The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London

I have always found churches to be fascinating places. Not only are they places of great faith, which have survived many hundreds of years, they are memorials to the people who built and used them. You can definitely learn a lot by looking around old churches. One that recently came to my attention, and is now on my to visit list, is St Bartholomew the Great in the Smithfield area of London. It was mentioned briefly in a discussion about Anthony Woodville, who I am currently writing a biography of, and who is famous for participating in a joust at Smithfield. The person I was talking to about this tournament mentioned that Anthony would have seen this church on his way to the joust. Once again, I set off down a research rabbit hole to find out more about this church. I certainly did find out a lot of amazing things about its history.

The name St Bartholomew’s may ring a bell with you because of the world famous London hospital of the same name, which is commonly known by the nickname of St Bart’s. Whilst this post is not necessarily about the hospital, there is no denying there is a collective history. The church of St Bartholomew the Great, the hospital and St Bartholomew the Less, which served as the parish church for the hospital, were all commissioned by a clergyman called Rahere in the 1100s.

St Bartholomew’s marked on a map of Medieval London vectorized by Grandiose for Wikimedia Commons and (b) University of Pittsburgh’s “Images of Medieval Art and Architecture: England: London: Maps,” copyright Alison Stones, using Creative Commons

Rahere had previously been a member of the clergy at St Paul’s, but that all changed during a pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there, he received a vision in a dream to build a church and hospital in Smithfield.[1] When he arrived back in England, he made enquiries about the piece of land he had seen in his dream. He found out it was in royal hands and so he went to King Henry I and explained the vision he had received. His petitioning worked and he was granted the land.[2] Building started and an Augustinian priory was established in 1123. It was this priory that became what we now see today. The church and the hospital became known for its healing powers and it was reported that many miracles happened there, most occurring on St Bartholomew’s Day.[3]

Throughout the priory’s existence, as with any church, there were some alterations, including in 1410, where parts of it were rebuilt, ensuring that the monastic complex was completely enclosed within walls.[4] There was already some evidence of enclosure prior to this as a gatehouse, which is still in existence. Perhaps this might mean that there were new walls built or strengthening to existing ones. Whatever the case may be, the walls were completely demolished in 1671, leading to disputes about boundaries.[5]

Interior of St Bartholomew the Great Church (2016), Rafa Esteve, Wikimedia Commons

The most dramatic change in use for the priory came with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Henry had decided to dissolve the monasteries, who he believed had become too rich and powerful. Whilst some of them had, it was a massive over statement and many lies about the corruption in these places were told in order to make the dissolution of them appear necessary. As was the case with the hospital at St Bart’s, many offered medical care and relief to the poor and when they were dissolved, this ended, just to give the king money he needed. Whilst the priory was dissolved, the hospital was reinstated in the final year of Henry VIII’s reign.

Just like the other monastic institutions at this time, the priory at St Bartholomew’s had been valued. It was valued at £653 and 15 shillings a year, the equivalent of just under £275,500 in today’s money.[6] This value had been given based on the small houses the priory owned in two other London parishes, and a few in the countryside away from London. The question was what would happen to the site after it was no longer a priory? It was purchased by Richard Rich, a man associated with the downfalls of both Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. He paid £1064, 11 shillings and 3 pence (just under £450,000 today) and gave the now redundant canons and annuity of £6, 13 shillings and 4 pence each (around £2,000 today).

Exterior of St Bartholomew the Great Church (2014), Edwardx, Wikimedia Commons

Within a year of purchase, the nave was demolished and the rest used for housing, the cloister as stabling and the crypt as a wine cellar.[7] By the 1720s, the building was instead being used as a printer’s shop. It was in this shop that Benjamin Franklin, briefly worked as a typesetter.[8] After then, it fell into disrepair and was little used until it was restored in the late Victorian era. During this restoration, prior Rahere even had a shoe stolen!

There are so many other tales that could be said of the church, for it has seen so much of London’s history. However, I will end with my two favourite stories that I came across whilst researching about its history. The first one is about a bust of Edward Cooke, a seventeenth century philosopher. It was once known to weep during wet weather. It was noted that physical tears would stream down his face. A plaque was placed underneath the bust to tell of this fantastic tale.[9] In reality, this was just condensation that stuck to the bust and it hasn’t wept since the invention of central heating.[10]

Surviving doorway and later Tudor gate of St Bartholomew the Great Priory (2014), Edwardx, Wikimedia Commons

Finally back to the gate that was mentioned earlier. Remnants of the lower section date back to the thirteenth century, but the top part dates back to 1595, when this was converted into a house.[11] How has it managed to survive so well when much of the original priory has been destroyed or altered? At some point, it had been covered up by brickwork, meaning its older façade had been forgotten. That was until World War One, when a bomb landing nearby blew off the brick and revealed the older (and I think much prettier) façade.[12] Luckily the site had also escaped the Great Fire of London and the Blitz of World War Two. Thank goodness it has because it would have been a shame to entirely lose all the fascinating history of the church and its original priory.


[1] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’, 21 September 2020, https://lookup.london/st-bartholomew-the-great-history/;

[2] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 39-40

[3] Lost London Churches Project, ‘St Bartholomew the Great’, https://lostlcp.com/st-bartholomew-the-great-2/

[4] Walter Thornbury, ‘The churches of Bartholomew-the-Great and Bartholomew-the-Less’, in Old and New London: Volume 2 (London, 1878), pp. 351-359. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp351-359

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’

[8] Ibid, Lost London Churches Project, ‘St Bartholomew the Great’

[9] Baldwin Haney, ‘The Weeping Monument of Edward Cooke’, London Details, 14 November 2012, https://baldwinhamey.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/edward-cooke/

[10] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

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