Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Temple Church, London

The Temple church is one of London's most fascinating and, thanks to its appearance in the Da Vinci code, is also one of London's most visited.

It was built as the London headquarters of the Templars, an order of soldier-monks established to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Over the years, its fortunes waxed and waned with theirs and, after the Templars' demise in 1340, it was given by Edward II to the Order of St John (the ‘Knights Hospitallers’). They in turn leased it to the lawyers of the colleges of the Inner and Middle Temples.

The Crown acquired it after the dissolution in 1540, and established it permanently as the church for the Inner and Middle Temples, who still run it to-day. Its most famous incumbent, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), is regarded as a founding theologian of the Anglican communion, and the church witnessed fierce debates on theology in his time.

The location is fascinating: the route to the church through the collegiate architecture of the Inner and Middle Temples is like a walk back through an earlier time. The oldest part of the present building, the nave, was consecrated in 1185, its circular design reflecting that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

From the outside, the West Door is pure Norman, but the windows and interior are an uncluttered Early Gothic, with arches resting on slender pillars of Purbeck marble. The spacious chancel is a delicate and pure form of this style, built in 1240 by Henry III, who had originally intended to be buried here. (He ended up in Westminster Abbey instead.)

Badly burned in 1941, it has been lovingly restored. The only interior details to survive were the tombs, located in the nave, but for many these are the main draw: fascinating life-sized effigies of 13th century knights.

To-day, the "Da Vinci Code" has ensured great crowds of pilgrims on a different quest: arrive half an hour after opening time if you want to see the church at its best. Better still, attend a choral service or concert: the choir is superb.

Temple, Holborn, London EC4Y 7BB Website

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