Lost orders: Time Team and the Knights Hospitaller of Halston Hall

The Knights Hospitaller were forged in the fury of the Crusades, providing protection, hospitality, and medical care for travellers in the Holy Land, and building fundraising communities back in Britain. Few of these sites have been excavated in detail, but Time Team have been investigating a Shropshire example. Carly Hilts spoke to Stewart Ainsworth.


In the turbulent period of the Crusades, a number of medieval religious orders combined their contemplative role with that of the knight, creating formidable fighting forces of warrior monks who also performed acts of charity and hospitality for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Perhaps the most famous of the military orders was that of the Knights Templar, but they were not operating alone. There were the Knights of St Lazarus, whose communities often included hospitals for those suffering from leprosy, and the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem – ‘Knights Hospitaller’, for short – whose main purpose was to care for poor, sick, and injured pilgrims. For noblemen who wanted the social cachet of visibly supporting the Crusades without risking their own life or limbs, a popular way to do so was to donate lands to one of these orders, so that they could build fundraising and administrative centres to help further their work abroad.

Time Team’s search for a Knights Hospitaller preceptory at Halston, Shropshire. Photo: Darryl Owen / Time Team

While the Templars were disbanded by Pope Gregory V in 1312, the Hospitallers continued to flourish in England and Wales (often taking over abandoned Templar sites) until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There was an attempt to refound the order during the Catholic Mary I’s short reign (1553-1558), but that was thwarted by the succession of her Protestant sister Elizabeth I. Thereafter, the Hospitallers were a spent force within these shores, though they maintained a power base in Malta until the island was captured by Napoleon in 1798. This Maltese connection can still be seen in one of the order’s more enduring legacies: the eight-pointed Maltese cross remains the emblem of the St John Ambulance, an organisation descended from the traditions of the Hospitallers (hence their leading figures are called ‘priors’), which continues to provide voluntary medical care to those in need.

The ditched enclosure defining the preceptory. The small square enclosure at the centre is an 18th-century ha ha around the chapel graveyard. Based on Environment Agency LiDAR Open Government licence v3.0. Image: Crown Copyright 2023

Communities founded by the military orders ranged from small farmsteads to regional administrative centres known as ‘preceptories’. Records of 1338 attest that, by this date, there were 36 Hospitaller preceptories in England and Wales; all but three were in rural settings, and today there are just a dozen or so sites where any trace of them can be seen. Although some of these have been explored non-invasively through geophysical survey, just one has been excavated in any detail – and that more than 60 years ago, at South Witham in Lincolnshire (see box on p.22). It was with the hope of adding to this picture that Time Team recently carried out an investigation in the grounds of Halston Hall in Shropshire.

The site lies a mile from Whittington Castle, a Marcher fortification where, in the 1170s, the resident lord Roger de Powys bequeathed a small piece of land at Halston to the Hospitallers. The resulting preceptory would go on to become, by the mid-14th century, the main administrative centre for all Hospitaller estates in northern England and Wales. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site passed into the hands of the Mytton family who, under the terms of their lease, had to reside in the preceptory. This subsequently became the manor house; its successor, the present hall, dates to c.1690.

Today, little survives above ground to testify to the site’s religious past, except for a characterful half-timbered chapel thought to date to the 15th century. Within this building, there are hints of even earlier activity, including a 10th-century font that may have come from an unrecorded Anglo-Saxon chapel (a small settlement is known to have existed at Halston before the Hospitallers arrived), and a distinctive stone coffin typical of medieval monastic sites. Would Time Team find any trace of the preceptory below the ground?

Early inspiration

The Team’s work at Halston had its origins in a light-hearted email received by their resident landscape archaeologist, Professor Stewart Ainsworth. He had been named during a game of ‘which famous person would you most like to have dinner with’ at a gathering of the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust, and one of the trustees was inspired to invite Stewart to ‘come and have a look at our castle.’ Stewart did indeed drop by, and was immediately intrigued by the complexity of the castle’s earthworks, which told a very different story to that presented in local guidebooks.

Overlooking Halston Hall’s distinctive half-timbered chapel. Photo: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

This sparked the Whittington 3Dimensions (3D) Project – for which an application for funding is to be submitted to the NHLF this summer – a community initiative working with the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust and the Digital on Tour team from the University of Chester. It sets out to explore three themes – people, place, and time – and to engage with groups who have not previously accessed or find it difficult to access archaeology, with a particular emphasis on teaching new skills using digital technology such as LiDAR, aerial photography, and open-source software to help people learn about their local area. (To this end, Stewart also has set up a community archaeology support team which offers advice and small grants to help boost small community projects and wider social inclusion; for more details, see http://www.sharedpast.org.)

While carrying out some initial research for Whittington 3D, Stewart examined Environment Agency LiDAR for the surrounding area, comparing it to the local Historic Environment Records. He soon realised that there was a huge number of otherwise unrecorded features visible in the aerial images – and, more excitingly still, a dramatic rectangular enclosure at Halston. ‘I thought: “Crikey, that is a stunning medieval moated site!”, and looked further into the history of the earthworks,’ Stewart said. ‘That is where I read about the preceptory at Halston, and the fact that it had never been conclusively located. The site in the LiDAR was, without a shadow of a doubt, a big moated enclosure that was clearly part of a wider water-management system including medieval fishponds surviving as earthworks. Having learned how small the area of extra-parochial land at Halston that the Hospitallers had been given was, and with the chapel right in the middle of the enclosure, and its known history, it just had to be the preceptory – I couldn’t see how it could be anything else.’

The chapel contains clues to earlier activity: a 10th-century font and a stone coffin often linked with monastic sites. Images: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

Stewart decided to go and have a look for himself, and fortunately the hall’s present owners, Rupert and Harriet Harvey, were all too happy for him to ‘have a look at the lumps and bumps in [their] park’. As he explored the estate, Stewart knew that the site had all the ingredients for a more detailed survey – initially he thought it would be a very good part of the planned Whittington 3D Project, but, the more he looked, the more he thought that it would also make for a great Time Team investigation. Series Producer Tim Taylor agreed: ‘Stewart identified this fascinating site that we had to investigate further.’

The search begins

Time Team set to work, helped by children at local schools, the Young Archaeologists Club, and local volunteers. Would the ditched enclosure prove to be medieval, as Stewart expected, or a feature of the ornamental gardens known to have been added to the manor in the 18th century? Its ditches formed a shape tantalisingly similar both in size and outline to enclosures seen at other known preceptory sites – but unlike, for example, the reliably standardised layout of a Roman fort where archaeologists can anticipate the kinds of buildings they might encounter and how they will be arranged, preceptories are less well-understood and less predictable. This is not just because of the small data set of comparative sites that the Team had to work with, Stewart said – every preceptory that has been investigated in recent times has had a different interior.

 Halston is home to intriguing earthworks that appear to hint at a long-vanished enclosure – or could they form part of the estate’s post-medieval landscaped gardens? Image: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

‘South Witham is the main model, as it has been investigated in the most detail, but as it began life as a Templar site we can’t be confident that it’s representative of a Hospitaller preceptory,’ he explained. ‘The University of Leicester recently investigated another Templar preceptory at Beaumont Leys (it had originally been interpreted as a hillfort) which proved to be different in layout to South Witham, and geophysics at Shingay cum Wendy in Cambridgeshire revealed a Hospitaller site that was different again.’

Historical documents did provide some clues: the 1338 records described above include an inventory of the Halston preceptory’s holdings, including a messuage where the monks and their visitors lived, and a dovecote. There was also a water mill, and a document of 1427 mentions a barn – probably for collecting tithes and goods from the surrounding parish. With only three days at their disposal, though, the Team had to target their evaluation carefully, and so Stewart devised a strategy focused on the surviving earthworks, geophysical survey, and LiDAR imagery. These all told the same story, he said, but not a clear one: ‘There was a lot going on at the site, but exactly what was preceptory, manor house, or gardens was hard to interpret.’

Post-medieval structures recorded in Trench 1. Image: Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam) / Time Team

One clear element, at least, was a dramatic dark square showing up in the geophysics east of the chapel. Its regular outline was suggestive of a structure, making it an obvious candidate for the project’s Trench 1. There, the Team quickly came down onto archaeology, but it just as swiftly became apparent that the remains emerging from the soil were distinctly post-medieval in date, dominated by tell-tale pieces of brick. The diggers also recovered part of a tyg – a kind of communal drinking cup that, when complete, would have had multiple handles so that it could be passed more easily from person to person – dating to the first half of the 18th century.

Meanwhile, the structure itself was producing clues that it might have been a rather elegant feature of the landscape, yielding fragments of very thin window glass and a chunk of lath-and-plaster ceiling or partition. This had been coated with limewash, signifying a fairly high-status addition to the building; Stewart suggests it could have been some kind of pavilion associated with Halston Hall’s 18th-century gardens, where the manor’s residents and their guests could have socialised and enjoyed views across the lawns towards the country house.

With hopes of finding earlier remains beneath the brickwork in Trench 1 still high, the Team also pressed ahead with Trench 2, which had been opened on the opposite side of the chapel to investigate another promising geophysical anomaly. There, they initially uncovered more post-medieval garden architecture, but beneath this were hints of earlier remains that had been disturbed by the later landscaping.

Initially, in terms of artefacts, the Team were still in the post-medieval period, though only just – this trench produced another piece of tyg, this time dating to c.1550-1650, immediately after the preceptory had ceased to function as a religious site. As the first day drew to a close, though, two fragmentary finds that could reflect its final years came to light.

Post-medieval structures recorded in Trench 1. Photo: Stewart Ainsworth

One of these was a piece of green glazed roof tile thought to date to c.1400-1500. It was eagerly examined by the local Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer, Peter Reavill, who noted that while such tiles are known from urban sites in Shropshire, they are ‘exceptionally rare’ in rural settings, indicating the presence of a high-status late medieval building. There was also the corner of a floor tile decorated with a spray of curved lines. While it was too incomplete to reconstruct its design, it is thought to date to the first half of the 15th century. As both tiles were found close to the chapel, might they reflect rubbish from an early 15th-century refurbishment of this building, or to the presence of another late medieval structure nearby? Either way, they represented the first tangible traces of activity on the site in the Hospitallers’ day.

Expanding the excavation

There were also corresponding clues emerging from the fabric of the chapel itself. There, buildings expert Richard K Morriss was working to pin down its date – something that has long been a matter of debate. Dendrochronological analysis in the 1990s had revealed that some of its trusses came from timbers felled in 1437-1438, but it was not known whether they represented original or reused components of the building. Richard has now established that the timbers are indeed in situ 15th-century elements and, while exploring the exterior of the building, highlighted other previously unknown echoes of earlier phases of the chapel’s life, including the presence of an infilled southern door, and that the building’s plinth was a hybrid of reused and original stone. In other words, at least parts of the chapel had existed at the time of the preceptory’s operation.

As Day 2 dawned, encouraged by the discovery of late medieval material the day before, Time Team opened two more areas of excavation. Trench 3 set out to investigate a deep ditch-like feature that had given a strong signal in magnetometry surveys to the south of the chapel, while Trench 4 was placed to the north, tying into another geophysical anomaly that lay beneath one of the ‘lumps and bumps’ that had caught Stewart’s eye. At the same time, Trench 1 was being expanded – and at the far end of the trench to the brickwork, they found a stone wall.

There was initial excitement as the Team also recovered bits of what appeared to be dark clay-like mortar, which could hint at an early date. Hopes of having finally reached medieval stonework were dashed, however, as they reached the base of the masonry and realised that it sat on a layer of brick. This trench did yield some earlier finds, however, including pieces of green-glazed pottery and a fragment of a medieval jug dating to 1300-1400. There was also a broken coin marked with a distinctive ‘long cross’ motif; under the microscope, it proved to be an early issue of Edward II (r.1307-1327). Meanwhile, at the end of the trench closest to the chapel, the Team discovered a possible posthole and charcoal that might just hint at an earlier building. Samples have been sent for dating analysis, and the results are eagerly awaited.

Part of a tyg, a kind of communal drinking vessel from c.1550-1650. When complete, it would have had multiple handles around its sides. Images: Shadow Tor / Time Team

Over in Trench 2, the Team had uncovered a broad sweep of cobbled surface, together with the crude foundations of a robbed-out wall and a rubble-packed ditch. The date of these remains was not immediately apparent, but on the final day a piece of German stoneware pottery dating to the 1550s-1560s emerged from the cobbles. Such vessels are seldom seen on rural sites in Shropshire, and its presence here points to Halston still being important enough at this point to draw imported goods to its inhabitants.

Trench 3 did not add much to this picture, producing only charcoal and – rather unexpectedly – sherds of Roman pottery, the earliest finds to emerge during the project. There were more promising clues to come from Trench 4.

Final finds, final thoughts

As the investigation moved towards its end, three areas of cobbled surface had come to light in different parts of the site, which Stewart believes represent a courtyard associated with the later life of the preceptory, with post-medieval features superimposed on top. Trench 4 proved to be the most interesting in this respect: there, the Team found brick walls forming three sides of what was thought initially to be a polygonal structure, with a flagstone floor (the features shown on the cover of this issue). Between courses of brick was a thinly hammered copper-alloy oval: a kind of token known as a jetton. Helpfully, it had lettering around its edge, attesting that it had been made by Wolf Lauffer of Nuremberg, known to have been active in 1612-1651.

On Day 2, Trench 1 finally yielded identifiably medieval artefacts, including this partial coin of Edward II, which dates to 1307-1312. Images: Shadow Tor / Time Team

The structure was interpreted as another garden building, accompanied by raised walkways – but underneath lay evidence that these features were reusing a platform of large stone slabs, each 0.5m long. These formed the foundation or bottom course of some kind of superstructure which, because of its relationship with the cobbled surface, was determined to be medieval in date. On closer inspection ahead of backfilling, the Team could see a small rebate in one corner of the masonry, which fits with the idea of a gateway with a smaller door or cubicle on one side. If this is correct, it is likely to have been the main visitor entrance from the north of the site; a tangible reminder of the enduring presence of memory in a place of contemplation.

South Witham preceptory

South Witham in Lincolnshire has the distinction of being the only Hospitallers preceptory in England to have undergone any large-scale excavations. The site was originally founded by the Knights Templar in 1164, but was abandoned in the early 14th century and its lands passed to the Hospitallers. By the present day, the site had returned to pasture, but visible earthworks suggested that the underlying archaeology was well preserved.

Sure enough, when Philip Mayes excavated the site in 1965-1967 (see CA 9), he was able to put together a detailed picture of the layout of structures within the enclosure, uncovering the remains of a chapel, barn, stables, and kitchen, as well as traces of more industrial activities including a brewhouse, corn-drying ovens, and areas of metalworking. Outside this complex, there was also evidence of a millpond; while the mill itself had not survived, evidence of the mill-race and sluice gates could still be seen, while the waterlogged environment had preserved part of a wooden waterwheel.

Historic England’s entry for the site, which is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, on the National Heritage List for England can be found online at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1007688.

Further information 

The Knights Hospitaller dig was recently released in three parts on the Time Team Official YouTube page. You can watch it and all previous episodes of Time Team at www.youtube.com/c/timeteamofficial.

The new episodes are entirely funded by Time Team’s fans via the platform Patreon: www.patreon.com/TimeTeamOfficial.