Today we spent a good deal of time at the Temple Church in the heart of the Temple area of historic central London. This medieval church is as fascinating a place as you will ever visit!
The Temple Church was completed and consecrated in 1185 as London’s home of the Catholic order of warrior monks known as the “Knights Templar”. It is one of the places in the world where history hangs so thick it is almost a physical presence… Compared to the numerous jaw-dropping cathedrals and abbeys of London, it seems rather simple in its construction, but has a singular architecture. Its most prominent external feature is the large circular rotunda on one end of the church, which is modeled after Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Within that rotunda are arranged the tombs of a number of Templar Knights, complete with the awe inspiring life-sized stone effigies of the knights reposed in the floor below. The last unique aspect was more subtle (and telling): the Temple Church includes many elements of a fortress.
The Knights Templar were formed in 1119 by a small band of knights which took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with the mission of protecting the pilgrims in the Holy Lands won during the early Crusades. They built fortresses and became a defensive presence for the benefit of the pilgrims.
They also implemented an early form of banking that has its most applicable modern analogy in the ATM network. Pilgrimages were often large and expensive undertakings which included many costs which must be paid along the way. Carrying large amounts of wealth as they began their journeys made the pilgrims very lucrative targets for bandits – imagine departing on a months-long journey overseas without credit cards or any way of obtaining cash along the way, and you will quickly understand the problem. So, the non-warrior members of the order provided pilgrims with “letters of credit” which they could use to obtain smaller portions of spendable wealth along the way, with the order collecting the owed money back home…with interest, of course!
Over the first century of their existence, this made the Knights Templar an increasingly wealthy and powerful organization. When the crusades later failed, the Templars had no military mission and their popularity faded.
Eventually, King Phillip IV of France (who owed a great deal of money to the order) plotted to eliminate the Knights Templar, and eventually did so. Beginning at dawn on Friday, October 13th 1307, he ordered the simultaneous arrest of large numbers of the Knights Templar. He charged them with various offences, had them tortured to extract confessions, and finally had them burned at the stake for their “crimes”. The order of the Knights Templar was officially disbanded five years later, marking a crushing decline in the political and economic power of the Catholic church in Western Europe.
Looking at the interior pictures you can see a number of features that seem clearly designed with a defensive conflict in mind. In the walls of the circular gallery above the main floor of the rotunda are regularly spaced slit windows which would allow an archer to shoot into the gallery below while remaining protected. These same slit windows appear in the walls of the staircase of the bell tower facing outside. And in the interior-facing side of the bell tower staircase just below the gallery level, I found a wood panel with no handle, but which opened into a small enclosed “hide” with two slit windows facing down into the church below.
Several times I have had questions of scale regarding the buildings involved in my research, and since I can’t just “drop in” later, I decided to try out a device I purchased for this trip to capture this information “first hand”. It is a laser distance measuring device, which is surprisingly accurate, taking measurements to within an inch in seconds. Using this device I determined the following (quickly made) internal dimensions of the Temple Church:
- The worship area of the main church space is 59′ 11″ between the side walls, and 87′ 3″ in depth (to the primary columns at the center section of the church).
- The peaks of the main church are 37′ 1″ high in the center of the church, and 36″4″ high along the side peaks as they run parallel to the side walls.
- The rotunda is 60’3″ side to side, and 57’11” from the center of the church to the inner face of the large main door.
- The height from the rotunda floor to the bottom of the circular gallery above it is 27’6″ at the top of the peaks along the underside of the gallery.
- The center of the dome over the rotunda is 61’1″ above the floor of the rotunda.
That’s it for tonight – we have the key tour of Middle Temple for our last day in London! Goodnight!
Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed. I admire great writing, but have little choice but to approach this task as one of slowly grinding a workable edge onto a very rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! – Greg Sherwood