winds of the Cambridgeshire Fens. 

Denny Abbey would carry on its monastic traditions, caring for the sick and elderly Knights Templar.

Excavation of the site, revealed Templar graves containing bodies riddled with degenerative diseases and arthritic conditions.  It is believed the repetitive training a knight had to endure was responsible.

A grave located outside the west-door had a pewter chalice and a round lead disc, bearing a geometric cross, denoting he be a Templar priest buried with his remains.

In 1159, Monks of the Benedictine Order, built the first church on this site, as a dependent priory of Ely Cathedral.  In 1170, they passed it across to the Order of the Knights Templar.  Denny was listed as the first building in Cambridgeshire.

Around this time, foundations were laid for a preceptory, ten miles to the south at Great Wilbraham.  Its duties were to provide Denny Abbey with fresh food, in return Denny paid forty shillings a year, for a priest.

When the Templar’s took over the church from the Benedictines, one of their first builds on the site, was a retirement home for the elderly knights.

With the end of the Order of the Knights Templar in 1308, came their arrest.  Few valuables were found in the 1308 inventory; silver chalices, bowls and silk cloths.

Less than a dozen knights were found at Denny Abbey, and one was found to be insane, two were crippled.  They were taken to Cambridge Castle, where they remained until the 30th September 1309, when they were passed over to the Constable of the Tower of London, except for William de Mawringges who had died in captivity.

William de la Forde, the preceptor of Denny, claimed he had been a Templar for some forty-two years, and witnessed as many as a hundred brothers admitted to the order. 

One of the members; Robert the Scot had been a member of the Knights Templar on two separate occasions.  First time was in Syria some twenty-six years earlier, around 1283 but left for some two years, before going to Rome for confession and absolution, and thus resumed Templar life at Nicosia in Cyprus.

The remaining Templars from Denny did penance at “All Hallows Church” close to the Tower of London, and were later returned to the Fens and admitted into local religious houses.

The Templar settlement at Great Wilbraham functioned as a hospital for the Order of the Knights Templar, with the Manor House being gifted to the Templars by Peter Malauney in 1226.

The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas and dates back to the 13th century.  Built by the Templars or developed from a pre-existing Saxon Church.

In 1313 following the suppression of the Knights Templar, it passed into the hands of the Hospitallers.  The site was later acquired by the Franciscans who established a nunnery upon the site.  They built a church, refectory, accommodation for nuns and guests.

The buildings were acquired by Mary de Valence, the Countess of Pembroke and founder of Pembroke College in Cambridge.  Under her direction the Order of the Franciscan Nuns, the Poor Clares from Waterbeach occupied the site until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, then Denny Abbey was turned into a farmhouse.

The grounds of Denny Abbey contain traces of outbuildings.  Under the lawn to the east, foundations of the original church lie, along with transepts and nave.

Normally Templar churches and chapels lie east to west, but in this case it is more north-east to west.

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