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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Temple Church in London

What is Temple Church?

Temple Church is a round 12th-century church in London that was built by the Knights Templar and modelled after two prominent holy sites in Jerusalem.

temple church

Temple Church History

In 1099, European Crusaders captured Jerusalem from Islamic rule, and celebrated their victory with a frenzy of horrific violence. Tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims, both Arab and Turkic, were murdered in the streets. Contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict recall wading through human blood in the aftermath of the siege.

86 years later, Temple Church was founded in London by the Knights Templar, a military order of monks who rose to power in the wake of this First Crusade. They established themselves originally to protect European pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land. As well as offering armed support, the Knights established a system of banks whose outlets stretched from Dublin to Cyprus. Pilgrims would deposit their wealth at their local Templar church, and bring a credit note to Jerusalem, where they could withdraw an equivalent sum within the safety of the city walls. Though celibate, the Knights were hardly committed to a life of contemplation, and also participated in the brutal battles of the Crusades. This violent aspect of their history is reflected in Temple Church’s fortress-like design.

Temple Church was also modelled after two important holy sites in Jerusalem. The circular Dome of the Rock (a 7th-century shrine and the oldest extant Islamic monument) and the round nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were adapted by the Knights Templar for the design of the round churches they constructed throughout Europe. The Dome was temporarily turned into a cathedral after the First Crusade because the European invaders believed it to be the site of the biblical Temple of Solomon. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is thought to be the site of Christ’s burial.

temple church side view

Temple Church is one of only a few surviving round churches in Britain, and it nearly didn’t survive the 20th century. On one of the worst nights of the Blitz, the notorious German bombing of Britain from 1940-41 during the Second World War, the church caught fire during an air raid. The building sustained a huge amount of damage, but did not perish, and has since been restored.

As well as a church, this place was an important financial and administrative centre for the Knights Templar. Many wealthy lords banked with them, and the round nave was even used as a treasury by King John. But this was first and foremost a holy place, and it was a great honour for anyone to be laid to rest here, for ‘to be buried in the Round was to be buried ‘in’ Jerusalem’. Here you can inspect one of the earliest military stone effigies in Europe, depicting the face of Sir William Marshal. Marshal was a powerful knight who influenced the reign of five English kings, including King John. In an attempt to restrict the monarch’s power, Marshal helped persuade him to sign the Magna Carta, whose place in the myth of English history is as the origin of the freedoms of all people. After John died, only a year after the agreement, Marshal victoriously led an army into battle against invading French forces who were making a grab for the throne. Marshal was in his 70s at this point, an age virtually unheard of at the time. He died two years later and had a funeral fit for a king, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding over the Mass. Marshal, who claimed to have captured over 500 knights during the course of his long career, exclaimed on his deathbed: ‘I cannot defend myself from death’.

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