7 Bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great
One of the most impressive and atmospheric spaces in all of London, St Bartholomew the Great traces its history back to 1123.
It’s been extensively restored over the centuries, but there’s plenty of unusual quirks hiding in plain sight.
On a recent visit, I went looking for these sneaky historic details.
1. The Gatehouse
Even before going inside the church it’s worth paying attention to the entrance.
St Bartholomew was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1123. When the church buildings were constructed over the next decades the nave of the church would’ve extended right out to this point.
However, with King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, St Bartholomew’s Priory was surrendered to the crown in 1539. The religious buildings were bought by Richard Rich in 1540 and the nave was demolished a year later.
The lower parts of the stone gateway date from the 13th century and the upper parts were built in 1595 as a home. But the incredible thing, is that if we fast forward to the 20th century, this was all covered up until a bomb from The First World War blew off the brick hoardings and the true historic facade was revealed!
2. The Founder’s Tomb
St Bartholomew was founded by Prior Rahere, following his pilgrimage to Rome where he had a vision instructing him to build a church and hospital.
Although Rahere died in 1140, his tomb dates from 1405. If you look closely at the top of the decorative monument, you can spot the Medieval paint that would’ve originally covered the tomb.
Around the other side you can see another detail in the stonework. In the gap on the right hand side you can make out the head of Rahere’s effigy. Look below it and in the wall you can see that the stones have been rearranged.
Although most Christians tend to be buried with their head towards the East (so as to face Christ at the day of judgement) priests are often found buried the other way around, facing their flocks as though preaching.
During Victorian restoration of the church it was determined that Rahere was indeed facing the opposite way to his effigy and for good measure, the workman stole Rahere’s shoe!
3. The Stones
One of the most common questions I’m asked when I take people inside this church is actually which parts are actually old.
The answer can be a little tricky, but essentially the crossing (pictured above) is authentically 12th century and if you look closely at the two massive columns (below), you can see that the left hand one is a Victorian replacement.
If you know where to look, you can find true Medieval fragments dotted all around the church.
To the right hand side, after you enter the church, there’s a small fragment of what would’ve been one side of a large square cloister. Rebuilt in 1905, part of the cloister had been used as stables after the reformation.
However, there are still a couple of Medieval bosses;
and there’s a fragment of yellow Medieval stained glass towards the East end of the church;
4. The Weeping Prophet
There are many memorial busts in St Bart’s but this one had a peculiar claim to fame in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It depicts Edward Cooke, 17th century Philosopher and – in those days – highly regarded medicine man.
The plaque underneath refers to ‘briny floods’ and that you can see the ‘marble weep’.
The story behind this is just down to the physical properties of the soft marble bust. Prior to the 19th century, the statue was known to ‘weep’ during wet weather when water in the air would condense against the stone and fall down Cooke’s cheeks.
So what changed? With the introduction of a Victorian central heating system, there was no more crying from Cooke.
On the floor you can see the grates where heated pipes were laid down in the 19th century.
5. The Printing Workshop
At the Easternmost end of the church is the former Lady Chapel, recorded as being rebuilt in 1335.
After the reformation Richard Rich used the space for housing and the crypt below was a wine cellar.
But in 1725 it was used as a printers shop and the American statesmen Benjamin Franklin worked here as a typesetter under Samuel Palmer.
6. The Contemporary Sculpture
Although this sculpture was designed by Damien Hirst in 2006, what it represents is intrinsically tied with the history of the building.
‘Exquisite Pain’ is an illustration of very end of Saint Bartholomew’s life. One of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Bartholomew was martyred int he most gruesome way; skinned alive.
His death has become a much-depicted subject for artists and this particular image was inspired by the 16th century sculpture in Milan’s Duomo.
The combination of religious devotion and medical study seems fitting, given that St Bartholomew’s was also founded as a hospital. This particular institution which survived the reformation and is today part of the NHS.
7. A Mystery Tomb
To end with another gruesome find, in the rebuilt cloister that I mentioned early, look down.
Amongst the new chairs and tables is what looks like a trap door. But to open it is to reveal a macabre sight;
This part of the church building was excavated in 1912 and 8 inches below floor level they found this stone coffin. The description from British History Online describing it as having been “at some time rifled“. Given that this area of the church was built under Prior Thomas in the 12th Century, it may have been intended as his tomb, but where he is now is anyone’s guess!
Visit St Bartholomew the Great
They have now waived the charge for entering the church so there’s even more reason to visit! However, they are still set up to receive donations via cash or card if you’d like to contribute to this epic building.
St Bartholomew the Great is open daily, 10am-4pm apart from Thursday when they close at 1pm. Also bear in mind they have a regular service every Sunday morning.
Do double check with the church diary before planing a visit just in case they have a wedding or special service. You can find the information on their website here.
If you fancy exploring visiting St Bartholomew the Great with me and exploring more of Smithfield’s fascinating history, you can join my walking tour! Discover much more on my Smithfield; “Guts & Glory” walking tour (including entrance into St Bartholomew the Great!) Available dates below.
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This was a really interesting read! I recently drew a picture of St Bartholomew the Great as part of a community sketching challenge and have been fascinated with the building ever since. Thanks for an in-depth look inside!
Sarah Chalkie Cloonan
A lovely piece. I was at the Gatehouse school in the early sixties.
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