Temple Church: the hidden church founded by the Knights Templar

Updated: Mar 28

The term “hidden gem” gets bandied around a lot in relation to all sorts of places in London – bars and restaurants, museums, galleries and historic buildings. It’s a bit of an overworn phrase, but the subject of today’s post definitely fits the criteria for a hidden gem: small and off the beaten track, pretty and perfectly formed.

Through a little gateway on Fleet Street lies the Temple, the inner sanctum of Britain’s legal profession. It’s a curious name – one that always intrigued me when I was younger, going through Temple Station whilst on the District Line and wondering if there actually was a temple there. There is no temple, but amid the chambers of barristers is a little old church that has a history going all the way back to the Knights Templar.

I visited Temple Church one gloomy winter lunchtime, heading down through the familiar bustle of Fleet Street and then venturing for the first time into the Temple area. As soon as I stepped off Fleet Street, the noise and the crowds disappeared. Not many people pass through this place unless they work here or have business with one of the many legal professionals based in the buildings huddled around the little courtyards. Some parts of the Inner Temple are even off limits to the public. Temple Church, however, is open to all and hosts lectures and organ recitals as well as regular services. I handed over the £5 entry fee and began to explore this extraordinary building.

In many ways the story of Temple Church begins with Jerusalem, and with the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar, or – to give them their full name – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, were a military order whose first headquarters was based in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. This site was the inspiration for the order’s name, as it is alleged to be the location of the Temple of Solomon. After Jerusalem had been captured in 1099 during the First Crusade, the Knights Templar were founded to protect Christian pilgrims visiting the city.

Mention the Knights Templar and all sorts of images are conjured up: their Crusades, their distinctive white tunics emblazoned with a red cross, their wealth, and their sudden downfall and persecution after 1307. The story of the Templars and their dramatic fall from grace has also become enmeshed with various conspiracy theories, many of them relating to groups such as the freemasons, or links them with legendary artefacts such as the Holy Grail.

Little reminders of Temple Church’s founders can be spotted all over the church.

This window depicts two knights riding the same horse, one of the symbols of the Knights Templar

The church is an unusual structure, dominated by the round nave that was is inspired by the architecture of one of the holiest sites in Christianity, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Members of the Knights Templar who had visited the order’s headquarters in Jerusalem would certainly have visited this venerated place.

A 12th century depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre