Heading towards the location of our weekend workshop, we had found a route south that avoided the inevitable delays around Stonehenge. Traffic passing the great circle is always slow, although it does give you a chance to see the stones, but with the summer solstice so close, there was every chance that the road would be even busier than usual and we had no time to be caught in traffic jams.
Apart from the irresistible lure of freshly picked strawberries and cherries on sale in every layby, we were not planning on stopping until we were much closer to our destination, and even managed to resist Avebury… but only because we knew we would be going home that way at the end of our odyssey.
So it was with time to spare that we arrived at the village of Templecombe in Somerset, where we wanted to visit the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known locally as St Mary’s, and gaze upon a genuine medieval mystery.
Templecombe, as the name suggests, was once a preceptory of the Knights Templar and the Templars have been cropping up a lot lately in our research. The religious order of military monks had been founded in 1119 by Hugues de Payens to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Their patron was Bernard de Clairvaux, who had been instrumental in revising Benedictine monasticism and the foundation of the Cistercian Order.
The Rule of the Templars was strict and complex, enjoining individual knights to poverty, but the Order itself amassed riches through grants of land and donations from wealthy families, allowing them to offer one of the first international banking systems to travellers. It was this financial structure and the wealth of the Order that eventually led to their downfall.
King Philip IV of France, heavily in debt to the Templars, fostered rumours of debauchery, magic and heresy. These charges were almost identical to those Philip levelled at the Cathars and at Pope Boniface VIII, who he kidnapped and accused. Investigations were commenced, the knights were forced to confess under torture to all manner of abominations. In spite of being cleared of all wrongdoing by the Church, Pope Clement V ceded to the power and pressure of King Philip, to whom he was related, and disbanded the Order. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned alive at the stake, along with many other knights. Others were put to death, some fled, and yet others, it is said, hid the relics and artefacts the Order held sacred.
At their trials, the Templars were accused of worshipping a severed head referred to as Baphomet. This name has since been associated with the Sabbatic Goat created by Eliphas and later by Stanislas de Guaita. Lévi’s original intent with the symbol was to portray the balancing of polar opposites to create harmony… good and evil, light and dark. The symbol was subsequently adopted by various occult movements, both dubious and legitimate, bringing the image into public disrepute and fostering the idea that the Templars were engaging in some kind of black magic.
Little remains now to tell of the day-to-day life of the Templars, and most of the holdings passed to the Poor Knights of St John, the Hospitallers. Sifting through the accounts left to posterity by contemporary writers, it is difficult to separate truth from myth and political machinations. One consistent motif, though, is that of a reverence for John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod, and their worship of a ‘severed head’, presumed by many historians to be the mummified head of the Baptist himself.
Levi’s Baphomet, however, was not created until the late nineteenth century, over five hundred years after the fall of the Templars. The word Baphomet appears as early as 1098 in connections with the Crusades and a little later, as a chapter title in Lull’s book ‘for the instruction of children’… so it seems ridiculous to associate the Templars with some corrupt misuse of Lévi’s Goat.
Given the stringency of the religious Rule by which the Templars lived, I am more inclined to accept Hugh J. Schonfield’s theory that they worshipped a more abstract form of ‘beheading’. Schonfield was a scholar who worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls and suggested that if the word Baphomet is written in Hebrew as בפומת, then by using the Atbash cipher used to encrypt that language, it becomes שופיא, which can be read as the Greek word Sophia… which means Wisdom. And as wisdom is only found through the intellect of the heart, not ‘headology’, the recurring symbol of the ‘severed’ head begins to make sense in a spiritual context.
We had come to Templecombe to see a head and that head was to be found in the church… and you can’t go into an eight hundred year old church and not look around. The first thing that struck me was the semicircular railed area leading to the chancel, which is unusual and seemed reminiscent of the round churches favoured by the Templars.
The next thing that struck home was the eclectic mix of furnishings, that reflects the history of both the building and its congregation. Light, modern woodwork sits happily beside dark sore oak pews, hundreds of year old.
Curiously, there was a window in memory of two Dashwood ladies… and that is a name we have come across a lot in our travels and research. Another lady carved the font cover in 1897 that rests upon the square Norman font, while the Tudor wagon roof sits above the remains of Saxon foundations.
The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but there was a church here long before the arrival of the Normans who built the present edifice in the twelfth century. The Saxon foundations that remain beneath the nave and tower date back much further; the church was founded under the patronage of King Alfred’s great Abbey at Shaftesbury, which was consecrated in AD 888, where he installed his daughter, Ethelgive, as its first Abbess.
Earl Leofwine held the manor until he gave it to Bishop Odo of Bayeux after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and it was granted to the Knights Templar while it was held by his descendant Serlo FitzOdo.
The preceptory, where knights and horses may have been trained for the Crusades and which served as an administrative centre for Templar holdings in the area, was finally established in 1185.
Two of the stained glass windows show the Baptist and, curiously, in both he is portrayed with red hair, as is the personage portrayed in the twelfth century painted panel bearing the mysterious Templecombe Head. The head is surrounded by an escutcheon identical to the one around the depiction of Salome presenting the Baptist’s head to Herodias from the Baptistry in Florence. While the official line is that this is a depiction of Jesus, many also believe it to show John the Baptist who was especially revered by both the Templars and the later Hospitallers.
The painting of the Templecombe Head was found in the outhouse of an old cottage built on Templar land. Mrs Mollie Drew came across it, hidden behind plaster, during WWII and reported seeing a face surrounded by bright, glowing colours. Her landlady gave the painting to the church and the vicar cleaned it in a bathtub of water, losing much of the colour. It has been carbon-dated to the thirteenth century, as early as 1280, dating it to the time of the Templars and microscopic traces of bright pigment and now-invisible gold stars have been found, confirming the account of Mollie Drew. There is no halo, and the Templars always portrayed Jesus with a halo, adding to the speculation that this could be a portrait of John.
Who does it depict? Some have likened it to a Green Man, others to the Shroud of Turin… though the figure on the Shroud does not have its mouth agape. Many have seen a resemblance to the Mandylion, the Image of Edessa that legend avers is a portrait of Jesus, made during His lifetime for King Abgar. The painting remained hidden behind the plaster for centuries… who knows how long? Was it placed there during the Reformation when Henry VIII seized the Abbeys and the holdings of the Hospitallers? Or is it a genuine Templar treasure, hidden seven hundred years ago when the Order was so infamously attacked and disbanded?
Whatever the answers may be, it is a curious experience to gaze eye to eye with this floating head, watching its expression change with the shifting light from horror, to surprise, and then to joy.