London, being London, is home to many places of great historical interest, some of which can be found in the most unexpected places. Yesterday, I found myself in an oasis of (relative) tranquillity just yards from the bustle of Fleet Street which is home to one of London’s oldest churches. This area is known as the Temple, and it has the feel of a sleepy, old-fashioned university college. I, it seems, am not the first person to think this; back in the 1920s, H.V. Morton commented that the Temple "brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age."
It’s not really sleepy, of course – it’s one of London’s major legal districts and those seemingly quiet (and, in most cases, listed) buildings are for the most part barristers’ chambers. At its heart, though, is the Temple Church, rare among English churches on account of its being round (well, the original nave section is) and famous for its effigies (not tombs) of medieval knights. It’s a beautiful old building, and this first-time visitor was most impressed.
It dates back to the 12th century when it was built by the Knights Templar, who modelled it on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (which is why the nave is round); although the Knights Templar were abolished in 1307, their legacy lives on in the name of this particular part of London, and the curious fact that the priest-in-charge is not called the vicar but the Master of the Temple.
History has been made in the Temple Church, for it was the venue for negotiations between King John and the barons, which led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. William Marshal, the knight who ensured that the Magna Carta was reissued after John’s death, is buried there. It has featured in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 and The Da Vinci Code (that last one led to a vast increase in the number of tourists coming to have a look around; the Master has even written a book debunking the myths propagated by Dan Brown). It survived the Great Fire but was badly damaged in the Blitz, after which it was restored.
Unusually, the Temple Church is a peculiar, meaning that it is a church that does not come under the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it is located. This is not due to anything concerning the Knights Templar but because the Temple Church is the chapel of two of the four Inns of Court (the two with ‘Temple’ in their names, naturally). The most visible sign of this unusual status is that the Master and his acolytes get to wear scarlet cassocks.
So what was I doing there yesterday? The answer can be summed up in one word: Evensong.
I’ve not been to evensong since I was a chorister at John Keble Church; back then, evensong was an occasional Sunday evening affair (more often than not, evening prayers were a ‘said’ service and so did not require the choir); Temple Church, by contrast, has a cathedral-style choir that does regular choral music performances in addition to services, and has even featured on the Proms.
This particular evensong was held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Although Britain didn’t enter the war until 4th August, 28th July marked the anniversary of the first declaration of war, that of Austria-Hungary on Serbia; five days earlier, the former had presented the latter with a series of demands that were intended to allow their authorities to investigate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, although some of them were so unreasonable that they invited rejection. In fact, the Serbs accepted all but one demand, the request that the Austrian police be allowed to operate within Serbia itself. The result of this rejection was the outbreak of war.
And so, to the accompaniment of some truly lovely choral music (including the Last Post, the Magnificat, an anthem based on the 90th Psalm and the Old Hundredth, the last of which I remember singing as a chorister, at evensong most likely), we commemorated the start of the war.