Of Law and Literature

Who knew that a tour through Legal London

would be as much about literature as law?


After five years of living in London, I still discover within the city uncovered nooks and crannies bursting with history. Though I enjoy exploring on my own, I prefer having a guide to lead and teach me along the way.

I recently took a London Walk (http://londonwalks.com) themed, “Legal London”. The somewhat dry title did not initially grab me, but I soon learned I was in for a real treat of architectural, historical, and literary significance discovering allusions from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to Dan Brown to John Donne.

The neighborhood known as Temple is comprised of four Inns of Court occupied by barristers (lawyers) who keep chambers (offices). A legal center since 1320, Temple was originally developed in the 12th century by the Knights Templar.  It is organized on the medieval collegiate model: an enclosed complex in which communal needs are met by a chapel, hall, and library and private needs by open squares and courts of terraced houses.

The area is a bit of a labyrinth with narrow passages and can only be accessed via a number of ornate gated entrances. The many buildings of the Temple are laid out around picturesque courtyards and gardens that transport you to old London.


The first garden we encountered in Middle Temple was the setting for the famed Wars of the Roses, a term which refers to the heraldic badges associated with the two royal houses, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, there is a scene set in the gardens of the Temple Church where a number of noblemen and a lawyer pick red or white roses to show their loyalty to the Lancastrian or Yorkist faction respectively. Today every summer, red and white roses bloom on either side of the garden walkway, symbolic of the sides taken centuries ago.


Adjacent to the gardens stands Middle Temple Hall, built in 1562-1570, and one of the few structures that survived World War II unscathed. Inside the massive hall is a magnificent Elizabethan double Hammerbeam roof.  The historic building has served as a dining hall since the Middle Ages, and it is still used as such today for law students who must attend a minimum of 12 qualifying sessions which include lectures, debates, mooting, or musical performances. In the 16th and 17th centuries Middle Temple Hall was also used for theater performances, and one of Shakespeare’s works, Twelfth Night, premiered there in 1602.

MiddleTemple Hall London 05.06.2013 www.london-fotoreisen.de foto: rolf k. wegst

The Fountain Court is a lovely courtyard near Middle Temple Hall and Garden.


It is near here that Dickens placed Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, in his final London residence in the upper trapezoid-shaped garret at “the top of the last house…down by the river.”  For a significant part of his writing career, Dickens was a member of the Middle Temple, and he knew the region well.


Inner Temple is full of historical significance as it is the former domain of the Knights Templar.  There is no visible distinction between Middle Temple and Inner Temple, and the only way to discern where you are is by the sign of either a Lamb and Flag (Middle Temple) or a Pegasus (Inner Temple).  These markers can be found everywhere on lampposts, buildings, gates, and weathervanes.




Contemporary writer, Dan Brown, used Temple for inspiration when he wrote his popular novel, The Da Vinci Code. The history of legal London traces back to the Knights Templar. The Templars were a military order originally founded in 1118 in France to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.  Around 1160 the Templars acquired a site near the river Thames where they built a chapel and a monastery with several large halls. In 1312 the order of the Templars was suppressed, and in 1324 their land was handed over to the order of St. John who leased it to law students, creating the future mecca of legal London.


The Temple Church was originally built in 1160 by the Templars as a circular chapel with a round shape designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world — the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


On the floor at the center of the original chapel lie marble effigies of 13th century Knight Templars in their distinctive white manatees with a red cross. The Da Vinci Code and its conspiracy theories put this church back on the map and greatly increased tourist visitation during the book’s heyday.


There are no more brave Knight Templars to stand watch, but on the border of the Temple, a dragon now stands guard. Cast iron statues of dragons on plinths mark the boundaries of the city of London.  The dragons are painted silver with details on their wings and tongue highlighted in red. The dragon stands on one rear leg with the right foreleg raised and the left foreleg holding a shield which bears the City of London’s coat of arms, painted in red and white. The original dragon sculpture was designed in 1849 for the Coal Exchange on Lower Thames Street and was preserved and erected by Temple Gardens on Victoria Embankment in 1963 where it still stands today.


In 1964, London selected this dragon statue as the model for the boundary markers for the city, preferring it to the fiercer dragon design at Temple Bar on Fleet Street  just outside the Royal Courts of Justice. These dragons can now be found in multiple locations throughout greater London.



The Royal Courts of Justice is a Victorian Gothic building built in the 1870s which houses both the High Court  and Court of Appeal of England and Wales. It is one of the largest courts in Europe and is surrounded by the four Inns of Court.


Here barristers still wear elaborate, antiquate wigs to argue their cases. We saw barristers dutifully dragging roller bags behind them stuffed with silk robes and horsehair wigs as they headed to court. There is a debate raging as to whether or not to continue the ancient tradition. The horsehair wigs are itchy but do provide a bit of desired anonymity to the lawyers arguing their cases.

wig shop

Ede and Ravenscroft, a company dating to 1689, sells the typical “bar wig” for more than $800. The more elaborate “bench wig” for high court judges with hair teased high in front can cost $2,000, while the ceremonial “full-bottom wig,” with long curls reaching to the shoulders, goes for more than $4,000! It is the distinction of power among wigs that is the root of the term “big wigs”; the people wearing the biggest wigs hold the most power in the courtroom.

Another modern term coined from historic practices is “red tape”. Thick legal documents were once bound with red cloth tape. So when someone spoke of cutting through the red tape, they meant it in a very literal sense.

Lincoln’s Inn is just around the corner from the Royal Courts, and it is here that John Donne’s famous bell tolls. The Lincoln chapel, built on a distinctive fan-vaulted undercroft, is said to have a bell that dates from 1596.


Traditionally, the bell would chime between 12:30 and 1:00 pm when a Bencher had died. John Donne was at Lincoln’s Inn in 1592, and the ringing bell of the chapel is said to have inspired his famous lines:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Law tomes may weigh heavily upon shelves in the barristers’ chambers in Temple,

but Shakespeare, Dickens, Brown and Donne exist there as well.


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