Torphichen Preceptory

Torphichen Preceptory
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Torphichen Preceptory

Located at the north of the West Lothian village of Torphichen, in the lee of the Torphichen Hills, is a preceptory, which was the Scottish headquarters of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (or the Knights Hospitaller).

The Preceptory church was constructed from the late 12th C and comprised an aisleless nave, central tower, transepts and choir. The foundations of domestic buildings have been exposed which would have included the Preceptor's quarters, a dormitory, dining hall and kitchen, forming a cloistered courtyard on the north side of the church. The transepts and nave were rebuilt in the 15th C. Following the Reformation and the suppression of the Knights Hospitaller in 1554, the nave became the parish church until a replacement was built on the same site in 1756. The transepts and 13th C. tower became a courthouse, which undoubtedly ensured their survival.

The Knights of the Order of St John was founded in Jerusalem, shortly after its recapture by the Crusaders in 1099. With pilgrims flocking to the Holy Land, a hospital was established to provide shelter and assistance to the poor and sick. The order was recognised by Pope Paschal II in 1113 and later, through necessity, the brothers took on a military role, defending pilgrims against attack. For this, they were rewarded with estates throughout Europe, which provided an income for their work. A British priory was founded in Clerkenwell (London), and the order was granted Torphichen by King David I (c.1080 - 1153).

Alexander de Wells, a Preceptor at Torphichen, entertained William Wallace here on the eve of invasion by King Edward I in 1296 and the only surviving charter signed by Wallace was prepared during that visit.

The Order was re-established in England in the 1870s, headed by the monarch. It is responsible for the St. John's Ambulance and an Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, and has subsequently spread throughout the world. The Scottish section retains a position of Preceptor of Torphichen.

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