Plague, Persecution and Wars? Yes, It Must Be London’s History

Middle Temple Hall

Recently I had the great good fortune to be taken to lunch at the Middle Temple Hall.

Originally owned by the Knights Templar – a religious military organisation from Jerusalem with the mission to protect pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land – the Templars  rose to great prominence from the 12th century, acquiring lands and wealth.  But by the beginning of the fourteenth century the organisation and its leaders fell into disfavour both in France and England and was disbanded.

Templar lands and properties were confiscated, passing to another organisation called the Knights Hospitallers.  When they too met their end,  the lands passed to the Crown.  Later the Temple was used for the purposes of education and law, as continues today.  Although there was an earlier medieval construction, the existing hall dates from around 1500.

Many famous feet have walked the four Inns of Court which remain the starting point for every barrister in England; including Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bacon, Margaret Thatcher and (as Katherine Rundell writes in her book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne) “enough MPs to start a war.”

It’s likely that one of the most famous visitors to Middle Temple would have been a complete unknown at the time.  Just a jobbing actor and playwright called William Shakespeare.  According to contemporary records, the Hall witnessed the opening of Twelfth Night:

“One Candlemas Feast towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1601/2, is particularly notable today. While no Middle Temple records survive, the diary of a student, John Manningham, describes the first known performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Hall. While there is no reference to the actors, most likely because acting was not considered a respectable profession at the time, it seems probable that the Bard himself would have been present and played a part himself. This notable event has been marked on numerous occasions since by commemorative performances and recitals.”

As the photograph above shows, the hall is magnificent. Given its wartime history though, it is remarkable that it stands as originally constructed.  There is a photograph of it with a huge hole in one of the walls!

The Temple website gives the following account.

“The first bombs fell on the Temple on 24 September 1940, destroying part of Elm Court, and destruction would continue throughout the Blitz until the final night of air raids in May 1941. In October 1940, another attack on Elm Court caused an explosion which ripped a hole in the East gable of the Hall, destroying the wall and smashing the minstrels’ gallery and screen to smithereens.”

The hall was restored by 1949 and reopened by Queen Elizabeth in July of that year.  We were told that the handsome screen and gallery were all reconstructed from saved original materials.

The top table is extraordinary.  It must be (in Shakespearian terms) 30 foot long.   Apparently it entered the hall through a window before the stained glass was inserted in the aperture.  There’s no way it’s going anywhere now!  1000 years of history guys.

Oh, and Harry Potter wasn’t filmed there – but apparently Bridget Jones was.


The Middle Temple Church too is of great interest, built by the Templars and modelled around the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem it is well stocked with effigies of long deceased religious warriors.  I climbed the scary spiral staircase up to the gallery and then wished I hadn’t.  I’m not good at heights.  Took this photo though of the view from the gallery down to the nave.

Temple Church, From the Gallery

At the same time as Will Shakespeare was pounding the boards of the Middle Temple hall, a young man called John Donne was also making his way in the great capital – or trying to.  There is no evidence that the two ever met although Rundell far from dismisses the possibility that they would have done.  Who knows, this was the Elizabethan age and tempestuous times; plague and persecution, the threat of war with Spain, Francis Drake having his game of bowls disturbed.  Anything was possible.

The Cambridge University Press website says:

John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and Church of England clergyman. He was born in London, educated at Hart Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College) and received legal training at Lincoln’s Inn. Donne found work as a soldier, a secretary, a professional author (seeking patronage) and Member of Parliament, before finally accepting a role in the Church of England, rising to the eminent position of Dean of St Paul’s. Although best known now for his dazzlingly inventive ‘metaphysical’ poems, with their extended metaphors and elaborate conceits, in his own day Donne was a celebrated preacher.

Only a short walk from the Middle Temple lies the equally ancient parish of Lincoln’s Inn.  It was here in the Chapel that John Donne preached, his sermons being so popular that Lincolns Inn Fields would fill up with people straining to hear his words.   For the acres of stuff that he wrote, all I know about Donne is his ultra famous poem:

For Whom the Bell Tolls;

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

I was told by the very kind person who took us to lunch that those deathless words had been inspired by the tolling of the bell at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, which would be rung when a Bencher (member of the Inns of Court) died.

John Donne may have been a great preacher and poet.  Judging by Katherine Rundell’s book he was also a bit of a chancer and somewhat arrogant in certain respects.  Taken on as a  Secretary by Lord Egerton – a prestigious appointment that he was lucky to get –  Donne made himself unpopular not least by constantly altering the letters that his boss dictated to him.  He got himself imprisoned by marrying Anne, the daughter of Sir George More, secretly and without her father’s consent.  In those days, and certainly amongst the aristocracy, you really didn’t do that.  Needless to say Sir George was underwhelmed by the whole thing when he eventually found out and had Donne packed off to the Fleet prison.  Yet none of that stopped Donne going on to become Dean of St. Paul’s.

Super-Infinite, The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber. It won the Baillie-Gifford prize for non-fiction in 2022.

4 thoughts on “Plague, Persecution and Wars? Yes, It Must Be London’s History

  1. Fascinating, Frances! what a pleasure it must have been and I thoroughly enjoyed your writing about the experience. I haven’t checked, but I think mutual friends and neighbours of ours have had a similar experience. Shelagh