St John of Jerusalem

Another in an occasional series on London churches outside the City walls that survived the Great Fire of 1666….

The Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, the English home of the Knights Hospitaller, was originally founded  by Jordan de Bricet in 1144, and destroyed during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 (it was actually deliberately targetted at this time because  the Prior, Robert Hales, was also the Lord High Treasurer, and responsible for the introduction of the hated Poll Tax).  It was rebuilt by Prior John Redington immediately afterwards and restored by Prior Thomas Docwra in 1504, only to be dissolved   in  1540 (it is said that the last Prior, William Weston, died on the very day the priory was dissolved, of a broken heart).  The – round – priory church in St John’s Square then became a parish church, which survived the Great Fire, but was subsequently substantially destroyed during, and rebuilt after, an air  raid  on the night of 10/11th May, 1941.  Photographs of it  taken in the 1900s still survive.  Remarkably, so does the original twelfth-century crypt.  A  separate sixteenth-century gate-house also survives, on St John’s Lane.  The gate-house served between 1560-1608, that is, immediately after the dissolution, as the “Office of the Revels”, where theatrical performances were licensed, and sets and costumes procured.  It re-entered the possession of the Order of St John in 1873, and now houses the Order’s museum.

In 1237, Matthew Paris  chronicled the departure of  a party of Knights Hospitaller to the Holy Land  as follows: “They … set out from their house at Clerkenwell, and proceeded in good order, with about thirty shields uncovered, with spears raised, and preceded by their banner, through the midst of the City, towards the bridge, that they might obtain the blessings of the spectators, and, bowing their heads with their cowls lowered, commended themselves to the prayers of all”.


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