The Templar Round Church in London

In 335 AD St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have discovered the Sacred Cave, where Jesus Christ was buried following His crucifixion on Golgotha. Interestingly enough this location was the very same site of an earlier temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. Soon after the discovery, the emperor built a church known to the Byzantines as “Anastasis” or Church of the Resurrection. This church, in addition to housing the Sacred Cave where Jesus lay, also encompassed Golgotha or Calvary – the spot where He was crucified. The church is, like the Templar Round Church in London is also round.

This spot is, to the Christian faithful, the most Holy spot on earth and, despite being destroyed and rebuilt long before the crusader era, was nonetheless of vast importance to those knights who captured the Holy City in 1099 AD, during the battle of the First Crusade. This was of course two decades prior to the formation of the Templars in 1118 AD.

As readers of this publication are aware, the Templars were originally charged with protecting not only Christians en route to the Levant, but also the sacred shrines those same pilgrims had traveled from Europe to see. It is therefore no surprise that the Templars would endeavor to replicate the shape and form of this Holy edifice in their own churches scattered throughout medieval Europe.

The Round Church that presently lies in the heart of London’s legal district is no exception. The Temple Church was consecrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 10th 1185; some 70 years after the original Templars had seen its role model for the first time.

The site of the Temple Church was not the original location of the Templar community in London. They had earlier been located in the High Holborn district, but the expansion of the Order at the end of the 12th century saw the need to move to larger facilities. This was a common trend throughout Europe as the Order was expanding in leaps and bounds as their popularity in Christendom grew.

Present at its consecration was Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Heraclius is an interesting character in review, for he is considered by some to be the most corrupt priest ever to hold his office. This slanderous report may be prejudiced by the bias of his starch enemy and rival, William of Tyre. Those who are familiar with Templarism will immediately recognize the name William of Tyre as one of the most prolific and best known of the Templar’ early chroniclers. In 1180 AD, William of Tyre was in line to be the Patriarch of Jerusalem and had this been followed to its end, it would have been William who stood in the Round Church at London during its consecration five years later. Such was not to be the case, as the King of Jerusalem was swayed by his mother in choosing Heraclius to be the next Patriarch. Some historians suggest that the reason for this was that the king’s mother was a mistress of Heraclius.

Also present at the consecration of the new Temple, which would become home base for the Templars in the United Kingdom, was King Henry II. Henry was the first Plantagenet King of England and a big supporter of the Templar cause as was his son Richard I (The Lionheart) who succeeded him on the throne.

These two Plantagenets were not the only supporters of the Templars, as Henry III, the eldest son of King John, was so enamored with the Templars that he requested to be buried in the Temple Church. To this end, the choir of the original church was pulled down and rebuilt to a much larger size as seen today. Henry III himself was present at its consecration on the Day of Ascension, 1240 AD. On his death some thirty years later, it was discovered that he had altered his will and requested to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

Of course not everyone connected with the Templars would be buried elsewhere. Found inside the Round Church are the effigies of many patrons of the order. Chief among these is that of Sir William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke. Marshal is known today as the Flower of Chivalry and the interested reader can learn more about this great man in another article found in this issue. Suffice to say that Marshal was an important part of the Templar legacy and was instrumental during the negotiations of the Magna Carta in 1215 during the reign of the aforementioned King John.

Little more than a century after the consecration of the Round Church, the Templar’s popularity began to wane. Following the fall of Acre (see Vol 1 – No. 2) the Templars left the Holy Land for good. A few short years later, under the direction and machinations of the corrupt King of France – Philip IV, the Templars saw themselves under lock and key. As a result of the fall of the order, Edward II took control of the London Temple and latterly gave its possession over to the Knights Hospitaller, whom had always worked hand to hand with the Templars in the Holy Land.

Around this time the lawyers of London were looking for a facility that would permit them to attend the Royal Courts at Westminster. The Hospitallers were only too pleased to rent out the facility to two colleges of lawyers. These groups of lawyers became known as the Inner and Middle Temples respectively, a title they carry to this day. While each college had its own section of the facility, they shared the original Round Church in common and, to this end, the church founded by the Templars in 1185 became the college chapel. The situation remains the same to this day.

An interesting side note to the lawyer story is that in order to make their way to the courts, the lawyers had to pass a section known as the Temple Bar. This is the origin of the phrase “passing the bar,” which refers to the test one must pass to become a lawyer.

Little would change in the church for another two hundred years after the lawyers rented the space from the Hospitallers. In 1540 Henry VIII abolished the Hospitallers and took possession of the church into crown control. It was Henry VIII who first appointed a priest to the church, whom he referred to as Master of the Temple. This term is still in use today and the present Master of the Temple is The Reverend Robin Griffith-Jones, who was appointed in 1999. The present Master, in addition to being the overseer of the religious observances at the Round Church, is also the author of the book, “The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler, and the Mystic,” published by Harper books.

Reverend Griffith-Jones is but one of a long line of interesting Masters of the Temple. In the year 1585 AD, the second Master of the Temple, Richard Alvery died. This left an opening for the position and Alvery’s Deputy, Walter Travers, had expected to get the position. Since Travers had extreme Calvinist views, he did not receive the position and instead Richard Hooker was appointed to the position, having recently come from Exeter College in Oxford. This created a bitter rivalry that became known as the Battle of the Pulpits. Each Sunday morning Hooker would preach his sermon, which would be contradicted on Sunday afternoon by Travers during his own sermon. The situation was an intended one and Travers said quite firmly that, “Canterbury was preached in the morning and Geneva in the afternoon.” The conflict lasted nearly a year until, in 1586, Archbishop Whitgift, forbade Travers from preaching in the Temple. Hooker resigned from the Temple in 1591 and his legacy is that he is generally regarded as the father of the Anglican faith.

The Battle of the Pulpits would not be the only conflict and controversy to be felt in the Temple. Following the great fire that ravaged London in 1666, the Temple Church was restored. This restoration was not due to the damage of the great fire. In fact it is believed that the fire ended at the London Temple. One cannot help but wonder if perhaps the protection of the Templars lay beyond the grave. In any case the restoration was undertaken by Sir Christopher Wren, the famed English architect. During his restoration it was decided that an organ would be installed. The problem was that the Inner and Middle Temples, who shared the church, could not decide on which organ to install. One Temple preferred the organ of one Father Smith, while the other favored one built by Renatus Harris. The debate raged for some time until the Lord Chancellor, Judge Jeffreys, who decided the one built by Father Smith would be used, broke the split. This organ remained a part of the church until the Temple was destroyed by fire, caused by Nazi air raids in World War II.

The Luftwaffe caused this damage on the evening of May 10th, 1941. The incendiary bombs of the Nazis badly damaged the church and the domed roof was the first to burn. Winds caused the blaze to spread to the choir and nave. Father Smith’s organ, the prize of the great debate some three centuries earlier, was completely and utterly destroyed. The church today features a painting by Kathleen Allen, which depicts the utter carnage of the fire.

Fortunately the year 1951 saw the completion of most of the restoration and the Temple now carries the reredos design of Sir Christopher Wren, which had been removed by Smirke and Burton during their Victorian era redesign. The original portion of the Round Church, built by the Templars, was rededicated in November 1958 and stands today as one of the greatest of the Templar landmarks and tourist attractions.

Like the Templars themselves, their Round Church has seen many ups and downs and experienced many changes. How fortunate that over 800 years later, this marvellous edifice remains standing, despite all odds; a testament to the marvel of Templar architecture.

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