Who would have thought that two small churches in the heart of Nottinghamshire had a connection to the days of the Crusades and the colourful history of the Knights Hospitaller? Events like the capture of Jerusalem, the flight from Acre, the fall of Rhodes and Napoleon’s invasion of Malta all evoke adventure stories from the distant past.
I was visiting St Radegund’s, Maplebeck to see the fine east window by Charles Eamer Kempe.
However, I was diverted to earlier times when I happened to read that, until the 1890s, the parish church was known as St John’s. In the middle ages it was a chapel linked to the “camera” church, also St John’s, just a few miles away at Winkburn. So, what, exactly, is a camera church and why should both have been dedicated to St John?
The clue is the full name of Winkburn’s church: St John of Jerusalem. This is a rare dedication and signifies a tie with the Order of St John of Jerusalem, known as the Knights Hospitaller. Both the church and the chapel in Maplebeck were recorded as belonging to the Hospitallers in a 1338 return to the Grand Master, Elyan de Villanova. Even earlier, a Pipe Roll of 1184 refers to a “hospital” at Winkburn and, in 1239, monks at Rufford held and worked land at Maplebeck, with the agreement of the Hospitaller Prior of England, Terry de Nulla.
The Order of St John was created in 1079 to run the pilgrim hospital in Jerusalem, while still under Muslim control. After the city was taken in 1099 during the First Crusade it grew in importance and by the 1130s and 40s it had acquired a military role. The Norman king of Jerusalem granted the Order half a dozen castles, including the well-known Krak des Chevaliers. After the Templars were wound up in 1307, it was given all their estates and even more castles. Their need for resources was huge.
Benefactors all over Europe made donations of land and thithes. Records show that a Henry Hosatus gave Winkburn church to the Hospitallers and Adam de Tyson Winkburn village. This ownership lasted until 1540 when Henry VIII, despite his title as Protector of the Order of St John, appropriated and sold the manor to William Burnell, whose descendants still live at Winkburn Hall.
With so much land, the Hospitallers developed an efficient provincial government. Each manor was known as a commandery, usually one per shire, run from the Province HQ, the Priory at Clerkenwell, in London. Some commanderies, such as Winkburn, were known as camerae, or estates in the personal possession of a high official but held in absentia and administered by an agent (possibly Rufford Abbey in this case). The commanderies were under the control of the Prior and above him was the Grand Master.
The Grand Master was based in Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187, when Jerusalem was taken by Saladin. From there the base moved to Acre, on the Mediterranean coast, which was lost in 1291. Later HQs were in Cyprus (1291-1309), Rhodes (1309-1523) and, finally, Malta (1523-1798). In the nineteenth century, the Order was revived in England as a medical charity and an Order of Chivalry under the British Crown – The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Revivals also occurred in Malta, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary, France and Switzerland.
Maplebeck and Winkburn therefore have an honourable lineage, with historical links which can perhaps be imagined when contemplating the largely unchanged Norman architecture of Winkburn’s church of St John of Jerusalem.
Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St John, by Jonathan Riley-Smith, published by The Hambledon Press, 1999. Copy held in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
The image of the Grand Master is from a Guillaume Caoursin illuminated manuscript – Gestorum Rhodie obsidionis commentarii (A Commentary on the Siege of Rhodes) – in the Biblioteque National, Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The history of the churches is included in the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project.