'England's Last Templar' ? - The Priory Captive Mystery
Why was Knight Templar Stephen de Staplebrigge held in Christchurch until he died, decades after the Templar order was dissolved? Was he 'England's Last Templar'?  This [updated] page is now part of our Notes & Queries series exploring neglected aspects of regional history where there are still unresolved issues. (Sometimes there are no easy answers….) [Go to Notes & Queries Table Of Contents page]

Today, the standard explanation (reproduced in The Da Vinci Code) why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky is that it was on this date the Knights Templar were rounded up with papal authorisation in 1307, tortured into confessing heresy and blasphemy, their unrepentant leaders killed by various cruel means. There is a related alternative explanation to do with Judas being the 13th disciple and Christ being arrested on a Friday, setting up parallels with the Templars’ last leader, Jacques de Molay, as ‘the Second Messiah’, the argument being made that his torture consisted of being crucified to mock the fact he had said his Order could absolve sins. (Knight & Lomas’s 1998 The Second Messiah: Templars, The Turin Shroud And The Great Secret Of Freemasonry argues the Shroud is an artefact of this.)
      Books on the Templars tend to refer to Jacques de Molay as ‘the last Templar’, with at least two books of that title. The idea is the Order died with him when he was executed after 7 years captivity, in 1314. He had been kept alive for interrogation purposes, so that he could make a public endorsement of the confession he had made under torture, justifying the Order’s destruction at the hands of the French king, Philip the Fair. (Instead he retracted his confession, causing him to be at once roasted alive on Philip’s orders.)
Many other Templars of course did not last that long, the effects of torture shortening their lives. Others were left maimed or crippled, in no shape to carry on the Order in disguise. Some are recorded as having died from their mistreatment, such as the last head of the English order, who died in the Tower of London. Recent books insist some contingents escaped to fight at Bannockburn, but there’s no record of any named Templars doing so – the ‘survival hypothesis’ seems a back-formation to support the Roslyn-as-Templar-chapel scenario. Now, a case study in English local history has come up with a named and historically attested Templar who seems to have survived until around 1350, when he was buried in an unusual tomb.

A Shadowy Figure
This local-history case study revolves around Christchurch Priory. For those unfamiliar with it, it is one of England’s great churches, larger than some cathedrals. It is situated in the town named after it, on England’s south coast, at the western edge of the New Forest. It is officially England’s longest parish church, for it is in fact really a combination of three or four churches and up to nine early chapels. Its parish-church status was why Henry VIII spared it when ordering the destruction of other grand monastic establishments like Glastonbury Abbey in the Reformation of 1539. The present building is dated to 1094, but some local historians dispute this, arguing parts of it are Saxon. It was partly this ongoing controversy that led to the publicizing of the Templar connection.
      In 1994, when the Priory celebrated its official 900th anniversary, funds were made available for restoration work. Underneath the Priory are crypts containing some early stonework, and in 1996 the curator, E.R. Lax, noticed a tomb slab of Purbeck Marble (a local fossilized limestone used for expensive tombs) with an unusual design incised. This has been characterised as a cruciform design resembling a two-handed sword, topped by an elaborate pommel styled as a ‘Maltese Cross’ [see illustration, right]. This tomb-slab apparently fit a tomb found outside the south wall, the oldest corner of the Priory, where the monks were buried. Hollowed out of a block of Purbeck marble, this unmarked tomb was found during maintenance work in 1908. It contained a skeleton 6’ 3” tall, with broad shoulders. This, argued a local historian, was the grave of a "military man" rather than a cleric.
As to why a warrior would have be interred in the Monks’ Graveyard ... well, perhaps he had been both a warrior and a monk. There was of course a class of men at the time were both - the Templars. According to the town's Red House Museum, this 1908 find was of such interest a postcard was issued. No copies of this postcard survive, but the photograph used may be the one reproduced here.
      The tomb lid was removed from the crypt and placed in the Priory loft above the Lady Chapel, up a narrow staircase some say is haunted by a ghostly presence that brushes past them. The original purpose of this hidden loft room dedicated to St Michael is a mystery - it was evidently a chapel not open to the laity. It is now used as the Priory museum, and its archivist and curator, Ken Tullett and Ray Lax (both now deceased), used it to do research. One night in March 1995, the archivist had been working alone, contemplating the figure of a cowled monk (a mannequin) which stands in the corner when he heard a loud report above his head. (This is something not uncommon in descriptions of séances, characterised by spiritualists as someone breaking through the barrier between worlds).
He passed out, awakening to discover he had written a paragraph in French, a language he did not speak: “Mon nom est Stephen. J’etais né a Montreuil le 6m December, 1286….” The four child-like sentences were translated by a French-speaking cousin: “My name is Stephen. I was born in Montreuil on December 6th, 1286. I died at Thuinam aged 60. I was born at our family home.”
      Thuinam was the earlier, Norman-era name of Christchurch (from the Saxon Tweoxneam – “tween the waters”), before the town renamed itself after the Augustinian Priory, which had redesignated itself Christ’s Church Of Thuinam in honour of a local ‘Miraculous Visit’ legend. (The ‘Miraculous Beam’ Christ the carpenter supposedly recut during his helpful visit is still on view at the Priory.)
And there was a Stephen who fit the bill, about whom the archivist dreamt that night, surnamed de Stapelbrugge or Stapelbrigge. (The spellings of the surname vary between references.) His name had been found earlier in Priory records for the early 14th century as a Templar who had been kept at the Priory as a novitiate, as lifelong penance after the Order’s downfall, under supervision. One reference had appeared in a 1992 history of the Priory by Michael Stannard, author of the official guide to the Priory:

1319: Induction of Stephen de Stapelbrigge into Priory … ordered by John Sandale, Bishop of Winchester, with the authority of the Pope.”

An ex-Templar at the Priory, on the authority of the Pope, arriving twelve years after the Templars’ mass round-up? This is one of those intriguing references local historians sometimes come across when researching other matters, which reveal insights into the society of the time. In this case it would contradict some of the established ideas about the Templars – from the viewpoint of both the traditionalist and ‘alternative’ camps.
      The Priory’s archivist and curator had been jointly researching this ex-Templar since 1993 and had already attributed the tomb slab with the ‘Maltese Cross’ motif found in the crypt as de Stapelbrigge’s. (The caption to the Priory webpage photo, since removed, read, “thought to be the tomb slab of Stephen de Stapelbrugge, a Knight Templar.”)
The Templars did not officially use the Maltese Cross in their heraldry, but at the time were a banished order, whose possessions were largely taken over by the Knights Hospitaller, alias the Knights Of Malta, who did use the Maltese Cross. (There had been a post-Crusades, pre-1307 plan to merge the Templars and Hospitallers into one Order.) This ‘Maltese Cross’ identification is problematic but may be a red herring anyway. The photos of the tomb in the Priory museum show the outside of each arm of the cross is not notched as it should be in a Maltese Cross, but convex – rounded outward. The tips of the four arms stretch out to form a near-circle and it seems more like an adaptation into a circular Celtic-Cross design of the cross pattée adopted by the Templars, which in some versions can be seen with rounded outer edges, “in the shape of arcs of an enclosing circle.”
      After discussing his ‘psychic intervention’ experience (as he called it) with several people (it was at this point I first heard of the matter), the archivist decided not to pursue any further experiments in automatic writing. He evidently found it disturbing, and may have been aware of the case where Glastonbury Abbey archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond lost his position after admitting in his book The Gate Of Remembrance he had used monkish automatic writing to locate ruins. Instead, Ken continued to research Stephen de Stapelbrugge in the existing historical record. He consulted church records including Templar trial transcripts, conducted correspondence with other archivists, and wrote up a set of notes and queries, describing the ex-Templar as “a very shadowy figure indeed.”

The “Sword On The Stone” Affair
The mystery became more public in 2000-1, when photos of another tomb slab, this one apparently with a double-handed sword and fleur-de-lys design incised on it, appeared in the local press. The Priory crypts were filled with discarded stonework, and during a recent restoration, the Priory had sold off some old ‘scrap’ stone to a local stone reclamation yard called Oldways in 2000. This discarding of Priory stonework from the crypts is a touchy matter locally, for there is a theory the existing Priory was built around a Saxon priory or minster church and its various chapels, and that the crypts are actually part of the old Saxon church. There had been an earlier press coverage of the controversy over the Priory's "lost" Saxon heritage in 1998, when the Priory bookstall had refused to sell booklets about this, though written by a Priory volunteer guide who was an architect and surveyor.
      In 2001, another local historian (and also a former mayor of Christchurch) visiting the salvage yard to buy stonework for his garden noticed several slabs of stone were parts of a grave-slab or tomb cover. The Diocese was notified the Priory was selling off materiel from consecrated graves. The stoneyard owner (another ex-mayor of Christchurch) received solicitor’s letters demanding the return of the slab they had sold him. He refused, selling the slab to a local doctor, who also refused to return it, saying he would bequeath it to the Priory on his death.
The story had gone public by this time, with coverage in the local press including a photo showing the stoneyard owner with the disputed tomb slab [scan of press item, right]. The stone salvage yard was itself sold or closed soon afterwards. In the press photos, a sword tip was clearly visible, though the pommel and hilt oddly appear to have different designs – one being apparently a cross bottony (a symbol of the Trinity) and the other the cross pattée (sometimes seen in films and paintings depicting Knights Templar – see illustration).
      The press coverage soon extended to the argument over whose grave this could be, for again, there was no name or other writing on the slab. The local historian who recognised the stone as a graveslab said, given its size and sword motif, it was more likely that of a warrior - probably Stephen de Staplebrigg. The Priory Archivist suggested it may have been the tomb of the hated Norman keeper of Christchurch Castle, Walter de Pinckney, who was cut down in the Priory precincts by enraged townspeople. He disputed this new find was the grave-slab of ex-Templar Stephen de Staplebrigg, saying they already had his tomb-slab in the Priory Museum. He argued in the local press the decorations on this Museum tomb of “a sword, surmounted by a Maltese Cross” were “both fairly common embellishments for Templar graves.” He pointed out the identification had been accepted by Dr. Malcolm Barber, “this country’s leading authority on the Templars” (author of a 1978 book on the French Templar trials) and a colleague from the Mediaeval History Department of Reading University. “They saw no reason to doubt that this slab had probably covered the last resting place of Stephen de Stapelbrigge.”
      The next development came in a book by Andrew Collins, who along with Graham Philips, had in the late 1970s launched the notion of ‘psychic questing’ – a combination of prophetic dreams, visions, dowsing, and local research. His 2004 book 21st Century Grail: The Quest For A Legend opens with a friend’s 2001 dream where he is in a cavern and is introduced, by the occultist Aleister Crowley, to a Templar Knight called … Stephen de Staplebrigge. (Surprised by the "lexi-link," I emailed the author soon after the book came out and he confirmed he had been in touch with the Priory archivist, but had not known of his automatic writing experience.) Andrew’s theory was that de Stapelbrigge had been involved, post-1307, in hiding sacred relics from the church, in particular the idol the Templars called Baphomet.
      There was a connection to the local area here. In 1945, a mediaeval painted-wood representation of a type of bearded head, an image some have interpreted as Baphomet, was found at Templecombe, whose name derives from the fact the Templars had a Preceptory there. (A Channel 4 Time Team dig at Templecombe in 1996 was inconclusive as the team discovered too late they were digging at the wrong spot.) Ken Tullett, the Priory Archivist who had set out to find the real Stephen de Staplebrigge behind the dreams, researched Stephen’s surname. This was thought to be mediaeval French for ‘of Stalbridge’ - the former market town in north Dorset a few miles from Templecombe. There were various men with the same surname in the church around that time, including rectors of Stalbridge and leading churchmen at Sherborne and Salisbury. Having relatives like this would have helped young Stephen gain entry into an order that took monkish vows. (Templar membership was restricted: an initiate’s father and grandfather had to have been of knightly class, and the father actually a member of the order - presumably as a Knight).
      But Stephen’s ‘psychic’ statement to Ken said he was born in France, and Ken’s dream that night had his mother named Angelique de Tournai and father named Richard de Montreuil. There are several places across the Channel named Tournai and over twenty around France with the name Montreuil, and Ken was unable to pinpoint them via correspondence with French state archivists (as far as I can tell from perusing their replies – my French being rather shaky).
An obvious contender for his mother’s home town of Tournai(s) is the town after which the French-speaking area of Belgian Flanders was named, for Flanders and England had major cross-Channel trade links to do with the cloth industry. (Philip the Fair of Franch took over this trade after he went to war with Flanders.) ‘Stapelberg’ is a surviving Saxon place name, thought to derive from ‘Stapelburg,’ from Middle English and Middle Dutch roots, which would refer to a burgh or town licensed to sell imported staple goods (such as cloth).
We can elaborate our hypothesis further to link it with Stephen’s claimed home town of Montreuil. A Montreuil not far away from Flanders was well known in the Middle Ages as a pilgrim destination - Montreuil Abbey. This was an extensive Cistercian nunnery (some claimed it was the first such) east of Dieppe, whose 100-plus nuns originally “busied themselves … in weaving and embroidery” (Catholic Encyclopaedia).
From 1249 onward, it gained fame and wealth as it drew pilgrims to see a sacred relic, the "Sainte Face." This was a ‘Veil of Veronica’ image of Christ imprinted on a cloth (similar to the Turin Shroud but showing only the head) inscribed with an indecipherable motto. (Whether this was the same image as in the panel painting found at Templecombe is impossible to say now, for while the Templecombe image survives in the church, the Montreuil veil vanished in the French Revolution.)
      If Stephen really did have a different surname from either parent, this would be odd, and it’s being suggested by another local historian he may have been illegitimate, perhaps had his paternity disputed, and so took another name. Could his father have been a Cistercian monk at Montreuil Abbey? Monks sometimes were allowed to have common-law wives. (After the Templar Order was dissolved, the Pope was infuriated to learn many English Templars had taken wives on the grounds their monkish vows were null and void. He ordered the men sent to monasteries and the women sent away, as concubines.) Ken also discovered from records de Stapelbrigge may also have used another surname, de Radenache (perhaps while he was on the run).
      As far as the Dorset Stalbridge connection goes, this was based on the premise that [a] his surname could be an old version of the name of a village which was [b] near a Templar site (Templecombe), [c] in an area where he had churchmen relatives, [d] he was twice arrested not far away at Salisbury as if returning home, and that [e] he was later committed to serve his sentence at a Priory in the region, perhaps by choice. But English Templar trial records showed that Stephen de Staplebrigge was received into the Templar Order not at Templecombe near Stalbridge, but at Keele in the West Midlands, on August 15th, 1295 (Feast Of The Assumption Of The Virgin) by the Grand Preceptor of England. He was inducted again, in 1297, by the Master Of The Templars in England, at Lydele, Shropshire (now Lydley Heyes, Salop). This double initiation is puzzling, though an explanation would emerge at Stephen's trial - of which more later.
      What is odder is that he seems to have been a child on both occasions. The Cistercian Order on which the Templar Rule was firmly based did not permit this - a boy was not be admitted “until such time as he is able to bear arms with vigour, and rid the land of the enemies of Jesus Christ.” An explanation may lie in the fact that not all Templars were Knights. Some were “Serving Brothers,” helping look after the Templars’ estates, and older boys could have been used here in menial roles. In a church letter, Stephen is described as ‘Stephenum de Stapelbrigge fratrum Ordinis, quondam millicie’. Ken Tullett says this means Stephen was "of the knightly class, being described as millicie (Knight)". Nevertheless, millicie is an old French word, not the standard Latin word for a Knight. This is miles, militis which originally meant any professional, veteran soldier or "military man". (In native British tradition, the quasi-historical Arthur is not referred to as a king: accounts in Latin style him a miles.) Stephen may have been the other type of Templar warrior, the serjeant-at-arms who fought on horseback like a knight but was not of noble birth, like a capital-K Knight, i.e. he was not Sir Stephen. This would make sense if Roman Latin did not have a separate word for a mounted, armoured warrior who was not a knight, and so a mediaeval French "spin-off" word had to be used within the Latin.
      I came across the phrase 'fratrum Ordinis quondam millicie' in a sentence Priory archivist Ken Tullett quoted in a 2003 article he wrote for the parish news. This reads, "Prior et Conventu Ecclesia Christi de Twynham ... auctoriate letterarum Apostolicarum ... vos hortamur inducismus et monemus quatinus Stephenum de Stapelbrigge Fratrum Ordinis quondam millicie....". My schoolboy Latin is not up to a full translation here, but it appeared to be from the letter sent to the Priory on papal authority, that under their existing obligations, they are to induct and instruct Stephen. I thought the words 'fratrum Ordinis' could mean he was a brother of the Templar Order, with the word Templar presumably omitted as it had appeared earlier in the letter. It could mean he was to be a brother in the Priory’s Augustinian Order, but quondam suggested the past, for it means onetime, formerly. (The word may be familiar from the end of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, in the famous line about the once and future king - rex quondam, rex futurus.)
      The final two words quondam millicie seemed misplaced however, and after a while I realised I had misconstrued the entire phrase. In languages like Latin, nouns have different case endings for singular and plural which also depend on its relation to verb in the sentence - as its subject, object etc. I had assumed the -um ending was a simple accusative singular like Stephanum etc. But frater is not a simple 1st-declension noun, and the accusative singular is -em (fratrem) while -um is a 3rd-declension genitive plural. So 'fratrum Ordinis quondam millicie' would mean 'of the Brothers Of The Order [who were] onetime warriors.' It seems likely now millicie is not a reference to a rank within the Order, but was a general term for those military-Christian orders like the Templars who fought in furtherance of holy vows, on crusades etc. Nevertheless, Stephen would describe himself at his trial as ‘Brother Stephen de Stapelbrugge, of the order of the chivalry of the Temple.’ This is of interest as the word chivalry, from French chevalerie, literally just “cavalry”, but later referring to the code of the mounted knight, was not part of the proper name of the Templar Order.
      We still know nothing of his pre-1307 Templar career, the next record being of his arrest by the King’s bailiffs in Salisbury in 1311, after 3-4 years on the run attending (he confessed later) to the Order’s business. According to a 1909 article in The English Historical Review, “The Trial Of The Knights Templars In England” by Clarence Perkins, “About 10 June 1311 Stephen de Stapelbrigge was arrested, and admitted that he was a member of the order.” Taken to London, he was interrogated regarding eighty-seven different offences – which implies he was involved, or thought to be involved in, many aspects of Templar life. Whether torture was used is not known. It’s said King Edward II needed the Pope’s support in his Scots wars, and the Scots had been excommunicated, isolating them - though they won independence anyway, at Bannockburn in 1314. When Edward had written the Pope saying torture was not an option in England as it lacked professional torturers, the Pope sent a team of ten professionals under two Dominican friars to extract confessions. (Ironically, Edward himself would die at the wrong end of a red-hot poker, after being deposed by his wife, Isabella the ‘She-Wolf of France’ daughter of the anti-Templar French king, after Edward abandoned her for a favourite boyfriend.)
      Luckily for Stephen, by the time he was caught Edward and the Pope had reached a compromise political solution that all English Templar prisoners had to do was admit their Order was heretical and they would be sent to live the rest of their days under the supervision of the church as novices, in furtherance of their monkish Templar vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. In Newgate Gaol, Stephen confessed before two bishops, making a written deposition in his native French (‘in lingua videlicet Gallicana’), which survived to be used in histories of the English Templar trials. Sent to an Augustinian establishment in Surrey, Stephen escaped in 1313, together with another Templar.
      He was recaptured, again at Salisbury, retried, and put back into gaol for five years. This was the fate of other Templars who would not “co-operate” (as we would say today) by providing evidence the prosecutors wanted. (When he refused to confess, the last English Master of The Temple, William de la More, was kept in the Tower of London until he died.) Some sources claim James or Jacques de Molay "spent a great deal of time in Britain" and was England’s Grand Preceptor before becoming the order’s last Grand Master. If this claim is true, the young Stephen may have just missed being inducted by him - which would have made him a key prosecution witness, and his treatment by the church inquisitors would have been no doubt much more ruthless. As it was, he was inducted in 1297 by England’s Master of The Temple Brian de Jay, and there was no need for Stephen to help convict him either: de Jay was killed fighting the Scots in 1298, legend has it by William Wallace personally.
      Since Stephen had already been released from gaol (to a monastery) after confessing about his pre-1307 experience, we can surmise the inquisitors wanted to know about the Templars’ underground lifeline of safe houses he would have used during his 1313 escape. (Warrants were not issued against low-level members, who were free to return to ordinary life.)
This would be an issue of political interest, for it implied the Templars continued to exist, as an underground organisation - a dispute that still goes one today. Evidently Stephen would say nothing, for he remained in gaol. We have no details here but can compare the case of another Templar, Brother Himbert Blanke. “After having been tortured and half-starved in the English prisons for the space of five years, he was condemned, as he would make no confession of guilt, to be shut up in a loathsome dungeon, to be loaded with double chains, and to be occasionally visited by the agents of the inquisition, to see if he would confess nothing further! In this miserable situation he remained until death at last put an end to his sufferings.”
      Again, Stephen was fortunate, in that he survived in gaol until his release to a monastery was ordered under a general papal directive given by a new pope. (The Pope who had authorised the Templars’ arrest, Clement V, had died in 1314, soon after Philip The Fair tried to have him ‘arrested’ too.) Clement hadn’t been convinced of the Templars’ guilt, but felt the Order’s name had been irreparably damaged, and abolished the Templar Order in 1312.
The formalities of its winding-up were not completed until 1318, after 6 years of legalistic wrangling over the disposition of Templar assets. Just as the French king had demanded reimbursement for the cost of the French Templar trials and imprisonments, the England king Edward wanted a share to pay for his Scots wars, while the Pope proposed the Templar estates go to the Templars' designated successors, the Knights Hospitallers or Knights Of Malta.
In 1318, the new Pope, John XXII, ordered any surviving Templars not already sentenced be inducted as novices in a monastic order of their choice. A. J. Forey’s “Ex-Templars In England” in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2002), says that “In 1318 John XXII instructed that Templars should enter a religious house of their choice, either as brothers or lodgers. His decree was occasioned by the situation in other countries, but was implemented in England, and some Templars transferred to other religious houses, although opposition was again expressed by monasteries."
      This indicates the last surviving ex-prisoners had some say in their destination. As mentioned, Stephen apparently had relatives in local dioceses. There was Hugh de Stapelbridge, Abbot of Sherborne until 1322, and a Gilbert de Stapelbridge who was a Canon of Salisbury until 1330. It would certainly have made sense to choose a jurisdiction where he had churchmen relatives to forestall mistreatment, for many ex-Templars were forced to beg when their stipends were not paid for long periods. Forey adds, “the payment of pensions assigned to Templars caused longer-lasting problems: the crown and later the Hospitallers frequently defaulted in making payment from former Templar revenues.”

Last Days
Thus Stephen was released from gaol and sent to Christchurch Priory. In November 1319 he was ordained as an Augustinian novitiate. The author of the official Illustrated Guide To Christchurch Priory describes him as “an ex-Templar who received the first tonsure and seems to have been under supervision.” (The tonsure was the monastic “pudding bowl” haircut included in the basic initiation rite – see picture.) The Hampshire County History puts it thus: “the priory was ordered by the bishop to receive Stephen de Stapelbrugge, a brother of the late order of the Temple, in his first tonsure.”
      This "first tonsure" reference is slightly odd, as he had already spent two years at an Augustinian priory, in Surrey: he must not have been enrolled as a brother there, but kept as a lodger. At the time, the King had the right called corrody, to impose a non-paying lodger or corrodian on monasteries he ‘sponsored’. A corrodian received room and board, with a clothing allowance provided. If Stephen were a lodger rather than a novice, his escape from there in 1313 would make more sense, for to flee after taking vows as a novice would constitute a new offence under church law, and Templars who confessed had agreed that, if they did not remain true to the church thereafter, to be treated as relapsed perjured heretics – which in practice often meant a slow death by fire.
On the other hand, monasteries hated having non-paying lodgers imposed them, and would scarcely raise a hue and cry if one were to vanish in the night. Another factor may be that his own final sentence depended on his further testimony as what today we would call a prosecution witness, against other Templars against whom charges were still to be brought. Only then would he be pensioned off to the cloistered life. The second option, of being a monastic ‘lodger’, would not likely be available to Stephen in 1318, due to his previously absconding from another Augustinian monastery. Nevertheless, the monastic life was not alien to the Templars. Despite any impression given by films about knights in armour, Templars normally lived a monkish ascetic life, not allowed even to wash, change clothes, or shave. (After 1307, having a beard was enough to get a man arrested, for it was normally the hallmark of a Templar.)
      There is another oddity about Stephen’s induction into the Augustinian order, for the record shows that he was inducted not at Christchurch but at Breamore, a village up the Avon Valley. Why there? Examination of the Breamore church guide indicates another Augustinian Priory once stood there, where he would have been received. While the largely Saxon parish church survives, a much-admired relic of its era (see photo), Breamore Priory has since vanished almost without trace. However it is known to have stood on the riverbank, a mile from the parish church, which stands next to the local manor house.
An explanation suggests itself here. Could it be the church authorities wanted the ex-Templar inducted out of the public gaze, at an out-of-the-way church? As mentioned, Christchurch-Twynham was several establishments in one, where the Priory (used by the monks for private services) was in the same building as the local parish church used by the public for secular meetings as well as services. (Their top-floor private ‘training’ chapel dedicated to St Michael, where the tomb slab is now kept, was not built till the 15th C.) But at Breamore, the Augustinians had access to another nearby Priory that was well out of sight of the local parish church. (A priory is a "collegiate" church, used for purposes of training, including monkish initiation.)
      At Christchurch Priory, the quondam Templar lived out the rest of his life, which seems to have lasted three to four decades after the Templars’ official end. A church record of pensions being paid has been interpreted by Ken Tullett that Stephen was still alive as late as 1338. The automatic-writing statement claims Stephen died age 60, in 1346. If his birthday was really December 6th, as his statement claimed, this would mean he died at the end of 1346, in the closing few weeks of the year, just before Christmas or New Year’s. The tomb cover that the Priory museum regards as his has been dated to circa 1350.

Here Lies … Who, Exactly?
Stephen would have been buried in the Priory grounds, in the Monks’ Graveyard on the south side of the church (traditionally reserved for the great and the good, all others being buried on the north side), where the tomb and skeleton thought to be his were found in 1908.
      We still have two rival candidates for his tomb cover – the one with the ‘Templar sword’ found in 2000 and the ‘Maltese Cross’ one found in 1996. (The matter of when and why a tomb and its cover would have been separated is another unsolved mystery.) The ‘Templar sword’ tomb has an obvious appeal, but where exactly this tomb cover came from is not clear. “The crypt" is the usual explanation, but this means little, for the crypts were used to store old stonework from around the site. They were used as a charnel house and when re-opened in the 19th C., were found to contain 1,590 bones, which were reinterred after counting in a communal grave outside. Putting a tomb cover in the crypt might make sense if it had insignia on its tomb cover which was controversial at the time. Templars did however get even more elaborate tombs with stone effigies atop them where they were notable knights, as in London’s Temple Church [pictured] seen in The Da Vinci Code. These highly-visible tombs were cared for by the Templars' successors, the Hospitallers or Knights Of Malta. (The visible damage to them, partly repaired, is from WWII bombing rather than anti-Templar religious zeal.) What happened to the tomb excavated in 1908, with its skeleton so well-preserved by its solid fossil-limestone tomb (see the 1908 photo) is not known.
      Both the tomb and skeleton excavated in 1908 and the tomb cover sold in 2001 are referred to as belonging to ‘giant’ figures, implying the latter belongs to the tomb excavated in 1908. The 1996 tomb cover has also been identified as matching the 1908 tomb, though the tomb cover in the Priory museum is, now at least, a blackish colour. This other candidate, with a ‘Maltese’ cross design, now in the Priory Museum, is the one found in 1996 by curator Ray Lax in the North Crypt, in pieces. He matched it to the tomb (i.e. stone coffin) found in 1908 against the outside wall by the South Choir Aisle. Just inside was where senior church personnel were interred. Again, this could suit Stephen’s ambiguous status, being buried just beyond the pale, so to speak.
      During the 2001 dispute over whose tomb cover this was, one opposing view was that it was unlikely a Templar would have been buried in the Priory under the insignia of a disgraced, officially heretical order. In fact, these insignia varied, there being no official heraldic standards then. And with an ex-Templar who became a cleric, one would expect not only discretion but a hybrid device on his tomb. The main design here was also described as a sword (with maltese-cross style handle), though the ‘sword’ has no tapering or tip [see photo], stretching straight to the edge, so that it may be meant as a cross. The near-circular ‘Maltese Cross’ device on the ‘sword pommel’ is more like the headpieces seen on a ceremonial church staff.
Nevertheless, the Maltese Cross was a symbol adopted in the Crusades, and used generally since to represent chivalric virtues (e.g. on Victoria Cross medals). It seems unlikely it was used by the Templars, given it was used by their main rival, with whom the church wanted them to merge. But it is broadly similar to the Templars’ own cross pattée, and is said to be often confused with it. Its 4 v-shaped arms [see image] form 8 points representing 8 Christian chivalric virtues: bravery, contempt for death, frankness, glory and honour, helpfulness towards the poor and the sick, loyalty, piety, and respect for the church.
      Almost all of these could reasonably be applied to ‘Brother Stephen’, who enrolled in a chivalric order set up to help pilgrims to the Holy Land, refused to give in to church intimidation, but as his trial records show, spoke out against practices he felt were wrong, underwent privation much of his life, spending the second half of his life performing humble duties at an establishment which also ran a hospital for people who had returned from the Holy Lands with leprosy. It is possible that, like other disgraced men, he found renewed respect by dedicating himself to good works.
Like the Hospitallers, the Templars had also nursed the sick, an offshoot of their original role of protecting the pilgrim routes. Leprosy was a disease picked up by pilgrims, crusaders and other travellers to the Holy Lands. Because it was near the Crusader port of Southampton, the Priory ran a Leper Hospital, with a hospice for isolation or terminal cases. Ernest Walls's The Salisbury Avon quotes respected mediaeval historian William of Malmesbury that the Priory was famed 'for its miracles in the cure of the sick.' Was Stephen given his somewhat unorthodox memorial because he kept true to the Templars’ original public ideals of helping others, so that he was, in that sense, the last Templar?
      In any case, after his twelve years in the Templars and another ten years as a fugitive or prisoner, he seems to have lasted another quarter-century at Christchurch. If so, he would have outlived three Priors of Christchurch. He would also have outlasted three Popes: Clement V, who had the Templars banned, his successor John XXII who sent him to Christchurch, and Benedict XII, who died in 1342. (Clement, Philip The Fair, and the Templars' last Grand Master Jacques de Molay had all died back in 1314.)
Stephen would not only have outlasted the king who had him arrested, but lived to see three successive king Edwards on the throne, and such national events as the start of The 100 Years War with France. He would have died just before siege ships returning from France to Weymouth and Southampton brought back the Black Death which wiped out a third of England’s population. In many history books, the year 1350 is used as the end of an era. This is in recognition of the fact the Black Death of 1348-9 wiped out so many of the population, that social and economic reform was seen as advisable. The plague was believed to be a divine punishment from God for the wickedness of the society of the time.

The Final Mystery
The unanswered question that remains is of course, were the Templars innocent or guilty as charged of blasphemous worship? There has long been a suspicion the answer is both yes and no. There is a 'conspiracy' theory regarding groups who use secret rites, that they have a public face and a private face, representing their outer circle and their inner circle. That is, the organisation has a “white” official order doing good works, and a secret elite “black” inner order which exists to wield power for its own sake, by illicit means. This is the most sensational charge levelled at the Freemasons (e.g. by Stephen Knight in The Brotherhood), that they have a secret inner circle called the Royal Arch, which most members know nothing of but must serve regardless.
      Today there are various rival neo-Templar “chivalric” orders, each claiming to be the Templars’ real successors. Historian Helen Nicholson in her 2004 Templar history The Knights Templar (which I used as a source of reference for this research) says many are just criminal fronts. Other authors have argued the real Templar-successor organisation was Freemasonry, which has a Templar ‘degree’ or rank as well as a spinoff youth order named after Jacques de Molay. Historian JJ Robinson in his 1989 Born In Blood argues the surviving brothers of the English Templars formed an underground network of safe houses called Frere maisons or “brother houses” to help one another, and that the hand-signs and other devices they used were the original basis of Freemasonry with its secret signs. If so, it would have been this network which Stephen refused to speak about when kept in gaol for questioning between 1313 and 1318.
      English Freemasonry itself officially denies this link, but does have a London branch, Quatuor Coronatorum, devoted to studying its possible historical origins. In 1907, their journal included a paper (since quoted in other sources) by a King’s Counsel, a barrister who had studied the trial records, E. J. Castle, “Proceedings Against The Templars, 1307-11.” Castle noted in reference to Stephen’s testimony:

"I would suggest that the real truth may be that the Knights were both innocent and guilty, that is to say, that a certain number were initiated into the secret doctrine of the Order whilst the majority remained throughout in ignorance. Thus according to the evidence of Stephen de Stapelbrugge, an English Knight, "there were two modes of reception, one lawful and good and the other contrary to the Faith." This would account for the fact that some of the accused declined to confess even under the greatest pressure. These may really have known nothing of the real doctrines of the Order, which were confided orally only to those whom the superiors regarded as unlikely to be revolted by them. Such have always been the methods of secret societies .....”

Stephen, it turns out, was what we would call today a whistleblower, on the matter of these double initiations, and "the secret doctrine of the Order.” This inner order was not called the Priory or Order Of Sion, as The Da Vinci Code and its sources would have it, but the Templi Secretum, the Secret Temple. Now we can see a reason for that double initiation. Stephen testified it was the inner order he was secretly received into the second time.
      Though largely ignored by scholars in favour of the more dramatic French trials, transcripts of English Templar trials survive in several mediaeval Latin manuscripts. One is in the Vatican Archives, another preserved in the British Library, and a third at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Around a quarter of the latter was published in 1737 in Acta Contra Templarios, compiled in a 2-volume compendium called Concilia Magnae Britanniae Et Hiberniae, by a German-born Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge, David Wilkins.
This became the source for later works which translated the Latin into English, such as Charles G. Addison’s 1842 The History Of The Knights Templar used here. (Addison’s book was the first source text listed on Dan Brown’s website, though the evidence of the novel suggests he didn’t use it!) This in turn was referenced in the influential Secret Societies And Subversive Movements by early right-wing conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster, who quotes Stephen's remark about inner and outer orders.
      The record shows that on June 23rd 1311, Stephen made a deposition from Newgate gaol before a body of high church officials. It was from this that we get his statement quoted above there were “two modes of profession in the order of the Temple, the one good and lawful, and the other contrary to the christian faith.” He deposed how at his second induction, into the inner order, the Magister Templi or Master of the Temple Brian de Jay told him, "It is necessary for you to deny that Jesus Christ is God and man, and to deny Mary, his mother, and to spit on the cross.” Two brothers brought in a cross and drew their swords. (At his trial he claimed he merely spat beside the cross, and spoke the required denial of Christ with his tongue but not with his heart.)
He was told that the inner order did not accept the sacrament, but the Master could give absolution of sins, and that homosexuality was not forbidden. He added that an idol of a head, called Baphomet, was then brought out for them to kiss while the brothers shouted 'Yah Allah'. Then the new brother was led to the library to learn things that had to be hidden from the Order’s own ecclesiastics [emphasis mine].
      It’s been suggested the Templars picked up Eastern, Islamic beliefs during the Crusades, where acted as interpreters. For example, another Templar, Brother Thomas Tocci de Thoroldeby, declared at the same trial “that he had heard Brian le Jay, the Master of the Temple at London, say a hundred times over, that Jesus Christ was not the true God, but a man, and that the smallest hair out of the beard of one Saracen was of more worth than the whole body of any Christian.” Stephen blamed the creation of the Templi Secretum on a former Master of the English Temple, Roncelin de Fos. Other authors also credit de Fos with creating a ‘Gnostic’ inner Templar order.
      The speculative theory is that in his youth de Fos had witnessed the Church’s massacring of the Cathars of southern France, where he became a high-ranking Templar, ultimately Master of Provence; later he came across evidence in the mideast that the doctrine of Christ’s divinity was contrary to early documents. (The Koran for instance contradicts the orthodox account that Jesus was crucified.) One ‘take’ on this scenario is that de Fos injected Cathar ‘Gnostic’ beliefs into the Order. But the Cathars’ ascetic beliefs as documented don’t seem to fit this scenario.
And around the same time a Papal crusade was first organised to suppress the Cathars as heretics, the Pope had admonished the Templars for necromancy, the ancient art of ‘bone-conjuring’ to summon the spirits of the dead to predict fortunes (presumably with ‘oracular’ skulls, an ancient practice). This suggests the Templars were practicing “dark arts” as early as 1208, whereas Stephen’s blaming de Fos implies the dark inner order took hold in the 1250s, at least in England. Overall, this scenario completely contradicts The Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory that the inner ‘Priory of Sion’ order came first, and the official Templar order was just a power base and front for secret heretical activities.
      Regarding the identity of the mysterious idol of a head called Baphomet, some have argued Baphomet was just Old French for Mohammed, the words being vaguely similar. But having an idol representing the Prophet Mohammed would have brought down the wrath of the entire Islamic world on the Templars, for Islam forbad any worship of idols. If it had come out, the Templars’ key position in mideast politics would have become untenable.
Bible scholar Dr Hugh Schoenfield argued instead they were using a simple, biblical-era letter-transposition code called the Atbash Cipher to conceal the true meaning of ‘baphomet’ from outsiders, the deciphered version being demonstrably (wait for it, Da Vinci Code fans) - Sophia, Greek for Wisdom. (The only actual Templar idol the church ever found was a woman's head made of silver, mysteriously marked “No. 58” – whether this meant part of a series or was itself a numeric cipher is unclear.)
      This would make sense in the light of the next step, taking the initiate to a library to show them books that had to be hidden from the Templar order's own chaplains etc. Historians say that normally, the Templars preferred illiterate recruits as they were easier led – whereas men who could read were potential troublemakers. Presumably the illiterate initiates were led into the preceptory’s library and simply shown books, with significant excerpts read aloud to them, rather like the scene in The Da Vinci Code where Teabing indoctrinates Sophie into ‘Gnostic’ ideas in his library.
      On June 27th, Stephen, with another Templar in a similar situation, repeated his confession of four days previously, on bended knee before the Archbishop Of Canterbury and the ecclesiastical council at the Bishop of London’s Palace. "I, brother Stephen de Stapelbrugge, of the order of the chivalry of the Temple, do solemnly confess…" Then, for public consumption before an invited body of Londoners on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he had to not only repeat this, but to endorse it as true. (If he had publicly repudiated his confession, as Jacques de Molay had under similar circumstances, he might have met the same fate.)
After that, he made his mark with a cross (being illiterate) on the record of the abjuration. He agreed to be treated as a ‘perjured relapsed heretic’ and disposed of without trial if he ever deviated from the true faith again. The Archbishop Of Canterbury, attended by two bishops and twelve priests, then absolved him from excommunication, and received him back into the church. Other Templars were also brought out of captivity in the Tower of London to St Paul’s, though many older men were by now unable to walk, before being dispersed singly to various monasteries as novice penitents. Addison’s account notes, “Thus terminated the proceedings against the order of the Temple in England.” But it was not the last we would hear of Stephen.
      We have a few more details courtesy of Andrew Collins, who as a followup to his 2004 book 21st Century Grail, has put some testimony online which obviously does not come entirely from trial transcripts. According to this, from 1307 until his arrest in 1311, Stephen was sheltered along with other fugitives, travelling by night and resting up by day, attending to the Order’s business. ‘During this time, the bretheren's duties were manifold, and ever did they think that the Magister Templi, Jacques de Molay, and the fallen brothers in France, would be absolved of the evil crimes levelled against them, and that their full dignity would be restored.’ It was while attending to business at New Sarum (Salisbury) the King’s officers seized him and took him to Newgate Gaol, from where he was handed over to the Pope’s inquisitors.
      After two years, he was sent to an Augustinian priory in Surrey. But after he heard the Pope had dissolved the Templar Order, he escaped, “in the knowledge that his fellow brethren still convened in secret to exact the duties of Our Lord God and the Blessed Saints, and to make plans for a new order to continue the ideals of the old.” Eventually he was recaptured by the Salisbury bailiffs and carted back to London. He was brought before an ecclesiastical court of 15 Bishops who wanted to know more about the Templi Secretum (which at this stage would represent the threat of the inner order’s supposed secret continuance). But, even though he was kept in filthy conditions in gaol for another five years, he did not testify further. Finally, in 1319, he was sent to Christchurch, to live out his days as a novice monk “until his life became lost in the mists of time, and no more was known of him until he was awoken from his slumber in the year of Our Lord 2001 by those who now search for the relics of the Order….
      The search, of course, continues.  §

Christchurch Priory

Christchurch Priory
: Here lies England’s last Templar?



Christchurch Priory, showing old stonework

Christchurch Priory is a fine example of mediaeval architecture, there is controversy about older parts of it being walled in or covered over.


Christchurch Priory "masonic" tomb
Christchurch Priory "masonic" tomb [note central panel], kept concealed behind a sign in the oldest part of the church where the monks are buried. (Later, when there was no more floor-space, the wealthy could arrange to have their tombs put on top of older burials.) The skull and crossed bones were also associated with the Templars, who were admonished by the Pope in 1208 for necromancy or fortune-telling using bones. The assocation with the familiar pirate "Jolly Roger" flag is explained by some as demonstrating how some Templars fled the 1307 papal purge to become sea-rovers.



Newspaper story re tomb-slab

The original 2001 press story which first drew public attention to the 'Templar' grave finds. A follow-up story was punningly captioned "Rubble Barney."


Museum photo of 1906 grave find
This photo, from the local Red House Museum, is catalogued: "The discovery of a Purbeck Marble coffin S of the S Chancel Aisle in the grounds of the Priory on 8th May 1908. Skeleton 6'3" , coffin 7' , width 2'4" at head and 1'3" at foot . Estimated 13th century." Its large size has led to speculation it was the grave of a warrior rather than a cleric, but as the tomb was in the Monks' Graveyard, this implies a monk. A prominent class of warrior monks had been abolished by papal decree a generation before: the Templars. Could this be the grave of a Templar, perhaps England's last?


Tomb cover attributed to "Stephen de Stapelbrigge, Templar"
The tomb cover attributed to "Stephen de Stapelbrigge, Templar" in the Priory's loft museum.


Last Templar Grand Master
A painting of the Templars' last Grand Master Jacques de Molay, wearing the "Templar cross", the cross pattée. Note how the ends are notched so that they start to resemble the Maltese cross [pictured below] used by the Templars' successors, the Knights Hospitaller or Knights of Malta.




The 8-armed Maltese cross

The insignia of the Knights Hospitaller or Knights of Malta, the 8-armed Maltese cross, representing the 8 chivalric virtues: bravery, contempt of death, frankness, glory and honour, helpfulness towards the poor and the sick, loyalty, piety, and respect for the church..




The fleur-de-lys

The fleur-de-lys was a heraldic motif of the French aristocracy but incorporated into the English royal arms by royalty and nobles who were descended from Norman knights and who still claimed parts of France.



Execution of the last Templar Grand Master in 1314






A painting of the execution of the last Templar Grand Master in 1314. The reality was more gruesome: he was cooked alive slowly over a charcoal grill to prolong his agony as long as possible.



The Priory viewed from the northern end.


21st Century Grail: The Quest For A Legend

Andrew Collins was the first non-local researcher to investigate the Stephen de Stapelbrigg case.




Torture wheel




Confessions were obtained from the Templars by torture. The least of these was chaining prisoners in uncomfortable positions.




Breamore Church
Breamore Church: Breamore Priory where Stephen was given the “first tonsure” was destroyed in the Reformation, but its three stone coffins were relocated here to the churchyard. The church is regarded as the finest survival of an Anglo-Saxon church in southern England.



Receiving the first tonsure
Above: an initiate receiving "the first tonsure". The monastic tonsure was the distinctive 'pudding bowl' haircut, where parts of the head were shaved as well as the face. This woodcut image is obviously from an earlier era, as the only men who wore beards around 1307 were the Templars.



Monks with the monastic tonsure





Temple Church, London
Temple Church, London, the Templars' central church.



Templar effigies in Temple Church, London

Effigies of Templar Knights in London's Temple Church (seen in The Da Vinci Code).




Templar effigy
A drawing of one of the effigies in Temple Church, London. Note the sword design on the apex of the tomb cover.


The Priory graveyard


The Priory graveyard, where people have reported such ghostly sights as a procession of monks bearing a body for burial.

Priory Museum tomb cover dated to c1350
Priory Museum tomb cover dated to c1350


Closeup of the tomb with skeleton found in 1908
The last resting place of a Templar? Two views of the unmarked tomb found at Christchurch Priory during excavations in the Priory churchyard in 1908, which is thought to match the tomb cover in the Priory Museum attributed as de Staplebrigge's.

Another closeup of the tomb with skeleton found in 1908









Priory Ceiling

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