The Round Church

‘Foster-Child of Silence and slow Time’: The Round Church, its Consecration and its Effigies. 

On 10 February 1185 Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, processed into the Round for the church’s consecration. The King was almost certainly present. A grand church for a grand occasion; for the Round had no such quiet austerity as we see in it today. The walls and grotesque heads were painted: the walls most probably with bands and lozenges of colour. The Round was proudly modern: Heraclius entered through the Norman door to find the first free-standing Purbeck columns ever cut; above them curved in two dimensions Gothic arches rising to the drum. A chancel, some two thirds of the present chancel’s length, stretched to the east. There the Patriach’s procession will have come to rest for Mass. And there the altar stayed. What, then, – on that great day or later – was the function of the Round?

Its most important role was played by its shape. Jerusalem lies at the centre of all medieval maps, and was the centre of the crusaders’ world. The most sacred place in this most sacred city was the supposed site of Jesus’ own burial: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here the crusaders inherited a round church. It was the goal of every pilgrim, whose protection was the Templars’ care. This was the building, of all buildings on earth, that must be defended from its enemies.

In every round church that the Templars built throughout Europe they recreated the sanctity of this most holy place. Among the knights who would be buried in the Round was the most powerful man of his generation: William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (died 1219), adviser to King John and regent to Henry III. His sons’ effigies lie around his own. The Marshal himself (who lies recumbent and still) took the Cross as an old man; his sons (drawing their swords) did not. Their figures lie frozen in stone, forever alert in defence of their father’s long-forgotten cause. Such burial was devoutly to be desired; for to be buried in the Round was to be buried ‘in’ Jerusalem.

The Patriarch Heraclius may well have been the most ignorant, licentious and corrupt priest ever to hold his see. Our reports of his character, however, reach us from his enemies. The great Western chronicler of the Crusades, William of Tyre, was for decades Heraclius’ opponent and rival. In 1180 William had (and had been) expected to be appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem. But the king of Jerusalem was swayed by his mother, said to be a mistress of Heraclius – who was duly appointed Patriarch. William himself was honorably reticent in the face of this reverse. His followers were less restrained. ‘Ernoul’ tells (with more indignation, it seems, than accuracy) how his hero William was excommunicated by the new patriarch, went into exile and died at the hands of Heraclius’ own doctor in Rome. William’s narrative was expanded and continued in Old French as L’Estoire d’ Eracles: its story starts with the Emperor Heraclius who recovered the True Cross in 628 – and includes a prophecy that the Cross, secured by one Heraclius, would be lost (as it was) by another.

Can anything redeem our Heraclius’ reputation? Far more was at stake on his visit than at first appears. He was in London as part of a larger mission:- King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was dying. His kingdom was riven by factions and under threat from Saladin. He had drawn up in his will the rules for the succession: if his nephew, due to become the child-king Baldwin V, were to die before the age of ten, a new ruler should be chosen through the arbitration of four potentates: the Pope, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the King of France and Henry II of England. Late in 1184 a deputation headed west from the Kingdom of Jerusalem: Heraclius, the Grand Master of the Templars and the Hospitallers’ Grand Prior. They visited the Pope, Frederick, Philip II Augustus – and finally Henry. The emissaries reached Reading. As credentials they brought the keys of the Tower of David and the Kingdom’s royal standard. According to some English chroniclers, they offered the Kingdom itself to Henry. The incident is hard to analyse. To plead for protection was to offer the power that would make such protection effective. Did that call for the Kingdom itself? The apparent offer of keys and standard may have been misread; for the ambassadors were reworking a performance already presented to Philip of France. (One French chronicler later derides Heraclius: he was offering the keys to any prince he met.) But the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in desperate straits; and behind the pageant may have lain hopes for the subtlest solution of all: to side-step Jerusalem’s factions; and instead to secure one – any one – of Europe’s leaders as king. How strange, to entrust any such delicate mission to the buffoonish Patriarch of myth.

The story offered welcome ammunition to Henry II’s enemies. Gerald of Wales, bitterly opposed to the Angevins, sees here the turning-point in Henry’s reign: the king failed to rise to this one supreme test; from then on his own and his sons’ adventures faced ruin. Gerald inherited the topos from an old story with a quite different cast. His new version gave Heraclius a starring role. The Patriarch confronted Henry, Gerald tells us, at Heraclius’ departure from Dover. Here is the king’s last chance. ‘Though all the men of my land,’ said the king, ‘were one body and spoke with one mouth, they would not dare speak to me as you have done.’ ‘Do by me,’ replied Heraclius, ‘as you did by that blessed man Thomas of Canterbury. I had rather be slain by you than by the Saracen, for you are worse than any Saracen.’ ‘I may not leave my land, for my own sons will surely rise against me in my absence.’ ‘No wonder, for from the devil they come and to the devil they shall go.’

Gerald’s Heraclius was no coward, and no fool. ‘That blessed man Thomas of Canterbury’ had been killed in 1170. The penance of the four knights who killed him was to serve with the Templars for fourteen years. Henry himself promised to pay for two hundred Templar knights for a year; and in 1172 he undertook to take the Cross himself. Thirteen years had passed. Henry was growing old. Such a vow, undischarged, threatened his immortal soul – as both Heraclius and he knew well. Henry must tread carefully. He summoned a Great Council at Clerkenwell. Surrounded by his advisers, he gave Heraclius his answer: ‘for the good of his realm and the salvation of his own soul’ he declared that he must stay in England. He would provide money instead. Heraclius was unimpressed: ‘We seek a man even without money – but not money without a man.’ Virum appetimus qui pecunia indigeat, non pecuniam quae viro.


Our church’s consecration was deep within the diplomatic labyrinth at whose centre lay the future of Jerusalem. The Templars had come a long way. The Order was founded in 1118-9 by a knight of Champagne, Hugh of Payns, who led a group of his fellow-knights in vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. At their foundation they were deeply suspect: it was unnatural for one man to be soldier and monk together. A handful of such ambivalent knights had little chance, it might seem, of attracting support. In the twelfth century the significance of their seal was well known: Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans, explained that the two knights on one horse recalled their lack of horses and poor beginnings.

In Champagne and Burgundy lay the Order’s origin and the seed of its success. Over the course of fifty years a star-burst of spiritual energy illumined all of Europe; and its centre lay in a small area of eastern France. Hugh’s town of Payns was near Troyes, the local city of one Robert, who became a Cluniac monk. In 1075 this Robert, already an abbot, left his monastery with a group of hermits to found a new house: at Molesme. The list of those influenced by Robert and his houses reads as a roll-call of Europe’s spiritual leaders. There was Bruno, who lived briefly as a hermit near Molesme before establishing the most ascetic of all houses, La Grande Chartreuse; Bruno had already been master to Odo, who later became Pope Urban II and preached the First Crusade. When Robert moved again, in search of a yet more rigorous life, he took with him Stephen Harding, later Archbishop of Canterbury. They set up their house at Citeaux.

Harding would in time become abbot. The rigour of the house made it few friends among the local nobility. Its future was uncertain. And then arrived as remarkable a monk as any of that remarkable age: Bernard. He spent three years at Citeaux before a local lord, Hugh Count of Champagne, gave him in 1116 an area of inhospitable woodland well to the north, back in the neighbourhood of Payns. It was known as the Valley of Gall. Bernard gave it a new name: Clairvaux, the Valley of Light.

Bernard secured single-handed the Templars’ future. Hugh of Champagne became a Templar; so did Bernard’s own uncle Andrew. The Templars’ constitution, the Rule, shows all the marks of Bernard’s influence; at the Council of Troyes in 1129 he spoke up for the Order; and, most influential support of all, at the repeated request of Hugh of Payns Bernard wrote In Praise of the New Knighthood.

The New Knighthood’s first half is well-known: in a text advising and praising and warning the knights, Bernard speaks as well to their critics. He is under no illusions: Europe was as glad to be rid of these warring knights as the Holy Land (in Bernard’s eyes) was glad to see them; their army could be a force for good – or for lawless violence. In the tract’s second half Bernard turns to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem itself. Here was his sharpest spur to the pilgrims’ understanding and to the Templars’ own.
Bernard reads Jerusalem itself like a book. In the tradition of Cassian’s fourfold reading of scripture, dominant throughout the Middle Ages, Bernard saw beneath the appearance of the city’s famous sites a far more important spiritual meaning. The land itself invited such a reading:- Bethlehem, ‘house of bread’, was the town where the living bread was first manifest. The ox and ass ate their food at the manger; we must discern there, by contrast, our spiritual food, and not chomp vainly at the Word’s ‘literal’ nourishment. Next, Nazareth, meaning ‘flower’: Bernard reminds us of those who were misled by the odour of flowers into missing the fruit.
And so to Jerusalem itself:- To descend from the Order’s headquarters on the Temple Mount across the Valley of Josaphat and up the Mount of Olives opposite, – this was itself an allegory for the dread of God’s judgement and our joy at receiving his mercy. The House of Martha, Mary and Lazarus offers a moral: the virtue of obedience and the fruits of penance. And above all: in the Holy Sepulchre itself the knight should be raised up to thoughts of Christ’s death and of the freedom from death that it had won for his people: ‘The death of Christ is the death of my death.’ Bernard draws on Paul’s famous account of baptism, and finds in the pilgrims’ weariness the process of their necessary ‘dying’: ‘For we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, so we shall be also in the likeness of the resurrection. How sweet it is for pilgrims after the great weariness of a long journey, after so many dangers of land and sea, there to rest at last where they know their Lord has rested!’


The Temple Church is now famous as a backwater, a welcome place of calm. The tides of history have shifted; their currents have dug deep channels far from our own Round Church. It was not always so. The effigies of the Marshal and his sons bear telling witness to the Temple’s role in the court’s and nation’s life. In the 16th century the chronicler Stow described the Templars’ seal. The story of their poverty was by then forgotten or incredible. Stow saw rather an emblem of Charity: a knight on horseback takes a fellow Christian out of danger. Perhaps there had always been romance in that picture of knights sharing a horse. The Order’s Rule, after all, allowed each knight three horses and a squire.

The effigies testify as well to a rich ‘reading’ of Jerusalem. The New Knighthood is double-edged: all that Bernard writes in praise of Jerusalem frees the faithful from the need to travel there: it is the spiritual sense of the city that matters – a sense as readily grasped at home. To find ‘Jerusalem’, as Bernard would have it, the faithful should rather come to Clairvaux, and not just on pilgrimage. So resolute a reading was hard to sustain. Bernard might detach Jerusalem from the benefits its contemplation could bring; but those around him sooner attached Jerusalem’s blessings to such places as fostered its contemplation.

Our effigies seem to us frozen in stone, their figures forever poised to fight battles that ended 700 years ago. But these knights’ eyes are open. They are all portrayed in their early thirties, the age at which Christ died and at which the dead will rise on his return. The effigies are not memorials of what has long since been and gone; they speak of what is yet to come, of these once and future knights who are poised to hear Christ’s summons and to spring again to war.

By 1145 the Templars themselves wore white robes with red crosses. White was linked with more than purity. In the Book of Revelation the martyrs of Christ, clad in white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7.14), are those who will be called to life at the ‘first resurrection’. For a millennium they will reign with Christ; at its end Satan will lead all the nations of the earth against ‘the beloved city’ (Rev 20.9). The final battle will be in Jerusalem. Our knights have good reason to draw their swords. For buried in ‘Jerusalem’, in Jerusalem they shall rise to join the Templars in the martyrs’ white and red. Here in the Temple, in our replica of the Sepulchre itself, the knights are waiting for their call to life, to arms and to the last, climactic defence of their most sacred place on earth.