I am a lover of Tudor history. One of my favourite things in the world is uncovering a hidden gem; a little-known Tudor fact, artefact or location. My second favourite thing is telling people like you all about it, so you have the chance to enjoy it too. This week I want to share one of my recent 'discoveries': the remains of The Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, London.
Today these remains are preserved in the form of the Museum of St John. Central to the museum is a Tudor gatehouse, built in the year 1504. St John's Gate, as it is known, once gave entrance to the inner courtyard of the Priory of St John, around which all the significant priory buildings once stood. It is off the well-beaten tourist trail. So, you could easily miss it. For this reason, I count it to be one of London's hidden, Tudor treasures.
The Order of St John is an ancient one. It was founded in Jerusalem almost 1000 years ago, in 1080, by a sect of Benedictine monks. They established a hospital there to care for pilgrims of all faiths, who had made the long journey to the Holy City. After Jerusalem was captured by Crusaders, the monks took up a military role in addition to their traditional monastic vows. And so, this rather peculiar quasi-religious/military Order began, establishing their English headquarters in Clerkenwell, in London, in 1140.
A great monastery was built just north of the City walls in tranquil, open countryside. This position was close to a handful of other notable religious houses; St Mary's Nunnery, The Priory of St Bartholomew and the Charterhouse. The Priory of St John thrived through the Middle Ages, and soon became closely allied to the Crown. The size of the complex, the wealth of the Order, and the luxurious and palatial lodgings made it both a powerful and influential ally as well as an oft' used residence for the royal family and distinguished foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, like other religious houses, the Priory of St John was dismantled and disbanded in 1540 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Although briefly revived during the reign of the Catholic Mary I, it was ultimately dissolved for good upon the accession of her half-sister, Elizabeth.
There's delicious anticipation to be had when visiting a new Tudor location. I am sure you know what I mean. Nothing could dampen that tingling in my stomach as I was spewed out onto the bustling pavement in front of Farringdon Tube station, close to the heart of the City of London. It was bang on the rush hour. I began weaving my way through the morass of busy Londoners, most heading home, each with the same level of focus as a heat-seeking missile.
Quite in contrast, I entered a familiar state of wonderment that always creeps over me as I approach an unfamiliar, Tudor building. I stopped to read one of those much-neglected information boards. It is sited right outside St John's Gardens, close to the old monastery, which is now used by office workers as a place to escape their desks and devour their lunch. I was so intent on reading about the history of the site that I barely notice a woman close by, watching me as if my act of lingering interest requires further interrogation. I am sure she was curious. Maybe she had passed by hundreds of times but never gave much thought to the garden's hidden past.
Meanwhile, I feel my imagination open me up, as ancient-sounding street names lure me in. Eventually, I turn into St John's Lane to be confronted by the Priory's ancient gateway, packed in amongst modern office blocks. What a joy! I want to stop and tell passersby what a miracle it is that this gateway survives but, of course, I keep my excitement to myself. I may be a crazy, Tudor lady, but I try to keep it under control in public!
I examined the gateway from all sides, musing particularly on a blocked-up doorway on the north side, which is so small one might think that hobbits used it! I would only later find out the surprising truth. It is a direct consequence of the ground level rising up by at least a foot or more over the centuries!
Inside, the museum area is light, bright and modern, the design weaving itself attractively into the old facade of one of the original priory buildings, adjoining the gateway. It is a very becoming space, telling the story of the Order and the Priory of St John. Delightful!
It is also possible to access the Tudor gatehouse. After the Priory was dissolved, the gatehouse reinvented itself several times over the centuries. In the eighteenth century, it was used as a coffee house, run by the father of the artist, William Hogarth. By the end of the same century, it had become a pub in which artists and writers would meet, including the likes of Charles Dickens.
In the adjacent, Edwardian great hall, you can view the charter of Mary I, which gave the Order back its lands. Although not original, the ceremonial hall was designed sympathetically and in keeping with the original, surviving buildings.
I so enjoyed my visit that I returned the following week for a complete guided tour, including the crypt of the original priory church. You can join me in the podcast accompanying this post as museum director, Tom Foakes takes us around what remains of this once great, religious institution. It's amazing what you find lurking underground and hidden from plain sight!
The Museum of the Order of St John can most definitely count itself as one of London's best kept Tudor secrets. For me, the great lure of the place is its extraordinary history and close ties with English royalty. If you love exploring places that give you room to breathe and allow your imagination to take hold, then make sure St John's Museum is on your itinerary.
For all the latest events, check out the museum’s website.
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Sarah runs the Tudor Travel Guide online; it is dedicated to being your visitor’s companion to the aristocratic houses of sixteenth-century England.