Earlier this year, on a research mission, we took a trip to London, visiting the British Museum to learn more about the ancient Sumerian civilisation that will form the backdrop to the 2019 Silent Eye’s Annual Workshop, Lord of the Deep. While we were there, it seemed a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity to visit a place we have long wanted to see.
My own interest in the Temple Church predates that created by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by several decades, but in spite of a number of attempts, I had never managed to visit the place. These days, I would have understood that the time was not right. This time, I hoped it was, as we walked through the ornate archways and norrow streets towards our destination.
When we had first started writing together, Stuart and I had decided to lay off the Templars. They had kept cropping up here and there in our research, but, “They’ve been done to death,” said Stuart, and I had to agree. We had no intention of jumping on a popular bandwagon, so such references as we were obliged to make in The Initiate and subsequent books were kept low-key and fairly obscure. Then came Bakewell and Haddon Hall, and suddenly the Templars and their successors began cropping up an awful lot in our research.
Working with the clues in the landscape, architecture and history of the area, we had seen the formation of a tentative theory, connecting the ancient trackways and leys to the pilgrim routes, cared for by hermits and then by the Templars themselves. There was nothing earth-shaking in that… but there were anomalies that led us to wonder if that care was not ongoing, and if it was, who was now behind it? No matter which way we delved, we kept stumbling across the Templars as our starting point, so a visit to their London headquarters seemed obligatory.
The Templars were a religious Order of militant knights, founded in 1119. They were vowed to individual poverty, in spite of their personal origins in some of the noblest families of Europe, and in spite of the enormous collective wealth the Order amassed. Originally formed to protect the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land, they have accumulated more legends than any other monastic Order, as if their true history were not enough.
There is an area of London, just off Fleet Street, called Temple. It is so named because the entire area once belonged to the Templars. It was their headquarters in England and contained a religious and military training compound. Today, it is a legal district, the Inns of Court, and two of the ancient societies of lawyers have their home in the Inner and Middle Temple. The symbol of the Inner Temple is the Winged Horse, and we were to find that symbol throughout the church and the area. The arms of the Middle Temple is the Lamb, holding the Cross and banner of St George… emblems peculiarly associated with the Templars.
The Knights first moved here in the middle of the twelfth century, from their previous holding in Holborn, and at its heart still stands the Templar church. The importance of both the site and its Templar history are reflected in the fact that the incumbent of the church is still called the Master of the Temple.
Buildings cluster close around the church, including some which have stood there for many centuries. They once clustered even closer, but a bomb in WWII demolished one building and the space left in the landscape now forms a small square, dominated by a statue of the Templar emblem of two knights sharing a single horse. The official interpretation is that this represents their vow of poverty, but I have to wonder if that is its only symbolic meaning.
The church is an odd building, almost two buildings in one. The east end of the church is fairly normal… arranged, as one would expect, with aisles and altar. The west end, however, is both unusual today and typically Templar in design. Called the Round Church, it is built to echo the plan of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the site of the Temple of Solomon, beside which the Templars had made their home in the Holy Land, and of which legends soon formed about the treasures they had found there. Whether those treasures existed, and whether they were physical or spiritual in nature is a subject of much debate.
Could the Templars really have found something? They were certainly accused of some strange methods of worship when they were arrested, tortured and put to death in later years at the instigation of Philippe of France. Although the charges were politically motivated and false, and the knights exonerated long after their deaths, some intriguing details suggest that they did not follow the orthodox worship of Catholicism but appeared to have access to some very unorthodox teachings, including the veneration of a severed head. While some suggest this could have been the head of John the Baptist, there are also theories that this too was just a symbol for a deeper wisdom. Could the emblem of two knights on one horse perhaps symbolise their adherence to their dual role as warriors and monks, or their adherence to the inner and outer teachings of their Order?
From outside, there are few clues to what we would find inside. Only the strange silhouette of the Round Church and its magnificent Norman archway over the West Door, now well below street level, showed this to be anything other than a nice old church. We knew that it had been consecrated by no less a personage than Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, on 10 February 1185, and that it had been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but other than the few glimpses seen on film, we knew little else. We were, though, about to find out…