This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
Hidden in plain sight between bustling Fleet Street and the busy waters of the river Thames is Temple Church, an oasis of calm in the heart of London. Our journey to the church is by way of a ‘secret’ passageway, a cobbled lane that today echoes to the clip-clop of smart shoes and the rumble of cases. The passageway conveys you to a site that, 800 years ago, was the English headquarters of the Knights Templar, an order of warrior monks whose raison d’être was to guard pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land and protect territory captured during the First Crusade.
Hidden in plain sight between bustling Fleet Street and the busy waters of the river Thames is Temple Church, an oasis of calm in the heart of London. Our journey to the church is by way of a ‘secret’ passageway, a cobbled lane that today echoes to the clip-clop of smart shoes and the rumble of cases. The passageway conveys you to a site that, 800 years ago, was the English headquarters of the Knights Templar, an order of warrior monks whose raison d’être was to guard pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land and protect territory captured during the First Crusade. Consecrated in February 1185, with Henry II – the order’s most high-profile patron – most likely present, Temple Church originally formed part of a much larger monastic compound of domestic buildings, military training facilities and cloisters, leading straight down to the Thames. The church’s very shape would have made it stand out from the buildings surrounding it, as it still does today. The circular nave – the first part of the church to be built – mirrors the shape of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is claimed to contain the sites of both the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
As we enter Temple Church, winter sunlight streams through the tall glass windows, illuminating the effigies of some of its more famous residents. Famed knight William Marshal, chief advisor to King John and regent in the minority of Henry III, is buried here, together with his son, William, one of the 25 barons appointed to enforce Magna Carta. So too is an infant son of Henry II. The nine stone effigies set into the chancel’s limestone floor are eternally poised for battle, lying under the gaze of the stone gargoyles that circle the nave – some gruesome, others cheeky.
“The Gothic beauty of Temple Church belies the movement’s humble beginnings,” says Helen Nicholson, professor of medieval history at Cardiff University.
“The order began in Jerusalem, in around 1118-19, and was officially sanctioned by Pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes in north-eastern France in 1129.” It wasn’t long before the order was making its presence felt across Europe.
“The Knights Templars started to acquire property and support in England in c1128, after Hugh de Payens – one of the order’s founding members – met with Henry I,” says Nicholson. “Donations of money and land flowed in steadily, with the order receiving particular support from Queen Matilda (who, helpfully for the Templars, was the niece of the king of Jerusalem), her husband, King Stephen, and Henry II, who became one of the order’s main patrons.”
As a military, as well as religious, force, the Knights Templar was constantly on the hunt for new recruits, as well as money to pay for equipment and campaigns in the Holy Land. But becoming a Templar was not a decision to be undertaken on a whim, and not every recruit was destined to join the order.
“In theory, all you needed to join the Knights Templar was to be convinced of your vocation to fight for God,” says Nicholson. “The brothers (as they became on joining) were required to make three monastic vows: to relinquish all personal property; to obey their commanding officer; and to abstain from sex. Links to the outside world were forbidden, so successful recruits had to be unmarried, debt-free, able-bodied and prepared to fight.
However, if you brought a lot of money or land with you, a blind eye could be turned to any, or all of the above.”
A familiar sight
Once a recruit had been deemed to meet all the criteria, he would be required to attend an admission ceremony, which would initially have taken place at London’s Temple Church. His uniform – a white mantle to which a red cross at the left breast or shoulder was later added – would have been a familiar sight across Europe from the 1140s, when it was first introduced. The order achieved notable successes on the battlefields of the Holy Land, for example at Montgisard in 1177, where they helped defeat a far larger force led by the great Muslim warrior Saladin. This earned them the respect of their enemies, not least because they were forbidden from retreating in battle. Even Saladin held the Knights Templar in high regard, declaring that they were the only people he was prepared to trust and negotiate with.“The idea of the ‘warrior monk’ who served God but who was prepared to kill was pretty revolutionary,” says Nicholson, “and there was some criticism of the order. Nevertheless, the Knights Templar was soon well-established across the British Isles, particularly in Norman-French areas such as Wales, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and along the east coast of England.” In fact, it’s thought that, at one point, it was the biggest landowner in England after the king.
Buzzing with activity
“The Knights Templar was more than just a crusading movement; it was a business,” says Nicholson. “The lands they held needed to be managed, not just to make money, but also for the benefit of the order’s patrons to ensure their continued support. Many people were employed on estates owned by the Knights Templar, working the land for profit, and local communities would have expected to receive charity from their local Templars. The order even ran its own pension scheme! The complex here at Temple Church would have been buzzing with activity, and its position close to the river put it in a prime position for trading.”
The order continued to thrive throughout the 12th century and for much of the 13th. But then its fortunes changed. Islamic forces went on the offensive, inflicting a series of defeats upon their enemies. In 1291, the fall of Acre to the Muslims saw the Christians lose their last major stronghold in the Holy Land. The finger of blame for the failure of the crusades began to point at the Knights Templar. By the end of the 13th century, the wealth of the Templars had made them a sitting target, particularly in France where Philip IV was looking for ways to fill the royal coffers. Accusations of heresy against the order are first recorded in France, in 1307, with worshipping false idols, spitting and urinating on the cross, denying Christ at secret admission ceremonies, and sodomy appearing in a long list of alleged crimes.
Says Nicholson: “At dawn on Friday 13 October 1307, agents of Philip IV arrested large numbers of Knights Templars on charges of heresy, extracting confessions under torture where required. According to one contemporary source, 36 French Templars died under torture rather than confess and we have a long list of confessions from Templars admitting to most of the charges, but claiming that any denial of Christ had been with the lips and not with the heart. Pope Clement V, faced with a pile of confessions of heresy, was helpless in the face of Philip’s determination. The trials went ahead and, in May 1310, 54 Templars were burned at the stake.”In England, Edward II faced a dilemma – he was married to Philip’s daughter, Isabella. To refuse to follow Philip’s lead and arrest English Templars would have been tantamount to a declaration of war on France – a war Edward could ill afford. In 1307, yielding to pressure, the English king gave the order for Templar arrests, and trials were held in 1309.
Some Templars may have been tortured towards the end of the English trial, in June 1311,” says Nicholson, “but the majority were allowed to reject all their alleged heresies and most were sent to do penance at various monasteries, with Edward keeping most of the land seized as a result of the arrests.”
Temple Church was among those properties seized by Edward and was later given to another charitable order and rival to the Templars, the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights Templar itself was officially dissolved in 1312.“Much of the suspicion against the Templars came from the secrecy and privacy that surrounded the order,” says Nicholson. “When Philip IV, jealous of Templar wealth, began making accusations of heresy, no one could prove otherwise and so gossip and rumour prevailed.”Today’s church, with its peaceful interior and air of quiet contemplation, is a far cry from its 12th-century heyday, but it remains a testament to the warrior monks who pledged their lives to the Knights Templar.
Knights Templar: five more places to explore
Temple Bruernorth (Kesteven, Lincolnshire)
Where a Templar community lived
Once attached to the chancel of a circular-naved Templar church, the 12th-century tower is all that remains of one of England’s largest Templar estates, which may have included hospital and agricultural buildings and workshops. The community here disbanded in 1308 when its Templar knights were arrested and taken to Lincoln Castle.
Temple Church (Bristol)
Where the Templars had an HQ
Originally round in shape, Bristol’s Temple Church was the administrative centre for Knights Templars in the south-west of England. The shell of the church, with its leaning 14th-century bell tower, can be visited but the interior is not open to visitors.
Temple Manor (Rochester, Kent)
Where important guests stayed
Given to the Knights Templar by Henry II in 1159, Temple Manor, of which the two-storey stone hall remains, was probably used as a lodging for dignitaries travelling between Dover and London. Lying to the west of the river Medway, the house would have once stood in farmland, providing a substantial income to the order.
Creating Barns (Braintree, Essex)
Where an early Templar site remains
Cressing was one of the earliest Templar estates, given to the order in 1136. By 1185, it had become the largest such estate in Essex. Today, the site caters for weddings and events in its two 13th-century Templar-built barns.
Penhill Templars Preceptory (West Witton, North Yorkshire)
Where Knights Hospitaller took over
Founded by English noble Roger de Mowbray in c1142, Penhill once comprised a range of Templar buildings that were given to the Knights Hospitaller in 1312. Today, the remains of the chapel can be seen, along with some graves.
Helen Nicholson is professor of medieval history at Cardiff University. She has written widely on the crusades and the Knights Templar. Words: Charlotte Hodgman.