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.

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…