The Mysterious Templar Church of Garway Hill
Deep in the west of Herefordshire, at the bottom of Garway Hill, the church of St Michael lies quietly at the end of a leafy hedge-lined lane. While Garway Hill itself has been associated with witchcraft for centuries, the church here has its own secrets to be discovered by those who take the time to seek it out.
The is one of the very few places of worship in England that can truthfully call itself a Templar church, and looks little different today to how it would have been during their time. I have never seen a church so unchanged, and with its simple rough plastered walls and antique pews you are almost drifting back through time when entering. The chancel arch is magnificent and shows design cues from Moorish and Arabian architecture, reflecting the influences the Knights Templar would have picked up while in the Holy Land. The beautifully simple chancel and altar itself is all original, the altar stone having been hidden by the local congregation from the hands of the Reformation and later Parliamentarian vandals. It still bears the five crosses first engraved into its surface sometime during the 1200s, representing the wounds of Christ and which would have been anointed with oil.
As you'd expect with a true Knights Templar church, cryptic carvings are here in spades. From Templar crosses to more esoteric symbols, even a swastika. A dragon, a hand, a sword, snakes, and a rather odd take on a green man peering out from the exotic chancel arch which may represent something unique to this church. Rather than foliage issuing from his mouth this fellow sports something else, thought by some to be ropes while others suspect snakes, and he has horns. Some of the etchings were made by the later Knights Hospitallers, including a Maltese Cross. The imposing seperate tower is a true Knights Templar structure, to double as a defensive fortification if and when necessary, and this is demonstrated by it's very few slit windows and the sheer thickness of the walls. This is basically a castle tower calling itself a church!
When the Templars were made an illegal organisation and purged in 1307 the church of St Michael was seized by the Crown and then granted to the other big order of the time – The Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of St John. Very often confused, the two Crusader orders were different in that the Templars originally provided military security and financing for pilgrims and emissaries to the Holy Land while the Knights of St John provided medical aid and care in the Holy Land before gradually becoming more and more militarised. The new owners demolished the old Templar circular chancel sometime in the late 1300s, replacing it with the square structure we have today, and built an impressive circular dovecote next to the church which is still in fine fettle and, to the endless fascination of conspiracy theorists, it sports 666 dove holes!
Other than the Temple Church in London, itself highly rebuilt and modified, this is the best preserved Templar church in Britain. It really does feel as if time has stood still here, helped greatly by its remote location. When Jaques de Molay, the last Templar Grandmaster, travelled to England he didn't go straight to the main bank and stronghold at the Temple of London...he rode directly to this little church in Herefordshire, where he convened an urgent meeting. Some say he arranged for a great treasure to be hidden here, but the real treasure today is this fascinating church itself.
I take a deeper look at the Templar Church of St Michael, as well as two other churches of a different kind of spirituality, in my book The Mystery Of Mercia II – available now.