Lost orders

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Time Team and the Knights Hospitaller of Halston Hall

Time Team’s search for a Knights Hospitaller preceptory at Halston, Shropshire.
PHOTO: Darryl Owen / Time Team

The Knights Hospitaller were forged in the fury of the Crusades, providing protection, hospitality, and medical care for travellers in the Holy Land, and building fundraising communities back in Britain. Few of these sites have been excavated in detail, but Time Team have been investigating a Shropshire example. Carly Hilts spoke to Stewart Ainsworth.

In the turbulent period of the Crusades, a number of medieval religious orders combined their contemplative role with that of the knight, creating formidable fighting forces of warrior monks who also performed acts of charity and hospitality for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Perhaps the most famous of the military orders was that of the Knights Templar, but they were not operating alone. There were the Knights of St Lazarus, whose communities often included hospitals for those suffering from leprosy, and the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem – ‘Knights Hospitaller’, for short – whose main purpose was to care for poor, sick, and injured pilgrims. For noblemen who wanted the social cachet of visibly supporting the Crusades without risking their own life or limbs, a popular way to do so was to donate lands to one of these orders, so that they could build fundraising and administrative centres to help further their work abroad.

While the Templars were disbanded by Pope Gregory V in 1312, the Hospitallers continued to flourish in England and Wales (often taking over abandoned Templar sites) until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There was an attempt to refound the order during the Catholic Mary I’s short reign (1553-1558), but that was thwarted by the succession of her Protestant sister Elizabeth I. Thereafter, the Hospitallers were a spent force within these shores, though they maintained a power base in Malta until the island was captured by Napoleon in 1798. This Maltese connection can still be seen in one of the order’s more enduring legacies: the eight-pointed Maltese cross remains the emblem of the St John Ambulance, an organisation descended from the traditions of the Hospitallers (hence their leading figures are called ‘priors’), which continues to provide voluntary medical care to those in need.

The ditched enclosure defining the preceptory. The small square enclosure at the centre is an 18th-century ha ha around the chapel graveyard. Based on Environment Agency LiDAR Open Government licence v3.0. IMAGE: Crown Copyright 2023

Communities founded by the military orders ranged from small farmsteads to regional administrative centres known as ‘preceptories’. Records of 1338 attest that, by this date, there were 36 Hospitaller preceptories in England and Wales; all but three were in rural settings, and today there are just a dozen or so sites where any trace of them can be seen. Although some of these have been explored non-invasively through geophysical survey, just one has been excavated in any detail – and that more than 60 years ago, at South Witham in Lincolnshire. It was with the hope of adding to this picture that Time Team recently carried out an investigation in the grounds of Halston Hall in Shropshire.

The site lies a mile from Whittington Castle, a Marcher fortification where, in the 1170s, the resident lord Roger de Powys bequeathed a small piece of land at Halston to the Hospitallers. The resulting preceptory would go on to become, by the mid-14th century, the main administrative centre for all Hospitaller estates in northern England and Wales. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site passed into the hands of the Mytton family who, under the terms of their lease, had to reside in the preceptory. This subsequently became the manor house; its successor, the present hall, dates to c.1690.

Today, little survives above ground to testify to the site’s religious past, except for a characterful half-timbered chapel thought to date to the 15th century. Within this building, there are hints of even earlier activity, including a 10th-century font that may have come from an unrecorded Anglo-Saxon chapel (a small settlement is known to have existed at Halston before the Hospitallers arrived), and a distinctive stone coffin typical of medieval monastic sites. Would Time Team find any trace of the preceptory below the ground?

Overlooking Halston Hall’s distinctive half-timbered chapel.
PHOTO: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

Early inspiration

The Team’s work at Halston had its origins in a light-hearted email received by their resident landscape archaeologist, Professor Stewart Ainsworth. He had been named during a game of ‘which famous person would you most like to have dinner with’ at a gathering of the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust, and one of the trustees was inspired to invite Stewart to ‘come and have a look at our castle.’ Stewart did indeed drop by, and was immediately intrigued by the complexity of the castle’s earthworks, which told a very different story to that presented in local guidebooks.

This sparked the Whittington 3Dimensions (3D) Project – for which an application for funding is to be submitted to the NHLF this summer – a community initiative working with the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust and the Digital on Tour team from the University of Chester. It sets out to explore three themes – people, place, and time – and to engage with groups who have not previously accessed or find it difficult to access archaeology, with a particular emphasis on teaching new skills using digital technology such as LiDAR, aerial photography, and open-source software to help people learn about their local area. (To this end, Stewart also has set up a community archaeology support team which offers advice and small grants to help boost small community projects and wider social inclusion; for more details, see http://www.sharedpast.org.)

While carrying out some initial research for Whittington 3D, Stewart examined Environment Agency LiDAR for the surrounding area, comparing it to the local Historic Environment Records. He soon realised that there was a huge number of otherwise unrecorded features visible in the aerial images – and, more excitingly still, a dramatic rectangular enclosure at Halston. ‘I thought: “Crikey, that is a stunning medieval moated site!”, and looked further into the history of the earthworks,’ Stewart said. ‘That is where I read about the preceptory at Halston, and the fact that it had never been conclusively located. The site in the LiDAR was, without a shadow of a doubt, a big moated enclosure that was clearly part of a wider water-management system including medieval fishponds surviving as earthworks. Having learned how small the area of extra-parochial land at Halston that the Hospitallers had been given was, and with the chapel right in the middle of the enclosure, and its known history, it just had to be the preceptory – I couldn’t see how it could be anything else.’

Stewart decided to go and have a look for himself, and fortunately the hall’s present owners, Rupert and Harriet Harvey, were all too happy for him to ‘have a look at the lumps and bumps in [their] park’. As he explored the estate, Stewart knew that the site had all the ingredients for a more detailed survey – initially he thought it would be a very good part of the planned Whittington 3D Project, but, the more he looked, the more he thought that it would also make for a great Time Team investigation. Series Producer Tim Taylor agreed: ‘Stewart identified this fascinating site that we had to investigate further.’

Halston is home to intriguing earthworks that appear to hint at a long-vanished enclosure – or could they form part of the estate’s post-medieval landscaped gardens? IMAGE: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 401. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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