The Knights Templar and Hospitaller

The Knights Templar came into being in around 1129 as an Order of “fighting monks” tasked principally with the protection of  Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with participation in Crusades, and incidentally with infrastructure and finance.  They soon became immensely wealthy and powerful, and at the same time the subject of much mistrust, on account of the secrecy surrounding  their activity, making themselves many dangerous enemies as well as friends.

On 13th October 1307 (according to myth the original unlucky “Friday the Thirteenth”),  the leaders of the Knights Templar were arrested on a  variety of charges, at least some no doubt trumped up by debtors and other vested interests, under a warrant reading “God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the Kingdom” (“Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume”).  They were later tortured into confessing to having “spat three times on the Cross” (” … craché trois fois sur la Croix … “), and done to death by being burned at the stake, and the entire Order was  eventually disbanded, essentially to be superseded by that of the Knights Hospitaller.

Interestingly, there are two Knights Templar or Hospitaller sites still in existence in London.

One  is Temple Church, in a precinct off Fleet Street.  The church was originally built in around 1160-85, in an architectural style transitional between Norman (Romanesque) and Early English Gothic, and in 1220-40, in a style that is decidedly Gothic.  It has been restored or rebuilt on a number of occasions subsequently, most recently by Carden & Godfrey between 1947-57, following bomb damage sustained during the Blitz of the Second World War.  The round tower and nave are twelfth-century, and modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  The famous Purbeck Marble effigies of Knights Templar in the interior are  thirteenth-century.

Temple Church
Temple Church
Temple Church effigy

The other is the Priory of St John, in a precinct in Clerkenwell.  The Priory was originally built in around 1145, destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, rebuilt by Prior John Redington immediately afterwards and restored by Prior Thomas Docwra in 1504, and dissolved in 1540 (it is said that the last Prior, William Weston, died on the very day the priory was dissolved, of a broken heart).   The former priory and later parish church, also with a circular tower and nave, was substantially destroyed during an air raid  on the last night of the Blitz, 10th May, 1941, and subsequently rebuilt.  Remarkably, the original crypt of 1145 still survives.  A separate gate-house of 1504 also survives.  The gate-house served between 1560-1608 – that is, immediately after the Dissolution – as the “Office of the Revels” (how wonderful!), where theatrical performances were licensed, and sets and costumed procured.  It re-entered the possession of the  by-then Order of (the Hospital of) St John in 1873, and now houses the Order’s museum.

Modern St John’s church with circular outline of Medieval nave in front
St John’s Gate-House

Temple Church is visited on our “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn – Fanfare and Plainsong”, “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey – Priories, Palaces and Parliament” and “Tower to Temple – The Heart of the City” walks; St John’s on the “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn – Fanfare and Plainsong” one.

Please note that these walks, or indeed any of our others, can be booked by e-mail (lostcityoflondon@sky.co.uk) or phone (020-8998-3051).

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