The Templar Knights of Danbury

by MJ Wayland

Danbury is closely related to the Knights Templar and the Saint-Clere (Sinclair) Family, the builders of Roslin Chapel. There is also a reason to believe that two Sinclair ‘Templar Knights’ were buried in the St John the Baptist Church, built in the 14th Century.

For the last ten years I have investigated a strange alignment of pubs and locations across Essex. The Southern most point of the hidden alignment runs through Danbury Park and the Bell Inn, the location of religious relics and possibly the site of a ruined Templar church. I decided to visit Danbury and the church of St John the Baptist in particular with the hope of finding more clues to the Essex Templar Mystery.

The church was constructed between 1272 and 1307, possibly replacing an earlier Norman building since the walls contain some 12th century material. According to the church’s guidebook “This wall is faced outside with a mixture of gravel and iron pudding-stone-rubble, and the building materials are laid in courses which is indicative of Norman work. It is thought that the St. Clere family were responsible for the building of the North aisle. The two recesses, under which lie wooden effigies of two knights, to be found in this aisle were a method of forming a tomb of the founder of a church and the duplication may indicate there was not one founder but two.”

The church is well known for its mythological and biblical carvings, copied from three surviving fifteenth-century pews. In 1866, Gilbert Scott commissioned the wonderful sequence of mythological, symbolic and real creatures to populate Danbury Church.

Interestingly most of the carvings are of mythical beasts, but one carving situated near the grave of a third knight is a symbol of the Templars – the lamb with a flag. Again their influence has not gone unnoticed.

Pickled Knight of Danbury
While researching Danbury Church and its mysterious third crusader Knight, who unlike the supposed founders of the Church who were buried in the recesses of the North Aisle, lays in an unmarked grave in the floor. Further research uncovered a passage in the Gentleman’s Magazine.

In 1789, the magazine reports on an incident at Danbury Church in 1779:
“As some workmen were digging a grave in the north aisle…wherein is placed the effigy of a man in armour…they discovered…beneath a very massy stone, a leaden coffin without any inscription. Judging that this enclosed body of the Knight Templar..The rector and warden resolved to open the coffin.” A self-published booklet about Danbury’s Knights claims that three crusaders/possibly Templars are buried in graves in the North Aisle, but the quotation above claims the grave was found below one of the effigies. The mystery deepens further with the next passage.

“On raising the lead, there elm coffin enclosed…very firm and entire. It was found to enclose a shell about three-quarters of an inch thick.”

Elm has been used for many hundreds of years for the building of coffins, but Elms also feature in Templar folklore. At Kedington churchyard, Suffolk, ten elm trees each mark the grave of knights, rumoured to be crusaders or Templars. In 1187, after the loss of Jerusalem to the Saracens, the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar officially separated in to two distinct groups at a ceremony called the “Cutting of the Elm”.

The magazine continues, “The lid of this shell being taken off, we were presented with a view of the body laying in a liquor or pickle resembling mushroom catchup…As I never possessed the sense of smelling and was willing to ascertain the flavour of the liquor, I tasted; and found it to be aromatic, though not very pungent partaking of the taste of catchup and of the pickle of Spanish olives. The body was tolerably perfect…The flesh, except of the face and throat appeared exceedingly white and firm…The body was covered with a shirt of linen; the stitches were very evident, and attached very strongly…There was no hair on the head, nor do I remember any in the liquor, though feathers, flowers and herbs in abundance were floating..the leaves and stalks of which appeared quite perfect.”

The grave was welded shut and returned to the soil, where it still lays today and is claimed to be the grave of the third knight. I have no knowledge of medieval embalming, or whether this type of grave is frequently found but to me it seems very unusual and almost unique.

Could the Saint-Clere family or Templars brought back to Danbury the secrets of embalming from the Middle East and even buried one of their own kind in this way? The grave laid undisturbed for over three hundred and fifty years, and yet the body was preserved to a very high standard – are there any other graves or embalming methods in Great Britain where this has been the case?

Church and Churchyard – Danbury (Malcolm Reid) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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