Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:10 pm
Almost hidden, tucked away from the jarring bustle of London just off the Strand, you may stumble upon a church that was built by the Knights Templar. Like all Templar churches, it is round – modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, traditional site of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. The Order of the Temple, or Knights Templar, was a powerful pan-European medieval brotherhood of warrior monks whose story, including its associated myths and legends, has resonated down through the centuries. And this was the Templars’ church within their London headquarters, a place of ritual as well as worship. Once, it would have been in the midst of their compound, along with its residential, recreational, administrative and military training areas. Now, it is in one of those little oases of tranquillity that exist in great cities, in this instance surrounded by members of the legal profession. What does all this mean, and how did it come about?
Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1076, ending four centuries of tolerant Muslim rule. Reports of Christians being persecuted began to be received in the west. In 1096, the First Crusade was launched, to stem the advance of the Turks and capture the Holy City. So began a 200-year military struggle between medieval Christianity and Islam. It was frequently barbaric; when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they butchered many of the defenders, which included Jews and, some say, Christians as well. In any event, the Order of the Temple was established around 1119 with the aim of protecting pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Its founders were given accommodation in the royal palace in Jerusalem, on Temple Mount, rumoured to be built on the site of the Temple of Solomon – which inspired the name of this new brotherhood. Initially, the order was a poor one; but with Papal support it grew, becoming immensely influential – and extremely wealthy. Indeed, the Templars acted as bankers to the movers and shakers of medieval Western Europe, accumulating a vast treasure in the process. They were renowned militarily – and instantly recognisable in their iconic white surcoats with the red cross.
The Temple Church in London was consecrated at Candlemas 1185 at a ceremony conducted by Heraclius, the Crusader Patriarch of Jerusalem, and probably attended by the King, Henry II. Like many Templar churches, it is dedicated to St Mary. An unusual 3-bay chancel was added to the church in the 1230s, in expectation that King Henry III and his wife would one day be buried there; in the event, Henry opted for Westminster Abbey. I doubt that anyone knows exactly who is buried under Temple Church now, but it is famous for the intriguing effigies of nine medieval knights. Not all of these can be identified, but they include Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (died 1219), one of the most powerful knights in the land, who had in younger days unhorsed Richard I, the Lionheart. Marshal went on to become a mediator between Richard’s brother, King John, and the barons, as well regent for the young King Henry III and, in his seventies, victor of the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. Near his effigy are those of his eldest son, William (died 1231), 3rd son Gilbert (died 1241) and friend, Brother Aymeric de St Maur, Master of the Knights Templar in England. It was in the round church that King John hotly debated the issues with his barons that resulted in the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 – and the two Williams and Brother Aymeric were amongst those who witnessed that unique event.
Magna Carta is seen by some as a kind of early bill of rights. It certainly helped lay the foundation for the Common Law of England, and the Temple Church is understandably proud of its association with it.
“No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the state of it. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
On Friday 13th October 1307, every Templar in France that could be found was arrested on the order of the King, Philip IV (the Fair). They were accused, amongst other things, of blasphemy, heresy, sodomy and, even worse, of worshipping a cat. Under torture, many confessed and, later, were burnt alive at the stake. Today, scholars believe that the reason for Philip’s actions were primarily financial – he needed money. There was probably – then as now – ignorance of the Templars’ arcane observances; and perhaps they had become a tad too powerful for some people’s liking. In England, and elsewhere, things moved more slowly than in France. The brotherhood was not officially suppressed by the Pope until 1312 and then Templar property throughout Europe was either confiscated, or transferred to their great rival order, the Hospitallers – aka the Knights of the Hospital of St John (the Knights of Malta). What happened to the Templars’ treasure is a mystery. There’s a story that 20 knights escaped the purge in France, but no one knows what became of them… To this day, conspiracy theorists and those who believe the Templars were guardians of lost knowledge, or a great secret such as the Holy Grail, continue to intrigue us all – and sell books.
The Hospitallers were given the Temple by King Edward II in 1324 and, over time, began to rent space to colleges of the legal profession. By the 15th century, these were well established as the Honourable Societies of the Middle and Inner Temple. When religious orders were suppressed by Henry VIII, the Crown took possession of the Temple and the societies of lawyers continued as tenants. In 1608, King James I granted, by Letters Patent, all the former Templar lands from Fleet Street to the Thames to the two societies, who have remained there ever since. The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple and the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple are two of the four Inns of Court who hold the exclusive rights to call candidates to practise law at the Bar of England and Wales. The two Inns are obliged to jointly maintain Temple Church and its priest, the Master of the Temple – who has a mansion next door.
You’ll find Temple Church today by stepping through a gate just down from Ye Olde Cock Tavern on the south side of Fleet Street, opposite Chancery Lane. Head down a small lane and Temple Church is on the left. If the gate is closed, you may get through via Kings Bench Walk to the west. The church is constructed from warm, Caen limestone and, to the layman, seems a mix of styles, Roman and Gothic. What looks like a crenelated tower protrudes from the round church and the (slightly) newer oblong chancel almost seems as though it has been bolted on. Externally it is an impressive, but inelegant, building. It survived the Great Fire and was extensively renovated in Victorian times. The view from the courtyard to the south has only been possible in recent years, since the Lamb Building that once stood there was destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War. The air raid that took place on 10th May 1941 lasted all night. An incendiary bomb hit the church roof, the fire caught and spread, collapsing the old wooden roof of the round church onto the ancient effigies below. The damage to them, and to the church as a whole, was immense. The church was not fully repaired until 1958 – the dedication service was attended by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
The fame of the Temple Church has also reached a wider audience through Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, and the film of the same name starring Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen and Audrey Tatou. Wrongly, Professor Langdon (Hanks), Sophie Neveu (Tatou) and the very irritating Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen), come to the Temple Church in search of a “knight a pope interred”. Dan Brown makes the Temple Church sound like a Harry Potter film-set in imminent danger of being taken over by a force of evil and corrupt religious nutters. In fact, with nothing more than a little imagination and consideration of the place’s 800-year history, you don’t need fiction to make the place exciting.
Inside, Temple Church is surprisingly light. It is distinctly two churches, though. The round church draws you and the supine figures of the knights on the floor do, indeed, force thoughts of the long-gone people they represent. You have to keep reminding yourself that no one is there. Beautiful, slender, columns of Purbeck marble soar up to the roof. The chancel – the oblong church – is dominated by the amazing East Window, designed by Carl Edwards and a gift from the Glaziers’ Company after World War Two, which depicts scenes from the Bible and London’s history. Beneath this is an unusual wooden altarpiece, designed by Christopher Wren, sold in the 1840s, and retrieved in the aftermath of the destruction a century later. The congregation sits facing the aisle and each other, Middle Templars on the north, Inner Templars to the south. A new window was commissioned for the south wall in 2008, to mark the 400th Anniversary of the Letters Patent; it is simple and graceful, and it was designed by Carl Edwards’ daughter, Caroline Benyon.
History is respected at the Temple Church, but I get the impression that time is not allowed to stand still. This is a church for now – which is also well-known for its music. Check for opening and service times before you make a special trip.