A relic of the early medieval age, the late 12th century Temple Church in the City of London is a marvel in its own right, its circular nave modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (for more on its history, see our earlier entry here). But it’s inside the round church – once based inside property that formed the London headquarters of the Templar Knights – that we are concerned with in this piece – for there can be found are series of remarkable effigies of knights which date from the 13th century.

There are nine effigies in all (and one grave cover) and, having survived the Great Fire of 1666, most of them were damaged during World War II when, in a bombing raid on 10th May, 1941, the roof was set alight and came crashing down on top of them. They have since been repaired, using as much of the original material as possible, and still make an imposing sight redolent with the history they depict.

Pre-eminent (at least in his lifetime) among those depicted is William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146 -1219) and an advisor of kings including King Henry II, King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and King John who was named Regent during the infancy of King Henry III.

One of the most influential men of his age (described by early thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as the “greatest knight who ever lived”), he lies in the southern group of effigies near his sons William, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1190-1231) and Gilbert, the 4th Earl of Pembroke (1194-1241). (The 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Richard, was the second son of William – he died after being captured during fighting in Ireland and was buried in Kilkenny). Another of this group is believed t0 depict Robert, Lord de Ros, one of the 25 barons to guarantee the observance of the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215.

The only identified effigy in the northern group is that of Geoffrey de Mandeville, the 1st Earl of Essex and a man known for the cruelties he inflicted during the troubled reign of King Stephen (he shifted his allegiances between King Stephen and his rival, the Empress Matilda several times), particularly in the eastern counties where he seized Ramsey Abbey near Peterborough to use as his base.

Interestingly, none of the men named was a Templar but are believed to have been benefactors of the Templar Knights. Some of those shown are cross-legged but whether this denotes a crusader or not remains a matter of debate.

WHERE: Off Fleet Street and down Inner Temple Lane (nearest tube station is Temple); WHEN: Check website for times; COST: £4 (free to under 18s, seniors); WEBSITE: www.templechurch.com.

It’s regarded as one of the seminal documents of medieval England. First issued 15th June, 1215, the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) was endorsed by England’s barons and King John at Runnymede near Windsor Castle and put limits in the power of the king by demanding he govern according to established feudal law.

The document was forced upon King John by rebellious barons after he broke away from established customs and imposed oppressive taxes and fines and seized the estates of nobles.

Its terms were immediately repudiated by the king, leading to further rebellion which ended when the king died on 18th October, 1216. Less than a month after the king’s death, the regent, William Marshal, issued a revised version of the document and a second revision almost exactly a year later. A further version was later issued by King Henry III and later confirmed by King Edward I.

Copies of the document were sent throughout the land in 1215. There is now a copy in the Lincoln Cathedral Archives and another in Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House while the British Library has two copies, both from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. One of the library’s two copies was burned in a fire 100 years after Sir Robert’s death and still bears fire damage.

The text of the Magna Carta is not abstract in nature but deals in detail with practical realities, covering issues ranging from what happens when a noble who holds land from the Crown dies through to who heirs may marry, standard measures of wine, ale and corn and the removal of foreign knights from the country.

Only three of the Magna Carta’s 63 clauses are still law: one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; another confirming the privileges of London and other towns; and a third, often viewed as a forerunner of clauses contained in documents such as American Bill of Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no free man shall be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed or exiled without the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

The legacy of the Magna Carta is not however in the individual rights it seeks to uphold but rather the principle that for the first time in English history, it elevates the law above all men, even the king.

WHERE: Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library: Magna Carta and associated documents, The British Library, 96 Euston Road (nearest tube station is Kings Cross St Pancras or Euston); WHEN: 9.30am to 6pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; closes 8pm Tuesday and 5pm Saturday; 11am to 5pm Sunday; COST: Entry is free; WEBSITE: www.bl.uk or for a detailed guide and virtual tour of the Magna Carta, see  www.bl.uk/treasures/magnacarta/index.html.