Secret London: the Temple

Royal persecution, bickering lawyers and marauding Nazis – the Temple has survived much more than the ludicrous conspiracy theories of ’The Da Vinci Code‘. As Londoners get the chance to see inside this hidden gem for the first time this week, Time Out traces the fascinating history of the capital‘s secret sanctuary

  • Secret London: the Temple

    The Temple, named after the twelfth-century Knights Templars

  • If Dan Brown has been good for anything, it’s for inspiring the favourite joke of Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple and head clergyman at the Temple Church, a key venue on the ‘Da Vinci Code’ tour of London. Every day, dozens of visitors turn up to inspect a church which plays a pivotal role in the plot; at least one will ask Brian the verger: ‘Have you read the book?’

    Says Griffith-Jones: ‘Brian still insists on believing – or pretending to believe – that they are asking about the Bible.’ ‘The Da Vinci Code’ has cast unaccustomed light on this tranquil spot in the centre of London, drenched in history but ignored, unknown, by most Londoners. ‘Dan Brown has done us a lot of good,’ admits Griffith-Jones, who has written his own book debunking ‘Da Vinci Code’ myths. ‘We are in every guidebook in London now. At first people just came to look for the Holy Grail but now they have realised we are a very beautiful church.’

    Hidden in plain sight between Fleet Street and the Embankment, the Temple is both an ancient church and a secluded base for members of London’s legal profession. It’s ‘the most elegant spot in the Metropolis’ according to Charles Lamb and feels like a world apart – which in a way it is: the two Inns of Court that make up Temple are designated local authorities, with a status equivalent to the councils of the London boroughs, with the right to set their own licensing laws among other privileges. The Temple ‘brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age’ wrote HV Morton in ‘In Search Of London’; some of that peace will be broken this year with the Temple Festival 2008, a year-long event that features drama, lectures, religious services, wine tastings, concerts, film screenings and mock trials.

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    Last crusader: a Templar at rest

    The Temple was named after the Knights Templars – pious twelfth-century noblemen who protected pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land and whose secrecy makes them ideal fodder for conspiracy theorists and cunning novelists. Their London church was consecrated in 1185. ‘None of their other buildings remain, although their footprint is all over London,’ says Griffith-Jones.

    The nave, the oldest part of Temple Church, is circular, an homage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to be buried. ‘When the Templars were building this church, they were effectively recreating the sanctity of Jerusalem in London,’ says Griffith-Jones.

    The Templars introduced a system of international banking to fund their enterprises and their wealth earned them the enmity of perennially cash-strapped European monarchies, who were forced to rely on them for finance. The order was suppressed by King Philip IV of France in 1307 and their property in England confiscated a year later by Edward II. Temple Church and its lands were given to a tame rival order, the Knights Hospitallers, who by 1345 were renting the surrounding buildings to lawyers looking for a base between the City and Westminster.

    These lawyers mutated into two of the four Inns of Court – Inner Temple and Middle Temple (the others are Gray’s and Lincoln’s) – whose role was to house, feed and educate barristers. Anyone wishing to train for the Bar must join one of the Inns and it is the Inns alone that have the power to call a student to the Bar.

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    Middle Temple Hall, with Elizabeth's table at the far end

    After the dissolution of the monasteries, the Temple passed to the monarchy but this proved a drain on royal finances. In 1608, the Crown concocted a deal that gave the land to the lawyers on the condition that they maintained the church. Another condition was that they maintained the master of the temple. ‘They have to give me a mansion and they have to pay me £17 11/6 a year, which they do,’ says Griffith-Jones, whose position has been described as ‘underpaid and overhoused’. ‘In 1608 a mansion was defined by its frontage, so it looks amazing but is only 15 feet deep – but the lawyers were satisfied.’

    The Temple survived the Great Fire – it is said it was protected by the spirit of the Templars – but not the Blitz. Morton visited in the aftermath of the war and considered the scene the ‘saddest in London today’. He also noted that ‘bomb damage often looks worse than it is’, something proved by the story of Middle Temple Library which was hit by a bomb that damaged 8,000 books only one of which – ‘Decisions of the Court of Southern Rhodesia’ – was sadly beyond repair (a South African judge later supplied a replacement). Similarly, when a parachute bomb blew the Middle Temple Hall’s oak screen into 10,000 pieces, it was reconstructed over 14 years like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Inner Temple Hall could not be saved and was rebuilt after the war to a new design.

    Temple Church was also bombed and the heat was so intense that one of the nine prone stone Templar effigies, frozen in motion on the floor of the church like Han Solo in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, had its face melted off. Circling the nave is a grotesque gallery of gurning gargoyles, faces pulled into expressive and imaginative leers. These were the work of Sydney Smirke during a Victorian gothification of the ancient building.

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    Panels representing the 'readers'

    The church is still financed by the Middle and Inner Temples – the two sets of barristers, who are prone to bickering, are separated by the central aisle. When an organ was introduced after the Great Fire, Middle and Inner could not agree on which side it should be built.

    Griffith-Jones takes up the story: ‘So they put in two trial organs, one on either side – there were stories of sabotage, bellows would get punctured or pipes would go missing. Each Inn put a 24-hour guard on their organ. Then Judge Jeffreys made a decision. He was an Inner man but decreed that the Middle organ should win.’ Both Inns continued to appoint their own organists, playing alternate Sundays, until 1814. The organ will be called into use in February when it provides the musical backdrop to a screening of ‘Nosferatu’.

    The Temple also has its ‘Father Ted’ side. One of the church’s statues is of Lord Stowell, an eighteenth-century barrister who, according to Griffith-Jones, was ‘fantastically good at organising parties. Every year the Christmas party got wildly out of hand and he was disbarred as a punishment, but come October they needed somebody to organise the party so he was invited back again. It took him 15 years to qualify.’

    Smirke’s gargoyles grin in appreciation.

    Find out more about the Temple Festival
    , which starts on January 19 with an open weekend,

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