More correctly known as the crypt of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, this subterranean chamber dates from the 12th century and is the oldest surviving part of what remains of the priory.

Based close to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell – another surviving section of the monastery, the partly Romanesque crypt features some magnificent 16th century monuments including the rather skeletal-looking funeral effigy of the last prior, Sir William Weston, who apparently died on the very day the priory was dissolved in May, 1540 (he apparently collapsed on hearing the news).

The crypt also contains a 16th century tomb effigy (pictured below) believed to be that of Don Juan Ruiz de Vergara, a Castilian Knight Hospitaller who died fighting the Turks at sea off the coast of Marseilles (it had apparently formerly been located in Valladolid Cathedral in Spain and was donated by a member of the order (and first Keeper of the London Museum, now known as the Museum of London), Sir Guy Francis Laking, in 1915). Understood to have been the work of Esteban Jordan, sculptor to King Philip II of Spain, the knight bears the eight pointed star of the order on his breastplate.

Meanwhile, the stained glass in the crypt chapel’s east lights depict the entombment of Christ as well as Raymond du Puy (Grand Master of the Order of St John from 1118–60), St John the Baptist and St Ubaldesca. Other stained glass windows in the chapel depict saints like St George, Andrew, Patrick and David and some of the English branch’s priors and knights.

Other items of interest in the crypt include a 13th century font, originally from a church in Buckinghamshire, and a stone fragment from the pavement of the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem.

The priory once served as the English headquarters for Order of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. The order was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and spread across Europe. The English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset. It was dissolved, as we’ve already heard, in 1540.

WHERE: Crypt, St John’s Church, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: The crypt can only be visited on tours – public tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

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St-James-ClerkenwellThe Church of St James, which stands just to the north of Clerkenwell Green, is all that remains today of the medieval nunnery which once occupied a large swathe of land in the area. 

The Augustinian Nunnery of St Mary was founded in about 114o by Jorden de Briset, the lord of Clerkenwell Manor (he also founded the Hospitaller Priory of St John of Jerusalem which lay to the south – more on this here) on 14 acres of land to the east of the famous “Clerk’s Well” (more on the well, which was located close to, but within, the western border of the nunnery, in our earlier post here).

By 1160 a wall had been built around the precinct said to have been roughly bounded by Farringdon Lane, Clerkenwell Green (an open space between the two religious houses), St James’s Walk and a boundary to the south of, and parallel with, Bowling Green Lane to the north.

The church – where Briset and his wife were later buried and which doubled as a parish church – was built about the same time, along with an adjoining chapter-house – both of which were made of stone in contrast to the timber buildings which initially made up the rest of the complex.

A cloister and other stone buildings were erected to the north of the church later in the 12th and 13th centuries including a lodging for the prioress, a dormitory, refectory and kitchen for the nuns. Other buildings on the site included  a gatehouse, what was known as the “Nun’s Hall” – possibly a hall for guests – and an infirmary with its own chapel, the location of which is apparently something of a mystery.

Substantial renovation works were carried out in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and by the time of King Henry VIII’s dissolution, it had become one of the wealthiest monasteries in England (although it only ever housed about 20 canonesses).

One of the last nunneries to be suppressed, it was dissolved in 1539 with the nuns being pensioned off.

The site was initially granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who held it only briefly being returning it to the king in a deal for another property and subsequently purchased by a succession of different owners.

Many of the buildings were converted for use as private mansions and outbuildings, among them Newcastle House and Challoner (later Cromwell due to the legend that Oliver Cromwell resided there) House which faced them across what had been the cloister courtyard.

The mansions were gradually redeveloped into smaller properties – it remained a popular residential area despite the building of a House of Detention to the immediate north – and in 1788-92, the parish church of St James was rebuilt to the designs of local architect James Carr, with the spire apparently modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields (Carr also bought Newcastle House and pulled most of it down before redeveloping the area).

Church gardens, which are open to the public, now occupy some of the site of the former nunnery – in 1987, part of the medieval cloisters were excavated here.

For some insightful walks delving into the history of London, see Stephen Millar’s three books, London’s Hidden Walks: Volumes 1-3.