I have meant to visit the Temple Church for years, so I was grateful for the encouragement when it was included in the annual Open House London. Regularly cited as a ‘hidden gem,’ this City of London church actually does fit the bill. It’s certainly challenging to find and is a delight once discovered.
The church sits between Fleet Street and the River Thames, within the inner sanctum of Britain’s legal profession. Once you step through the little gateway on Fleet Street, you enter a quieter world with ancient buildings, courtyards, and gardens. Many may know it for its connection to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but its story is much older and more fascinating.
The Temple Church is rightly considered one of the most historic and beautiful churches in London. It was built by the Knights Templar, the soldier monks who protected pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is an active Anglican church with a choir (Sunday Choral Mattins is at 11.15 am, and there’s a Choral Evensong on Wednesdays at 5.30 pm).
To talk about Temple Church requires going back to the days of the Crusades and the role of the Knights Templar.
From around 638, the Holy Land had been controlled by the Saracens (the Christian name for Arabs and Muslims at the time), who had even spread their influence westwards through North Africa and into Spain. By the 1090s, they had started to lose some of that control, so Pope Urban II called for the Christian kings and knights of Europe to take up arms and ‘recover the burial place of Christ in the holy city of Jerusalem.’
The First Crusade was launched in 1095, but the ‘People’s Crusade,’ as it was called, was initially a disaster. A badly organized, largely unarmed band of Christians were massacred long before they ever got there. In 1099 a more professional army managed to capture Jerusalem, allowing Christian pilgrims once more to make their way to the Holy Land. Yet travelers were routinely attacked, robbed, and even killed.
The Knights Templar were founded to protect Christian pilgrims visiting the city. Their first headquarters was based in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount – a site that is sacred to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions. The knights took monastic vows yet soon became extraordinarily rich. By 1191, they were so wealthy they were able to buy the island of Cyprus.
The medieval order was dissolved in 1312.
The Round Church
Temple Church is one of the oldest buildings in London: only Westminster Abbey and the White Tower at the Tower Of London are older. It is also known to be one of only three existing Norman round churches which are still in England today. Plus, it is one of the few remaining examples of Romanesque architecture left intact in the city.
By the start of the 1160s, when their earlier accommodation in Holborn became too small, the Knights Templar started on their New Temple located between the City of London with its financial wealth to the east and Royal and political Westminster to the west.
The Round Church is modeled on the round church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine at the location believed to be the site of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The circular nave in the west, which is just 17m in diameter, was considered to be the closest you could get to Jerusalem without actually undertaking the dangerous pilgrimage to get there.
The Round Church was in use by 1162. It was constructed from cream-colored Caen stone, and the nave is supported by black columns made of Purbeck marble – at the time, they were the first free-standing columns to be constructed out of Purbeck marble. The nave is watched over by a succession of grotesque faces, carved in stone and probably originally brightly colored.
On 10 February 1185, the newly-built church was consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, during a lavish ceremony that is thought to have been attended by King Henry II.
During this time, the Knights Templar were extremely powerful in England. They used the church to protect pilgrims as they made their way to and from Jerusalem during the 12th century.
The larger rectangular section of the building extending to the east, which now forms the chancel, was added in the 13th century. King Henry III had expressed a desire to be buried here with his Queen, so the additional space was needed ready to accommodate a large tomb.
The chancel was consecrated on Ascension Day 1240. It is a Gothic style with thin, graceful columns, wide-span arches, and huge windows that flood the interior with light.
In the end, Henry was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, although one of his infant sons was buried at Temple Church.
One of the highlights that most visitors want to see here are the life-sized stone effigies of the Knights Templar laid out on the ground in the Round Church.
There are also four replica cast effigies in glass cases on loan from the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum).
Probably the most famous figure depicted in the stone effigies is that of William Marshal. He has been described as the “best knight that ever lived.”
He became one of the most powerful men in the country when he acted as Regent for Richard I when the King was abroad on crusade and for Henry III when the King was still a minor.
When Louis of France claimed the English crown for himself and invaded, William Marshal, aged over 70, defeated the French at the Battle of Lincoln.
He was also involved in the strife between King John and the barons that resulted in the King signing the Magna Carta (see below). Noted for his loyalty to the kings he served, Marshal ended his long life as the Earl of Pembroke and was buried at Temple Church on 20 May 1219. Two of his sons, and their corresponding effigies, rest alongside him.
Mother Church of the Common Law
The Templars were so powerful that several kings got them to look after their money and jewels. One of them, King John, took refuge in the church when he fell out with his barons. It was left to William Marshal to liaise between the two parties to bring about a resolution to the ever-increasing prospect of a civil war. That situation was averted by the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, a meadow outside Windsor, on 15 June 1215.
William Marshal remained loyal to the King who died in 1216. While Regent to the boy-king Henry III (who took the throne aged just 9 years), William twice reissued the Magna Carta under his own seal in 1216 and 1217. Henry III then issued its fourth (and final) version in 1225.
By 1258 the country was again on the verge of civil war. Yet again, the Temple was a valued meeting place for a new Council. In March 1259, they proclaimed at the Temple their first set of proposals, and the King summoned them to the Tower demanding the barons come unarmed. They refused and insisted on meeting in Westminster. Both sides compromised, and the meeting took place at Temple Church. From here on, the negotiations lead to the Parliament at Westminster from which has grown all parliamentary government in England and throughout the world.
Friday the 13th
Ever wondered why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky?
King Philip IV of France decided the Knights Templar were too powerful and too wealthy. On Friday 13th October 1307, he ordered the arrest of all the French Knights Templar. Pope Clement V eventually agreed with the French king and ordered all European Christian monarchs to arrest the Templars and seize their assets. In England, King Edward II followed the Pope’s instructions and took control of the London Temple. He gave it to the Knights Hospitallers as they were less controversial but still part of the crusades alongside the Templars. The Hospitallers rented out the Temple Church to two colleges of lawyers – what we now call Inner Temple and Middle Temple.
After the demise of the Knights Templar in the early 14th century and after the Reformation in the 16th century, Temple Church continued to be used by members of the legal profession although the Knights Hospitaller were dissolved and their assets were then owned by the crown.
In 1608 King James I granted the whole area of ‘The Temple’ to the society of lawyers in perpetuity.
The Inner Temple and Middle Temple sections each have their own courts, halls, gardens, and library collections, but the original church compound contained military training facilities, residences for kings and legates of the Pope, recreational grounds, and even an early depository bank.
In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, the church served as the scene for the start of the War of the Roses. As a result, hundreds of white and red roses were planted in the church’s gardens in 2002.
Sir Christopher Wren
The church escaped the flames of the Great Fire of London in 1666 but was still worked on during Sir Christoper Wren’s mass-rebuilding of The City of London.
In the late 17th century, various additions were made to the interior of the building during Wren’s restoration. These additions included wooden paneling on the walls, new wooden pews, screens that divided up the space in the church, and a new altarpiece. It was all in a Classical style that was later considered inappropriate for the graceful Gothic arches.
Some further restoration had been carried out in the 1820s, but the work really began about twenty years later. Two architects, Sydney Smirke (best known for the circular reading room at the British Museum) and Decimus Burton (designer of Hyde Park Corner and many buildings in Regent’s Park), were in charge of the project. They removed the unsympathetic 17th-century additions, as well as restoring the building’s structure, and adding brightly painted wall murals inspired by pre-Reformation church paintings.
We often presume today that churches have always been quite dull and dour, but pre-Reformation artwork has shown how much color was used in decoration.
Second World War
While the church wasn’t harmed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, it was badly damaged during World War Two by German air raids in 1941. Incendiary bombs destroyed the roof of the round nave, and the heat of the blaze cracked the black Purbeck marble columns. All of the original wooden parts of the church (as well as the Victorian renovations) were destroyed as well as the many colorful wall paintings.
Temple Church has been lovingly restored and is now less flamboyant but still striking.
Temple Church has a strong connection to the US.
Six members of Inner or Middle Temple were among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776: Thomas Hayward, jun., from 1778 Judge of the High Court of South Carolina; Thomas Lynch; Thomas McKean, President of Delaware and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in 1777; Arthur Middleton; William Paca, later Governor of Maryland; and Edward Rutledge, later Governor of South Carolina. John Dickinson of Middle Temple, who drafted the Articles of Federation and became President of Delaware in 1781, famously refused to sign since he was still seeking reconciliation with Britain as well as liberty.
Seven Middle Templars signed the American Constitution in 1787: John Blair, Chief Justice of Virginia; John Dickinson; Jared Ingersoll, first Attorney-General of Pennsylvania; William Livingston, Governor of New Jersey; John Rutledge, chairman of the drafting committee and the second Chief Justice of the United States; Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
The preamble of the American Declaration of Independence declares: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
On 31 August 1858, Abraham Lincoln, arguing against slavery, described that first sentence as “the gem of the Magna Charta of human liberty.”
The Da Vinci Code
Even though Temple Church has over 800 years of history, many will have only heard about it because of The Da Vinci Code. It certainly captured the imagination of people from around the world.
The controversial book attaches significance to the fact that the building design doesn’t follow the typical cross-shaped plan of Christian churches implying that it is a deliberately pagan design. As we have already discovered above, there is no great conspiracy about that as it was created to echo Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In a scene in the film, the main characters Langston and Sophie are in Temple Church trying to solve a riddle: In London lies a knight a Pope interred. His labor’s fruit a Holy wrath incurred. You seek the orb that out be on his tomb. It speaks of Rosy flesh and seeded womb.
The characters traveled to London as they initially believed that the stone effigies of the knights which lay in the church are actual tombs. They soon realize the riddle is leading them to Westminster Abbey – not Temple Church.
Address: Temple, London EC4Y 7BB
Opening Hours: The Church is usually open Monday to Friday, 10 am – 4 pm
Official Website: www.templechurch.com