Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:00 pm
Some years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to do some work for the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London. The days I spent there were almost like being in a time capsule; all around were ghostly whispers from our past, of crusader knights, Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses, the exploration of the New World, Shakespeare, the divisions of Civil War, the founding of the United States of America and the destruction of the Second World War.
An ancient thoroughfare, Middle Temple Lane, runs between Fleet Street and the Embankment. Double cliché alert: to tread here is to take a walk through history; and the area is one of London’s hidden gems (it really is). Known as the Temple, this little corner of the capital is named for the medieval order of soldier monks, the Knights Templar, who from 1160-ish had their London Headquarters on this very spot, after they outgrew their previous accommodation in Holborn. So this was where they worked, ate, slept, trained, played – and prayed. They built their round Temple Church here, which is still very much in use and which was consecrated by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, in 1185. After the Knights Templar were disgraced, and then officially suppressed by Pope Clement in 1312, the lands eventually passed into the hands of their rivals, the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, or Hospitallers. From sometime in the 14th century, maybe before, the area became popular with the legal profession. And it still is: this gated community is home to two of the four Inns of Court, which between them have sole responsibility in England and Wales for admitting law students as barristers.
Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn are located to the north of Fleet Street, beyond the Royal Courts of Justice. Sharing the Temple site with no visible barrier between them are the Middle and Inner Temples – the latter largely on the east side of Middle Temple Lane and the former along Middle Temple Lane and to the west of it.
The whole place is an oasis of tranquillity, of elegant squares, barristers’ chambers and neat, fragrant, gardens. Quoting from my grandfather’s dog-eared Victorian edition of Barnaby Rudge,
“There are, still, worse places than the Temple, on a sultry day, for basking in the sun, or resting idly in the shade. There is yet a drowsiness in its courts, and a dreamy dullness in its trees and gardens; those who pace its lanes and squares may yet hear the echoes of their footsteps on the sounding stones, and read upon its gates, in passing from the tumult of the Strand or Fleet Street, ‘Who enters here leaves noise behind.’ ”
The societies of the Inner and Middle Temples were established by the 14th century, as tenants of the Hospitallers. The landlord changed in 1540, when the land was seized by Henry VIII at the Reformation, but a grant of letters patent in 1608 by James I gave the security of freehold in perpetuity to both societies, who voluntarily partitioned the land between themselves in 1732. It was a particular stipulation of the letters patent that the land had to be used for the accommodation and education of lawyers. A further condition was that the societies shared responsibility for maintaining the Temple Church. At the same time, James preserved certain privileges that the societies had inherited from the Knights Templar, which exempted them from the control of external authorities, civil or ecclesiastical. Those privileges more or less continue to this day, which means that the Inner and Middle Temples are their own local authorities and do not come within the jurisdiction of the Corporation of London. Perhaps that’s one reason why Middle Temple Lane is still lit by gas lamps – though the last lamplighter, Mr Balman, retired some years ago (“he made the night a little brighter” etc). Anyway, the letters patent were confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008, in a ceremony to mark the societies’ 400th anniversary.
By Tudor times, studying at the Inns of Court had become an alternative to Oxford or Cambridge, offering an excellent general education as well as grounding in the Law, but with the advantages of more freedom than at the universities and the additional lure of proximity to the Royal Court. In fact, the vast majority of members did not pursue a career in the Law – though many went on to achieve success in other fields. The focal point of both Inner and Middle Temples was – and still is – their halls. This is where students and barristers ate together (“kept commons”), took part in debates and legal exercises, and which were also used for – sometimes riotous – entertainment. Inner Temple Hall is on the site of the original Templar Hall and Middle Temple Hall may have been inherited from the old knights too – though the whole Temple area was much wrecked during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
In any event, by the 16th century, the growth in student numbers and the poor state of the old Middle Temple Hall necessitated a replacement. They started building the new Middle Temple Hall in 1562 and finished it in 1573. It is 100 feet long, 40 feet wide, spanned by a double hammer-beam roof and, quite frankly, one of the best examples of an Elizabethan hall you will ever see. At the far end from the entrance is the High, or Bench, Table, made from three 29 feet long planks of a single oak from Windsor Park, allegedly a gift from Queen Elizabeth I, floated down the Thames and manhandled in through a window before the building was finished. Above this are portraits of monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II and James II. In the windows are memorials to notable members, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Adorning the panelled walls are members’ coats of arms, which date from 1597. A table, known as the cupboard, stands by the Bench Table; it is used by members when they are called to the Bar (to become barristers) and is allegedly made from a hatch cover from Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. Drake visited the Hall, and dined at the Bench Table – as did, allegedly, Queen Elizabeth herself. Indeed, the great and the good continue to dine in the Hall to this day; of course, I have had lunch there myself. In the entrance to the Hall is a heavily restored poop deck lantern from the Golden Hind – it was virtually destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. Badly damaged in the same air raid, and also carefully restored, is a beautifully carved screen by the entrance, made in 1574.
The first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed in Middle Temple Hall in 1602. Its 400th anniversary was celebrated in the Hall in 2002 with a repeat performance by an all-male cast, in Tudor style, in which a young Eddie Redmayne made his professional debut as Viola and Mark Rylance played the part of Olivia.
Shakespeare’s connection with Middle Temple does not end there. Temple Garden was famous for its roses and it was there, in Henry VI Part I, that Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, plucked a white rose and the Earl of Somerset plucked a red for the Lancastrians. This marked the start of the terrible English dynastic power struggle we know as the Wars of the Roses, that were fought for more than 30 years between 1455 and 1487. We don’t know for sure that the rose plucking event actually took place, but the white and red roses are still the emblems of Yorkshire and Lancashire (though the rivalry is a little better humoured now). Shakespeare also penned the line, in Henry VI Part II, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers”, spoken by Dick the Butcher, one of Jack Cade’s henchmen in the latter’s rebellion of 1450. Apparently, there are alternative interpretations of what Shakespeare meant; but it seems pretty clear to me.
Sir Walter Raleigh was just one of many Middle Templar explorers and adventurers; others included Sir Martin Frobisher and Sir John Hawkins. Member Bartholomew Gosnold sailed for New England in 1602 and named Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. In 1606, he was captain of one of the three ships that sailed from London and founded the first permanent settlement in North America at Jamestown. This expedition was made by the Virginia Company – supported by several notable members of the Middle Temple.
In the Middle Temple library are the Molyneux Globes, a unique pair of terrestrial and celestial globes made in Lambeth by Emery Molyneux in 1592. They are the only known pair of such globes in the world and the terrestrial one was the most geographically correct when it was made. Naturally, some bits are missing – including Australia and New Zealand, which had not been invented (or ‘discovered’) at the time.
In the 17th century, tensions between Parliament and the King were reflected in the differing views of Middle Templars: John Pym, MP and an early vocal critic of Charles I, Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester and a commander in the Parliamentary army, and Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, one of the king’s commissioners, were all members of the Inn. By and large, London was pro-Parliament; it must have been a difficult place for anyone with Royalist sympathies.
The connections with North America continue beyond exploration and settlement. Several members of Middle Temple were American revolutionaries: five were signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – Thomas Heyward, Thomas Lynch, Thomas McKean, Arthur Middleton and Edward Rutledge; seven were signatories to the Constitution of the newly formed United States in 1787 – John Blair, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, John Dickinson, Jared Ingersoll, William Livingston, Charles Pinkney and John Rutledge. The latter was chairman of the drafting committee and John Dickinson apparently coined the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Quite right, too.
We should mention the Second World War, when Temple Gardens was turned over to the cultivation of vegetables and the whole Temple area suffered its share of devastation, courtesy of Göring’s Luftwaffe. Particular raids: on 15 October 1940 resulted in extensive damage to Middle Temple Hall, blowing a hole in the east end and shattering the Tudor screen into hundreds of pieces; on 12 December a landmine caused a 40 foot crater next to the library, which subsequently had to be pulled down; on 25 March 1941, the Hall was narrowly saved from destruction by incendiaries; and on 10 May, the area east of Middle Temple Lane, the Inner Temple, was pretty much devastated. Amazingly, Temple Church was saved – though it was badly hit.
There was extensive rebuilding after the war. So visiting Temple now involves a trip through architecture from medieval to modern. Many of the buildings are listed. Stepping through the 17th century Great Gate off Fleet Street into Middle Temple Lane, you’ll immediately see buildings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, some of which were once shops. Wander down, dip in and out of the various courtyards (don’t miss Temple Church), look at the names on the barristers’ chambers and spot delightful architectural fripperies as you go.
A personal favourite is Fountain Court, just outside Middle Temple Hall, where there has been “the plash of falling water,” as Dickens puts it, since 1681. Dickens seems to have known Temple well. It is claimed that the fountain was the first permanent one in London. Next to it are two black mulberry trees, planted to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1887; those in the know idly pick the fruits in late summer. There’s a beautiful wisteria nearby.
At the end of Middle Temple Lane is an archway leading into Temple Gardens, under a wedding cake-like Victorian building, onto Embankment. The Knights Templar had direct access onto the Thames, but this was interrupted when the Embankment was built in the 1860s, simultaneously helping to solve London’s sewage crisis, providing routes for the District and Circle underground lines, reducing the width of the river and deepening it. It also enlarged Temple Gardens and the two Inns still have right of access to the Thames via their own private set of granite steps.
It is hardly surprising that Middle Temple is a favourite location for film and TV. Amongst others, it has featured in the Da Vinci Code (2006), Bridget Jones II (2004), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Elizabeth (1998) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).
Long after I had completed my work for the Middle Temple, the man I worked for, an unfailingly courteous and erudite gentleman, generously gave Mrs Britain and me a guided tour. I hope my brief essay does justice to his kindness, and the place itself.
You should note that there is no public right of way through the Temple, though there is public access and no one will challenge the well-behaved pedestrian. But, external gates are locked at night, over weekends and on public holidays. You might get access via Tudor Street at these times. Bear in mind this is a working area. You are not allowed into buildings – including Middle Temple Hall – unless you are a member, have been invited or are part of a booked tour. See the Middle Temple’s website for information.
The badge of the Middle Temple is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, with a flag bearing St George’s Cross. You’ll spot it on buildings. A red cross on a white background and the lamb with the flag were each were emblems of the Knights Templar – as was the two knights on one horse, often used on seals and a symbol of poverty.