St Bartholomew the Great

Rafa Esteve St Bartholomew the Great. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Packed tightly between Smithfield meat market and the Barbican’s brutalist towers, St Bartholomew the Great (or Great St Bart’s, as it is often called) is London’s oldest surviving parish church, and also one of its most atmospheric.

Founded by Henry I’s minstrel and courtier Rahere in 1123, it is unique among City of London churches in having endured the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Great Fire of 1666, and the Luftwaffe’s best efforts during the Blitz. In the opinion of many – including the poet and heritage campaigner Sir John Betjeman, who had a flat opposite – it remains the capital’s finest surviving Norman interior.

But in its long history, Great St Bart’s has also witnessed periods of neglect, division and closure: at various points, its cloisters were reduced to stables, and its crypt became a coal store, while its former south aisle was turned into a public house.

In 1855, the Bartholomew Fair – the long-running cloth fair to which the church gave its name – was even suppressed by the City authorities for encouraging debauchery and public disorder, and it was denounced in the press as a ‘school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate [prison] itself’.

As we learn this week on The Past, the first efforts to understand and improve Great St Bart’s began in 1790, and in 1885 the architect Aston Webb (best known for the principal façade of Buckingham Palace and the main building of the Victoria and Albert Museum) began work to restore it to something like its former glory.

Today, this ancient church is treasured by many for its singular character and splendid collection of artworks (including a 2.5m-tall gilded bronze statue of St Bartholomew by the artist Damien Hirst), and it is no surprise to discover that it has often been used as a location for films (among them Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Shakespeare in Love).

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Chris Catling celebrates the 900th anniversary of St Bartholomew the Great, and traces its long and remarkable history.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about churches: we showcased the development of England’s Nonconformist chapels; we examined matters of life and death in London’s medieval friaries; and we even set off in search of Britain’s best church-based café.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around London’s churches. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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