The hidden London secrets of the Knights Templar

The hidden London secrets of the Knights Templar

Tucked behind London’s Fleet Street, a patchwork of gardens and graceful buildings tell the story of the most famous knights of the Crusades.

The area, known as Temple, remains far less known to tourists than other nearby attractions like St Paul’s Cathedral or Trafalgar Square. And most of those who do find their way here don’t realise Temple’s biggest secret: this whole area was once the stronghold of the Knights Templar.

The medieval order prayed and worked here from about 1185 up until their dissolution in 1312.

They built monastic dormitories, chambers and two dining halls – now known as Middle Temple Hall and Inner Temple Hall, though they’ve been rebuilt many times over the years – and, most famously, Temple Church.

Today Temple Church doesn’t seem that grand, particularly when compared to nearby St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. The surrounding buildings dwarf it, making its dome invisible from just a short distance. The circular nave in the west, which was built first, is just 17m in diameter. There is no elaborate gold gilding, no side chapels, no mosaic or paintings.

But as a round church modelled after the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (there are only three others in Britain), Temple Church had one of the grandest claims of them all: to those in the Middle Ages, walking through it was the closest you could get to Jerusalem without actually undertaking the dangerous pilgrimage to get there.

Inside, the round nave has the fortress-like walls, small windows and heavy, pointed arches of the early Gothic. Effigies of some of the knights – including William Marshal of Pembroke, without whom England’s Magna Carta may not exist – lie grasping their swords in the stone.

The ‘new’ chancel, built 65 years later, extended the church east, this time with all the hallmarks of the fully-flowered Gothic style: thin, graceful columns, wide-span arches and huge windows that flooded the interior with light.

In the time of the Knights Templar, the painted walls and metal-plated ceiling would have shimmered in the candlelight. The floor was tiled. There were probably banners down the columns. And the windows, now mostly plain, may have been made of stained glass.

It was in that lovely, light-filled environment that the English order of the Knights Templar would meet and worship. It was also here that they would be initiated into the order.