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Melchbourne Preceptory

Arms of the Knights Hospitaller
Arms of the Knights Hospitaller

Volume I of The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire was published in the early 20th century and has a section on religious houses in the county, amongst which was a preceptory for the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem at Melchbourne. A preceptory was a headquarters for that particular area and the preceptor answered for the running of the preceptor to the Grand Master.

The preceptory at Melchbourne was founded in the reign of Henry II (1135-1189), the order having been founded in Palestine shortly after the conquest of Jerusalem by the members of the First Crusade in 1099. It was a military order devoted to fighting against the Muslim armies in the region, protecting Christians in Palestine and Syria and administering to the sick. The preceptory's founder was Alicia de Claremont who gave the knights the Manors of Riseley and Melchbourne, thus giving them an income through leasing land. Other people also gave gifts to the preceptory including William, Archbishop of York and local magnate Hugh de Beauchamp of Eaton Socon.

The other great crusading order was that of the Templars. Those in France were brutally suppressed by King Philip IV (1285-1314) in 1307 and the order was suppressed in the rest of Europe by Pope Clement V (1305-1314) in 1312. Some of their Bedfordshire property seems to have been given to the Hospitallers at Melchbourne.

It is recorded that on two occasions the Hospitallers buried a suicide. This was against Christian practice but the Pope had given the order dispensation to bury anyone who had given them money, whatever the cause of their death. Thus in 1274 and 1285 suicides were buried to whom the Priory at Dunstable had refused Christian burial.

Henry VIII (1509-1547) dissolved all religious houses and orders in England, including houses of the Hospitallers. A list of the preceptory's assets was made in 1540. The original is in The National Archives [SC6 Hen VIII 2402] but a transcription by Y Nicholls is available at Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service. The preceptory had property in the following places:

  • Bedfordshire: Bolnhurst; Dean; Eaton Socon; Harrold; Ickwell; Langford; Little Staughton; Melchbourne; Odell; Pavenham; Pertenhall; Radwell; Riseley; Sharnbrook; Toddington; Turvey
  • Cambridgeshire: Southorpe
  • Huntingdonshire: Kimbolton; Stonely
  • Northamptonshire: Blakesley; Hargrave; Rushden

It is alleged that it was refounded by Mary I (1553-1558) in 1557, being again dissolved on her death.

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county's historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The record [HER 342] states: "The site of a preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers founded between 1154 and 1176. It lost its status as a true preceptory in 1489 but was briefly refounded by Queen Mary in 1557. The house was already in decay by the time of a survey of the estate in 1586. Some earthworks survive, comprising a pond and possible hollow way, but the exact site of the preceptory buildings is not known. Part of the area was said to have been levelled during the Second World War, when burials were apparently found: this area seems to be apparent on RAF aerial photos taken in 1945". The site highlighted as that of the preceptory lies east of Knotting Road and north of Melchbourne Park.

Map showing the site of the Preceptory
Map showing the site of the Preceptory