St Bartholomew the Great: tracing the history of London’s oldest surviving parish church

Making people laugh in the 12th century proved to be lucrative work for Rahere (d. 1143), who is variously described as a jester, minstrel, and courtier to Henry I (c.1068-1135; r. 1100-1135). But that was in his early life: Rahere later became a devout cleric who, falling ill on a pilgrimage to Rome, vowed to establish a hospital in London if he survived. The result was St Bartholomew, founded in 1123 as a joint foundation of hospital and priory. A commemorative volume has just been published to mark the 900th anniversary of the church, as Chris Catling reports.


When Rahere fell ill on a pilgrimage, he was nursed back to health at the church and hospital of San Bartolomeo in Rome – which still stands on the Isola Tiberina, the little island in the Tiber that lies between the Ponte Garibaldi and the Ponte Emilio. As he lay on his sickbed, racked with malarial fever, Rahere perhaps realised that a stranger falling ill in 12th-century London might not have found a similarly hospitable refuge. He decided not just to create London’s equivalent, he also devoted the remainder of his life ministering to the poor and the sick in his capacity as the first prior of the Augustinian religious community that he established on his return to England in 1123.

Construction work began on Prior Rahere’s Augustinian foundation in AD 1123. From that period, the four-bay choir and its apsidal east end survive at ground level. The three-part division into nave arcade, gallery, and clerestory, with apse and ambulatory, reflects the influence of Norwich Cathedral.

Setting up a priory and hospital requires patronage and funds, and this is where his former role as a member of Henry I’s inner circle helped Rahere a great deal. The king’s youthful love of courtly entertainment had taken a sobering turn on 25 November 1120 when the White Ship hit the submerged Quilleboeuf Rock as it attempted to return to Southampton from Barfleur in Normandy. All but one of the 300 people on board drowned, including William, Henry’s son and heir, as well as scores of the king’s closest friends and advisors. Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, writing in the foreword to the newly published volume 900 Years of St Bartholomew the Great (see ‘Further reading’ at the end), argues that the king’s more serious view of life following the shipwreck motivated his generous donation of land at Smithfield for the construction of the priory and endowments to pay for its construction and upkeep.

Remarkably, the 12th-century tower crossing of Rahere’s church has survived, though the tower itself has gone, to be replaced by a brick tower in 1628, which now rises from the one surviving bay of the south aisle of Prior Thomas’ nave. Note that the western and eastern arches (left and right) are rounded, but the north and south arches are pointed – possibly the earliest example in London of the use of major Gothic arches.

When the priory church was consecrated in 1133, Henry issued a royal charter promising to defend St Bartholomew’s ‘as he would his own crown’. More valuable even than royal patronage, though, was the right granted to the new foundation to hold what was to become England’s premier fair for the sale of cloth, one of the country’s most economically valuable commodities. John Schofield, in his book London 1100-1600 (see ‘Further reading’), suggests that the priory had taken over a site that was already used for an annual cloth fair in order to take advantage of the commercial and spiritual traffic that it engendered.

What the traders gained from this change of ownership was security from theft. Instead of setting up their stalls in an open field, the three-day fair – held on 24 August, the Feast of St Bartholomew, and a day either side – now took place within the protective walls of the gated precinct. Traders attending the fair were exempt from paying City tolls; instead, they paid a fee based on the weight of the cloth they brought to the fair, which was then shared between the City authorities and the priory.

ABOVE & BELOW Beginning in the 1120s, beaded ornamentation began to appear on capitals at Henry I’s Reading Abbey along with a variation of the scallop capital called the trefoil, in which each face of the capital is divided into three; the presence of similar examples in the gallery arcades at St Bartholomew’s raises the question of whether a mason from Reading was involved.

By 1614, when Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson’s play satirising English society, was first performed, it had grown to be a general fair with numerous sideshows and entertainments, which attracted huge crowds that spilled out into the streets of Smithfield, and it lasted two whole weeks. Such was the disorder, crime, and debauchery associated with the fair – denounced by the City authorities as a ‘school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate [the notorious prison]’ – that it was suppressed in 1855. But over the seven centuries during which the fair thrived, it provided much needed income for the twin foundations of priory and hospital, even if City and priory constantly argued over the proportion due to each.

Prior Thomas, Rahere’s successor (governing the priory from 1144 to 1174), set about securing further grants and privileges from, among others, popes Anastasius IV, Adrian IV, and Alexander III. Papal patronage was an essential element in establishing the reputation of St Bartholomew’s and of ensuring that it would be seen as a legitimate institution by wealthy patrons leaving chantry bequests (money to pay for perpetual prayers to be said for the soul of the deceased donor). To supply the number of priests needed to say such prayers, Thomas set in train an ambitious expansion of the priory from its original 13 canons (representing Jesus and the 12 disciples) to 35. This in turn required the church to be extended in order to accommodate the increased numbers.

The main arcades of the choir are supported on massive cylindrical piers with scalloped capitals and billet decoration. The bay widths increase eastwards as a perspective device that accentuates the prominence of the altar.

From priory to parish

Today, the church encountered by modern visitors mainly consists of Rahere’s original four-bay choir and ambulatory, which had probably been completed by the time of his death, plus the one surviving bay of Prior Thomas’ ten-bay nave. The rest of the nave was demolished when the priory was suppressed in 1539, and the monastic complex was acquired on favourable terms by Sir Richard Rich (1496-1567), Thomas Cromwell’s sometime-collaborator in the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir Richard, one of the wealthiest men of his age, saw fit to move into the prior’s house at St Bartholomew’s and use it as his town residence from 1540, which gives an indication of just how wealthy the priory had become, and how luxurious its accommodation.

The claim to be London’s oldest surviving parish church rests on the fact that the rent-paying residents of the 53 tenements in St Bartholomew’s close had long enjoyed the use of a chapel on the north side of the monastic church and a small associated burial ground. In time, they came to think of St Bartholomew’s as a separate parish. In fact, part of the priory precinct lay within the parish of St Botolph Aldersgate and part in the parish of St Sepulchre, and there were disputes over the share of tithes and fees (for performing marriages and burials, for example) due to each from the congregation that worshipped at St Bartholomew’s. Such disagreements ended in 1531, when the Bishop of London recognised the separate parochial status of St Bartholomew’s.

Above the choir arcade is a wide gallery, which survives in its original form up until it meets the apse, where the continuation is part of the late-19th-century restoration work. The large arches of the gallery are filled with smaller arcades, which look as if they were added as an afterthought, perhaps to strengthen the larger arches. The openings were sealed up after the Dissolution as part of the division of the gallery into a series of enclosed offices, with a schoolroom and schoolmaster’s house on the northern side.

Rapacious as he was, Sir Richard seems to have respected the rights of the parish when he set about turning the priory buildings into cash. Stone, timber, and lead were carted away and sold when the nave was demolished, but the choir was left for parish worship, and Sir Richard signed a memorandum formally recognising the new parish and endowing it with seven properties to provide rental income for the rector. The yard formed by the demolition of the nave became the new parish churchyard.

Prior Bolton’s oriel window forms a striking addition to the southern gallery. Dating from c.1517, it bears the prior’s rebus on the central panel in the form of a crossbow bolt piercing a barrel or ‘ton’. Bolton was the last prior before the Dissolution, and an important figure in Tudor England, responsible for the completion of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey, among other works. He built a house for himself abutting the southern side of the priory church connected to this window, which lights an oratory from which Prior Bolton could attend divine service remotely.

The remaining monastic buildings consisted of a mix of partly demolished and patched-up medieval structures and new buildings that were leased out for a variety of secular purposes. Sir Richard’s grandson Robert, Lord Rich (1559-1619), developed the property, covering the parish with small rent-paying houses separated by narrow streets – such as Cloth Fair, where John Betjeman’s former home is now a Landmark Trust holiday let – and his subsequent descendants continued to own much of the former priory until 1818.

This testimonial to Sir Aston Webb was signed by all the members of the restoration committee, praising his ‘excellent judgement and feeling for the past’ and the ‘religious care’ with which ‘he has welded the old and new into one beautiful and harmonious whole’.

Famously the church and a couple of the houses lining Cloth Fair were the only buildings in the City to escape destruction in the Great Fire of 1666, but rebuilding of the area proceeded swiftly. Dwellings crowded up close to the walls on all sides so that the church, scarcely recognisable as a medieval building, was all but invisible from the surrounding streets. The doors, arches, and arcades of the church were blocked by brick to divide the building into rooms, workshops, and storage areas. The cloisters were turned into stables, and the crypt was used as a coal and wine store. The Lady Chapel was converted into three private dwellings, while the eastern end was abutted by a type foundry where Benjamin Franklin worked as an apprentice in 1725 and 1726, employed (as he recorded in his diary) to set up the type for the second edition of William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated. Other parts of the priory housed a carpenter’s workshop, two schools, a Wesleyan meeting house, and a hop store.

The situation was little different a century later, when Charles Knight’s entertaining and informative guide London (published 1841-1844) described a public house located in the former south aisle, and the sheds of costermongers (fruit and veg sellers) and a blacksmith’s workshop among the ruins of the east cloister. The refectory had by then become a tobacco-manufactory, finely roofed with oak.

Contemporary engravings of the apse before and after Webb’s new work of 1886 to the gallery and clerestory levels.

The work of Webb

The first attempts to understand and improve the ancient complex began in 1790, when the architect Thomas Hardwick recorded what was left of the monastic buildings and made the first measured drawings of the church. His report on the alarming state of the buildings had the opposite effect to that which he had intended: there were calls for its demolition and replacement. But Hardwick’s intervention saved the building, and essential repairs were carried out with what limited resources were available to the parish, amid constant calls by eminent antiquaries and architects for a more comprehensive restoration. A concerted fundraising campaign began in 1863, though the restoration committee was well aware that its plans were dependent on the parish being able to purchase the various houses, stores, and factories that abutted the church or that were based within its walls, all of which would take time and money.

The memorial plaque in the south wall of the gatehouse commemorating Sir Aston Webb and his brother Edward Alfred Webb – whose two-volume Records of St Bartholomew’s Priory (1921) remains an important source for the history of the institution – and Fredrick Dove, of Dove Brothers, the firm that carried out much of the construction work. To the left of the inscription is a heraldic badge, decorated with a spider, web, and the Webb family motto: ‘Weave well’.

The commission for restoring the church was given in 1885 to the architect Aston Webb (1849-1930), who would go on in due course to establish the largest architectural practice of his age in the UK and to design such well-known structures as the Cromwell Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum (1891), the Naval College at Dartmouth (1899-1904), the main buildings of the University of Birmingham (1906-1909), the Royal School of Mines in Kensington (1909-1913), the Admiralty Arch at the east end of the Mall (1911), and the frontage to Buckingham Palace (1913).

His work to make sense of what remained of the Norman church of St Bartholomew the Great began at an earlier stage in his career, when he was establishing his practice. It was his first major commission and, according to his diaries, the one that gave him the most anxiety. He was not an experienced church-restorer, and his work to-date had involved the design of new commercial buildings. He got the job on the strength of family connections: his brother was churchwarden.

The removal of later accretions to the northern side of the Lady Chapel, which Webb rebuilt from the sill level upwards; the resulting chapel was dedicated on 18 May 1897. To the right is the early 17th-century schoolmaster’s house of brick, which Webb retained.

Webb faced the evangelical zeal of the newly formed Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris in 1877 with a manifesto that stressed protection of the building as found, rather than Webb’s more ambitious plans for rebuilding the lost Norman apse and transepts. The SPAB wrote to the Restoration Committee to say that the plan, ‘though evidently well meant’, would be ‘a great mistake and an enduring cause of regret’.

In the end, though, the majority of those involved favoured Webb’s plans. The consensus was summed up in an editorial in the Saturday Review, where the SPAB’s position was dismissed as ‘foolish fanaticism’. ‘Mr Webb’s plan’ was commended because it ‘preserves all existing traces of the successive alterations to the church while he invests it with much of the original dignity and beauty of which these alterations have long deprived it’.

The monument to Rahere, founder and first prior, was erected c.1405 and is very similar in form to monuments produced by the workshop of Henry Yevele, the master mason who carved the tombs of Edward III and Richard II in Westminster Abbey – although this cannot be Yevele’s own work as he died c.1400. IMAGES: Christian Steer
Prior Rahere’s effigy is flanked by two small figures each holding a bookrest and a copy of the Bible. Today the book pages are blank, but antiquarian records show that text written on parchment was originally attached to the carved books with words from the Book of Isaiah referring to the Lord’s transformation of the desert into a garden – a reference to Rahere’s construction of the priory and hospital in the midst of the Smithfield wasteland.

The work on St Bartholomew’s kept Webb busy on and off until 1928, when the final element in the restoration was completed – the acquisition and partial rebuilding of the east walk of the cloister, which was officially opened by Princess Mary, daughter of George V. Webb died two years later, and his half-century of dedicated care for the church is memorialised in a commemorative plaque on the wall of the gatehouse through which visitors enter the churchyard from West Smithfield. This half-timbered gateway, built in 1595 as a house by Sir Philip Scudamore, is a survivor of the Great Fire and was much enhanced by Webb in 1916 with the addition of oriel windows projecting from the upper storeys.

The angel at Rahere’s feet bears the priory’s coat of arms.

From there, the church path follows the line of the south aisle of the lost nave, with the site of the cloister to the right. Webb’s new entrance porch leads into the body of the church, with the surviving bay of the nave to the left, then the tower crossing, now occupied by the organ and choir stalls. This is flanked by Webb’s newly built transepts – very shallow compared to the originals because of space constraints. Ahead is the largely original 12th-century choir and ambulatory, with massive cylindrical pillars, a gallery above lit by slender arches, and a clerestory. The east end, with its Lady Chapel, is largely Webb’s, though retaining as much medieval work as had survived. Indeed, this was Webb’s practice throughout, in deference to the SPAB, and the result can be something of an archaeological puzzle, with masonry of many different periods – all of which makes the detailed explanation contained in the new commemorative volume an essential guide.

The monument to Percival and Agnes Smalpace, with incised figures showing their naked corpses.

Memories in monuments

The church has been characterised as ‘gloomy’, but for those who love its Norman solidity, it is a place of great atmosphere – one that has often been used as a film location (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love, The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Sherlock Holmes). It has a strong musical tradition, with a professional choir that often performs works by contemporary composers. It also has a remarkable collection of works of art, the most striking of which is a 2.5m-tall, gilded bronze statue of St Bartholomew holding a scalpel (a reference to the adjacent hospital and the saint’s role as patron of doctors and surgeons), on loan from the artist Damien Hirst since 2015.

Above all, it has a splendid collection of funerary monuments, representing a cross-section of those who have worshipped in the church since its foundation. The one surviving medieval monument is that of the founder, Rahere. Located in a position of honour on the northern side of the high altar, it was commissioned in the closing years of the 14th century, some 250 years after his death in 1143. It was about this time that Liber Fundacionis Ecclesie Sancti Bartholomei Londoniarum (‘The Book of the Foundation’) was translated from Latin to Middle English. The Latin version is a transcript from an earlier copy that no longer exists, originally written by one of the canons of the monastery around 1174, giving an account of Rahere’s life, his founding of the priory and hospital, and the many miracles claimed to have been experienced by pilgrims to St Bartholomew’s. The English translation and the erection of Rahere’s monument were part of a campaign to attract funding, and perhaps also to persuade the Church authorities to declare Rahere a saint.

The splendid Renaissance monument to Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor to Elizabeth I and founder of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

The figure of Rahere, dressed in an Augustinian habit, lies within a magnificent vaulted canopy. He is attended by an angel holding the coat of arms of the priory, and two hooded monks who are reading words of comfort and the promise of eternal life from the Book of Isaiah. Many times painted and much restored, it is still an outstanding example of late medieval funerary sculpture.

Elizabeth Freshwater’s memorial: married twice to City lawyers, she died at the age of 26.

From the post-medieval period, the memorial to Percival Smalpace (d. 1558) and his wife Agnes (d. 1588) is a remarkable alabaster monument, darkened by the smoke of centuries, that incorporates a black Belgian marble slab incised with images of the deceased lying naked side by side as corpses, on a rush mat. It is typical of the work of Gillis de Witte, a Protestant refugee from Catholic Bruges, who fled to London in 1583 and mainly made his living carving ornate chimney pieces from black Belgian marble.

Next in date is the large monument to Sir Walter Mildmay (d. 1589) and his wife Mary (d. 1576). The founder of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Mildmay seems to have been that remarkable phenomenon: an honest public servant in an age when many of his peers were on the make. He was Elizabeth I’s reforming Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had every opportunity to exploit his position for personal gain, but he only drew his (admittedly large) salary of £500 a year. He was a man of Puritan sympathies and his will called for a modest tomb, so the richly decorated alabaster and coloured marble monument that we see today represents the more extravagant tastes of his eldest son, Anthony, overseer of his will.

The monument to medical scholar Dr Edward Cooke.

Sir Robert Chamberlayne is depicted as a figure kneeling at prayer within a semi-circular alcove, revealed to all through the curtains that are shown being drawn aside by two flanking angels. His date of death is conventionally given as 1615, though nobody knows the precise date because he simply disappeared while travelling between Tripoli and Cyprus after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From a devout Oxfordshire Catholic family, he never married, and the monument was erected by an anonymous friend.

Elizabeth Freshwater (d. 1617) is similarly shown kneeling at a prayer desk, in a monument that has been hailed as an early example of the baroque in England. And the memorial to Edward Cooke (d. 1652) depicts him from the waist upwards holding a book – probably not a prayer book in this case, as this is a typical scholarly pose. Cooke was a natural philosopher (the 17th-century term for a scientist) who studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, then at Leiden and Padua. His epitaph ends with the words: ‘Unsluice your briny floods, what can ye keep/Your eyes from teares & see the marble weepe/Burst out for shame: or if ye find no vent/ For teares, yet stay, and see the stones relent’. This is not just a poetic flight of fancy: before heating was introduced to the church, tear-like beads of condensation would appear on the marble of the monument as if the stone itself were weeping.

Further reading
Charlotte Gauthier (ed.) (2022) 900 Years of St Bartholomew the Great: the history, art and architecture of London’s oldest parish church (Ad llissum, ISBN 978-1915401038, £45).
John Schofield (2011) London 1100-1600: the archaeology of a capital city (Equinox, ISBN 978-1908049728, £30).
ALL IMAGES: St Bartholomew the Great, unless otherwise specified