The common image we have of the menacing Templar crusader knight sat high on his mighty steed destrier might in fact be a myth.
According to emerging archaeological research of equestrian remains in Britain from the period, it is likely that steeds were far smaller than was initially believed. In fact, not far off the size of a modern pony.
Analysis of bones show the typical steed at 12 hands to 14 hands, many as small as 1.3 metres in height. But in those days, people were also a good deal smaller, averaging five foot six.
Assolas House near Castlemagner, Kanturk is in the heart of rural north Cork and something of a crossroads of Irish and international history since the 12th century when it was a base for the Knights Templar. It also has links to the horses bred to do battle in the Holy Lands during The Crusades.
Strands of its story also link it to Cromwell, Princess Diana and latterly, even the establishment of the Blue Book of Irish Country Houses.
Current owner, Joe Bourke, explains that the 18th century house is built directly adjoining the site of an ancient monastery of the legendary knights.
“It was a satellite or an out-farm to the main monastery located at Subulter, Church Field about two miles away, “ says Bourke. “The story goes is that the less educated monks were billeted here, and their job was to raise horses for the Crusades.”
Small Irish horses known as hobbys (now extinct) were widely sought after in the period and indeed the crusader King of the Scots, Robert The Bruce, rode one.
Initially drawn from the Cistercian order as combat-ready monks to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land, the Templars were widespread in Ireland.
The first Templar is recorded here in 1171 and by 1187, Henry II had started granting Irish lands to the knightly order who, also acting as bankers to royalty, were as wealthy in Ireland as anywhere else in Europe.
The yew trees that stand near the house have been dated back to the 1100s. “These would have been planted to provide bows for the archers,” says Bourke.
But from 1308 until 1311 the Templars, envied for their wealth and power, were repressed and destroyed by the French and English kings. The latter persuaded the Pope to dissolve the order on the basis of trumped up heresy accusations.
Its leaders were burned at the stake and the order’s members arrested.
While many escaped in Ireland, it is recorded that 22 Irish-based Templars were imprisoned in the persecution which saw the kings helping themselves to the banking order’s wealth.
Records show investigators were surprised to learn of the high value of the horses seized on Templar lands in Ireland, from sites like that at Assolas.
A tower house was subsequently built on the monastic site and later found itself as a focal point during the Battle of Knocknanuss in 1647.
The Munster army of the Catholic Confederation, headquartered at the tower house, was roundly defeated by an English Parliamentarian army of Roundheads under the command of Murrough O’Brien.
He had burned his way through the province earning for himself the nickname ‘Murchadh na dToiteáin’ (Murrough the burner). The crucial and bloody battle resulted in 3,000 Confederate fatalities and 1,000 on the Parliamentarian side.
In 1714, the land and the buildings on the site came into the ownership of Reverend Francis Gore, a man of means and a Church of Ireland clergyman. He built the current house around the remnants of the tower house in 1720 and turned the monastic ruins into a stable yard.
The remnants of the monastery are visible in the castings of the sealed windows in the outbuildings.
A singular building known as a ‘Leper’s Peep’ still stands close to what is believed to have been a chapel. Joe Bourke says it is believed this was a sanctuary for lepers who, though isolated from the main body of monks, could ‘peep’ in at the religious ceremonies through an opening in the wall.
The house earned its name thanks to the civic mindedness of the Reverend Gore. He placed a lantern at the house at night so those crossing a dangerous ford on the Marybrook River nearby could find their way.
Thieves often attacked travellers as they made their way over the stones and shallow waters. The ford became know as ‘Átha Solais’, which translates as the ‘ford of light’, and was anglicised as Assolas.
After the death of the thoughtful clergyman, a local landed family, the Beechers acquired Assolas and set it up as a dower house.
Members of the family or their tenants remained in residence there until Joe Bourke’s grandfather bought it in 1917. The last Beecher to live at Assolas was Alexis Roche, a great-uncle of Diana Spencer who became Diana Princess of Wales.
“My grandfather, John Owen Bourke bought it for his bride, Columbus Hannigan, in 1917. They owned a major shop in the town and the local mill. The family has been here for the last 100 years.”
When Joe’s parents, Hugh and Eleanor, took over in the 1960s they turned it into a guesthouse.
“My parents, along with the Allens in Ballymaloe, the O’Callaghans of Longueville and others, were instrumental in founding the Irish Country House and Restaurants Association. Their brochure became known as ‘The Blue Book’, a remarkable piece of branding,” he says.
Joe and his wife Hazel, a professional chef, took over in 1984 and ran Assolas as a tourism business until 2005. It earned a place in the Michelin Guide as well as stars from Egon Ronay, Bridgestone and the AA while the grounds and gardens were also recognised nationally and internationally.
“Our children are away and living their own lives. This house needs a family, it needs to be lived in,” says Bourke.
The house is a three-storey building with a range of styles and features, including the four- and-a-half foot thick walls of the original tower house.
Eighteenth century design is to the fore in the rounded gables and the cantilevered roof while skilled craftsmanship can be seen in the woodwork, the fresco around the hall ceiling, and the carved doors. Most of the window panes in the house are in the original hand-blown glass.
A good-sized entrance hall leads to the dining room and the drawing room. From an inner hallway, a cantilevered curving staircase leads upstairs lit by a typical 18th century feature, a tall Queen Anne arched window.
The dining room to the right overlooks the lawn at one side and the Marybrook River on the other through floor-to-ceiling sash windows while the drawing room has five such windows.
Behind the entrance hall is the kitchen centred around an AGA and beyond this again is a large family room overlooking the gardens.
There are six large, en suite bedrooms on the first floor with high ceilings and tall sash windows giving views across the countryside.
The utility and laundry rooms are also located on this floor. The second floor is currently used for storage and includes a lounge area and a balcony.
The outdoor area extends to 17ac mainly laid out in two large paddocks divided by the entrance avenue. It includes lawns, gardens, and groves of broadleaf trees planted over the centuries.
To the rear is a range of traditional outbuildings including 12 stables
and storage spaces constructed from the remnants of the ancient monastery.
Assolas House is 5km from Kanturk and 17km from Mallow in Co Cork.
The property is guided at €690,000 by selling agents, Sherry FitzGerald Country Homes.