An Escape Hatch On Fleet Street Into A More Hushed And Secretive World

By Deborah Nash Last edited 23 months ago
An Escape Hatch On Fleet Street Into A More Hushed And Secretive World

At 222-225 Strand — opposite the Royal Courts of Justice and just before you pass from Westminster into the City — you'll see on your right a doorway nestled between rose-granite pilasters. Above it is an ox-eye window hugged by a pair of arabesque-shaped fish.

It may not look it, but this is an escape hatch; an emergency exit from the traffic and tour buses along Fleet Street to a more hushed and secretive world.

Cross the mosaic floor panel and push through the door. You're on your way to Middle Temple.

Down past a twisting, intricately carved staircase and, for some reason, a mosaic giraffe, you'll reach a Victorian glaze-tiled passageway with wrought iron girders and heavy lamps.

Here, the flagstones echo with the patter of barristers released from the Inns of Middle and Inner Temple for their lunch hour.

Into the Middle Kingdom

Once you're back in the open air you'll find yourself in a series of interlocking courtyards belonging to Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court (the others being Inner Temple to the east, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn).

This is where barristers get their training, carry their briefs in sheaths of paper tied with a pink ribbon (a tradition dating from 1787; even today they still roam round their chambers in search of a bit of pinky) and are called to the Bar (the railing round the judge). All trainee barristers must belong to one of the Inns to qualify.

Number 2 Essex Court was built in 1677 and largely unaltered from that time. It is a fine example of the Inn's archaic romance that washes up against the 21st century infrastructure of scaffolding, traffic cones and cleaners rattling down cobbles with large wheelie bins. Note the initial 'T' above the doorway that you'll find elsewhere, and look for the iron boot-scrapers outside some of the front doors.

Everywhere, barristers brush past, leaving the Inn by its many gateways, including the pineapple-topped Judge's Gate leading to Devereux Court.

Both Middle and Inner Temple Inns were bombed during the war and while the area is often described as a portal to a bygone age, much of what you see is reconstructed. Middle Temple lost 122 of its 285 sets of chambers. As a reminder, look no further than the blasted statue of the 18th century writer Oliver Goldsmith, who worked at Brick Court (Numbers 2 and 3 were destroyed in a raid and not rebuilt). He lounges forlornly outside Temple Church where he is buried.

Lamb of innocence and horse with wings

The crest of the Agnus Dei, the pascal lamb of innocence carrying the St George's flag on a cross, appears on walls, gates, arcades and doorways. The lamb indicates you're in Middle Temple; if you see the crest of Pegasus you've strayed into Inner Temple.

Like much else in this history, the two crests illustrate the adversarial nature of these pairings, from the hybrid Temple Church founded by the Knights Templar, with its battle of the two organs, and the emblem of the Tudor Rose that you come across in the courtyards.

Where is the temple?

So, what's the meaning behind this arcane symbolic thinking and where is the Temple? Now we've arrived at the mysterious nub of the question: the Temple is in Jerusalem.

Scroll back to the 12th century: a time when Christian pilgrims from Europe were setting off to the region of Palestine to see the holy places. It was a dangerous journey and many never returned so an order of knights was founded by Hugues de Payens, eulogised by Saint Bernard de Clairvaux, to protect them from the thieves they encountered along the way. These soldier-monks so impressed King Baldwin of Jerusalem he gave them a building on the site of a temple for their HQ. The order became known as the Knights of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem — Knights Templar for short.

Well, the Knights had to have a church of their own and they built them across Europe. You'll find a fine example in Church Court. The Church of St Mary the Virgin or simply, Temple Church, comprises two churches: the Round Church, built by the Templars and consecrated in 1185 (on the left) and the Hall Church (the chancel) built on its south side in 1236-40 (see right). The latter was intended as a burial place for Henry III and was realised in an elaborate and magnificent style. In the end, Henry wavered, then changed his will and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Since then, Temple Church has been patched up, added to, bombed and rebuilt.

The knight's tale

The Round Church was designed to recreate in London the shape and sanctity of the Round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All Templar churches followed this circular idea, for to stand in the rotunda was, to the medieval mind, to be at the centre of the centre of the world. To the crusading knights, it evoked the death and resurrection of Christ, whose tomb was believed to be in the small cave in the Holy Sepulchre.

The recumbent marble effigies of knights in full armour belong to the most powerful men of the Crusades, and to be buried here was to be buried in Jerusalem. You may notice that one or two have crossed legs; this is not because they're in need of a toilet nor — as was sometimes thought — a reference to the cross, but more likely to signify liveliness and animation. These knights are waiting to be called back to battle; their eyes are open and they are forever young, fixed in their early 30s, the age at which Christ died and rose again.

Close to the marble effigies stand a pair of barons: Geoffrey de Mandeville (right) and Saer de Quincy (left). They were two of the 25 surety barons charged with ensuring King John stuck to the Magna Carta, the document that became an icon of liberty, although in 1215 it was really concerned with protecting the barons from illegal imprisonment, safeguarding the rights of the church and limiting taxes and other payments to the crown.

The baron who remained loyal to King John and was entrusted with the care of his young son (the future Henry III) was one William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who received the accolade as the 'greatest knight that ever lived', having fought off the French at the Battle of Lincoln when he was already 70. His tomb is also here.

The battle of the two organs

Temple Church was spared the Great Fire of 1666, thanks to a change in the wind. But the architect of the post-fire City, Christopher Wren, who married his first wife here, directed a make-over in Classical style. In 1683, as part of the works, the Inner and Middle Temple decided a new organ should also be installed. Organs had been banned during Oliver Cromwell's puritan reign and organ-makers were in short supply. Each Inn recommended a different craftsman: Inner Temple suggested a Frenchman: Renatus Harris. Middle Temple put forward a German: Bernhard Schmidt, better known as 'Father Smith'.

Both organs were commissioned and intended to be played and judged in their respective Inns to decide which to choose, but Smith persuaded the Treasurers to give his the advantage by placing it within the church itself, whereupon Renatus Harris moved his organ into position at the opposite end, poised for the infamous 'Battle of the Organs'.

The conflict lasted a year with plenty of cheating and sabotage. In early 1684, Judge Jeffreys decided in favour of Smith's organ in one of his less bloody pronouncements. Harris re-used the materials from his instrument in others made for St Andrew's, Holborn and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Smith's victory remained in place until the bombs of the second world war silenced it. All that remains of the winner today are a few melted pipes kept in the Vestry.

Once the blitz dust had settled, there arrived a magnificent wind-chest from a ballroom in Scotland, the donation of Lord Glentanar, who regretted that his Harrison instrument was underused. This 1920s 'imperial' organ is said to surpass even Smith's instrument and in that sense is the true victor in the war of musical instruments. It accompanies the two professional ensembles based at the church: the Temple Singers and the Temple Players.

Windows in the wall, windows in the floor

The Quartercentenary Window (above) was installed in 2008 as a celebration of James I's 'Letters of Patent' that gave the two Inns of Court the permanent use of the land as accommodation for, and training of, lawyers, who had previously leased it from the Knights Hospitaller. The King also exempted the Inns from the control of external authorities, an arrangement that continues today, as they don't come within the jurisdiction of the Corporation of London.

The window depicts the scales of justice suspended from a knight's sword and was created by Caroline Benyon, whose father designed the East Window of the church.

As you leave by the door, look down through a window in the floor and there you will see the grave of John Selden. The woman on the ticket desk will switch on the light if you ask. Selden was a 17th century jurist and scholar who died just after the English Civil War (1642-1651). It was the custom of the time to unearth one's adversary and carry out a mock execution (King Charles II took revenge on his father's death by decapitating Oliver Cromwell's corpse).

Selden was thought to have been buried at double depth as a preventative measure against this practice.

The pert squirt of Fountain Court

In Fountain Court chuckles a single jet of crystal water close to the Thames — described less poetically by one writer as a 'pert squirt'. It is in a courtyard shaded by 17th century black mulberry and plane trees. Office workers sit on steps or benches and eat packed lunches if the weather is fine, and tour groups quench their thirst on medieval history then move on.

Charles Dickens certainly came to Middle Temple. The fountain appears in one of his novels as a meeting place for John Westlock and Ruth Pinch. The quote from The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit describes its delightful bubbly nature, a welcoming contrast to the smoke and grime of the capital and the solemn portentousness of the courts.

In sunshine, everything is dappled and with the water, dream-like; gardens before you, sturdy old-fashioned lamp posts still with their gas fittings and the occasional gentleman carrying a mace. Like the doorman on his way to Temple Church for a memorial service.

The finest Elizabethan hall in England

Middle Temple Hall sounds out the rituals and robust continuity of the legal institutions from the 16th century to the present. Its external appearance of castellated walls edged with white stone, steep pitched red-tiled roof and pepperpot tower conceal the wealth of period features inside. Far from being a dusty museum piece, the building retains its original function as a dining room and ceremonial place of debate alongside revels, masques and entertainment that included a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in February 1602 and gambling: when the floor boards were taken up in 1764, hundreds of tiny dice yellowed by age were found to have fallen through the chinks.

The best way of moving beyond the iron gates and experiencing Middle Temple Hall itself is to book a lunch there during the week (non-members are welcome),. When you sit down at one of the long trestle tables inside the banqueting hall, you may find yourself next to elderly retired gentlemen of legal bearing with long Dickensian faces that are as rare and antique as the furniture around them.

In Elizabethan times, they would have supped on blanched boar's head with a golden lemon wedged in its jaws but today they spoon their chowder soup in silence.

The 101 feet long and 41 feet wide hall was built between 1562 and 1573, and financed by treasurer Edmund Plowden, whose larger-than-life marble bust stares stonily across the dining room while his recumbent effigy lies in Temple Church.

As you feast, look up at the fabled double hammer-beam oak roof that has an almost surreal appearance with its bed knob protuberances. Beneath this are windows with original stained glass from the 1570s (removed during the war) and whitewashed walls in the upper half where empty suits of armour face each other on either side. The lower wall extending to the floor is made up entirely of panels bearing the armorial coats of arms of innumerable Readers (or Lecturers) dating from 1597.

To the left is the buffet (and you can have multiple helpings) but it is at the front and rear of the room that you will find most of interest. At the front is a shallow dais where Benchers (i.e. QCs, senior legal figures and the Royal Bencher, currently Prince William) dine at the candle-lit Bench Table. It's constructed from three 29-foot planks from a single oak, cut down in Windsor Forest and floated down the Thames, reputedly a gift of Queen Elizabeth I.

Beyond the table is a row of royalty: paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne, Charles II, Charles I on horseback, James II and William III. To the far left is the 'Cupboard' — a table used by Readers to deliver lectures; it has an 18th century base while the top is said to have been made from the hatch of Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hinde (there's no documentary evidence to this effect).

On the night of 15 October 1940 a landmine exploded in Elm Court, which shattered the heavy oak Renaissance screen at the back of Middle Temple Hall. The remains were gathered into 200 sacks and stored until they could be pieced back together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, which has been done so well you can't see the joins.

Dickens belonged to the Inn, but fell foul of a regulation stipulating a minimum number of dinners to be eaten at Middle Temple Hall in a year and these 'qualifying sessions' remain in place today. One doorman I spoke to said barristers were now required to have 12 dinners during term times.

To leave Middle Temple either head down Middle Temple Lane towards the river, passing through the elaborate gateway on to Victoria Embankment:

Or ascend the cobbles towards Fleet Street.

Dressed for the bar

If you choose this route, you'll pass Thresher & Glenny, a tailors established in 1755 that equips barristers with their court attire, everything from their stiff white wing collars with bands, stuff gowns, bespoke shirts and — for all I know — bespoke boxers. The Royal Warrant inside was first granted by King George III in 1783, and they have held on to it ever since.

Then, it's time to head back into the real world.

Last Updated 07 June 2019