There’s an ancient church in London which has taken on the role of various other cathedrals and churches in many recent historic films, most notably in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love (a fitting reference this week, given the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death last weekend).

St-BartsBut the church – location of the scene in the film in which Shakespeare’s begs forgiveness after the death of Kit Marlowe – has also been seen in everything from the 1991 Kevin Costner-vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (where it represented the interior of Nottingham Cathedral) to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes (where it represented St Paul’s Cathedral, location of a ritual sacrifice being conducted by the evil Lord Blackwood).

It has also appeared in the 1996 Victorian-era drama Jude, 2006’s Amazing Grace – the story of William Wilberforce’s effort to combat the slave trade, 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (where it hosts the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots), 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and the 2012 fantasy epic, Snow White and the Huntsman.

Oh, and the church? The priory church of St Bartholomew The Great (St Bart’s) located in West Smithfield, which has a history dating back 900 years (for more on the history of the church, see our earlier post here).

But the church hasn’t just been seen in films of the historic genre – it’s also played roles in more contemporary movies as well, from 1994’s Four Weddings and Funeral (St Julian’s where a wedding doesn’t take place) to 1999’s The End of the Affair and, more recently, the 2014 film Muppets: Most Wanted.

It’s doubtful there’s a church interior in London that’s been in so many movies in recent times. For more on the church itself, see www.greatstbarts.com.

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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 .

St-BartholomewsOnly 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

London’s oldest hospital – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in what is known now as Smithfield – was founded in the 12th century.

The hospital owes its foundations – like the neighbouring Priory of St Bartholomew (London’s oldest church – see our previous story on this here) – to Rahere, a courtier (possibly a minstrel or jester) at the court of King Henry I who, tired with triviality, may have become a priest.

In any event, after the death of Henry’s son William – he is believed to have drowned when the White Ship foundered in November 1120 – and that of his wife Queen Matilda, Rahere went on pilgrimage to Rome. He did so but contracted malaria while there and, while under the care of  monks, he vowed to found a hospital for poor men if he recovered.

He did recover and on his return journey had a vision of St Bartholomew who informed him that it was he who had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield (then known as Smedfield).

Back in London, Rahere as he’d promised and, after petitioning the king, was granted a royal charter in 1122 to found the priory of Augustinian canons and the hospital.Work began in March 1123 and it was completed by 1145 when Rahere died (his tomb can still be seen in the church).

The hospital – one of a number in London at the time – was probably little more than a single hall with a chapel at one end. Other buildings and some cloisters were added later as was the Church of St Bartholomew the Less.

Under a charter of 1147, it was open to the needy, orphans, outcasts and the poor as well as sick people and homeless wanderers. In the 14th century, the definition was honed to include the sick until they recovered, pregnant women (until delivery) and for the maintenance of children born there until they were seven-years-old.

As well as the master (Rahere was the first), other ‘staff’ at the hospital initially included eight Augustinian brothers and four sisters but the hospital gradually became independent of the priory and by 1300, the hospital has its own dedicated master. By 1420, the two institutions had apparently become completely separate.

Following the Dissolution in 1539, the hospital was refounded in the 1540s thanks to a deal brokered between King Henry VIII and the Corporation of the City of London. Along with Bethlem, Bridewell and St Thomas’, St Bartholomews was one of four Royal Hospitals administered by the City.

The first regular physician – a Portuguese man by the name of Roderigo Lopez – was appointed around 1567 (he was later hung, drawn and quartered for an allegedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I). Among the most famous physicians to serve at St Barts in later years was William Harvey, renowned for having ‘discovered’ the circulatory system.

The hospital survived the Great Fire in 1666 but in the 1700s most of the medieval buildings, with the exception of the tower in the Church of St Bartholomew the Less, were demolished as the hospital was rebuilt to the design of James Gibbs. The new design featured a central courtyard with a Great Hall contained in the north wing, reached by a ‘Grand Staircase’ decorated with images of the Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda by celebrated artist William Hogarth.

The famous Henry VIII gate (pictured above) dates from 1702, slightly before Gibb’s rebuilding project. Other buildings have been added in more recent times.

In more recent times, the hospital was amalgamated with The Royal London and the London Chest Hospitals in 1994 with the establishment of The Royal Hospitals NHS Trust (now known as the Barts and The London NHS Trust). St Barts is now a specialist cancer and cardiac hospital.

There is a museum at the hospital which houses exhibits including a facsimile of Rahere’s grant of 1137 (now in the hospital’s archives), amputation instruments dating from the early 1800s once used by surgeon John Abernathy and a display on William Harvey. Hogarth’s paintings are visible from the museum.  There are also guided tours of the hospital.

WHERE: Museum at St Barts Hospital (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday ; COST: Free (donations welcomed); WEBSITE:  www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk/about-us/museums-and-archives/st-bartholomew-s-museum/

Like many in our series on London’s oldest, this one is a little subjective. But based on our survey of the data out there, we’re opting for 41-42 Cloth Fair, right beside St Bartholowmew the Great, in the City.

The only house to have survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, this five bedroom property – which we can confirm is still up for sale with a guide price of more than £5.9 million following a major restoration – was apparently completed around 1614.

It was originally constructed as part of a development initiated by Robert, Baron Rich, which featured 11 houses around a courtyard and was known as Launders Green (being located on what was the former laundry ground of the monastery at St Barts).

The red brick house, which was awarded a City Heritage award in 2000 for the sensitive restoration work, retains many of its original features.

Interestingly, windows on the second floor contain autographs of some of the famous people who have been to the property over the years including Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, former PM Winston Churchill and Poet Laureate John Betjeman.

Like many of London’s oldest questions, this depends on what you mean – the oldest site of worship, the oldest continuous site of worship, or the oldest building are but a few possibilities. For our purposes, it’s generally accepted that London’s oldest surviving parish church is St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield.

This atmospheric church is now only half the size of what it once was but that part which remains – the original quire, altar, side aisles and lady chapel – was founded in 1123 AD as the priory church for a community of Augustinian Canons.

The church owes its origins to Rahere, a favored courtier of King Henry I, who after the death of King Henry’s wife Queen Matilda and then heir, Prince William, along with some other family members, renounced his way of life and decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

In Rome, he sickened, and fearful for his life, vowed to found a hospital for the poor on his return to London. Subsequently recovering, he was about to head home when a vision of St Bartholomew appeared to him and told him that he had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield.

On his return to London, Rahere did just that – founding the priory with its church and a hospital for the poor. He died 1145. Amazingly, his tomb still lies within the church, on the left hand side of the altar.

The priory grew in importance with income coming not only from offerings and rents but from tolls at St Bartholomew’s Fair which was held on grounds to the north of the the church (as an interesting aside, it’s also known that the church had a low wall built in front of its western facade to separate it from Smithfield. Known as the Cheyne, this could be closed with a chain on market days to stop cattle wandering inside).

The church’s current configuration came about in the Great Dissolution – the priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the church was pulled down, leaving the quire, altar and lady chapel. 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.

Livery companies associated with the church include The Butchers’ Company which still hold a special service here in September prior to electing a new Master. These days, St Bartholomew the Great is a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of the City and still gives a strong sense of the life it has known.

WHERE: Off Little Britain, West Smithfield (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday (until 14th February), 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

PICTURE: Gatehouse leading into St Bartholomew the Great