Knights, Shakespeare and lawyers | A visit to London’s Medieval Temple Church
It’s one of the oldest churches in London, but barely known to so many as it’s quietly hidden away amidst the legal buildings of Temple. A stone’s throw from Middle Temple Hall is the 12th century Temple Church. Although the church is usually open on weekdays for a small charge, it also welcomes visitors for free one weekend every September as part of Open House London. For those who don’t know, Open House London is chance for Londoners and tourists to see inside buildings normally off limits to the public, or usually costing to enter, for free.
The name Temple covers an area in the City of London between Fleet Street and the River Thames, east of Aldwych. The name Temple actually stems back to a Medieval group known as the Knights Templar. They comprised of wealthy and powerful soldier monks who protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Their financial skills were an early form of banking and they were renowned for their fighting during the Crusades. Back in England, they named their headquarters after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Originally based in High Holborn, by the 1160s the Knights Templar found they needed a bigger site for their rapidly expanding organisation and purchased a new site near the Thames, which we now know today at Temple.
The original church was circular – with this now acting as the nave – and was based on the 6th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (1128-1190/1191) and it is believed King Henry II (1133-1189) was in attendance. The circular church measured 55 feet in diameter. It is believed the walls were painted different colours, while further decoration was provided by the Purbeck Marble columns – now acknowledged to be the oldest, surviving free-standing examples of these today. As well as the church, the Knights Templar also built residences and military training facilities on the surrounding land.
The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful and influential groups in England between the late 12th century and early 14th century. The Master of the Temple used to sit in Parliament, while many English Kings used the area as a residence. King Henry III (1207-1272) was such a fan of the Church, the original chancel was taken down and enlarged to accommodate his tomb after his death, but he later changed his mind and was buried at Westminster Abbey instead. However, one of his infant sons from his marriage to Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291) is laid to rest within the church.
In 1215, one of the Knights, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146/1147-1219) played a very important role in England’s history. In January 1215, he negotiated a tricky meeting at the Church between King John (1166-1216) and the rebelling barons. Marshal swore on behalf of the Monarch that the barons’ issues would be addressed that summer, which eventually led to the signing of the Magna Carta on 15 June. Today, Marshal’s likeness can be seen in one of the nine 13th and 14th century stone effigies of knights.
By 1307, the Knights Templar had fallen out of favour after the battle for the Holy Land was lost and continuing rumours about their secretive initiation ceremony. They were abolished by Pope Clement V (1264-1314) after instigation by Philip IV King of France (1268-1314). Many members of the Order were arrested, tortured and burned at the stake in France. King Edward II (1284-1327) took control of the Church and gave it to the Order of St John (Knights Hospitaller), who leased it to two colleges of lawyers, who needed a London base near Westminster. The two colleges became known as Inner Temple and Middle Temple – two of London’s Inns of Court.
However, The Temple was seized by the Crown again in 1540 when the Knights Hospitaller were abolished during the Dissolution of the Monastries under King Henry VIII (1491-1547). By 1608, King James I (1566-1625) responded to the petition of the two Inns seeking long-term security by granting them use of the Church indefinitely on the condition they maintain it. Over 400 years later, the two Inns still use the Church as their ceremonial chapel.
Amazingly, the Church managed to escape damage during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) added it to his list of many restorations and refurbishments anyway. Under Wren’s guidance, the church’s first organ was installed after disagreements between the two Inns over the design. An organ designed by Father Smith was installed, but was sadly destroyed during the World War II bombing campaign. In 1841, there was a further restoration by Smirke and Burton, with the walls and ceiling given a Victorian Gothic makeover – which would have been closer to its original design. However, this work was destroyed during by Nazi bombs on 10 May 1941. The roof of the Church was set on fire, and soon the nave and choir caught alight. In a twist of fate, it was discovered that some of Wren’s 17th century features had been placed safely in storage during the Victorian restoration and were re-installed during architect Walter Godrey’s (1881–1961) post-war restoration. The Church was rededicated in November 1958 – eight years after it was designated a Grade I-listed building.
I highly recommend a visit to the church during Open House or at any time. The stone effigies of the Knights are one of the church’s main attractions. It’s rare to find such a peaceful place in the centre of busy London. Fans of William Shakespeare may remember the Church and garden feature in Henry VI, Part 1, for the scene where the roses of York and Lancaster are picked ahead of the start of the War of the Roses. The Church also features in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, when he suggests circular churches were a salute to the Roman Pantheon and sun worship.
- Temple Church, Fleet Street, City of London, EC4Y 7BB. Nearest stations: Temple or City Thameslink. For information about visiting Temple Church during its regular opening hours at a small charge, visit their official website.
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