London – The Temple

I know of a public school and university man who has lived all his life in London and protests that he has never seen Westminster Abbey; there are certainly hundreds of people who have never seen the Temple.

It would be a marvel to me that anyone should leave London without having wandered at least once in those courts, if I had not taken so long to find my own way there. One knows vaguely that it is a charming place, but going there is postponed for that fata morgana, a day of leisure, that recedes as it is approached, and time passes and the train whistles and steams slowly out of Euston or Victoria, leaving behind one of the very loveliest corners in old London, -so easy to reach if one had but tried.

You have only to turn through the old gatehouse that Wren built in 1684 to wander about in another world,- a world where it is possible to imagine dear Charles Lamb moving among his guests on a Wednesday evening, with Mary hovering in the background, or Goldsmith giving those rackety supper parties at No. 2 Brick Court that disturbed his studious neighbour Blackstone.

Few places in London are so filled with the memories of brilliant Englishmen as the Temple. If you want to know all about when and where they lived, go to the wigmaker who conducts the Temple affairs from his little shop in Essex Court, and he will provide you with Mr. Bellot’s fascinating Story of the Temple.

Expert sightseers of course know all about it. They will tell you that Lamb was born in No. 2, Crown Office Row, and that Thackeray lived at No. 19; that Goldsmith died at No. 2, Brick Court, Middle Temple Lane, and that Johnson’s Buildings are on the site of Dr. Johnson’s rooms in Inner Temple Lane, and if you share their predilections you can go and peer at the actual bricks that have once sheltered these great men. But if you want to feel the real spirit of the place, unhampered by gazing at any particular pile of bricks and mortar, go to the old Temple Church on a Sunday morning.

Take any bus along the Strand past Temple Bar, where Dr. Johnson used to say that if he stationed himself between eleven and four o’clock, every sixth passer-by was an author,and go through the second entrance to the Temple called Inner Temple Lane. Or else take the Underground to the Temple and, walking along the Embankment, go up the Essex Street steps and turn into the Temple courts by the first gate you find open, even if that means going round into Fleet Street.

The service in the Temple is an unforgettable revelation. There is no reason why psalms should not be sung in every Anglican church in the world as they are sung in the Temple, but no one seems to have thought of it, except the Temple choirmaster, who has trained his choristers to sing the words as if they had a profound meaning.

Has anyone ever found fitting phrases to describe the peculiar beauty of the Temple Church, with its carved Norman porch, that twelfth-century Round Church, where nine recumbent Crusaders rest in peace, and gleaming marble pillars support both the choir and the Round? It must be seen to be believed, but I pity the traveller who leaves London without seeing it.

In the courts of the Temple there lie embalmed so many stories of so many ages, that everyone finds what suits his fancy. You may wander as Spenser did among

Those bricky towers,

Where now the studious lawyers have their bowers, There whilom wont the Templar Knights to bide, Till they decayed through pride.

Or you may choose a century later and go to York and Lancastrian times, and listen to Suffolk saying:

Within the Temple Hall we were too loud, The garden here is more convenient;

and Richard Duke of York’s reply,

Let him that is a true-born gentleman, And stands upon the honour of his birth, If he suppose that I have pleaded truth, From off this briar pluck a white rose with me:

and the Duke of Somerset:

Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer, But dare maintain the party of the truth, Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me. This brawl today, Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden, Shall send, between the red rose and the white, A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

It seems a pity that the Temple authorities do not so far unbend as to subscribe to the pretty legend by re-planting the gardens with red and white roses. It would give immense pleasure to countless transatlantic visitors, whose history books are fairly impartial on York and Lancastrian questions.

Then there are all the memories of gallant Elizabethan days, when the queen came and dined with the benchers in the great Middle Temple Hall and Twelfth Night was first performed here. It was by his dancing at one of the famous revels that the handsome youth Christopher Hatton first attracted the notice of Elizabeth, a moment when as our allies would say he lost a good chance of remaining quiet. The Hall is shown to visitors before twelve o’clock and after three on week-days and after church on Sundays. Peter Cunningham says the roof is the best piece of Elizabethan architecture in London.

What feasts they had there in the days when lawyers had time to make merry. Here is the account of one old chronicler:

For every feast the steward provided five fat hams with spices and cakes, and the chief butler seven dozen gilt and silver spoons, twelve damask table-cloths and twenty candlesticks. The constable wore gilt armour and a plumed helmet, and bore a pole axe in his hands. On St. Thomas’s Eve a parliament was held, when the two youngest brothers, bearing torches, preceded the procession of benchers, the officers’ names were called and the whole society passed round the hearth singing a carol. On Christmas Eve the minstrels, sounding, preceded the dishes, and dinner done, sang a song at the high table; after dinner the oldest masters of the revels and other gentlemen sang songs.

It sounds very cheerful and amiable, but it is difficult to imagine our modern lawyers passing round the hearth singing a carol.

I suppose that the three best-loved dwellers in the Temple were Oliver Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb, and none of them were lawyers. Johnson was living in No. 1 Inner Temple Lane when Topham Beauclerk and Mr. Langton knocked him up at three in the morning to see if he could be persuaded to finish the night with them, and he came out with a poker, and his little black wig on, and said when he understood their errand, “What, is it you, you dogs, I’ll have a frisk with you.”The story of Goldsmith’s tenancy of the Temple reminds one of the tales told of Balzac, whose tastes and weaknesses he shared. Always in financial difficulties, as soon as he made a little money he bought quantities of clothes and furniture and ran into debt to his tailor, perhaps for the very ‘red velvet coat with lace ruffles that you may see today in the London Museum at Lancaster House. Goldsmith had many London lodgings and only came to the Temple in 1764. When he died there ten years later the staircase of this improvident, extravagant genius was crowded with the poor he had managed to help. No one seems to know exactly where he lies buried in the Temple churchyard.

Lamb was a true child of the Temple as he was born there. It may be heresy, but I have always wished he had not called it “the most elegant spot in the metropolis “; he loved it more than that, as all readers of The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple know well.

No one leaves the Temple without pausing in Fountain Court, where Ruth Pinch used to meet Tom. It is by far the most charming of all the courts of the Temple. “I lived in Fountain Court for ten years,”wrote Arthur Symons, “and I thought then and I think still, that it is the most beautiful place in London.”