Tucked away into a courtyard in Temple Bar on the banks of the Thames is one of the oldest churches in London, Temple Church. The round church was once the center of Templar activities in England, surrounded by living quarters, stables, meeting rooms, and storage facilities. Today one has to follow a pathway between law offices until one finds a small sign pointing to the church.
This is actually known as the “New Temple.” The first was built around 1128, soon after Hugh de Payns visited on his grand tour to drum up interest in the order. The old Temple was in Holborn in London, then a rural area. When the foundations were uncovered in 1595, it was found that this church was round, made from stone from Caen, in northern France.1 Many of the Templar churches were round, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem built in the time of Constantine.2 Round churches were also built for the same reason by the Hospitallers.
The Templars moved to the present site, between Fleet Street and the Thames River, in 1161 and began to build the New Temple Church. The church was consecrated on February 10, 1185, by Heraclius, patriarch of Jerusalem and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.3In time a “hall of priests” was built and connected to the church by a cloister and, a bit farther from the church, there was a “hall of knights” to house the Templar brothers.4In 1240 the rectangular choir was added (see photo
Temple Church nave. (Sharan Newman)
above) as well as a chapel dedicated to Saint Anne, the Virgin’s mother.5
This would have been a busy place, with a bakehouse, smithy, stables, and other domestic buildings. The knights would have taken care of repairs to their armor and other equipment in the Temple area. For serious training, they had a field of about fifteen acres on the other side of the Thames, known as Fickettscroft.6
During the trials of the Templars in England, one accusation made against them was that they had murdered an Irish Templar by putting him in the “penitential cell” in the northwest corner of the choir. The cell is four and a half feet long and two feet, nine inches wide. There are two window slits that would have allowed the prisoner to see the round part of the church and the altar.7
At the dissolution of the Templars in 1313, all their goods were to be turned over to the Hospitaller Knights. However, Edward II of England instead gave the Temple property in London to his cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Thomas, however, lost his head (literally) as a result of a rebellion against the king. Edward then gave the property to the earl of Pembroke, Aylmer de Valence.8It passed through several other hands before the Hospitallers finally received the property. Since they already had a headquarters in London, the Hospitallers leased the Inner and Middle Temple to a group of lawyers.9
The former servants of the Templars stayed on during the transition, Edward II paying their wages and pensions.10
Over the years, through changes in kings and governments the lawyers held on to the Temple.11 In 1677 they were finally rewarded for their tenacity by being allowed to buy the property from King Charles II.12 During the sixteenth century, the church was used in between services for lawyer-client conferences, which took place while walking about between the knightly effigies on the floor.13
During the Reformation the church was whitewashed over, then the floor was covered with “hundred of cartloads of earth and rubbish.” 14A restoration was made in 1840, including clearing the floor and reconstructing the shattered effigies.
The effigies in the church are of nine knights and a bishop. Unfortunately, it is not certain which sculpture is which knight. They have been moved around so much over the centuries that the identifications have been scrambled. They have also been “restored” several times. The originals date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. We know that one of them is Sir Geoffrey de Magnaville, earl of Essex, who died in 1144 and was first buried in the Old Temple and moved to the New. Others are of William Marshal, the first earl of Pembroke, who was admitted to the society of the Templars on his deathbed, and two of his sons. Marshall is considered the prototype of the perfect knight, loyal, brave, and valiant. He was the subject of stories and songs even in his lifetime. The Templars must have been pleased to have his patronage.
Most of the other effigies are just known as “knight” or “crusader knight.”15
The effigies represent not Templars but their confrators, or “associates,” nobles who wished to support the order without actually joining.
A straight-legged knight at the Temple Church. (Sharan Newman)
Temple Church in 1837, before bombs and restorations.
(Art Resource, NY)
The men were buried in Templar cemeteries and commemorated in stone in the church. The cross-legged knights are those who have either gone on a crusade or at least taken a vow to do so.
The church survived intact until 1941, when it was bombed by the Germans. The vault survived but the columns cracked in the heat and had to be replaced. Much of what we see today is restoration and re-creation.
It’s difficult these days to imagine the Temple church in its proper setting. Brick buildings crowd around it now. Originally, it would have had a grassy courtyard between all of the buildings of the Templars. Inside the church, Templar knights would have recited the Hours by daylight and candlelight. The wind might have blown in from the river or from the direction of the stables, a scent the knights would have preferred. The greatest lords and the richest merchants would have come to deposit their treasure for safekeeping or to beg a loan.
There would have been noise and color and excitement. But now all that remains is a small and lonely church.
George Worley, The Church of the Knights Templars in London: A Description of the Fabric and Its Contents, with a Short History of the Order (London, 1907) p. 14.
Malcom Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge, 1994) p. 195.
Worley, p. 15. “Dedicate hec ecclesia in honore Beate Marie.” The inscription was destroyed during repairs in 1695 and rewritten on an inside wall.
Thomas W. Parker, The Knights Templars in England (University of Arizona Press, 1963) p. 24.
Worley, p. 15.
Parker, p. 24.
Worley, pp. 49-50. This doesn’t mean that the Templars were all four feet tall, but that the cell was intended to be horribly uncomfortable.
Worley, p. 16.
C. G. Addison, The Temple Church (London, 1843; reprint) p. 11.
Addison, pp. 3-4.
Worley, p. 16.
Ibid., p. 21.
Ibid., p. 43.
Ibid., pp. 30-37.