ANN and PETER FROST explore the round churches of Britain
Dan Brown caused a stir with his best seller The Da Vinci Code. The story may have started with a horrific murder in Rome but it awakened interest in a Da Vinci Trail that takes in several sites in rural England and Scotland.
In this blog we’ll follow that trail and find some interesting memories of the knights who ventured to the Holy Land a thousand years ago but some of whose mysteries are still fascinating us today.
I’m not promising we’ll find the Holy Grail but we will visit some interesting parts of our country and discover some interesting buildings with a curious tale to tell.
The knights who set off for the Holy Land all those years ago didn’t know what they had started. Their declared purpose was to keep open a safe route for pilgrims wanting to visit the various sites associated with the life of Christ.
They also though they had a obligation to bring Christianity to the people they saw as ignorant infidel along the way.
Conveniently they forgot that these ‘infidels’ had invented and given us arithmetic, our alphabet and much else.
Bear in mind this was between the 11th and 13th centuries. Travel was at best by sailing boat and horse, more often by foot. The long walk from Britain to Palestine could take years.
Roads were rough, if they existed at all. Bands of highway robbers would be only too pleased to relieve a traveler of his possessions if not his life.
At sea pirates were just one hazard. Small, not too seaworthy craft were another.
Some religious houses along the way might offer a bed and a meal but they were few and far between and not all could be trusted.
To put the whole thing into context imagine planning a road trip to Israel today. It isn’t a project you would take on lightly even with reliable ferries, travel insurance and good roads.
Yet these pilgrims and knights set out on foot or on horseback nearly a thousand years ago.
Perhaps then it isn’t any surprise that these early travelers to the Holy Land banded together to make the journey. There has always been some security in numbers.
Knights could protect the pilgrims and as the groups got established they learnt the tricks of the trade. Where were the safe routes, which roads to avoid.
They discovered where they would be welcome, and safe to stop for the night. Eventually these overnight stops became associated with individual groups of knights and pilgrims.
Like modern airlines and hotel chains with their air miles and loyalty cards these stopping places, often religious houses, became associated with just one particular group of travelers. They formed societies a bit like our clubs today.
The grouping began to develop a more formal structure and soon the discovered that the information they had on safe routes was a valuable commodity.
One way to keep that information to themselves was to make their new societies secret. And that’s where Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code comes into the story.
It’s up to you whether you believe Dan Brown’s incredibly crafted story. Did Jesus marry and do his descendents still protect their amazing secret?
Did the Holy Grail journey to Britain from the Temple in Jerusalem? Where is it now? What is the secret of Rosslyn Chapel (below) near Edinburgh in relation to these stories could it be that this is or was the home of the Holy Grail.
The 15th Century Rosslyn Chapel is remarkable. The interior is rich with masonic and other secret decorations. It certainly plays an important part in the culmination of the Da Vinci Code story.
It isn’t, however one of the round churches that are more normally associated with the crusading knights. There are four such churches in England and another on Orkney. In this feature we’ll visit all but one. That one is the Little Temple Church that gives its name to a whole area of London.
Will we solve the Da Vinci Code? Well I don’t know. I did enjoy the book. It’s a great read and it set me off in search of some of the secret societies of the crusades and the mysterious churches they built.
Their stories speak out to us from over the centuries. And what stories. William Blake asked the question. “…And was Jerusalem builded here among our dark satanic mills?” Let’s see if we can find out.
The Crusades were cruel and savage. One reminder of just how unpleasant can be found on the inn signs outside many a pleasant English pub.
Crusading knights would often behead the enemies they had defeated in battle. Sometimes those severed heads would be brought home to England in the knight’s saddlebag.
The dried out head would be an object of great interest back at home and no doubt a few were exhibited at the alehouse while the knight bragged of his victories over a pint or two.
In time an innkeeper with an shrewd eye to marketing would buy the head and mount it on a spike outside his hostelry. It would certainly attract a few curious customers.
Thinks about it next time you have a quiet drink in a pub called the Saracen’s Head!
Holy Sepulchre Church, Northampton.
You need to look closely to spot that this is a round church at all. Over the centuries the church has acquired a large tower at one end and a sizeable conventional nave at the other.
But there in the middle is the distinctive round church based, as all these round churches are on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Simon de Senlis who built the original church in Northampton had seen the original when he fought in the First Crusade in 1196.
Senlis was the Earl or Northampton. He had built a castle in the town although sadly no trace of it now remains.
The Holy Sepulchre churh in Jerusalem was believed to be the final resting place of Jesus Christ and the Church in Northampton was built as accurate replica roughly half the size of the original.
Although much of the outside is hidden by newer additions the main entrance takes you into the original round section of the church. Eight columns support the roof just as twelve did in the original Jerusalem Church which had been built on the site of the cave at Golgotha.
This had been the site of earlier Temples at least one dedicated to Venus. The church became known as the TempleChurch and at least one group of knights would adopt the name Templars.
Today Northampton is a busy town with the largest medieval market square in England. Its oldest standing building is its round church; still a very real connection between the Crusaders and the Earl who founded the town.
St John the Baptist Little Maplestead, Essex
Many people believe that all England’s round churches were built by the Knights Templar, and that the origins of modern freemasonry are in some way mixed up in all this.
The beautiful and mostly original little round church at Little Maplestead in Essex tells the story of a much more prosaic and public spirited organisation.
Next time you see the first aid people from the St. John Ambulance Association you will know they can trace their origins back to the crusades.
The Order of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem founded their first hospice in Jerusalem in 1092. Even at that time the members of the order could be recognised by the white cross on a black background that was the mark of their order.
Much later in around 1540 when the knights were thrown out of England many of them found sanctuary in the Island of Malta. They adopted the maltese form for their white cross and it is the emblem they still use today.
Back to Little Maplestead. The village and its priest are mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. There is no description of the church and no trace remains of this earlier building.
In 1185 the village was given to the Knights Hospitallers by Juliana Fitz-Audelin and her husband William. It was probable that at this time a hospital was founded here.
This is the last built of England’s round churches constructed around 1335. Six columns hold up the roof of the round section and the nave is supported by a beautiful roof like the ribs of a great wooden ship.
The small church was built mainly for the use of the Knights although today it is a place of worship for the inhabitants of the village.
Drastic restoration in the 1850’s changed many details of the church but the basic form remains as it was. A fine reminder of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem; the most holy spot for Christians in the world.
The Round Church Cambridge
Right in the middle of the famous university town and within a stones throw of some of the most spectacular medieval academic architecture in the world you will find a simple round church.
Today it is a centre for Christian education and there is a permanent exhibition inside. Part of that exhibition tells the story of the church itself and its crusader origins.
This is another church that denies its origins are with the Knights Templar. Rather another group of crusaders, the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre are given credit for founding the building.
These crusaders were probably Austin canons but their inspiration and their finished church were almost identical to the other round churches and based on the Temple Church in Jerusalem.
This Cambridge church was started in 1130 nearly 80 years before the university would be founded in the town.
Over the intervening millennium the church has had many so called improvements, modernisations and other changes made to it structure. Yet it still stands a simple and quiet place of contemplation a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the busy town just beyond the porch.
The church exhibition will reveal the whole story but might not totally solve all the Da Vinci mysteries of the many American tourists and Dan Brown fans who make this a place of modern pilgrimage.
Ophir Round Kirk Orkney Islands, Scotland
Our last round church is on the beautiful Orkney islands. Sadly it is only a ruin although it was in fact still in excellent condition in the middle of the 18th century when it was torn down to provide building stone for a new church. How attitudes to history have changed.
By the way, no trace of that replacement church remains today but pilgrims and Dan Brown fans still visit the ruins of the older round Ophir church.
You won’t be surprised to discover the inspiration of the church. Yes the TempleChurch in Jerusalem.
Earl Hakon gets the credit for building it in the late 11th or early 12th centuries.
Earl Hakon is the man who, legend has it murdered the patron saint of Orkney St Magnus. He split his skull with an axe. As a penance for his crime Hakon made a pilgrimage and a crusade to the Holy Land and on his return he built the round church at Ophir.
Is the story true? Who knows? What I do know is that the story is told in all its gory details in the Orkney Sagas. A thousand years ago they were as much a best seller as the Da Vinci Code is today.
“There was a great drinking hall in Ophir, with a door on the south wall near the eastern gable, and in front of the hall, just a few paces down from it is a fine church.”
The Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 66.
Other round churches
Don’t confuse the round Crusader churches in our feature with the much more common round tower churches of the Eastern Counties.
These are Saxon, Built by the Vikings who had recently converted to