Templars and Tragedies: The Secrets of London’s Temple Church | History Hit

Templars and Tragedies: The Secrets of London’s Temple Church

The exterior of Temple Church in London, England.
Image Credit: Anibal Trejo / Shutterstock.com

Nestled in the heart of London, not far from St Paul’s Cathedral, is an area known as Temple. It’s a maze of cobbled paths, narrow arches and quirky courtyards, so distinctly quiet compared to the bustle of Fleet Street, that Charles Dickens observed, “Who enters here leaves noise behind”. 

And it’s lucky it’s so quiet, for this is London’s legal quarter, and behind these elegant facades are some of the biggest brains in the country – barristers pouring over texts and scribbling down notes. There are two of the four of London’s Inns of Court here: the Middle Temple and Inner Temple. 

It might be an oasis of hushed tones today, but it wasn’t always so tranquil. Geoffrey Chaucer, who mentioned one of the clerks of the Inner Temple in the prologue of Canterbury Tales, was probably a student here, and he was recorded for fighting with a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street.

And in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the mob poured through these lanes, into the houses of the Temple lawyers. They carried off everything they could find – valuable books, deeds and rolls of remembrance – and burnt them to cinders. 

But in the centre of this maze is a building far older and far more intriguing than the antics of Geoffrey Chaucer or Wat Tyler’s revolting peasants. Here is a building drenched in almost nine centuries of turbulent history – of crusading knights, secret pacts, hidden cells and blazing firestorms. It’s a historic gem full of secrets: Temple Church. 

The Knights Templar 

In 1118, a holy order of crusading knights was formed. They took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow, to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, as they traveled to and from Jerusalem.

These knights were given headquarters in Jerusalem, near Temple Mount – believed to be the Temple of Solomon. So they became known as the ‘fellow soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem’, or Templars, for short. 

In 1162, these Templar Knights built this Round Church as their base in London, and the area became known as Temple. Over the years, they grew incredibly powerful, working as bankers and diplomatic brokers to successive kings. So this area of Temple grew to become the centre of England’s religious, political and economic life.

Detail of the West Door of Temple Church.

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On the West Door are some clues to the church’s crusading past. Each of the columns is surmounted by four busts. The ones on the north side are wearing caps or turbans, whereas those on the south side are bare-headed. Some of them wear tight-fitting buttoned clothing – before the 14th century, buttons were considered to be oriental – and so some of these figures may represent the Muslims, whom the Templars were called upon to fight. 

Medieval effigies

When you come into the church today, you’ll notice the two parts: the Chancel, and the Round. This circular design was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which they believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. So the Templars commissioned a circular design for their London church, too. 

There are nine effigies in the round of the church.

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In the middle ages, this would have looked quite different: there were brightly painted lozenge shapes on the walls, carved heads bursting with colour, metallic plating on the ceiling to reflect the candlelight, and banners hanging down the columns.

And although most of this doesn’t survive, there are still some hints of a bygone medieval past. On the ground are nine male figures, weathered and bashed by the ravages of time, and packed full of symbolism and hidden meaning. They are all depicted in their early thirties: the age at which Christ died. The most important effigy is a man known as the “best knight that ever lived.” It shows William Marshall, the 1st Earl of Pembroke. 

William Marshall was said to be the greatest knight that ever lived.

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He was a soldier and statesman who served four English kings and is perhaps most famous for being one of the chief mediators in the years leading up to Magna Carta. In fact, in the countdown to Runnymede, lots of the negotiations around the Magna Carta happened in Temple Church. In January 1215, when the king was in the Temple, a group of barons charged in, armed and ready to fight a war. They confronted the king, and demanded his submission to a charter.

These sculptures would have once been blazing with coloured paint. Analysis from the 1840s tells us that there would have once been a ‘delicate flesh colour’ on the face. The mouldings had some light green, there were traces of gilding on the ring-mail. And the buckles, spurs and this little squirrel hiding underneath the shield had been gilt. The surcoat – that’s the tunic worn over the armour – was coloured in crimson, and the inner lining was light blue.

Temple Church in Central London is the physical embodiment of the Knights Templar, a religious order that also trained as warrior monks. This is history that is strong on narrative and bursting with battles and blood-lust.
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The penitentiary cell 

The Knights Templars’ management of the routes in and out of the Middle East soon brought them great wealth, with which came great power, with which came great enemies. Rumours – started by rivals in other religious orders and the nobility – began to spread of their nefarious conduct, sacrilegious initiation ceremonies and worship of idols.

One particularly notorious story was in regards to Walter Bacheler, the preceptor of Ireland, who refused to follow the Order’s rules. He was locked away for eight weeks, and starved to death. And in a final insult, he was even refused a proper burial.

The circular staircase of Temple Church hides a secret space. Behind a door is a space four and a half feet long and two feet, nine inches wide. The story goes that this is the penitentiary cell where Walter Bacheler spent his final, miserable days. 

It was just one of the terrible rumours which blackened the name of the Templars, and in 1307, at the instigation of Philip IV King of France – who happened to owe them quite a lot of money – the Order was abolished by the Pope. King Edward II took control of the church here, and gave it to the Order of St John: the Knights Hospitaller.

Richard Martin 

The following centuries were full of drama, including the great theological debate in the 1580s known as the Battle of the Pulpits. The church was rented out to a bunch of lawyers, the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, who shared use of the church, and still do to this day. It was during these years that Richard Martin was around.

Richard Martin was known for his lavish parties.

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His tomb in Temple Church makes him appear a sombre, sober, rule-abiding lawyer. This is far from the truth. Richard Martin was described as “a very handsome man, a graceful speaker, facetious and well-loved”, and once more, he made it his business to organise riotous parties for Middle Temple lawyers. He was so notorious for this debauchery it took him 15 years to qualify as a barrister. 

The encaustic tiles 

There have been all sorts of refurbishments at Temple Church over the years. Some classical features added by Christopher Wren, then a return to medieval styles during the Gothic Revival of the Victorian period. Now not much of the Victorian work is visible, apart from up in the clerestory, where visitors will find a remarkable display of encaustic tiles. Encaustic tiles were originally produced by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, and were found in abbeys, monasteries and royal palaces all across Britain during the medieval period.

They went out of fashion abruptly in the 1540s, during the Reformation, but were rescued by the Victorians, who fell in love with all things medieval. So as the Palace of Westminster was being rebuilt in all its gothic splendour, Temple Church was being decked out in encaustic tiles.

Encaustic tiles were common in great medieval cathedrals.

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The tiles at Temple Church were created by the Victorians, and the design is simple and striking. They have a solid red body, inlaid with white and glazed with yellow. Some of them feature a knight on horseback after medieval originals from the Temple Church. They even have a pitted surface, made to imitate that of a medieval tile. A subtle, romantic nod to bygone days of the Knights Templar. 

Temple Church during the Blitz 

The most testing moment of the church’s history came on the night of 10 May 1941. This was the most devastating raid of the Blitz. German bombers sent down 711 tons of explosives, and around 1400 people were killed, over 2,000 injured and 14 hospitals damaged. There were fires the whole length of London, and by morning, 700 acres of the city was destroyed, about double that of the Great Fire of London.

Temple Church was at the heart of these attacks. Around midnight, fire-watchers saw an incendiary land on the roof. The fire caught hold and spread down to the body of the church itself. The blaze was so fierce that it split the chancel’s columns, melted the lead, and the wooden roof of the Round caved in on the knights’ effigies below. 

The Senior Warden remembered the chaos:

At two o’clock in the morning, it was as light as day. Charred papers and embers were flying through the air, bombs and shrapnel all around. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

The fire brigade were powerless to stop the blaze – the attack had been timed so the Thames was at low tide, making it impossible to use the water. Temple Church was lucky not to have been completely annihilated.  

Post-World War Two restoration 

The destruction of the Blitz was immense, although not totally unwelcome for those who considered some of the Victorian restoration work as outright vandalism. The treasurer of the Inner Temple was happy to see the Victorian alterations destroyed, writing:

For my own part, seeing how dreadfully the Church had been despoiled by its pretended friends a century before, I do not grieve so very acutely for the havoc now wrought by its avowed enemies …. to have got rid of their awful stained glass windows, their ghastly pulpit, their hideous encaustic tiles, their abominable pews and seats (on which alone they spent over £10,000), will be almost a blessing in disguise.

It was seventeen years before the Church was fully repaired. The cracked columns were all replaced, with new stone from the beds of Purbeck ‘marble’ quarried in the Middle Ages. The original columns had been famous for tilting outwards; and so they were rebuilt at the same wonky angle. 

The organ, too, is a post-war addition, since the original was destroyed in the Blitz. This organ began its life in the wild hills of Aberdeenshire. It was built in 1927 for the ballroom of Glen Tanar House, where its inaugural recital had been given by the great composer Marcel Dupré.

The nave of the church is much restored. Note the organ loft to the left.

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But the acoustic in that Scottish ballroom, which is quite a squat space covered with hundreds of antlers, was “as dead as it well could be…very disappointing”, and so the organ wasn’t used much. Lord Glentanar gifted his organ to the church, and it came whizzing down to London, by rail, in 1953.  

Since then Lord Glentanar’s organ has greatly impressed many a musician, including none other than the film composer Hans Zimmer, who called described this as “one of the most magnificent organs in the world”. After spending two years writing the score for Interstellar, Zimmer chose this organ to record the film score, performed by the organist of Temple Church, Roger Sayer.

Once more, the sound and tonal potential of this organ was so remarkable, the score for Interstellar was actually shaped and created around the possibilities of the incredible instrument.

A Shakespearean legacy

The story of Temple Church is a history peppered with thrills, terror and even riotous parties. So it’s perhaps it’s no surprise that this was also the inspiration for one of William Shakespeare’s most famous scenes. 

A key scene of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses saga was set in the Temple Gardens.

Image Credit: Henry Payne via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Just a stone’s throw away is the Inner Temple Garden. It was here, in King Henry VI (Part I, Act II, Scene 4) where Shakespeare’s characters declared their loyalties to the York and Lancastrian faction by plucking a red or white rose and thus beginning the epic drama of the Wars of the Roses. The scene closes with the words of Warwick: 

This brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,
Shall send, between the red rose and the white,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

Alice Loxton