Royal intrigue on our manor … among factories

A brief perambulation down Knight Road, Strood, reveals a building that, for me, represents the Medway towns. In the middle of a grimy but important industrial estate is Temple Manor, a beautiful house in a superb green setting.

Ask the question “Why should this old monument be stuck between factories?” and you’re asking the wrong one. The real question is: Why should all these factories litter the grounds of a Grade I listed ancient monument? To say Temple Manor is important to Strood’s history is a gross understatement. The historian Hasted refers in 1788 to “Stroud [as it was spelled until late Victorian times] alias Temple Manor”. In other words, the manor’s lands became the town.

The manor was given by King Henry II (1154-1189) to the Knights Templars and provided lodgings and fresh horses for members of the order of monastic soldiers who protected Christian pilgrims on their journey from London to the Holy Land, to and from the Crusades.

The Templars assembled a range of buildings in Strood by 1185, which included a timber hall, barns, kitchens and stables. The stone building, Temple Manor, was constructed about 1240 of ragstone and flint on two levels — an undercroft, which still has its original vaulted ceiling — and supports a large, undivided first-floor hall.

At each end are brick additions from the 17th century. Remains of 13th-century plaster painted with red lines to imitate masonry can still be seen.

Upon the violent suppression of the order, when its leaders were imprisoned and executed (see below), the manor passed to the Knight Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, a rival, but less military, group.

King Edward III (1327-1377) then conferred it on his kinswoman, the Countess of Pembroke (an interesting lady whose husband died in a jousting tournament on their wedding day; she also founded Pembroke College, Cambridge) who turned it into a nunnery. By 1292 it was known as Templeborgh and Templestrode Manor in 1337. It was dissolved by Henry VIII with the rest of the monasteries, then passed to Lord Cobham, back to the Crown in the time of James I, sold to the Duke of Richmond and on to the Blake family — perhaps the richest Strood family at that time — who added two fine 17th-century brick extensions that can be seen today.

So much royalty, religion and intrigue — and all on an industrial estate.

Eventually, it passed to Rochester City Council in the 1930s and things began to go pretty disastrously wrong. The site was turned over to industrial development and the fate of the house was in the balance.

In February, 1939, the Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham News reported, unctuously: “The Rochester City Council gave a full and courteous hearing to the deputation concerning the preservation of this ancient house. Messrs H Smetham [the Strood historian] and W Cobbett Barker JP presented the case for its claims — Mr A Gouge, of Messrs Short Bros being unavoidably absent.

“Mr Barker … presented a petition which embodied the earnest plea for its preservation signed by persons whose names carry a wide respect: and the council received it in that same spirit.

“Among others features desirable, Mr Barker pointed out the need of setting apart a portion of the neighbouring land for an open space among the factory sites, etc. It was well known that very material profits had been made out of the Temple Estate by the city council.”

Mr Smetham — never one to use a sentence when a paragraph would do — added: “No sophistication of reasoning will ever prove that we can legitimately be independent or indifferent to our forefathers or to the spiritual or moral accumulations which they have left behind them.”

It was doubtful, he said, that Temple Manor’s unique quality could be found in all England. And he was right, although he never lived to see its revival. Smetham died in 1945 and renovations started in 1951.

Visit it — Temple Manor is owned by Medway Council, and run by English Heritage. It reopens for the summer, from 31 March to the end of October, from 11am to 3pm. Admission is free.

The Templars’ terrible fate

The Monastic Knights Templar, in their role as protectors to Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, became extremely wealthy, and, after the Pope made them independent of the authority of his bishops in 1128, extremely powerful.

As they became more powerful, they developed enemies. Nasty rumours started to emerge. Templars were said to take part in irreligious practices and blasphemies as part of their secret initiation rites. They were accused, among other charges, of heresy, homosexuality and of spitting on the image of Jesus.

In response, King Philip IV (Philip the Fair) of France had every Templar in France arrested on 13 October, 1307. He then seized all the Templars’ French property.

Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, came under strong pressure from Philip and ordered the arrest of Templars in every country — and then agreed to suppress the order. Many Templars were executed or imprisoned, and in 1314 the order’s last grandmaster, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake.

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