The history of the Knights Hospitaller in Oxfordshire

18:00 11 March 2022

A tale of love and loss in medieval times that takes us from Quenington to Oxford and back again

It is a journey from Quenington to Oxford, and going back in time to the early 14th century, the last days of the Knights Templar, and also to the fertile imagination of Lechlade’s local schoolteacher and historian of 19th century Adin Williams and a painful tale of love, enchantment and betrayal.

The 14th century entrance to the Commandery of the Knights Hospitaller at Quenington
– Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis

In Quenington today, approaching the church on Church Road, you can see a huge medieval gate, which was once the entrance to the Commandery of the Knights Hospitaller. “Hospital Knights!” we hear you cry. “You promised the Templars! Much more glamorous with the Holy Grail and all that! Well, it’s complicated, and it’s no surprise that Adin Williams misunderstood what was going on. The Hospitallers, another medieval military religious order, had had a commandery in Quenington since the 12th century, but the Knights Templar had command of the adjacent church. But why let that get in the way of a good story? Such concerns would not have troubled Williams, whose use of facts was rather elastic in her verse novels and – unfortunately for her career – in her teaching as well.

It tells how in 1305, after the fall of Jerusalem, a knight, Sir Aldred, returned from the Holy Land to take up a new life in Quenington, helping to manage all the estates the Templars owned in the Cotswolds. His tutor sent him to meet the neighbours, and while at nearby Hatherop Castle, northeast of Quenington, he met the beautiful daughter of the house, Mira. It was love at first sight. But he swore celibacy! You can be sure tragedy was waiting. But not quite as one might expect. The tutor knew that the order of the Templars was at the end of its rope. He hoped that the young knight would soon be free to marry the young woman. But such was not the case. Because she fell ill, a persistent illness that got a little worse every day.

Sir Aldred was desperate. He knew he would do anything for his wife. The preceptor, seeing his desperation, wrote letters to all the other commanderies and barns asking for help. Finally, a letter came with news of a miracle cure. Just 30 miles away, on the outskirts of Oxford, there was a holy well dedicated to St Winifred and St Margaret, which the writer said would cure all ills. Sir Aldred wasted no time. He saddled his horse and rode off into the night.

Akeman Street, a lost Roman road in the Cotswolds

Akeman Street, a lost Roman road
– Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis

The road he had to take to get to Oxford took much the same route as the current A40. But first he had to do it. Quenington is not far from an ancient Roman road, Akeman Street, which once linked St Albans with Cirencester and crossed the A40 between Minster Lovell and Witney. Sir Aldred rode his horse across the Coln, through the woods of the Hatherop estate, now a school, past the home of his beloved, and down the long straight road north-east, to Oxford and his miracle. If you look at the map, you can trace Akeman Street from the side road by Eastleach Folly, to the Cavalier Road, to follow and back to the road, sometimes passable, sometimes not; a lost road, but a road that Sir Aldred could travel in the 14th century.

Tangled forest just off Akeman Street in the Cotswolds

Tangled forest just off Akeman Street
– Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis

Along this road today there are only scraps of wood, but back then there were many more. In the darkness, Sir Aldred’s horse left the path in the trees. Horse and rider moved further and further away from the road until they were in a tangled wild wood. And from the darkness among the trees came creatures of nightmare, to taunt, hurt, seduce. A frighteningly beautiful woman with evil in her eyes begged the knight to love her. Sir Aldred’s heart was true, he drew his sword, he spoke the name of Christ, and on his horse he fled, the demons of hell hissing and howling behind him. He did not stop when he reached the Oxford road; he rode all night, until at last he reached the ford below Eynsham at Swinford and crossed the Thames there. He could see in the dim light of dawn the spiers and rooftops of Oxford lined up inside the city walls.

The tower of oxford castle from the new road outside the castle

The tower of Oxford Castle
– Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

He entered the town through the west gate on Botley Road, near the castle, then through the town center and out the east gate onto the High Street. Then he skirted the walls to the parish of Holywell, where the Church of the Holy Cross still stands. He slid off his exhausted horse and looked around. There was a little village lawn, in front of the church, squat and wide, and next to it the manor. The holy well of St Winifred and St Margaret lay between the two. The mansion you see today was rebuilt in the 15th century by Merton College, which has owned much of the parish since the late 13th century. Today Holywell Manor and the well on its grounds are owned by Balliol College, but the place has been a bathhouse, and also a penitentiary for so-called ‘fallen women’. The well was rediscovered when the penitentiary was converted into a university building in the 1930s and now sits secluded in the arts and crafts inspired gardens.

Holywell Manor, now part of Bailliol College, Oxford

Holywell Manor, now part of Bailliol College, Oxford
– Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis

The well keeper filled Sir Aldred’s bottle of holy water and sent him away. The knight returned as quickly as he had come. In the daylight he kept the road safe. Night had just fallen when he arrived at Hatherop Castle. There he watched his beloved Mira drink the holy water. But his journey had been in vain. Mira died that night, and Sir Aldred’s heart and mind shattered to pieces. He dreamed that the woman from the nightmare came back to him and told him that she had poisoned the bottle and that it was therefore he who had killed his beloved. In such desperation, he did not survive her long. He was buried in Quenington Cemetery. You will search in vain for his tomb, or any tomb of a Templar or a Hospitaller. No tomb of such antiquity can be seen today. But the little Norman church of St Swithun’s is the one Sir Aldred would have known, with its Romanesque tympanums showing the Coronation of the Virgin to the south and the Harrowing of Hell to the north, both surrounded by beasts less beautiful than those seen by Aldred – but maybe a little less scary too!

Romanesque doorway on St Swinthun's Church, Quenington, with beast heads around the tympanum

Romanesque doorway on St Swinthun’s Church, Quenington, with beast heads around the tympanum
– Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis


Car park: On-road parking at Quenington and Holywell.
Toilets and snack bar: The arms of the keeper, Quenington. Many pubs and restaurants in Oxford.
Transport links: Quenington is not easily accessible by public transport. Holywell is within walking distance of Oxford city centre.
Map: OS Explorer 179: Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud; Oxford AZ pocket street map.


Holywell Manor:
Further reading: Gloucestershire Ghost Tales by Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis

Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson are Stroud-based storytellers and writers. Their books include Gloucestershire Folk Tales, Wiltshire folk tales, Gloucestershire Ghost Talesand their new book Gloucestershire folk tales for children. Kirsty is also curator of decorative and fine arts at the Wilson Art Gallery and Museum in Cheltenham. Anthony runs the small press Awen Publications.

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