Crypt

Founded in Clerkenwell in 1144, the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem served as the order’s English headquarters.

The order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and soon spread across Europe with the English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset.

The original buildings – of which only the 12th century crypt (pictured above) survives complete with some splendid 16th century tomb effigies including that of the last prior, Sir William Weston – included a circular church, consecrated in 1185, and monastic structures including cloisters, a hospital, living quarters and a refectory or dining hall.

There are records of dignitaries staying at the priory as it grew in size and renown – among them was King John who in 1212, apparently stayed here for an entire month. There are also surviving accounts of Knights Hospitaller riding out in procession from the priory and through the City at the start of a journey to the Holy Land.

The priory and church were attacked during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, thanks to its connection with the hated Poll Tax (Prior Robert Hales was also the Lord High Treasurer and was beheaded during the revolt on Tower Hill).

The church was subsequently rebuilt as a rectangular-shaped building and then, in the early 16th century, enlarged when the site was significantly renovated. These renovations were still relatively new when the priory was dissolved in 1540 during the Dissolution of King Henry VIII.

The priory church, which survived the Great Fire of 1666, was later used as a parish church but was destroyed in an air raid in World War II. Subsequently rebuilt, it can be visited today along with the crypt below and the cloister garden, created in the 1950s as a memorial to St John’s Ambulance members from the London area (the original shape of the circular church is picked out in the paving here).

Perhaps the most famous building to survive is St John’s Gate which dates from the 16th century and was once the gatehouse entrance to the priory (added in the final renovations).

After the Dissolution it served various roles including as the office of the Master of Revels (where Shakespeare’s plays were licensed), the home of The Gentleman’s Magazine (Samuel Johnson was among contributors and worked on site), a coffee house (run by William Hogarth’s father) and a public house called the Old Jerusalem Tavern (yes, Charles Dickens was said to be a regular). It is now home to the recently renovated Museum of the Order of St John (you can see our earlier post on the museum here).

WHERE: Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate (and nearby priory church), St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday); COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation for guided tours); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

We’ll kick off a new Wednesday series next week…

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Dunkirk-Little-Ships-More than 20 Dunkirk Little Ships will gather at London’s Royal Docks this weekend ahead of their Return to Dunkirk journey marking the 75th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuations. The event, which is part of the UK’s annual festival of late openings Museums at Night, will see the ships parade around Royal Victoria Dock on Saturday night with the Silver Queen offering twilight trips and the chance to step on board some of the other ships (the Little Ships will continue with their own festival on Sunday commencing with a church service by the quayside at 11am). Other events being offered in London as part of Museums at Night include ‘Dickens After Dark’ in which the Charles Dickens Museum will open its doors to visitors for night of Victorian entertainment on Friday night and a night of music featuring the Royal College of Music at Fulham Palace (also on Friday night). Among the other London properties taking part are the Handel House Museum, Benjamin Franklin House, the Wellcome Collection, Museum of the Order of St John, and the National Archives in Kew. For a full list of events, check out http://museumsatnight.org.uk

Meanwhile, Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London is holding its first weekend culture festival, MayFest: Men of Mystery, as part of Museums at Night. On Friday and Saturday nights, there will be tours of the gallery’s new exhibition featuring the work of artist Eric Ravilious followed by outdoor cinema screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and The 39 Steps as well as free swing dance lessons, street foods and a pop-up vintage shop which will help people get the vintage look. Visitors are being encouraged to dress up in styles of the 1930s and 1940s with a prizes awarded to those with the “best vintage style”. The gallery will also be inviting visitors to take part in a mass installation drop-in workshop held in the gallery’s grounds over the weekend and Saturday morning will see special events for children. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/.

A major new work by acclaimed artist Cornelia Parker goes on display in the entrance hall of the British Library in King’s Cross tomorrow to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The almost 13 metre long Magna Carta (An Embroidery) replicates the entire Wikipedia entry on the Magna Carta as it was on the 799th anniversary of the document and was created by many people ranging from prisoners and lawyers to artists and barons. It accompanies the library’s exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Entry to see the artwork is free. For more, see www.bl.uk/cornelia-parker.

The works of Peter Kennard, described as “Britain’s most important political artist”, are on display in a new exhibition which opens at the Imperial War Museum in London today. Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is the first major retrospective exhibition of his work and features more than 200 artworks and other items drawn from his 50 year career including an art installation, Boardroom, created especially for the display. Works on show include his iconic transposition of Constable’s painting Haywain which he showed carrying cruise missiles about to be deployed in Greenham Common, the Decoration paintings created in 2004 in response to the Iraq War of 2003, his seminal STOP paintings which reference events of the late 1960s such as the ‘Prague Spring’ and anti-Vietnam war protests and his 1997 installation Reading Room. The free exhibition runs at the Lambeth institution until 30th May next year. For more, see www.iwm.org.uk/london.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

St-John's-GateHidden Treasures – the national initiative to celebrate the UK’s museum and archive collections – kicks off for its second year next Thursday, 22nd August, and runs over the bank holiday weekend until 27th August. Among the London institutions taking part this year are the British Library, the British Postal Museum and Archive in Houghton, the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell (pictured) and Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham. Hidden Treasures is an initiative of the Collections Trust and the Independent newspaper. All events are free but some have to be pre-booked and have limited spaces so make sure you check out the details at www.hiddentreasures.org.uk/?page_id=118.

The programme for Open House London – held over the weekend of 21st and 22nd September – will be made available online from today (or alternatively you can order a hard copy via the Open House London website). It’s important to note that a few of the buildings involved can only be entered by those successful in a ballot – they include 10 Downing Street, The View from The Shard, EDF Energy London Eye and Gray’s Inn. Head to the website – www.londonopenhouse.org – to enter the ballots which close on 13th September.

The Isabella Plantation – a 40 acre ornamental woodland garden located in the south west area of Richmond Park – is celebrating 60 years since its creation and they’ve kicked off a fortnight’s programme of free events community to mark the occasion. The events, which will be focused around the yurt by Peg’s Pond in the plantation,  include guided walks, a showcase of art for young people and a Teddy Bears picnic on the bank holiday weekend. One of the most visited parts of Richmond Park, the plantation is home to the Wilson 50 National Collection of Evergreen Azaleas, more than 150 hardy hybrid Rhododendrons, 50 species of Rhododendron and a large collection of camellias and magnolia as well as many rare and unusual trees and shrubs. While the plantation can be dated as far back as 1771 (then named Isabella Slade), it was planted for timber in 1831, and in 1953 the present garden was established and the old name Isabella adopted for it. For more on the events, see www.royalparks.org.uk.

As Muslims mark the end of Ramadan this weekend, the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr will be celebrated in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. As well as the chance to sample foods from across the Islamic world, there will also be entertainment on stage, exhibitions and children’s activities. The festival, put on by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, runs between 1.30pm and 6pm. For more, see www.london.gov.uk/eid.

On Now: Take One Picture – Discover, Imagine, Explore: Children Inspired by Willem Kalf. This display at the National Gallery focuses on Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Drinking-Horn (about 1653) and features alongside it responsive works created by children from 25 schools across the UK and as far afield as Turkey with works from other schools captured in a slide-show. Located at the Annenberg Court (Getty Entrance), admission is free. Runs until 12th September. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

This is the first in our new special series looking at 10 of the best of London’s small museums. We’re not including houses once lived in by famous people (that will be the subject of a later series), but rather those museums which contain some of the city’s most eclectic collections yet still tend to fly a little under the radar when it comes to the crowds…

First up, we take a look at the Museum of the Order of St John. The museum – which was reopened in late 2010 following a £3.7 million redevelopment – is located in St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell (pictured), the Tudor era gatehouse of the order’s once substantial London priory.

Told inside is the story of the order, from its founding in the 12th century as the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem with the aim of caring for sick pilgrims who had travelled to the Holy Land through to its later role as a military order and its Middle Ages moves – following the capture of Palestine by Muslim forces in 1291 – to Cyprus, then Rhodes, and eventually Malta, along with its current work through the charitable foundation of St John Ambulance.

Exhibits include weapons and armour, paintings and illuminated manuscripts (such as the Rhodes Missal of 1504), coins, furnishings, ceramics, silverware and textiles. There is also a 16th or 17th century bust of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller from 1557 to 1568 and famed for leading the order to victory in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 (he is remembered still in the name of the island nation’s capital, Valletta).

As well as the gatehouse (which, following the Dissolution, was used for various purposes including being the childhood home of 18th century artist William Hogarth and, at another time, housing a printing press used by famed lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson), the museum’s assets also encompass the 12th century crypt under what was once the priory church (it’s located just to the north across Clerkenwell Road). It’s well worth a visit for the stunning 16th century tomb effigies alone.

WHERE: The Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday); COST: Free (a small donation for guided tours); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.