A church with a weighty history – a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the most amazing and impressive churches in London, besides St Paul’s that is, (but that’s a cathedral so doesn’t count! )
The church is reached via the marvellous Gatehouse, a fine example of 1559 Tudor architecture, a half-timbered house built above the original west door of the nave.
Saint Bartholomew the Great is one of London’s oldest churches and as you enter through the portals you can feel the heavy spirituality of a church that bears the weight of nearly 2,000 years of history. There is an aura of silence that encourages you to almost tip-toe across the flagstones hardly daring to breathe for fear of disturbing the ghosts that hide in the shadows as light streams through the windows on high.
I spent a very happy hour in the church meandering about and then just sitting enjoying the quiet and peace of an oasis amidst the bustle of a busy city; not a sound of which could be heard from within. The features of the church are awe-inspiring and a lovely verger showed me a most significant sculpture that in the past used to weep tears, as well as the remains of the Victorian heating system that eventually caused the tears to dry up.
The church is situated in the historic Smithfield area of London, a stone’s throw from Smithfield Market and historic Clerkenwell in the Ward of Farringdon. At the heart of it all is the church built when Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, was King of England.
Founded in 1123 as an Augustinian Priory, Saint Bartholomew the Great is one of London’s oldest churches and has been in continuous use as a place of worship since at least 1143.
St Bartholomew’s was established by Rahere a courtier and favourite of King Henry I. It is thought that it was the death of the king’s wife Matilda, followed two years later by the drowning of their heir Prince William, his brother, half-brother and sister, that prompted Rahere to renounce his profession for a more worthy life and make his pilgrimage to Rome. In Rome, like many pilgrims, he fell ill. As he lay delirious he prayed for his life vowing that, if he survived, he would set up a hospital for the poor in London. His prayers were answered and he recovered. As he turned for home the vision of Saint Bartholomew appeared to him and said “I am Bartholomew who have come to help thee in thy straights. I have chosen a spot in a suburb of London at Smithfield where, in my name, thou shalt found a church.”
True to his word Rahere set up both a church, a priory of Augustinian canons, and the hospital. He lived to see their completion – indeed he served as both prior of the priory and master of the hospital – it is possible that he was nursed at Barts before his death in 1145. His tomb lies in the church.
Rahere’s supposedly miraculous recovery contributed to the church becoming known for its curative powers, with sick people filling its aisles each 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day.
Rahere, the monk who founded the church in the 1100s, is buried in an ornately decorated tomb inside, and is said to be both seen in his cowled robe, and heard within its walls.
St Bartholomew was one of the Twelve Apostles, brought to Jesus by Saint Philip. He is reputed to have brought Christianity to Armenia where tradition states that he was later flayed alive and crucified head down. After his martyrdom, his body is said to have been washed to Lipari (a small island off the coast of Sicily) where he is now the patron Saint. It is not clear where his remains ended up, but both Benevento and the church of San Bartolomeo in Rome claim him. There are also numerous reliquaries in the museums and churches of Europe said to contain some portion of his body.
The Priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the Church was demolished. The monastic buildings were largely intact and the Canons’ choir and sanctuary were preserved for parish use. Under Queen Mary, there was briefly a house of Dominican friars here, before it reverted to being a Parish Church under Queen Elizabeth I. The church possesses the most significant Norman interior in London, which once formed the chancel of a larger monastic church.
The church escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but fell into disrepair, becoming occupied by squatters in the 18th century. Various parts of the building were damaged or destroyed through the centuries until the restoration began in the 19th century, first in the 1860s and then, under Sir Aston Webb, in the 1880s and 90s and on into the 20th century. It survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the bombs dropped in Zeppelin raids in World War I and during the Blitz in World War II.
St Bartholomew the Great is what is known as a living church, still in use today for services, weddings, funerals and various other non-religious functions. It also attracts those of no particular religious belief because of its architecture and sense of history. The Lady Chapel at the east end had been previously used for commercial purposes and it was there that Benjamin Franklin served a year as journeyman printer. Poet and campaigner John Betjeman kept a flat opposite the church yard on Cloth Fair. The building is marked by a blue plaque, and is today owned by the Landmark Trust.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. St Bartholomew the Great was where the memorial service for William Wallace was held on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish hero’s execution. You can see this lovely memorial tablet on the outside wall of the hospital.
The ghost of a monk is said to haunt the church looking for a stolen sandal from his tomb. People have sometimes claimed to feel uncomfortable inside. The area around the church was also the place for many executions, especially during the reign of Mary Tudor. It said that during the night there is a strong scent of burning flesh.
The church has appeared in a series of award-winning films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The End of the Affair, Amazing Grace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and The Other Boleyn Girl. It has also appeared in a number of television programmes including Madame Bovary, The Real Sherlock Holmes, Spooks, and The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special.
The Smithfield area, which includes St Bartholomew’s Hospital
and Smithfield Market, is popular because of the large number of restaurants, bars and pubs both north and south of the Market. If you’re thirsty afterwards, pop into the Hand and Shears pub in Cloth Fair, which runs alongside the church. An ale house has stood here since the 12th century – about the same amount of time St Bartholomew’s has stood there.
Nearest Tube: Barbican and Farringdon
Opening Hours (Do check the church’s website before you go, because it’s not open to visitors during services)
Monday – Friday 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. (4 p.m. from 11th November to 14th February) Saturday 10.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. Sunday 8.30 a.m. to 8.00 p.m. Tourist visits and guided parties are not permitted during services. The Church is closed for a few days after Christmas, except for Sunday morning services. It may be closed to visitors for services, repairs, concert rehearsals, filming or recording at short notice. Please contact the Parish Office for more information.
Admission Charges – There is a charge for tourist visits to St Bartholomew’s. The money raised from this is applied to the maintenance of the building. Adults £4.00; Concessions £3.50; Pre-booked Groups £3.50; Family Ticket £10.00 (2 adults & 1-3 children)
There is no charge for admission for the first hour or for those coming solely for prayer and private devotion, for which the Chapel of the Holy Icon of the Mother of God is set aside. Personally I think that £4 is a very small fee to pay to see this church.
I have obtained historical information about the church for this blog from their website. Feel free to visit it for loads more info about this great church.
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