Apart from the tube station of the same name, the district called the Temple remains unknown to many Londoners and is off the main tourist routes (although just a ten minute walk from Covent Garden). Anonymous gateways lead into a world of courtyards and alleyways, halls and libraries, which resemble the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. This is intentional, for the purpose of the Temple was to provide lodgings in a collegial setting for the barristers of two of London’s Inns of Court: the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple.
The curious name of the district is derived from the fact that this was once the precinct of the Knights Templar, who established here their headquarters in England. The knights had two halls: Inner Temple Hall and Middle Temple Hall, of which only the Buttery at the east end of Inner Temple Hall remains of the mediaeval buildings. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1312 possession of the Temple was given to the Knights Hospitaller, though with their own priory at nearby Clerkenwell, it was largely surplus to their needs. Parts of the Temple were rented out, and already by the 14th century lawyers were working here. In 1608 a charter was granted to the barristers by James I.
At the heart of the Temple is the Knights Templar’s church, consecrated in 1185. Temple Church was built with an unusual circular nave, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The original choir was replaced by a larger chancel, consecrated 1240.The charter of James I granted the church to the two Inns of Court in perpetuity, on condition that they maintained the church.
Over the years Temple Church has been subject to a number of refurbishments: in the neoclassical style by Wren, who installed a reredos (wooden screen) behind the altar and an organ; and in the Victorian era when Wren’s alterations were removed and the church redecorated in a high Gothic style. The Victorian renovations were destroyed in 1941 when an incendiary bomb set fire to the roof.
Damage was considerable and it was not until the 1950s that the church was restored. Fortunately it was possible to reinstall Wren’s reredos, which had been in storage in a museum. No effort was made to repaint the walls (originally the walls would probably have been brightly painted with stripes and lozenges), and the overwhelming impression today is of the simplicity and warmth of the honey-coloured Caen limestone walls and the elegant pillars, fashioned from Purbeck marble. Interest is added by the ancient effigies of knights in the round church, the line of grotesque faces on the wall, and memorials dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. This is a very special place, one of the oldest churches in London, and a building that should be better known.
More pictures of Temple Church here.