The Knights Templar: their London headquarters today
Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon
The "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon" order, better known as "The Knights Templar", was founded in 1119 AD, and dissolved by the Pope in 1312.
In just under 200 years, they became an immensely powerful and important order of fighting monks. They were far from the only military order, but they became (and remain) the best known. They were the wealthiest, and most prestigious order.
Other monastic fighting orders included the "Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta" more usually known as the "Knights Hospitaller", the "Hospitallers of St Thomas of Canterbury at Acre" or the "Knights of St. Thomas" and "The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem" better known as the "Teutonic Order.
The Knights Templar remain fascinating to this day. And in London, you can still visit the Templars' New Temple, and see the Temple Church they built. It's still a fully-functioning parish church, and open to visitors.
I am a member of Middle Temple, and therefore a parishioner of Temple Church. It's an absolutely fascinating place.
A (very) brief history of the Knights Templar
In 1099 AD, the First Crusade re-captured the Holy Land in general, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, following the Muslim invasions which had conquered the area some 300 years earlier.
Lots of Christian pilgrims wanted to travel to the area, but it was a very dangerous journey.
Two ex-crusaders therefore established a monastic order to protect travellers to and from the Holy Land.
The first members were all related, by blood or as in-laws, to each other, and there were 9 founding members.
The order was approved by the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, and one of those crusaders, Hugh de Payens, became the first Grand Master of the order.
Baldwin gave the Temple Mount, the site of the Temple of Solomon, and now the site of the Dome of the Rock, to the Knights. They thus acquired both a headquarters, and a name for the new order.
It swiftly gained status as a favoured and important order, and was endorsed by the Papacy in 1129, and became even more powerful in 1139 when it became answerable only to the Pope, and therefore exempt from local laws, and Kings, Dukes, and Bishops.
But by the early 14th century, its sheer power and wealth attracted the envious attention of the greedy and power-hungry French King, Philip IV.
He owed the Templars rather a lot of money, and turned his full attention to the destruction of the order.
Many Templars were accused of heresy, burned alive, imprisoned in terrible conditions, or sent away to other, obscure orders of monks.
The Pope completed the task by dissolving the Knights Templar altogether in 1312.
The property from the order went mostly to the Knights Hospitaller, another military order of monks.
In some countries, the Knights re-formed into new orders, with the same property, same people, and a new name. Some was grabbed by the rulers of the areas in question.
The Knights Templar in England
Hugh de Payens, the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, visited England to set up a branch of the Order.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded his visit, saying:
This same year, (A.D. 1128,) Hugh of the Temple came from Jerusalem to the king in Normandy, and the king received him with much honour, and gave him much treasure in gold and silver, and afterwards he sent him into England, and there he was well received by all good men, and all gave him treasure, and in Scotland also, and they sent in all a great sum in gold and silver by him to Jerusalem, and there went with him and after him so great a number as never before since the days of Pope Urban.
When the Knights first set up shop in London, they occupied a site on what it now High Holborn.
Holborn is an area of London between the two traditional cities of London and Westminster, and it was therefore between the commercial centre (still the commercial centre of London, called "the City" or "the Square Mile") and the home of government and religion in Westminster.
The Knights Templar also built a round church near Castle Baynard, in the City of London, near where the River Fleet flowed into the Thames.
The High Holborn site became crowded. The Knights acquired a site to the south of High Holborn, called the New Temple, and built a large complex of buildings there.
There were dormitories, eating houses, a treasury, training grounds, stables, cook-houses, and a multitude of the other buildings needed to sustain a group of fighting monks.
The Temple Church was also built there, and was consecrated in 1185 in the presence of King Henry II, and Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The New Temple
The New Temple became an important place in English affairs.
Kings kept their valuables there, used the Templars as bankers, and held meetings there.
Henry II attended the consecration of the Temple Church, and donated large sums and land to the order.
Henry III buried one of his sons there, and planned to be buried there himself (although he later changed his mind and was buried in Westminster Abbey instead).
King John was staying at the New Temple when the Barons and he agreed on the Magna Carta, later signed at Runnymede.
The Building of Temple Church
The Knights Templar were founded in, and passionate about, Jerusalem.
Most Christian Churches, in the early Medieval period, were built as they still are today, in a cross or square shape.
The Knights, however, tended to build their churchs and temples after the fashion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They did not build all their churches in this way, and some other orders, such as the Knights Hospitallers, also build the odd round church.
The Temple Church was a round church from the beginning.
The Church has two main parts; the round church to the east, and the later rectangular addition to the west.
Until it was broken during renovation work in the late 17th century, an inscription above the door of the round church read:
On the 10th of February, in the year from the incarnation of our Lord 1185, this church was consecrated in honour of the blessed Mary by our lord Heraclius, by the grace of God patriarch of the church of the Resurrection, who hath granted an indulgence of fifty days to those yearly seeking it.
After Henry III stated he intended to be buried in Temple Church, the rectangular part was added. The chonicoler monk, Matthew Paris, wrote of the occasion:
About the same time (A.D. 1240) was consecrated the noble church of the New Temple at London, an edifice worthy to be seen, in the presence of the king and much of the nobility of the kingdom, who, on the same day, that is to say, the day of the Ascension, after the solemnities of the consecration had been completed, royally feasted at a most magnificent banquet, prepared at the expense of the Hospitallers.
The styles of the two parts are quite different. The Round Church was built in the later Norman style, and is 55 feet in diameter. The arches and windows are a mixture of the round Norman style, and the early gothic pointed arches.
The rectangular part is pure Medieval gothic, with slender, pointed arches, and narrow columns.
After the Knight Templars' suppression
After the order was dissolved, the New Temple was handed over to the Knights Hospitallers.
They had centres of their own, and therefore decided to rent the New Temple site to two colleges of lawyers, who liked the site between London and Westminster.
The two organisations, set up in a similar fashion to the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, shared the Temple Church between them as their private chapel.
Henry VIII did not exempt the Knights Hospitallers from the dissolution of the monastaries during the Reformation, and their property passed to the Crown in the late 1530s.
The two Inns of Court, Middle Temple and Inner Temple, continued to rent their premises from the Crown.
On 13th August 1608, King James I granted the Middle and Inner Temple a Royal Charter giving them use of the Temple site in perpetuity, provided that they maintained and cared for the Temple Church between them, a charter which remains valid today.
Middle Temple is "my" Inn – I am a member of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.
All barristers must, to this day, belong to one of the four Inns of Court; see this article for more details of barristers in England and Wales.
Middle Temple is based around the long, cobbled street known as "Middle Temple Lane".
This runs south from Fleet Street downhill to the Thames. Most of the Inn’s buildings are either on Middle Temple Lane, or in the pedestrianised courts off it, such as Brick Court, Elm Court, Essex Court, Fountain Court and Pump Court.
The Courts are wonderful to wander through. They are small, intimate, and lined with brick and stone buildings which were built from the 16th century onwards.
There are several foot entrances to Middle Temple, through which pedestians may enter, but the two main ways through the wall that surrounds the Inn are at either end of the Lane – on Fleet Street and the Victoria Embankment .
After 8pm during the working week, and at weekends, the only way in and out of the Temple is through Tudor Street.
The architecture of Temple Church
The entrance to the Temple Church is on the south side of the building. It is a beautiful door, in a classically Norman style, deeply recessed into the wall. Columns on either side of the doorway are carved with roses, leaves, and abstract patterns.
At the top end of the columns are carved statues of saints, monks, and a King and Queen.
The round part of the church is held up by 5 columns in the inner circle, and the outer circle, or cloister, leans up towards the roof above. High up are many carvings of beast, the souls of the damned in hell or purgatory, and other absolutely beautiful and astonishing stone carvings.
The rectangular part of the church consists of a central nave, and two aisles either side. The pointed gothic arches and columns of Purbeck Marble and Caen Stone allow light to flood into the building.
The Knights Templar also built a cell, for punishment. This was 4 feet 6 inches long, and 2 feet 6 inches wide, so an adult could not lie down in it. A window allowed the prisoner to watch the Mass in the main church.
Visiting Temple Church today
Inside the church are life-size effigies of nine Templar knights, showing their swords, armour, and hero-status.
Some of the tombs were slightly damaged during the Blitz, but all are still visible.
The Blitz, or the bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, caused much damage in London. For more information, see this article about the horrors of the Second World War bombs which fell on the whole country.
Taking after the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the nave is rounded, 55 feet in diameter, with the windows placed high up
in the walls, letting the light flow down to the person inside.
The wonderful stained-glass window at the eastern end of the Temple Church dates back only 50 years. It was installed after the Second World War and shows Christ at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In one scene shown in the window Christ is driving the
money-changers out of the Temple, in another he is talking to the disciples, and in a
third scene he is progressing towards the Temple on his donkey on Palm Sunday.
The church is beautiful, with a unique history and a current, unusual, collegiate use. I work only a few minutes' walk away from the Temple Church, and I pass it every day. I am still overcome with admiration every time I see it.
It is open during the day from Wednesday to Saturday. (See the Temple Church's website in the link to the right of this text for current opening hours and services)
The church can be a little difficult to find if you don’t know the area, as the Temple is walled away from the hustle and bustle of central London. If you are coming from Fleet Street, the pedestrian-only entrance is sign-posted towards the Temple Church.
From Temple underground station, one must walk up Middle Temple Lane, turn second right into Elm Court, and then walk through the court to get to the Temple Church.
The closest tube stations are Temple and Blackfriars (which are on the District and
Circle lines), and Chancery Lane (Central Line). Temple and Chancery
Lane stations are both closed on Sundays. Holborn tube is also fairly close (on the Piccadilly and Central lines).
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