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Knights, Shakespeare and lawyers: Visit the Medieval Temple Church at Open House London

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Temple Church dates back to the 12th century and is one of the oldest in the City of London

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Former members of the Knights Templar have been depicted in nine stone effigies

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, this month sees the building welcome visitors over 19-20 September for free 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.

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The roof was restored in the 1950s after the original was destroyed by WWII bombs

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. Read the rest of this entry

Middle Temple Hall: Legal life, Twelfth Night and a rare survivor of Elizabethan architecture

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Middle Temple Hall, a 16th century Elizabethan Hall

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The High Table was made from an Oak in Windsor Forest and was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I

For over 2,000 years, our beloved London has been ravaged by invasions, fires, war and terrorism. For every loss of an architectural wonder, we fortunately also have another preserved. The 16th century, Grade I listed Middle Temple Hall is one such historic wonder – amazingly it survived the Great Fire Of London and just about scraped through World War II with some damage to the eastern end. While many other buildings of its era have been turned into a museum, Middle Temple Hall is still functioning for the legal profession – as it was designed for – so is rarely open to the public. It is widely considered as the finest example of an Elizabethan hall in London and has hosted many historical figures over the years.

Middle Temple Hall is located in the Temple area of London – near where the City of London meets the City of Westminster. History of the area stems back to the 13th century when legal students used to lodge and study in the vicinity. The Temple Church nearby was built in the 13th century and remains open to the public, services permitting. Construction on the Hall began in 1562 by law reporter Edmund Plowden, who was Treasurer of the Inn at the time. He has been immortalised as a bust by Morton Edwards, which stands in the Hall. Completed in 1573, the Hall is 100 feet long and 41 feet wide. One of the main attractions is the stunning wooden hammer-beamed roof, which prompted an audible ‘wow’ from me when I first walked into the Hall. The oak wood panelling on the walls feature hundreds of coats of arms and stained glass windows above them of the Readers and other notable Middle Templars.

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The double hammerbeam roof was completed in 1570, while the screen was erected four years later

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Historic: Important figures have passed through these doors, including Charles Dickens, Inigo Jones and Sir Walter Raleigh

At the west end of the hall are seven oil paintings of past Royals, including Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II (1630-1685), James II (1633-1701), William III (1650-1702), Queen Anne (1665-1714) and George I (1660-1727). Queen Elizabeth opened the Hall in 1573 and often dined at the hall. It is even rumoured she watched what is believed to be the first production of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in the Hall on 2 February 1602. Underneath the paintings is the High Table – made of three 29 foot planks of a single oak, which was floated down the River Thames from Windsor Forest, apparently a gift from Queen Elizabeth.

At the east end of the hall is an elaborate screen, which was built in 1574. Two double-leaved doors were added in 1671 in an attempt to prevent boisterous behaviour by junior members of The Bar. However, the screen was heavily damaged in World War II by flying masonry from nearby Elm Court, which was destroyed by a landmine in October 1940. The remains of the screen were stored in 200 sacks until the War was over and it has since been painstakingly restored. During World War II, a total of 122 out of a total of 285 chambers at the Temple were destroyed.

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The entrance to Middle Temple Hall was designed by James Savage in 1831

Over the centuries, a host of historic figures became members of Middle Temple, including R D Blackmore, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Inigo Jones, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1852, the Four Inns of Court (together with Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn or Lincoln’s Inn) ceased to be responsible for legal education. However, the Bench, Bar and students still meet for lunch in the Hall and host functions. Today, the Inns provide training and support to newly qualified lawyers.

Although the building is usually off-limits to the public, I was fortunate enough to visit during Open House London this September. While the building looked impressive from the outside, I wasn’t quite prepared for how magnificent it was inside. Occasionally the hall is open to the public for its annual Christmas fair and other events.

  • Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Middle Temple website.
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Paintings of James II (left) and William III above the High Table


To find out the history of the Temple Bar arch, a gate to the City of London named after Temple which stood nearby, click here.

For other Open House London posts, read:

For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.

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Temple Bar: The only surviving gateway into the City of London

Temple Bar © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar arch stands at the south entrance to Paternoster Square in the City of London

Temple Bar © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Always open: The 1.2 ton gates were opened to the public on 10 November 2004

Like many ancient cities, London was surrounded by a wall, with visitors and returning residents gaining entrance through a variety of gates. There have been numerous gates – or archways – into the City of London over the past two millenia, but today, only one remains. Temple Bar is currently located just north of St Paul’s Cathedral – half a mile east from where it originally stood on Fleet Street until the late 19th century. While the current structure is a 17th century design by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), it replaced a previous wooden structure and before that a chain and posts. Many of London’s gates – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Newgate (which no longer exist) – date back to Roman times. However, Temple Bar dates back to the Middle Ages when the City of London authority erected a passageway to control traffic between the juxtaposing cities of London and Westminster. The name Temple refers to the area south of Fleet Street known for its law courts – which now features Temple underground station on the Circle and District line. The Bar at Temple was first mentioned in 1293, which historians believe was a simply a chain between two posts. However, over the years, many different structures were erected on the site. In the late Middle Ages, a timber arch stood on the spot and amazingly avoided being destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Temple Bar King Charles © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Stuart Royals: Statues of King Charles I (1600-1649) and his son Charles II (1630-1685) are on the south facing part of the arch

Temple Bar London 1878

Temple Bar on its original Fleet Street site in 1878 – the year it was dismantled and taken to Herts
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Great Fire, the City was due a big makeover – building by necessity and also an attempt to build a more flowing, ordered space – 17th century town planning. The wooden Temple Bar was falling into disrepair so Wren was given the task of building a new gate, along with all the other structures he was designing and overseeing in the City. King Charles II (1630-1685) commissioned Wren to create the new Temple Bar. Made from Portland Stone, it took three years to build and was completed in 1672. The gate features a wide arch for road traffic and two smaller arches for pedestrians to pass through. In alcoves on each side of the Temple were statues of Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II, James I (1566-1625) and Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), which were carved by John Bushnell (d.1701). In the 18th century, the heads of traitors were put on spikes above the roof of the arch to serve as a warning to those thinking about breaking the City’s laws.

Despite the respect of such a historic monument, the City of London Corporation wanted to widen the road and it was decided to dismantle it carefully stone-by-stone in January 1878. After its 2,700 stones were put in storage, two years later the arch was bought by brewer Henry Meux, to be reconstructed in his Hertfordshire estate Theobalds Park.

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Horace Jones’ Temple Bar marker today outside the Royal Courts of Justice

So for 123 years, Temple Bar stood in a clearing in a wood in Hertfordshire. Despite its Grade I-listing, it deteriorated and suffered vandalism over the years. The arch was bought by the Temple Bar Trust (founded by Sir Hugh Wontner in 1976) in 1984 with the hope of restoring it and bringing it back to the Square Mile. Finally, on 10 November 2004, the bright, shiny Temple Bar was completed and open to the public, now situated at the entrance to Paternoster Square by St Paul’s Cathedral. The gates of the arch, weighing just over 1.2 tons each, were opened by the Lord Mayor at the time and the 14 stonemasons who had worked on the rebuilding Temple Bar. Meanwhile, on its previous site where Fleet Street meets The Strand (in the City of Westminster) outside the Royal Courts of Justice, there now stands a marker – a neo Renaissance pedestal by Horace Jones featuring Charles Bell Birch’s sculpture of a dragon – the symbol for the City of London. The pedestal, which was unveiled in 1880) features likenesses of Queen Victoria and Edward VIII (the then-Prince of Wales), who were the last royals to pass through Wren’s gate.

  • Temple Bar is located at Paternoster Square, just north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Nearest stations: St Paul’s or City Thameslink.

For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

For the history of the Temple area of London – where the bar originally stood – read about Middle Temple Hall.

For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.

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