Down an alley, away from the snarling traffic of Fleet Street, Devereux Court debouches into the Temple. Today, it is the domain of barristers. But it feels monastic. Shrouded in silence, the silk breeze of the wind in the trees, you’d be hard pressed to find a more peaceful spot in central London and an aura of meditation lingers in the air, like a pall.
Keep walking, past fountains and benches and halls and eventually you’ll come to a pale-gold church. It has a circular nave, crenellated like a giant sandcastle, its west entrance carved in the frightening faces of Green Men, leaves and branches spewing from their mouths and hair. In front, on a plinth, two knights ride a single horse. They commemorate two Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known – and immortalised in the Da Vinci Code – as the Knights Templar.
The church (‘The Round’), completed in 1185, is all that remains of a grand monastic precinct that once stretched from Fleet Street to the River Thames, with dormitories, store rooms, stables, and training grounds, and cupboards full of crossbows, coffers and silver spoons. The people that lived here were members of an order which, for a time, operated a vast financial empire in the West to secure the Holy Land in the East. The Temple was the centre of their operations in Britain.
Today, the interior of the much-restored church is rather drab but originally it would have been a celestial world of flickering candles, banners draped over pillars, the lugubrious chants of chaplains murmuring masses for those who burned in Purgatory, the carved faces of kings, jesters and devils grimacing down from the vaults, and light pouring through the tall, slender windows so a visitor would find themselves cast from the darkness into the light, like a soul caught in religious tumult.
To the left of the entrance, in the grass, are the plain stone coffins of knights – just like those recently discovered in a churchyard in Staffordshire. Even if such brothers were not, as conspiracy theorists maintain, safeguarders of the bloodline of Christ, concealers of the Holy Grail, and their descendants shadowy power-brokers today, such graves are nonetheless startling reminders of the vast influence they once held all over Britain and far, far beyond her shores.
Unusually for a society that distinguished sharply between ‘those who pray’ and ‘those who fight’, the Knights Templar were both monks and soldiers, at once quiet recluses and brutal killing machines. The bulbous red cross smeared across their tunics resembled hourglasses of blood and self-sacrifice was the order of the day; all but two of their international Grand Masters perished in battle against the infidel. Founded in 1119, originally to protect pilgrims from attack in the Holy Land after the First Crusade, the order grew from a band of eight brothers into an elite military unit who, charging on their horses screaming “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory!”, were at the vanguard of battle.
They established their eastern stronghold on the Temple Mount, beyond the walls of Jerusalem, commandeering the Al-Aqsa mosque, overlooking the vanished Temple of Solomon (which had contained the Ten Commandments) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which encompassed what was believed to be the site of the Crucifixion – a landscape of divine law and grace. This charged the Templars with a blinding religious significance. So prized did they become that in 1139, Pope Innocent II granted them immunity to local laws. Thenceforth they were like spirits, able to float freely through national borders, above local laws, loyal only and directly to the Pope. With their standing army and fleet, they laughed in the face of temporal sovereignty.
To fund their operations in the east, they built up vast assets and wealth across Christendom, establishing a major presence in England, France, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Spain and elsewhere, receiving bequests from ordinary people and great patronage from noble rulers. For an order sworn to poverty – emblematised by two knights riding one horse – the irony of this was not lost. “Nowhere save Jerusalem are they in poverty,” quipped the chronicler Walter Map. But it was tolerated, for the moment.
Most remarkably, the Templars capitalised upon their imperviousness to national taxes to establish an international banking system. Many were the pilgrims who turned up to the Temple in London to exchange money and treasure for credit notes – a sort of medieval travellers’ cheque – which they could ‘cash’ at a Templar outlet in the Holy Land, making them far less of a target for Muslim attack. To say nothing of the vast sums of money and ransom sums they loaned to European monarchs: for a while, in 1200, the Temple housed the crown jewels as security on a loan. Being frequently richer than entire governments and operating in so many countries, it might be said that they anticipated the multinational corporations of our own day, a medieval Apple or Amazon, except all profits were ploughed into Holy War not the pockets of shareholders.
So extensive were their holdings that only ten per cent of the 20,000-or-so members of the cross-continent order were noble knights; the rest were chaplains, who prayed for the living and the dead, and sergeants whose principal role was to administer the estates (though they supported the knights as light cavalry too). As surviving place names suggest – Temple Mills in London, Temple Cowley in Oxfordshire, Templecombe in Somerset – there were once hundreds of these all over England (with a spattering in Wales and Scotland).
Nodes of Templar power and influence, from which such places were managed, were called Preceptories (or ‘Commanderies’ of which there were around 60 in England), managed by a Preceptor who answered to each country’s local Master. Many of these have crumbled into oblivion. But striking relics of some can still be visited to this day, a circular nave, referencing the rotunda structure within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, being a telltale sign of Templar presence.
Cressing Temple in Essex, a preceptory from 1136, was one of the grandest. It has a timber-framed barley barn (whose tree rings indicate a felling date of 1205-35) and a wheat barn (1257-80), the former of which is thought to be one of the oldest timber-framed barns in Europe, storing the fruits of the land to fund the slaughter of war. But this was but one feature of the original 1,400-acre site with a Preceptor, three knights, a chaplain, bailiff, servants and many tenant farmers. Here coins poured into coffers, ledgers were kept, prayers said, cows slaughtered, military drill took place, letters of credit dished out, and meals were eaten, and the members of the order slept in well-lit dormitories.
Elsewhere, Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire fell into Templar hands after the Benedictine monks who had built it left in 1169, and was subsequently used as a hospital and retirement home for members of the order. The large oblong house that it has become is run by English Heritage and can still be visited today. Other sites worth visiting today with some trace of a Templar trace include Temple Church in Bristol, Eagle in Lincolnshire, St Mary’s Shipley in West Sussex and Temple Basall with its gorgeous 13th-century church surviving, albeit much restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century.
Temple Garway was a grand Preceptory in the Marches (Herefordshire), the ‘wild west’ of medieval Britain, a turbulent frontier zone between Wales and the colonising English. “A remote and romantic spot above a dingle that descends towards the river Monmow,” it was an ideal setting for quiet meditation and military drill. It was given to the order by Henry II along with 2,000 acres of wood, although the rules forbade the Templars from hunting anything except lions (presumably more of a going concern in the Holy Land). The oblong nave, subsequently a parish church, can still be visited. There are original carvings of heads, crosses, fishes, eels, fragments of Templar grave slabs with the elongated baculus cross. Intriguingly, the east and west windows of the church are unusually high – possibly so people could not spy upon the mysterious initiation ceremony during which members vowed “to scorn the temptations of the body” and to “have no fear” going into battle.
The 73 clauses of the Latin Rule also stipulate that privacy must be kept to a minimum, personal letters be read aloud, monks sleep in their clothes in well-lit dormitories to avoid sin, and “excessive speaking” was not to be tolerated. Discipline was harshly enforced. Some preceptories have remains of penitential cells in which knights were known to perish. One unfortunate, Adam de Wallaincouer, fell foul of the Master’s orders, for which transgression he was made to lick up his food from the floor with the dogs each day for an entire year.
Many of these holdings were taken over by either the Crown or the rival order the Knights Hospitaller when, after blazing so bright, the Templars’ star came crashing down in 1307. Caving in to the demands of Philip IV of France, who owed the Templars a huge debt he could not repay, Pope Clement V issued a bull which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest the Templars and seize their assets on trumped-up charges of heresy; they had been spitting on the cross, it was claimed, and kissing each other’s belly buttons, spines and lips in sodomitical initiation rituals.
Now that the crusading fervour was ebbing, and the Templars had lost their stronghold in Jerusalem, their vast wealth seemed suspicious; insulting even. In Paris, there was a bloodbath of persecution. Before his charred flesh fell from his bones, facing the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Grand Master Molay yelled out: “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death.” Within a year, both pope and king were dead.
In England, two labyrinthine caves have been discovered, at Royston in Hertfordshire and Caynton in Shropshire, where carvings supposedly containing Templar motifs have been discovered, raising the possibility that the knights went underground to flee persecution. Evocative as this image is, there is no evidence it is true: the figures at Royston seem to wear 15th-century armour and the image of two knights on horseback is nowhere to be seen; the Caynton carvings seem to date from a much later period, too. Besides, most members were allowed to join other orders so retreat to any cave would only have been temporary and possibly unnecessary. It is just one of so many myths and legends that have attached themselves to the valiant and remarkable Templars illustrating what a hold they had, and continue to have, on the popular imagination.