Temple Church attracts visitors from all over the world, many of whom have read Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”, hoping to add another piece of the jigsaw to the quest for their own Holy Grail.
For those who haven’t read the book it does a good job of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, especially for anyone who is not familiar with the subjects of religion and the crusades. For those who are familiar with these subjects it’s been controversial to say the least, especially to Roman Catholics.
The inclusion of the Knights Templar into the storyline has only added to the mystery of what some people already regarded as a secret society, and Temple Church is the church of the Knights Templar in London – and that’s one fact nobody can dispute.
To talk about Temple Church requires going back to the days of the crusades and the role of the Knights Templar, and as I’m no expert on this subject, I’d like you to bear with me while I try to unravel truth from fiction in just a few paragraphs.
The history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all part of the background to The Crusades, of which the Knights Templar were an integral part. The knights themselves are cloaked in a world of mystery that continues to this day, so is it any wonder that Dan Brown could use all this material to his advantage?
The story of The Crusades centre around the Holy Land, and in particular, Jerusalem, where the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions have several sacred sites, and one of them – Temple Mount – is sacred to all three.
From around 638 the Holy Land had been controlled by the Saracens (the Christian name for Arabs and Muslims at the time), who had even spread their influence westwards through North Africa and into Spain, but by the 1090s they had started to lose some of that control. With this window of opportunity, Pope Urban II called for the Christian kings and knights of Europe to take up arms and ‘recover the burial place of Christ in the holy city of Jerusalem’, and to “liberate the Church of God” – and so began the First Crusade.
The First Crusade was launched in 1095, but the ‘People’s Crusade’, as it was called, was initially a disaster. A badly organised, largely unarmed band of Christians were massacred long before they ever got there, but in 1099 a more professional army managed to capture Jerusalem, allowing Christian pilgrims once more to make their way to the Holy Land.
The Christians may have won the first battle, but they hadn’t won the war, and the journey to Jerusalem was perilous to say the least. Under constant attack, many were killed along the way.
A small group of knights pledged to make their journey safer and were rewarded by the King of Jerusalem with a safe haven of their own on Temple Mount. This new monastic order of knights took three vows – poverty, chastity and obedience, and became known as the Knights Templar.
This Catholic military Order was created by a French knight called Hugues de Payens around 1118 and were initially called the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. They may well have started out as poor soldiers, but in the years to come they were anything but.
In the early 1160s they built their New Temple in London. The Round Church symbolised the round church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine at the location believed to be the site of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
It couldn’t have been any coincidence that the church was built between the City of London with its financial wealth to the east and Royal and political Westminster to the west, because by this time, thanks to the special privileges that they had been granted, the Templars had become a political and economic force themselves.
They were so powerful in fact, that several kings got them to look after their money and jewels. One of them, King John, took refuge in the church when he fell out with his barons, and it was left to William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, to liaise between the two parties to bring about a resolution to the ever-increasing prospect of a civil war. That situation was averted by the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.
The Earl has been described as “the greatest knight that ever lived” and on his deathbed he became a member of the Knights Templar. His eldest son, also called William, helped supervise the enforcement of the document and both are buried in the church.
With this connection to the Magna Carta, is it any wonder so many barristers and lawyers are based in the Temple area?
Between 1096 and 1291 there were nine crusades, ending with the Christian’s defeat at Acre. By this time the Templars had become too powerful and too wealthy for some, particularly King Philip IV of France.
On Friday 13th October 1307 he ordered the arrest of all the French Knights Templar, a date which has become known as being unlucky ever since. Pope Clement V eventually agreed with the French king and ordered all European Christian monarchs to arrest the Templars and seize their assets. In England, King Edward II followed the Pope’s instructions, with many of the knights ending up in the Tower of London. It was the end of the Knights Templar – or was it?
The French knights suffered the worst under the purges, but it’s believed that quite a few escaped, and this is where some of the mystery and intrigue starts to come in. A lot of their wealth is still unaccounted for, and some people believe their descendants still exist, maybe even in the form of secret societies – and what about the Holy Grail? Did they really find something under the Temple of Solomon? or indeed have a closely guarded secret that they took with them? People are not even sure what the Holy Grail is, or even if it existed. Who knows for sure?
Experts on the subject will pour scorn on the unsubstantiated myths that have passed down through the years, but others will argue that there’s no smoke without fire.
Either way, for my part, I’m sticking with what I believe to be factually correct and which seems to make sense as far as the Temple Church in London is concerned.
Edward II took control of the London Temple and then gave it to the Knights Hospitallers. This would make sense because the Hospitallers were less controversial but still part of the crusades alongside the Templars. This resulted, around the same time, of the Temple being rented out to two colleges of lawyers – what we now call Inner Temple and Middle Temple, and it’s not difficult to see how future developments led to the two colleges being responsible for the church, and the church becoming the chapel of the two colleges.
As for the ‘Da Vinci Code’, it has a lot of sceptics, but it has captured the imagination of people around the world, and is still making the author plenty of money. Temple Church has also benefitted financially from it, and for all we know perhaps even the descendants of the Knights Templar have – whoever they are, wherever they may be, or whether they exist at all.