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St Bartholomew's: happy 900th to church and hospital!

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Bart's Hospital and the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great were both founded in 1123.

The Church of St Bartholomew the Great, City of London: the altar and east end
St Bartholomew the Great: the altar and east end

This post celebrates the 900th anniversary of two of the City of London's most remarkable institutions. According to the church's website, the foundation stone of St Bartholomew's Priory and Hospital was laid 900 years ago this week, on 25 March 1123.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

 

The founder: Rahere

St Bartholomew's Priory and Hospital were both founded by a man called Rahere in 1123.


A courtier to King Henry I (fourth and youngest son of William the Conqueror), Rahere fell ill while on a pilgrimage to Rome. He vowed to establish a hospital for the poor if he survived and returned to London.


When Rahere recovered and started for England, he saw a vision of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus. The saint instructed him to found a priory and church in the Smooth Field outside the City walls.


On returning to London, Rahere obtained a grant of land in the Smooth Field. He established a priory of Augustinian canons and a hospital on the land in the area, whose name has long since been corrupted to Smithfield.


Rahere served as Prior of the priory and also Master of the hospital until his death in 1145. His tomb still lies in the church, with an added canopy and recumbent figure of an Augustinian canon dating from the 15th century.

The tomb of Rahere, founder of St Bartholomew's Prriory and Hospital in  Smithfield, City of London
The tomb of Rahere, founder of St Bartholomew's Priory and Hospital

The Church of St Bartholomew the Great

The Priory was closed by King Henry VIII in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Priory church was reduced in size and became a parish church, which it has remained ever since (apart from a brief period under Queen Mary, when Dominican friars used it). It is known as St Bartholomew the Great.


The church can be reached from West Smithfield by walking under a Tudor gatehouse and through a 13th century stone arch that was once a doorway into the much larger priory church before the Dissolution. Ahead of you is the church, with the only remaining side of a once four sided cloister to the left of it.

The church has undergone a number of structural modifications over the centuries, including 15th century cloister restorations, a 17th century brick tower and 19th century modifications to the west-facing external wall (see the third of the group of three pictures above).

The south gallery of the choir contains an oriel window built in the early 16th century by the penultimate Prior, William Bolton, from which he could keep an eye on the monks.


Carved in the stone below the window is Bolton's rebus, a visual device depicting his name (an arrow from a crossbow, or a 'bolt' piercing a kind of barrel known as a 'tun').

The church also contains a very striking gilded figure of St Bartholomew by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst, entitled Exquisite Pain. Tradition has it that the saint was flayed, or skinned alive, and he is portrayed with his skin draped over his arm and his musculature clearly visible.


Hirst's statue contrasts with a simpler, carved wood figure of St Bartholomew in the Tudor gatehouse outside the church.

The east end of the church around the altar still contains a good deal of the original 12th century structure.


It is the only significant site in the City of London where Norman architecture can still be seen. Enter the church today, particularly for a service or a concert, and be awed by a wonderful sense of timelessness.


St Bartholomew's Hospital

Although St Bartholomew's Hospital was not closed by the Dissolution, it struggled without the Priory to support it. In 1546, after being petitioned by the City of London, Henry VIII re-founded the hospital under a new charter.


Most of the medieval buildings were replaced in the 18th century, with further additions in the 19th century. The hospital's own church, St Bartholomew the Less, has 12th century origins and a 15th century tower, while the main body of the church was significantly rebuilt and restored in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.


The King Henry VIII gate was built in 1702 by the Strong family of stone masons, who worked with Christopher Wren on St Paul's Cathedral. The gate has recently been cleaned and restored. The statue of the king over the entrance, carved by Francis Bird, is said to be the only public statue of Henry VIII in London.

The hospital's main courtyard was built between 1732 and 1769 to designs by Scottish architect James Gibbs, who also designed the London churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Martin-in-the-Fields overlooking Trafalgar Square.


The south wing of the courtyard was replaced in the early 20th century and a more recent extension was completed only a few years ago.

The 18th century courtyard of St Bartholomew's Hospital, Smithfield, City of London
The 18th century courtyard of St Bartholomew's Hospital

The north wing of the hospital courtyard contains the elegant Great Hall on the first floor, whose walls display the names of donors painted on wooden panels and portraits of the great and good. There is also a stained glass window depicting Henry VIII giving the hospital its charter.

The ground floor of the north wing houses an excellent small museum dedicated to the history of the hospital and its pioneering role in many medical techniques.


The grand staircase up to the Great Hall is adorned by two very large mural paintings depicting stories from the bible themed around healing. One portrays the Good Samaritan and the other the Pool of Bethesda.


Both were painted by the 18th century artist, printmaker, cartoonist, and satirist William Hogarth, who was born around the corner in St Bartholomew Close.

Popularly known as Bart's, the hospital is the country's oldest continuously providing healthcare on the same site.


However, it is not quite as old as erroneously stated above one of its 19th century entrances, which claims an 1102 founding.

St Bartholomew' Hospital. One of its 19th century entrances from Smithfield erroneously claims an 1102 foundation date
A typo carved in stone is difficult to correct

Rahere's 900 year legacy

After 900 years, the legacy of Rahere in one of the most modern parts of the UK, the City of London, is truly astonishing.


The City boasts well over forty churches, ruined churches and church towers. There are none quite like St Bartholomew the Great, which is one of the City's most atmospheric locations and retains a distinctly monastic air.


As for Bart's Hospital - with its 12th century foundation, 18th century courtyard, Great Hall, Hogarth paintings, Henry VIII entrance and its own church - there is no hospital quite like it anywhere else in the country.


A very happy 900th to Bart's Hospital and the Priory Church of St Bartholomew!

 

The Church of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew's Hospital are on the route of my walking tour Monasteries, Martyrs, Murder and Meat.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.


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1 Comment


annemarie.fearnley
Mar 22, 2023

My favourite City church!

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