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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Knights of the Round Church at London's Temple

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

12th century Temple Church is one of the most historic and architecturally significant churches in the City of London

Temple Church and the Knights Templar Column. Column completed 2000, overall design by Tom Stuart-Smith. Ptolemy Dean designed the column. The sculpture is by Nicola Hicks
Temple Church and the Knights Templar Column

The church was built by the Knights Templar, an international religious military order, combining the roles of monk and soldier. The oldest part of the building is the circular nave known as the Round Church, which was in use by 1162. It was consecrated in 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem and dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the presence of King Henry II. It was modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is believed to cover the site of Christ's tomb.

The Rectangular Chancel of Temple Church, consecrated in 1240, was originally built to accommodate Henry III's wish to be buried there, such was the esteem in which the Templars were held. Although it became the burial site for an infant son of Henry, the king himself was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey.

Temple Church includes both Norman, round-headed arches and Gothic, pointed arches. As such it is an example of the Transition style and one of the earliest examples of English Gothic architecture.

The Knights Templar order was founded in 1118 to protect pilgrims in Jerusalem and the surrounding area known as the Holy Land. Its first headquarters were on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The Templars played an active part in the Crusades, a series of religious wars from 1095 to 1291 between Christians and Muslims over control of the Holy Land.

The full name of the order was The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. The Templars' seal depicted a horse with two riders, since they were originally too poor to have a horse each. However, they soon became very wealthy and powerful, with members and properties across Europe.

Twin riders represent the Knights Templar, glazed window on stairway to triforium, Temple Church
Twin riders represent the Knights Templar

The order came to England in the mid 12th century, its London meetings originally taking place at a site in High Holborn/Chancery Lane. In the mid 1160s the order acquired land south of Fleet Street, during the reign of King Henry II. This area has been known as the Temple ever since (although for some time it was known as New Temple to distinguish it from Old Temple near High Holborn).

In addition to their religious and military roles, London's Templars acted as bankers and diplomats to England's monarchs. The Master of the Temple sat in Parliament as the first baron of the realm ('primus baro'). The Temple became a focal point for the nation's religious, economic and political life. It served as the royal treasury during the reign of King John (1199-1216).

The Temple in c.1250, from information board in Temple Church
The Temple in c.1250, from an information board in Temple Church

King John based himself in the Temple in the period leading up to the Magna Carta in 1215. The king issued preliminary charters from here in an attempt to satisfy barons opposing him, but a group of them demanded that he acknowledge allegiance to a full charter of rights as a check on royal power.

Three men closely associated with those events were buried in the Round Church: William Marshal I, his son William Marshal II and the Master of the Temple, Brother Aymeric.

William Marshal was a negotiator between King John and the barons at a meeting in the Temple in January 1215, a precursor to the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in June that year. His eldest son, also William, was one of the Magna Carta sureties, a council of 25 barons created to monitor the king's observance of the terms of the charter. Aymeric was a close associate of the Marshals and the leading Templar at a time when much of the lead-up to Magna Carta took place at the Temple.

Stone effigies of the Marshals still lie in the Round Church, alongside effigies of other knights. The earliest person represented in effigy was Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in 1144.

William Marshal

William Marshal I, Earl Of Pembroke, was described by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the day, Stephen Langton, as "the best knight that ever lived". William claimed to have overcome more than 500 knights in tournaments as a young man. He became Earl of Pembroke through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, inheriting her father's lands in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland. The marriage was sanctioned by King Richard I as a reward for William Marshal's royal service.

After John's death in 1216, William Marshal became regent for the infant King Henry III, ruling the country on his behalf. As regent he reissued Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217, ensuring its survival. Henry III secured its future by re-issuing the charter once more in 1225.

William Marshal joined the Knights Templar on his deathbed in 1219, aged 72, thereby keeping a commitment made while on a crusade in the Holy Land in the 1180s.

Geoffrey de Mandeville

​Probably the first significant burial in the Round Church was that of Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in 1144. He was created Earl of Essex by King Stephen in 1140 and had significant power in Essex, London, Middlesex and Hertfordshire.

However, he also supported Stephen's rival and cousin Empress Matilda during the civil war (know as 'the Anarchy') fought between the two competitors to the English throne. Geoffrey de Mandeville undertook a rebellion against Stephen and was fatally wounded by an arrow while attacking the King's castle at Burwell in Cambridgeshire.

The Knights Templar were powerful across medieval Europe, but the loss of the Holy Land in 1291 left them vulnerable. In 1307 King Philip IV of France arrested the Templars' overall leader, Grand Master Jacques de Molay, and many other French Templars. The order was accused of corruption, fraud, secrecy, worshipping idols and spitting on the Cross.

The allegations may have been trumped up, or it may just have been coincidence that King Philip was heavily in debt to the Templars. The result was that Pope Clement V issued a papal bull instructing Europe's Christian monarchs to arrest all Templars and seize their assets. In 1312, the Pope officially dissolved the order and gave most Templar properties to the rival Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (more commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller, forerunners of today's St John Ambulance).

From 1347, the Hospitallers began to let part of London's Temple area to two colleges of lawyers, which led to the development of the Inns of Court known as the Inner Temple and Middle Temple.

In 1540 King Henry VIII abolished the Knights Hospitaller and seized their property under the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but he appointed a priest for the church using the title Master of the Temple.

In 1608, King James I granted all the former Templar land between Fleet Street and the River Thames to the Inner Temple (symbol: Pegasus, winged horse) and Middle Temple (symbol: Lamb and Flag). In return, the two Inns of Court agreed to maintain Temple Church in perpetuity. The area remains filled with chambers of barristers and the symbols of the two Inns are visible on many buildings and in the church.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 stopped just short of Temple Church, but Sir Christopher Wren still undertook refurbishment work in the Classical style in 1682. There was further refurbishment, this time in the Gothic style, in the 19th century. The Bath stone visible on the external walls dates from this period.

After bomb damage in World War II, the church was again refurbished in the 1950s by architect Walter Godfrey. Features that were replaced include the roof, organ, all wooden parts and the Purbeck marble columns in the chancel. The stone effigies of knights suffered damage that could only be partly restored (although casts of the two Marshal effigies, taken before the War, are now also on display in Temple Church).

The stone effigies of knights, seen from the triforium (upper gallery) of the Round Church of Temple Church, London
The stone effigies of knights, seen from the triforium (upper gallery) of the Round Church

The reredos, or wooden screen behind the altar, that was created for the Wren restoration by William Emmett was also restored post World War II after being discovered in storage (Emmett also carved the exquisite doorcases and Royal Coat of Arms in St Mary Abchurch in the City of London).

King John and the City of London

Strictly speaking, the council of Magna Carta sureties was made up not of 25 barons, but 24 barons and one commoner: the Mayor of the City of London, William Hardell. They were responsible for ensuring that King John stuck to the agreement. The Mayor of London ranked equal to the noblemen in this council, early evidence of the status accorded to London's leading citizen. London's importance was further underlined in 1215 when King John granted the City the right to elect its own Mayor, in a charter issued from the Temple.

As a condition for this right, the Mayor was required to swear allegiance to the Crown upon election (a tradition that continues today with the annual Lord Mayor's show, when the newly elected Lord Mayor swears loyalty at the Royal Courts of Justice). John hoped that he would gain London's support through this grant. However, when the City opened its gates to the rebel barons, the king realised that he would have to negotiate with them and sent William Marshal to inform them.

Temple Church is a Royal Peculiar, meaning that it does not fall within the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it lies, but comes under the direct authority of the monarch. The Master of the Temple is appointed by the Crown and has a fine Georgian house (built 1764, restored after World War II) as official residence next to the church.

Temple Church remains the chapel of the barristers' chambers of the Inner and Middle Temple and has regular Sunday services. It is open to the public for tourism on most weekdays between 10am and 4pm (entry £5/£3) and also has a regular programme of music, including choral music and recitals on its highly praised organ.

The Temple is the part of London that time forgot, with its Elizabethan hall, courtyards and gardens from the 17th and 18th centuries and its centrepiece, Temple Church.


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Jan 22, 2022

Love all the detail, and a totally fascinating story. Did not know about this Church, its deep history or the important role it played e.g., the negotiation with Barons pre-Magna Carta. Great stuff. Thanks.

London On The Ground
London On The Ground
Jan 22, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Michael. The whole Temple area is quite extraordinary.

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