Trading Places

The moving history of Temple Bar


The 17th century Temple Bar gateway is a fine monument that’s stood witness to some of the most dramatic episodes in London’s history. Overlooked by the magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral, it often features on Mr Londoner’s Secret City, Hidden History tours of the Square Mile. It has a rather surprising story however.


The Temple Bar makes an elegant entrance into Paternoster Square. (Image by meetmrlondoner)


This most permanent-looking of architectural wonders was designed, it’s thought, by Sir Christopher Wren. The visionary architect, astronomer and master-builder re-modelled the Capital after the Great Fire of London of 1666. In addition to St Paul’s Cathedral, Wren built over 50 churches in the baroque style following the fire. His ambitious plans for an altogether more radical and grander re-modelling of the former medieval City never saw the light of day however.


Built of Portland stone, Temple Bar features a central arch for coaches and two smaller pedestrian entrances, known as foot posterns, either side. Gracing the upper levels are statues (by sculptor John Bushnell) of Charles II and Charles I on the south side – and James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, on the north side. Up above them are ‘cornucopias of plenty’. These are sculptural representations of animal horns, spilling out with fruit, nuts and exotic produce – a sign of abundance in classical antiquity.


The Temple Bar returned to the City in 2003 (Image by meetmrlondoner)


Out of harm’s way

Temple Bar makes an elegant entrance into the vast, but somewhat featureless Paternoster Square, destroyed during the darkest days of the Blitz. The gateway escaped the Luftwaffe’s bombs without a scratch. That’s because it wasn’t actually in Paternoster Square at the time. During the 20th century, this striking portico graced the estate of Theobald’s Park, in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, having been purchased by its owner, the brewing magnate Sir Henry Bruce Meux. But Temple Bar’s story didn’t begin in Hertfordshire either.


Temple Bar in its previous home at Theobalds Park. Photo by Michael Robbins.


Paternoster Square is actually Temple Bar’s third home (or the fourth if you include the years it lay dismantled in a storage yard off the nearby Farringdon Road). As the medieval city expanded beyond its boundaries, bars – chains between simple wooden posts – were constructed at the now newly-extended city limits. Temple Bar first gets a mention in 1213. It was originally constructed across Fleet Street, by what today are the Royal Courts of Justice. By the 1350s a proper gatehouse had been built with a prison on its upper storey. It was given a makeover when Anne Boleyn became Henry VIII’s queen in 1533. It’s said that Elizabeth I (Anne’s daughter) passed through it en-route to St Paul’s Cathedral – as she travelled to give thanks for the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada.


5000 carts were passing through Temple Bar everyday by 1850. Picture Dickens’ London An Imaginative Vision, Peter Ackroyd.


Horrible history

The original Temple Bar survived the Great Fire of London but was re-built to Wren’s designs between 1669 and 1672. Leading City Mason Thomas Knight and Joshua Marshall, Master of the Mason’s Company, completed the works. Despite the beauty of the baroque facade, the elegant architecture took on a grim new function from the 1680s, displaying the severed heads of traitors. The heads of the Rye House plotters who, in 1683 tried to assassinate Charles II, were the first to go on show above the monument’s central arch.


The old wooden Temple Bar


The quartered body of their leader, Sir Thomas Armstrong, was boiled in salt to stop birds pecking away it. Francis Towneley was a Jacobite Catholic rebel executed on Kennington Common in 1746. His body was interred in St Pancras churchyard, but his head spiked on Temple Bar. Towneley’s was the last head to be displayed, but the skull had to wait until 1940 for a Christian burial.


City limits. The Temple Bar monument (Image by meetmrlondoner)


Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders author Daniel Defoe – a highly active political commentator – was put in stocks next to the Temple Bar in 1703. In January 1806, the gate was sheathed in black velvet for the funeral of Admiral Nelson at St Paul’s Cathedral, following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar the previous year.


On the move

By the 19th century Temple Bar was becoming an impediment to the area’s growing traffic. Peter Ackroyd in his book Dickens’ London states that, by 1850, over 5,000 horsemen passed through the arch every day. In 1878 its fate was sealed. It was taken apart brick-by-brick (each part being carefully-numbered) during the building of the Royal Courts of Justice and removed for storage. Several years later Sir Henry Meux acquired the dismantled monument and re-erected it in his Hertfordshire estate. It’s said that Lady Meux liked to entertain in the chamber above the gate. Her special guests were said to include Edward VII and Sir Winston Churchill.


Temple Bar remained at Theobalds Park  until 2003, by then in a dilapidated state, when it was bought by the Temple Bar Trust for the princely sum of £1. After a relatively-modest £3 million repair and reconstruction bill, Temple Bar was re-erected in its current position and conservation work re-completed in 2004, in what was then a newly re-imagined and re-developed Paternoster Square.  Temple Bar is today the only remaining City gateway of the original eight. The other city gates, Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate and Newgate, were all demolished by the end of the 18th century.


The Temple Bar Memorial features Prince Albert on its south face and Queen Victoria on the north (Image by meetmrlondoner)


The site of the original Temple Bar in Fleet Street is marked by a striking monument featuring Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It is topped by a dragon – the symbol of the City of London. Its maker was Sir Horace Jones, who completed the work in 1880. Sir Horace built Leadenhall and Smithfield Markets. He is perhaps better-known however for building another, altogether more famous, monument – Tower Bridge.


Featured Image: A monument to a monument. The Temple Bar Memorial erected in 1880 by Sir Horace Jones (Image by meetmrlondoner)

About the Author: 

Mr Londoner is writer and broadcaster Antony Robbins. He is currently running bike, photography and walking tours of the secret city, with a focus on the Square Mile and the East End.