St John’s Commandery, Swingfield

This austere building stands alone, surrounded by fields, close to the village of Swingfield. It has undergone many phases of alteration and was restored in the early 1970s.

The sisters of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem had a house at Swingfield until about 1180, when they were removed to Buckland Priory in Somerset. The Knights Hospitaller, of the same order, then established a small community on the site, of which the 13th century chapel is the only remaining building. The Knights Hospitaller were a military and religious order founded in the 12th century with the purpose of caring for and protecting pilgrims to the Holy Land. Their main unit of local administration was the commandery, where knights and sergeants lived together under the rule of a commander, who administered the estates with which the order had been endowed. Revenues from commanderies funded hospitals for sick pilgrims.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1540 the chapel was converted into a farmhouse, and since then has undergone successive phases of alteration. Traces of other buildings survive only as slight earthworks to the south and west of the chapel. Although the chapel and part of an adjoining hall were converted into a farmhouse, evidence of the original function of the buildings can still be seen as a result of the 1970s conservation works. Three lancet windows in the east wall are survivals of the original chapel building and the remarkable crown-post roof may also be part of the 13th century structure. The chapel has a piscina, or stone basin, where sacred vessels were washed, and an aumbrey, or cupboard, where the communion vessels were kept. To the east of the south doorway is the consecration cross of the building, carved on the wall. The two-storey porch on the north wall indicates that the west end of the building always had an upper floor and was once in domestic use.

After the Dissolution the building became entirely residential and the interior was converted to accommodate two storeys throughout. The central chimney stack dates from the 16th century and the ground-floor parlour has a ceiling of the same period with moulded joists and cross-beams. Doors led from this room and from the bedroom above to the south wing, now demolished. There is a pointed-arched opening, dating to the 13th century, to the room above the porch.

Further reading:

(L.R.A. Grove and S.E. Rigold, “The View and State of the Commandery of Swingfield, 1529”, in F. Hall (ed.), A Kentish Miscellany, 1979. J. Newman, Buildings of England Series, North-east and East Kent, 1983 edn.)

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