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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It’s Shakespeare month at St Paul’s Cathedral as the august London institution hosts a series of special addresses and music recitals in honour of the Bard’s 450th birthday. Kicking off this weekend, the events will see preachers considering Shakespeare’s life and work – particularly in relation to faith – in a weekly address at Sunday Evensong service while a series of voice and piano recitals will present various interpretations of his work through the music of some of Britain’s greatest composers. Shakespeare, the cathedral staff say, would have known the cathedral well – many printers, including his old Stratford friend Richard Field, were located in the Churchyard, and Shakespeare would have had to regularly journey past St Paul’s to have his plays registered at St John’s Gate. See www.stpauls.co.uk for a detailed programme of events.

The Kensington Gardens Allotment is hosting a free Harvest Festival this Sunday with activities including digging up potatoes and making ‘potato people’ as well as face painting, story telling and a mobile pet farm. Complementary hot and cold drinks will be provided (while stocks last, so don’t be late!). The day runs from 11am to 4pm. Meanwhile, Regent’s Park Allotment Gardens will host its own Harvest Festival on Sunday, 21st September. Along with live folk music, a children’s treasure hunt and the ‘guess the weight of the pumpkin’ competition, the day will also feature a specially-built pizza oven in which visitors will be invited to cook their own pizza. For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk.

The works of renowned 20th century photographer Horst P Horst (1906-1999) will feature in a new exhibition opening at the V&A in South Kensington this Saturday. Horst: Photographer of Style will feature 250 photographs alongside haute couture garments, magazines, film footage and other ephemera and explores Horst’s collaborations and friendships with the likes of Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Salvador Dali. Highlights include previously unpublished prints and more than 90 Vogue covers taken by Horst. Runs until 4th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/horst.

 

Following on from our post last week, we take a look at a couple more of London’s buildings that had some sort of association with William Shakespeare…

St-John's-Gate St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell (pictured): This former gatehouse into Clerkenwell Priory was at the time of Shakespeare home to the Master of the Revels and where the playwright would have had to have brought his plays for official government approval. Thirty of the Bard’s plays were licensed here and the Master of Revels during all but the final few years of Shakespeare’s career was Edmund Tilney (or Tylney), who served in the post under both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The gatehouse was later used as a coffee house and pub among other things and is associated with everyone from artist William Hogarth (his father Richard ran the coffee house), Dr Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. These days, the gatehouse is part of the Museum of the Order of St John (for more on that, see our earlier post here).

Staple Inn, Holborn: OK, there’s no direct link at all between Shakespeare and this building on High Holborn but it was built during his lifetime – in 1585 – and as such is one of very few surviving examples of buildings of his era. Its name comes from the fact the site where it stands was originally a covered market where wool was weighed and taxed (the word ‘staple’ apparently relates to the duty on wool introduced in 1275). It later became an Inn of Chancery – a medieval school for lawyers which fed students through to the Inns of Court (in this case mostly Gray’s Inn), and it was members of the Society of Staple Inn who built the new building here in the 1580s. The building – which still boasts a grand hall – survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and, albeit with considerable damage, the Blitz. Since the late 1800s, it has been home to what’s now known as the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries. The building, which was restored in the 1990s, is a great example of an Elizabethan-era structure and gives some sense of what Shakespeare’s London was like.

This well-to-do area in London’s north-west, just outside Regent’s Park, takes its name from the historic ownership of land here by the Order of St John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights Hospitaller).

The land had previously been part of the Great Forest of Middlesex. The Order of St John of Jerusalem, which since 1140s had its English headquarters in a Clerkenwell priory where St John’s Gate stands (this now houses the Museum of the Order of St John – see our previous entry here), took over ownership of land in the early 1300s after the previous owners, the Knights Templar, fell into disgrace.

Following the Dissolution, it became Crown land and remained so until 1688 after which it passed into the hands of private families, notably the Eyre family who owned much of the area.

It remained relatively undeveloped until the early 19th century when, following the introduction of semi-detached villas on planned estates, it was marketed as a residential alternative for London’s middle classes, away from the smog and congestion of central London.

It became favored by the bohemian set and residents included creative types like artists and authors as well as scientists and traditional craftsmen (apparently in the late 19th century it was also known for its upmarket brothels).

Rebuilt with swanky apartment complexes in the early twentieth century, these days it remains a leafy enclave for the wealthy. Many of the houses which have survived are heritage listed.

Landmarks include St John’s Church (pictured above, this was consecrated in 1814) and the St John’s Wood Barracks and a Riding School (this was completed in 1825 and is the oldest building still on the site) which is now home to the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery which carries out mounted ceremonial artillery duties such as firing royal salutes for the State Opening of Parliament, royal birthdays and state visits.

St John’s Wood is also home to Abbey Road Studios (home of the Beatles and that famous zebra crossing), Lord’s Cricket Ground (officially the home of the Marylebone Cricket Club which was moved here in 1814, the same year the church was consecrated) and the Central London Mosque located on the edge of Regent’s Park.

For more on St John’s Wood, take a look at the website of The St John’s Wood Society.

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.

Located just to the north of the City, the area of Clerkenwell takes its name from the Clerk’s Well which stands in Farringdon Lane.

The well was mentioned as far back as 1174 and was the scene of medieval mystery plays which were performed by the parish clerks of London. It was formerly located inside the wall of the 12th century St Mary’s Nunnery (located on the site of St James Parish Church) but is now found in the basement of a building named Well Court.

Islington Council record that a pump was installed at pavement level in 1800 to enable the public to use the well to draw water but this was closed by the mid 1800s and the exact site of the well lost to public knowledge. It was only in 1924 that the well was rediscovered during building work.

Alongside the nunnery, Clerkenwell was also home to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, English headquarters of the crusader order known as the Knights Hospitallers. The Order of St John is still headquartered on the site of the former priory – the remains of the original priory include the Norman crypt under the rebuilt church and the priory’s main entrance, St John’s Gate, now home to a museum on the order. Also found in Clerkenwell is the Charterhouse, founded by Carthusian monks in 1370 and later a school (it’s these days home to a school of medicine and dentistry).

The area, centred on Clerkenwell Green (although apparently there hasn’t been a green here for several hundred years), become famous for its leisure-related institutions in the 1600s – these included spas, tea gardens and theatres (Sadler’s Wells Theatre still remains, albeit in a modern, dance-related form) – and gradually evolved into a more built-up residential area.

It was initially favored by the fashionable until the Industrial Revolution saw printing houses, breweries and distilleries, and clock and watchmakers move in. A survivor from the 18th century is the Middlesex Sessions House, built on Clerkenwell Green as a court around 1782 and now used by the Freemasons.

Industry declined in the area after World War II and Clerkenwell, which had also become a noted location for communists in the early 1900s (Lenin edited a paper here at one stage), was gradually transformed back into a residential area. Since the Eighties, Clerkenwell has again been going through a process of transformation – this time one of gentrification.

The well, located at 14-16 Farringdon Lane, can be visited – to arrange a visit, contact the Islington Local History Centre on 020 7527 7988 or email local.history@islington.gov.uk. For walks in Clerkenwell, see the Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association  at www.clerkenwellwalks.org.uk.

The man behind what is perhaps the most famous quote about London – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” – Samuel Johnson was a noted writer, critic and raconteur of the 18th century whose work included a then unparalleled English language dictionary.

Often simply referred to as “Dr Johnson”, Johnson was also the subject of one of the most famous biographies ever written – that of his friend James Boswell’s aptly named Life of Samuel Johnson.

Born in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire (the home is now a museum), Johnson – who often struggled with poor health and depression – was the son of a bookseller who managed to help fund his brief time at Pembroke College in Oxford before lack of funds meant he had to leave without a degree (he was later awarded an honorary degree).

He worked with his father and as a tutor before eventually, in 1737, heading to London with his friend and former pupil, actor David Garrick, and there worked for the rest of his life as a writer producing works including magazine articles and essays, poetry, sermons, and biographies.

In 1746, he was commissioned to produce the dictionary and rented  a property at 17 Gough Square, not far from Fleet Street, where he would spend the nine years working in it. Published in 1755, the dictionary was a remarkable work which not only won him acclaim ever since but also resulted in King George III granting Johnson a modest pension for the rest of his life (he had previously been arrested for debt).

The Gough Square house is these days open to the public and includes an exhibition on Johnson’s life, particularly with regard to his time there (there’s a statue of his cat Hodge in the square itself). Other sites which Johnson is known to have frequented include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the Anchor Inn in Bankside, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) in Bow Street where the Beefsteak Club met, and St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell where he once had an office.

Johnson married an older widow, Elizabeth Porter, in 1735, but she died in 1752 and it was following her death that Francis Barber, a former Jamaican slave, moved in as his servant, eventually becoming Johnson’s heir.

Johnson’s friends included some of the great luminaries of the time, including artist Joshua Reynolds, philosopher Edmund Burke, poet Oliver Goldsmith, and, of course, Boswell.

Following a series of illnesses, Johnson died in 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The 300th anniversary of his death was marked with a series of events last year including a re-enactment of the walk Johnson and Garrick made from Lichfield to London.

Dr Johnson’s House (17 Gough Square, nearest tube is Temple, Holborn or Chancery Lane) is open Monday to Saturday, 11am-5.30pm (5pm from October to April). Entry costs £4.50 an adult, £3.50 for concessions, £1.50 for children and family tickets are available for £10. For more information, see www.drjohnsonshouse.org.