Dating back to the 12th Century, the church was built as the English headquarters for the Knights Templar, an international monastic order whose role it was to protect pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. The building is in two parts: the circular nave section, known as the Round church, whose shape echoes that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and a rectangular section, the chancel. The church was consecrated in 1185.
Its beauties have always been known to academics and art lovers. Recently, the church has also gained a surprising new fan base in the shape of readers of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which has a chapter set in the Round. Known tongue-in-cheek locally as the Da Vinci pilgrims, these eager tourists are full of quiz-sheet questions, less about God or architectural Gothic than about mystic ley lines or the name of Brown’s sinister albino monk (Silas). Now the balance of inquiry is shifting back upmarket. The Master of the Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones, and David Park of the Courtauld Institute of Art have edited a stimulating volume of scholarly articles entitled “The Temple Church in London; History, Architecture, Art.”
For historical enthusiasts, Helen J Nicholson’s article, “At the Heart of Medieval London,” chronicles the church’s origins through to the 15th Century. She tells the fascinating story of how the Temple became a bank as well as a home for the Knights, with King Henry II depositing part of his income there. The Templars issued bills of exchange for cash that could be used in any of their centres in Christendom. Loans were on offer as well. It was also a place where legal documents were kept (which explains how lawyers began to populate the area).
There are several articles on the church’s architecture, with Christopher Wilson arguing that it was a key influence on the architecture of Canterbury Cathedral and the English Gothic style, and Virginia Jansen highlighting the aesthetics of the choir in the chancel. Griffith-Jones suggests that Christopher Wren’s refurbishment of the church in the 17th Century, commissioned by the Inns of the Temple, paid homage to ancient Saxon common law
David Park writes about medieval burials and monuments in the church, while David Lankester describes the 13th Century military effigies displayed in the round church. Rosemary Sweet discusses the 18th Century’s enthusiasm for the Gothic, which in turn renewed interest in the church. In the 19th Century, the church underwent a controversial restoration which is explored by William Whyte, and which was in turn destroyed by the Blitz on the night of 10 May 1941, when the Luftwaffe dropped more than 100,000 bombs on the capital.
In the immediate aftermath, Cecil Beaton photographed a model staring at the damage to the church. The result ran in the September 1941 edition of Vogue, captioned, “Fashion is indestructible.”
A print of the photograph is included in the magnificent collection of 107 plates in the book, both black and white and colour. Although this is intended as a text for academics, this fascinating book contains so many gems about a church that is arguably the geographical and spiritual home of barristers that it should interest all those trained in the legal tradition.
Chris McWatters, Garden Court Chambers, is a member of Counsel’s Policy and Editorial Board