If the Walls Could Speak

A Tour of the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great.

A group of 22 Tax Advisers and friends gathered for a guided tour of this wonderful church in the early evening of 22 November, the feast day of St Cecilia, with the darkness of the night falling making this a most atmospheric visit. Sir john Betjeman considered the church to have the finest surviving Norman interior in London and given the size of the surviving pillars and the beautiful clerestory it is easy to concur.

The Rector Martin Dudley –also of course our Chaplain- has an extensive knowledge of the history of this magnificent church and we learned much about the founding in 1123 as an Augustinian Monastery and hospital by Prior Rahere who was at one time court jester to King Henry 1. Rahere renounced his profession after the death of Queen Matilda and falling ill on a pilgrimage to Rome he prayed for his life and had a vision of St Bartholomew who asked him to found a church on this site in Smithfield. He returned and was able to live to see the completion of the work before his death in 1145.

If indeed the walls could speak they might tell us of the 1305 execution outside the church of the Scottish hero Sir William Wallace, those others burnt at the stake!

We learned of the mixed uses the church has had including the commercial use of the Lady Chapel where Benjamin Franklin was a journeyman printer, the Bartholomew Fair was held outside for several centuries providing income for the church and there was also at one time a blacksmith’s forge in the north transept!

The original site occupied by the church and hospital was much larger than we see now, part of the main entrance remains at West Smithfield now most easily recognisable by its half-timbered Tudor frontage erected much later in the sixteenth century. Much of the Rahere’s church was destroyed during the reformation but in the 19th century restoration work began under the direction of Sir Aston Webb and now it is a grade 1 listed building. Thankfully Prior Bolton’s oriel window remains displaying his symbol of a tun with a crossbow bolt through it.

Rahere is buried in the church, it is said that during the 19th century repair work the tomb was opened and a sandal removed, the sandal was returned –but not the foot! So his ghost appears each year on the morning of 1 July at 7am brushing past visitors and disappearing!

After our most interesting tour we disappeared across Barley Mow Passage into the Butcher’s Hook and Cleaver where we enjoyed a good meal and plenty of bon homie as we discussed what we had seen and heard. I imagine that many of us will view the church a little differently when we have our Advent Service on 20th December!

Please view our photos from the day here: Tour of the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great

Sue Christensen