St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield – the oldest parish church in London (see our earlier piece here) – is worth a revisit thanks to the fact that it would have been standing (at least partially) when the seal of King John was first affixed to the Magna Carta .
Only half the size it once was, this church was founded in 1123 AD as the priory church for a community of Augustinian Canons and owes its origins to Rahere, a favored courtier of King Henry I who renounced his way of life and made a pilgrimage to Rome, returning to found both the church and nearby hospital for the poor.
Only the eastern part of the church was built by the time of the death of Rahere – the first prior – in 1145 and the building continued for some years afterward. While the interior walls now look somewhat plain, they would have been highly decorated when the building was originally constructed. At the time of the Magna Carta, the church would have only been partly completed.
The tomb of Rahere still lies within the church, on the left hand side of the altar – although the canopy over it dates from the 15th century. There were some healing miracles recorded at the tomb.
The church’s current configuration came about when the priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the church was pulled down, leaving what’s there now – the quire, altar and lady chapel.
The brick tower at the church’s west end dates from the 1620s while the gateway through which you enter the church grounds features a restored 13th century arch topped by a late Tudor building.
The church was briefly used by some Dominican friars but since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I has fulfilled the role of parish church. A concerted restoration effort began in the mid-19th century by Sir Aston Webb (architect of the Victoria & Albert Museum), leaving the Lady Chapel with a very different feel to the Norman choir. The building is now Grade I-listed.
WHERE: Off Little Britain, West Smithfield (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 10.30am to 4pm Saturday, 8.30am to 8pm Sunday (except for services) ; COST: £4 an adult/£3.50 concession/£10 a family; WEBSITE: www.greatstbarts.com