By the time of Domesday, Gislingham was a populous and highly cultivated settlement with three Manors and ten estates boasting between three and a half, and four and a half plough-teams per square mile.
2. The time of Domesday – The Knights Templar
Robert Malet, one of the Conqueror’s barons who had been given the Lordship of Eye and who built the Castle there, held 170 acres in Gislingham. There was even a woman farmer, with 15 acres of open field and an acre of meadow.
Much of the land was valued in the Survey at two pence an acre. The Manor of Rushes and Jennies, now known to us as Rush Green and Jenny’s Farm, was held by Godard de Gislingham. The Manor of Swatshall was held by one Gilbert Balistarius, but by the early part of the 13th century it had passed into the hands of William de Gislingham.
The late Saxons gave Swatshall its name many years before the Conqueror’s time. When the fourth manor house in the site was erected early in the 18th century, the builder changed the name to ‘Swattisfield Hall’, but the old people of this district still use the Saxon appellation, ‘Swatshall’. Similarly the Saxons called our Burgate Road the ‘Impoll Way’, and the farmhouse that stood near the Nissen hut on Burgate Road until a few years ago was known as Impoll Farm.
Less than a century after Domesday the Knights Templars appear in the records of Gislingham. About 1150 Sir Robert de Burgate endowed them with the Manor of Lawford, one of six Manors in the Gislingham of that period. In 1225, “Brother Alan Martell, Master of the Knights Templars, was fined in Gislingham”.The Templars still held Lawford Manor in 1275 and there is a reference to a Preceptory in this village in 1306. The knights had held court in the name of the King, punished wrong doers, granted licences for making ale and bread, and trained a Militia. It seems that the Templars held sway in Gislingham until the King tired of their presumptuous ways and drove their Order out of England in 1312.
Basil Brown believes that the Knights Templars occupied the Norman Manor House which stood on the site of the present Manor Farm. Originally called ‘Brand’, the present house was built in the latter half of the 15th century, but it seems to incorporate portions of the earlier structure. Mr Garrard, the present occupant, tells me that some years ago when builders removed the exterior plaster to repair the walls of the wing which runs southward towards Mill Street, they found all the spaces between the studding filled with elaborately carved and decorated panels of wood, suggesting a religious or monastic structure. Unfortunately it was decided that the panels had to be covered with rough-cast to prevent them from disintegrating. The triangle of grass in front of Manor Farm further suggests the proximity of a Templars’ dwelling.
After the expulsion of the Templars their revenues were transferred to the Knights Hospitallers of St. John. There is no evidence that they maintained the Templars’ House in Gislingham, although in 1338 the Hospitallers appear to have held waste lands formerly belonging to the Templars.A lady who looked into the history of Gislingham some years ago came to the conclusion that the Templars had their hospice in the central portion of the Old Guildhall which stands opposite the village school.
Against this theory stands the fact that Gislingham had a Parish Guild, the Guild of St. John, which was an association of all the Trades in the Parish whose members met regularly to examine apprentices, discuss trading problems and assay goods made by the various crafts.It is a handsome structure, the roof of the central portion is supported by a superb kingpost standing upon a massive arch of oak beams which spans the width of the building. It would have been literally a hall, rising from ground level to roof without intermediate floors. A hole in the roof served as a chimney, and, until the recent restoration the kingpost was scorched and blackened, as if by heat and smoke. The room at the East end of the building is believed to have been the public room of the Guild, where members could get together at any time for friendly discussions, and the West end probably served as a kitchen.
When Henry VIII abolished all Parish Guilds, the entire building almost certainly became a farm house and the brickwork of the chimneys and the woodwork throughout are contemporaneous with the Tudor period. Much of the history of Gislingham is assuredly bound up with Manor Farm and the Old Guildhall.(from the 1970 text by Ronald J. Elliott)