The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield

This glorious Romanesque church hides around the corner from the Barbican. Founded in the 12th Century by Prior Rahere along with the adjacent St Bart’s Hospital.

Rahere was a favoured courtier in the court of Henry I. The King’s wife, Matilda, had died, closely followed by the loss of the White Ship. This was the disaster that drowned the heir and many young royals and friends. It is believed that this was what prompted Rahere to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

Like many pilgrims, he fell ill with malaria. He prayed for his life and made a vow to found a hospital for the poor in London if he survived. On his journey home, St Bartholomew appeared to him to tell him that he had chosen a site for his foundation in the ‘suburb’ of Smithfield. At that time, this meant it was to be outside the City walls but within the City boundary, defined by the ‘bars’, including Temple Bar near the chosen site. Interestingly, this is also where the boy King Richard II came to meet Wat Tyler and his rebel followers in the Peasants Revolt.

Rahere set up a priory of Augustine canons, the church and the promised hospital. He served as both Prior and Master of the Hospital before his death in 1145. A splendid tomb, near the High Altar, dates from 1405.

Despite the Dissolution, quite a lot of the Quire and Sanctuary survived for parish use. Not the Lady Chapel however. Dedication to the Virgin Mary was seen as Papist and from 1539 this was separated from the church. It became a house, then a printing works (where Benjamin Franklin worked) and finally a lace factory. The 19th century restoration included the Lady Chapel into the church in 1896. Not as early as the beautiful Romanesque architecture, but it’s been on an interesting journey of it’s own….

The church also has a gilded sculpture of St Bartholomew by Damien Hirst. Bartholomew was one of the Apostles who travelled to the East to preach. He was an accomplished linguist said to have a voice like a trumpet! Where he was martyred is a matter of some dispute. He may have been beheaded in India or crucified in Armenia. Either way, there is an agreement that he was flayed alive before being executed. The Armenian Church claim him as their founder. Bartholomew brought back to life the son of the King of Armenia and drove the devil out of him. The artwork shows the saint, rather gruesomely, holding up his own skin and a large flaying knife. Unsurprisingly he is the patron saint of tanners.

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