The ruins of Chibburn Preceptory stand about a mile from Widdrington Village. It was a house of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and stood in its own agricultural estate. It was, in other words, a manor. The head of such a house was called the preceptor, hence preceptory.
The Order of St John was also known as the Knights Hospitaller. Being a military order, they later adopted the title of commander for the heads of houses so Low Chibburn is sometimes referred to as Chibburn Commandery, but they both mean the same thing, the lowest level of territorial responsibility within the Order.
The Hospital of St John of Jerusalem was founded in 1113 by a man called Gerard, about whom little else is known. It had probably existed for some time previously, but 1113 is when it was formally established under papal authority. Its object was to care for the poor and strangers, and since this was Jerusalem the strangers would most likely be pilgrims.
There were older hospitals in Jerusalem, even as far back as the 7th century. But Gerard’s was so much appreciated by the pilgrims and crusaders that they rewarded him with estates, at that time mostly in Palestine and southern Europe. Gerard died in 1118 and was followed by Raymond of Provence.
Raymond was a warrior aristocrat. He re-founded the Order, built a larger hospital and added the care of the sick. He also provided armed escorts to pilgrims going to and from Jerusalem, and it was he who first took the title of Grand Master.
Full members of the Order were monks, bound by lifetime vows. There were three classes: Military brothers, brothers chaplain and brothers infirmarer. The military brothers were knights, i.e. heavy cavalry. The chaplains were priests. Their main duty was to celebrate the Mass and perform the other services of the church. The infirmarers looked after the inmates.
There were also extern knights, who fought alongside the military brothers, but only served for a limited time, and there were turcopoles. The turcopoles were a light cavalry, recruited from men born in Palestine of mixed parentage and equipped in the Turkish fashion.
The Hospitallers’ charitable work never stopped, but the military role soon took first place. Along with the Knights Templar, they defended the Kingdom of Jerusalem against the Saracens, but for all practical purposes they were expelled from the Holy Land in 1291 with the fall of Acre.
They set up instead on the island of Rhodes, and later at Malta, and turned to the suppression of piracy and the protection of Christian pilgrims and trade routes throughout the Mediterranean.
AT their height, the Knights Hospitaller were organised into eight ‘tongues’, or nations, each tongue into priories and each priory into preceptories. The main purpose of having preceptories was to raise money for the Order’s work in the Holy Land, or later in the Mediterranean at large.
According to a 13th Century writer, the hospitallers had 19,000 properties scattered across Europe. As there were only 656 preceptories, this suggests that each preceptory was responsible on average for about 30 lesser properties.
An information panel at Low Chibburn says that the estate ‘was given to the Order in 1313’. This is not correct. It was already in existence. William Woodman, writing in the Archaeological Journal for 1860, says that Chibburn is first mentioned in a return made by Bishop Kellawe of Durham in that year, following the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1312.
“‘In the archdeaconry of Northumberland, the Hospitallers have the house of Chibburn (domus de Chipburn) which, with the small things thereunto pertaining, (cum minutis ad eam pertintentibus) is usually estimated at ten pounds per annum.
“At this time,” says Woodman, “when the Hospitalers had not acquired the lands of the Templars, it appears that Chibburn belonged to the Knights of St John, therefore it must have been originally granted to them.
“No evidence has been found to show at what period or by whom the establishment was originally founded, possibly by the Fitzwilliams, the tenants in capite under the crown, or by the Widdringtons, who held under them in the 12th century.”
He thought the Widdringtons more likely because: “Immediately over the arch of the south doorway (i.e. of the chapel) there are two escutcheons … nearly obliterated, but traces of a cross patée, doubtless for the Knights of St John, may be seen on one, and a quarterly coat on the other. It is not improbable that this may have been the coat of Widdrington, an ancient family in the neighbourhood.”
WE have copious information from a survey of all Hospitaller properties in England in 1338. It was discovered in Malta in about 1830, hidden in a walled-up cavity in a house belonging to the Order.
The community consisted of a Preceptor, a brother chaplain, and a third brother, who was presumably the infirmarer. They also had a stipendiary chaplain, a chamberlain, head stableman, stable boy, steward (farm bailiff), a laundress, a clerk who acted as a collector, and a pensioner who got 20 shillings ayear for life.
Some of these would have been married men, and there would also have been peasant families on the estate, so the total population of Low Chibburn would perhaps be as many as 50 or 60 people.
Income was £23 18s. 8d., and outgoings £17 13s. 4d. Woodman analyses both in detail. The income was severely affected by the war with Scotland. The manor house was ruinous, and the balance available to send to the headquarters at Clerkenwell was less than ten pounds.
There is no direct evidence of Chibburn managing other properties in Northumberland, but Hodgson, in the chapter on Woodhorn in his History of Northumberland, says that in 1294 the prior of the hospital of St John of Jerusalem claimed certain privileges (for example, exemption from tithes) in respect of lands that he held in Ulgham, ‘Wetewirth’, Seton, Newbiggin, Ellington and elsewhere.
It seems unlikely that the prior would have made this claim personally so it must have been made by someone acting on his behalf. But whether this was the preceptor of Chibburn or somebody else, we do not know.
Henry VIII suppressed the Order in 1540. Woodman records that, ten years later, the Ministers in the Augmentation Office held Hospitaller lands at Ulgham, North Seaton, Newbiggin, Ellington, Felton, Chevington, and Morwick.
They do not say that they had been under the control of Chibburn — indeed, all of the Northumberland estates, including Chibburn and Temple Thornton, are described as parcels of the Preceptory of Mount St John in Yorkshire, but it seems likely that they were.
Soon after this, the Widdringtons of Widdrington Castle bought the preceptory from the crown. They demolished everything except the chapel (if it hadn’t all fallen down already) and built a dower house for the dowager ladies or other landless members of the family.
What remains today is mainly the ruins of the house and the medieval chapel.