The Temple Church, famous for its effigy tombs, is a late-12th-century round church built for and by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters. The area around the Temple Church is known as the Temple, with Temple Bar and Temple tube station nearby. In modern times, two Inns of Court (Inner Temple and Middle Temple) both use the church as a private chapel.
Among other purposes, the structure was originally used for Templar initiation ceremonies. In England, the ceremony involved new recruits entering the Temple via the western door at dawn. The initiates would enter the circular nave, and then take monastic vows of piety, chastity, poverty and obedience.
Today the Temple Church holds regular church services, including Holy Communion and Mattins on Sunday mornings. It also holds weddings, but only for members of the Inner and Middle Temples.
The Temple Church has always been a peculiar, and the choristers have the privilege of wearing scarlet cassocks as a result. This means that it is subject to the jurisdiction of the Crown, and not of the Bishop of London. Modern-day relations with the Bishop of London are, however, very good; he regularly attends events and services at the Temple Church. The Bishop of London is also ex officio the Dean of the Chapels Royal.
The church comprises two separate sections: the Round Church (nave), and the Chancel (rectangular part). In keeping with the traditions, the nave was constructed on a round design based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and is surrounded by the first-ever free-standing dark Purbeck Marble columns. It is probable that the walls and grotesque heads were originally painted in colours.
The Knights Templar order was very powerful in England, with the Master of the Temple sitting in parliament as primus baro (the first baron of the realm). However, the Templars were cooped up in a much smaller edifice on a different street, until 1185 when this church was consecrated. Through the years, it has undergone some major renovations and survived a German bombing during World War II.
In the mid 12th century, before the construction of the church, the Knights Templar in London had met at a site on High Holborn. Because of the rapid growth of the order, by the 1160s the place had become too confined, and the Order purchased the current site for the establishment of a larger monastic complex as their headquarters in England. In addition to the church, the new compound originally contained residences, military training facilities, and recreational grounds for the military brethren and novices, who were not allowed to go into the city without the permission of the Master of the Temple.
The church was consecrated on February 10, 1185 in a ceremony by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. It is believed that Henry II was present at the ceremony.
The compound was regularly used as a residence by kings and by legates of the Pope. The Temple also served as an early depository bank, sometimes in defiance of the Crown’s wishes to seize the funds of nobles who had entrusted their wealth there. The independence and wealth of the order throughout Europe is considered by most historians to have been the primary cause of its eventual downfall.
In January 1215 William Marshall (who is buried in the nave next to his sons, under one of the 9 marble effigies of mediaeval knights there) served as a negotiator during a meeting in the Temple between King John and the barons, who demanded that John uphold the rights enshrined in the Coronation Charter of his predecessor Richard I. William swore on behalf of the king that the grievances of the barons would be addressed in the summer, leading to John’s signing of Magna Carta in June. William later became regent during the reign of John’s son, Henry III. Henry later expressed a desire to be buried in the church and so, in the early 13th century, the choir of the original church was pulled down and a new larger structure, now called the Chancel, was built. It was consecrated on Ascension Day 1240 and comprises a central aisle and two side aisles of identical width. The height of the vault is 36 feet 3 inches.
One of Henry’s sons, who died in infancy, is buried in the Chancel, but Henry later altered his will with instructions to be interred in Westminster Abbey.
After the destruction and abolition of the Knights Templar in 1307, Edward II took control of the church as a Crown possession. It was later given to the Knights Hospitaller, who rented the Temple to two colleges of lawyers. One college moved into the part of the Temple previously used by the Temple’s knights, and the other into the part previously used by its priests, and they shared the use of the church. The colleges evolved into the Inner and Middle Temples, two of the four Inns of Court (the other two being Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn).
In 1540, the church became the property of The Crown once again when Henry VIII abolished the Knights Hospitaller in England and confiscated their property. Henry provided a priest for the church under the former title “Master of the Temple”.
In the 1580s, the church was the scene of the Battle of the Pulpits, a theological conflict between the Puritans and supporters of the Elizabethan Compromise. At that time, William Shakespeare also knew it and hence, in his play Henry VI, part 1, the church and the Temple garden feature as the setting for the fictional scene of the plucking of two roses and the start of the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. In 2002, this was commemorated with the planting of new white and red roses in the modern gardens.
Following a later agreement in 1608 by James I, the two Inns were granted the use of the church in perpetuity, and continue to use the Temple as their chapel, on condition that they supported and maintained the church. The church was undamaged by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Nevertheless, it was refurbished by Christopher Wren, who made extensive modifications to the interior, including an altar screen and the introduction of an organ to the church for the first time.
The church was restored in 1841 by Smirke and Burton, who decorated the walls and ceiling in the high Victorian Gothic style, in an attempt to bring the church back to its original appearance. Further restoration work was executed by James Piers St Aubyn in 1862.
On May 10, 1941, a German air raid of incendiary bombs set the roof of the Round Church on fire, and the fire quickly spread to the nave and chapel. The organ and all the wooden parts of the church, including the Victorian renovations, were destroyed and the dark Purbeck marble columns of the Chancel cracked from the intense heat. Although these columns still supported the vault, they were deemed unsound and replaced by replicas. The original columns had a light outward lean, an architectural quirk which was duplicated in the replacement columns.
During the renovation by the architect Walter Godfrey (carried out in 1947-57), it was discovered that the renovations made by Wren in the 17th century were in storage and they were replaced in their original position.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950 and rededicated in November 1958.