Vic Keegan’s Lost London 36: the Middle Temple Hall

by Victor Keegan

The wonderful Middle Temple (nearest station, Temple) is not lost, just difficult to get into except when events are held there or there is an open day – or if you happen to be a lawyer. It is worth the wait to go inside, because it has survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and both world wars and is more or less as it was in Shakespeare’s time. He must have known it well.

In Henry VI, Part I – written around 1591 – the Earl of Suffolk leads Richard Plantagenet from the Hall of the Middle Temple, where they had been speaking “too loud”, into the Temple Garden where the future contestants of the Wars of the Roses plucked red and white roses as the emblems of the future conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster. 

The Earl of Warwick later says:

Will I upon thy party wear this rose. 

And here I prophesy, the brawl to-day

Grown to this faction, in the Temple Gardens,

Shall send, between the red rose and the white,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

That was an imagined scene, though the garden still exists today in the same place. 

A few years later on February 2, 1602 in the same hall, real history took place when the first performance of Twelfth Night, almost certainly with Shakespeare in the cast, took place in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. It opened with the line: “If music be the food of love, play on”. 

The Middle Temple Hall is one of the few large medieval buildings in London to survive intact, despite partial reconstruction because of bomb damage or decay. What you are looking at is what Shakespeare saw. 

The Hall contains a dazzling oak double hammer beam roof and a notable oak screen dating back to 1571. The 29 ft long Bench Table, made from a single oak tree, is believed to have been given to the Inn by the monarch herself. 

The Hall was constructed between 1562 and 1573 on the site of an earlier one with the same bricks. Today could easily be 400 years ago because hardly anything has changed.

You are sheltered by overhanging mulberry trees from which lawyers get the material of their craft when they “take silk”. Behind you is Fountain Court, named after the fountain where Ruth Pinch in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit came to meet her brother and later her lover John Westlock. To your right are the stairs to Fountain Court where Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, had an unexpected visit from Magwitch, a convict who was his anonymous benefactor. Oh, and a lot of law happens within these precincts too.

Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here. Vic’s London poetry can be found – and purchased – here.

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