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Ever since reading Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" as a pre-teen, I have been fascinated by knights, especially the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or the Knights Templar as they are more colloquially known. Their white mantle with the blood red cross emblazoned on it inspired childhood daydreams of glorious battles, war horses and many a damsel saved from distress.
Of course, in those days, I didn't really know much about their past. That, and the fascination that arose from it, was down to a Medieval History course at university taught by a very passionate professor, who opened my eyes to the rich and chequered history of one of the most important and amazing military organisations the world has ever known.
Then Dan Brown came along and popularised the Grail legend in "The Da Vinci Code", and all of a sudden, a whole cottage industry sprang up tracing the fictional Robert Langdon's breathless dash across London on so-called Da Vinci Tours. One of the most popular stops on that tour is Temple Church, and for a short time after the release of the film, it was a virtual no-go area for regular visitors, having been swamped by oversized Americans in daft clothing and breathless snap-happy Japanese.
If it sounds like I am lazily reverting to national stereotype it's because I speak from personal experience. I've lost count of the times that my quiet contemplation was interrupted by squeals of delight from "Marty" and "Mabel" as they discovered something they'd seen in "that movie". Sigh.
If I am taking a little while to come to the business end of this review, it's because I am not a "Grail tourist" and felt it imperative to establish my credentials. Temple Church is much more than a tourist attraction or pop culture icon. First and foremost, it is a working church and a site of great historical significance, as well as a welcome haven from the drudgery of the City rat race.
Although I no longer work in London, business takes me there regularly. I like to visit when I can and spend a few moments soaking in the atmosphere and palpable sense of history imbued in the very fabric of the place. As you can imagine, I take a dim view of noisy tourists intruding on this oasis of solitude and peace.
Temple Church is just off the south side of Fleet Street, almost directly opposite Chancery Lane. Head down the fully pedestrianised Inner Temple Lane (it's through a stone archway with a Pegasus on each side and two heavy black doors, one of which is invariably closed) - then about 50 yards down, past the formal side entrance of Temple Church, and turn left into Church Courtyard.
The closest tube stations are Chancery Lane (Central Line), Blackfriars (District and Circle Lines). Confusingly, Temple station is actually not the closest. The nearest bus stop is served by several bus routes, most of which come from Waterloo Station or Liverpool Street.
Temple Church is a curious mix of the old and new. From the outside, it is clearly a venerable old building that has stood up quite well against the ravages of time and pollution. Parts of the Church date from the 12th and 13th century - notably the "Round Church" and the rectangular chancel - when it served as the London headquarters of the Knights Templar. The Order was originally established to protect Christian travellers on pilgrimage to, and within the Holy Land during the Crusades, and they were headquartered within the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
At the behest of King Philip of France, the Order was abolished by the Pope in 1307 and the Templars were all but eradicated. The Church then fell under the control of the Knights of the Order of St John - the "Hospitallers". They in turn suffered the indignity of having their own Order abolished by King Henry VIII, who confiscated their lands - including the Church - in 1540.
The lawyers (barristers to be precise) moved in during the 16th century, establishing two Inns of Court - The Inner Temple and the Middle Temple - both of which still exist today and occupy many of the buildings in the area. The Church serves as their spiritual home.
The Church fell victim to German bombs in 1941, which caused significant blast and fire damage, mainly to the interior. As such, almost all of the interior woodwork dates from the post-War restoration which lasted well into the Fifties (with one significant exception - but more on this below).
Apart from the church itself, the focal point in the courtyard is a stone column, topped with a statue of two knights sharing a horse - representing the vow of poverty that initiates took before being knighted. The poverty of individual knights was entirely at odds with the great fortune (in both land and goods) amassed by the Templar organisation, who are credited with being the world's first international banking organisation. Wealthy travellers would deposit their gold at the local Templar HQ, obtain a promissory note from the Grand Master, and then cash it at their destination - for a fee of course, negating the risk of being robbed on the way.
The entire church was made with cream-coloured Caen stone, and recent efforts to clean it have stripped away the grime and pollution to restore it to something nearing its original hue. The Round Church with its arched windows and crenulations - the oldest part of the building - seems oddly out of proportion with the chancel.
This is because the original 12th century chancel was torn down and rebuilt on a grander scale at the behest of King Henry III, who intended to use it for his mausoleum. However, after his death, when his will was read, he had changed his mind and was subsequently buried at Westminster Abbey. The courtyard exudes a sense of peace and calm out of keeping with the helter skelter of Fleet Street around the corner.
There are two entrances - the formal West entrance into the Round Church from Inner Temple Lane, which features the original and beautiful Norman stone carvings around the door (worthy of close inspection), and the more prosaic side entrance, which leads directly into the Choir. At the East end of Church Courtyard is a gated yard, at the end of which is the restored house of the Master of the Temple (the rector). The original, built by the feted architect of the time - Sir Christopher Wren - was destroyed in the Blitz and restored along with the rest of the Church. It is not open to the public, but its impressive, many windowed façade is worth a look.
The most striking and evocative part of the interior is the so-called "Round Church" - a signature of Templar churches and based on the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is a relatively simple affair, unremarkable but for the nine carved stone bas-relief effigies on the floor, each of which commemorate a patron of the Templar Order (there is a tenth "sarcophagus that does not have a knight on it).
The effigies were placed in their current positions during an earlier restoration in 1841, but it wasn't until post WWII renovations that it was discovered that there were no bodies buried with them (as the fictional Professor Robert Langdon discovers in the wretched film). Also of interest are the gargoyle heads that adorn the top of the arches and columns around the circumference of the round church - notable for the silly poses some of them have been carved into.
Sadly, they are practically all that survive of the original features, but the rest of the Church is a remarkable testament to faithful, well-researched reconstruction. Although not originals, and hence lacking the romance of antiquities, the restoration team have did a remarkable job of recreating most of the original fixtures and fittings. The ornate and colourful tomb of Edmund Plowden, featuring a portrait effigy of this important 16th century patron of the Church, is worth investigating.
However, one important and fascinating piece survived the fire - the exquisite wooden altar screen, with its two gold scripted tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and flanked by the Apostle's Creed and the Lords's Prayer. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century, but removed during the 1841 restoration and put on display in the Bowes Museum in Durham. It was restored to Temple Church in the 1950's.
The Church has a number of impressive stained glass windows, all necessarily modern reproductions, which contain a fascinating mixture of religious and secular subjects, touching on the building's Templar connections (two knights on a horse and the Pegasus - adopted as another Templar emblem - feature prominently) as well as depictions of Jesus' connection with the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Church is not always open for visitors. The opening hours vary from month to month - and as this is a working Anglican church - it also depends on the needs of its congregation (weddings, baptisms, funerals etc.). Fortunately, their very helpful website (www.templechurch.com) provides a day by day schedule posted monthly, and it is imperative to check it if you are travelling especially.
A concise, but thorough leaflet is given to visitors with a map of the interior and some commentary, and a range of other illustrated guide books and histories, as well as postcards, are available from a small "shop" inside the side entrance. I would recommend "Temple Church" - a 16 page guide book from Pitkin which has some wonderful colour plates and is a veritable steal at a mere £2.00.
There is no admission fee, but the Church does sometimes host lunchtime talks for a which a charge is made (£5.00), the most regular and notable one being a history of the Temple Church given by the Master of the Temple himself. The church also hosts organ recitals and choral concerts on occasion - once again, check the website for details.
This is an evocative building which manages to find the right balance between its role as a historical monument and an everyday, working church. It's a shame that so many of the original features were destroyed during the Second World War, but Wren's altar screen is a notable survivor, and, along with the Round Church, is well worthy of a visit. I find the place fascinating - it provides an almost palpable connection with the storied past.
At times, as I walk the circumference of the Round Church, the ancient effigies seem to be standing guard over this sacred domain, as if bearing silent witness through the ages to their forebears - the knights who built and worshipped in this place. I wonder what they would have made of the District and Circle Line station named in their memory?
© Hishyeness 2009