Torphichen Preceptory was founded by David I in the 1100s. It was the Scottish headquarters of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller.
The order sheltered the sick and poor visiting the Holy Land and gave military protection to pilgrims. Its work in Scotland was focused on managing its estates and raising recruits.
The preceptory answered to the priory in Clerkenwell in London, and so it took a pro-English stance during the Wars of Independence. William Wallace occupied Torphichen in 1298, resulting in the order withdrawing from Scotland for a short period.
The Knights Hospitaller were suppressed in 1554. Queen Victoria re-established the order in England in 1881 as the Most Venerable Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, and George VI followed suit in Scotland in 1947. Today, the order does charitable work, the best known being the St John’s Ambulance Association.
The Knights’ headquarters
Only a fragment of the order’s house survives. The church’s crossing tower and transepts still stand complete and roofed. Footings survive of the nave to the west and choir to the east.
An arrangement of five sanctuary stones also survives, defining the preceptory’s area of sanctuary. One stands to the south of the church and four more in fields to the north, west, south and east.
Construction from the late 1100s survives in the now blocked-up chancel arch, but must of the rest dates from the 1400s. An inscription in the north transept records the construction of both transepts at the direction of the preceptor Sir Andrew Meldrum in the 1430s.
An interesting detail can be found etched into the south transept wall: a working diagram of the complicated ribbed vault, produced by its master mason. The painted wall decoration high up in the crossing and south transept is another rare survival.