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,;

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

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

[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

[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,

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

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

Isabel and Hamelin de Warenne: a 12th century power couple, Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In this latest guest post, I am very excited to welcome author and medieval historian, Sharon Bennett Connolly. You can view her own history blog by clicking the following link

Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and his wife Ela de Talvas. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey in her own right and one of the greatest heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex.

Isabel was born during a period of civil war in England, a time known as The Anarchy (c.1135-54), when King Stephen fought against Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, for the right to rule England. Isabel’s father, William, was a staunch supporter of the king and had fought at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, though without distinction; his men were routed early on in the battle and William was among a number of earls who fled the field. He later redeemed himself that summer by capturing Empress Matilda’s brother and senior general, Robert Earl of Gloucester, at Winchester.

the Warenne coat of arms at Trinity Church Southover, author’s own image

The earl appears to have tired of the civil war in 1147 and departed on Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and their cousin, King Louis VII of France. In the same year, in order to guarantee the Warenne lands for King Stephen’s cause, Earl Warenne’s only daughter, Isabel, was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who would become Earl by right of his wife, following the 3rd earl’s death on Crusade in 1148; he was killed fighting in the doomed rearguard at the Battle of Mount Cadmus near Laodicea in January 1148.

The young couple were of a similar age, being about 10 or 11 years old. During the 3rd earl’s absence, and while the new earl and countess were still only children, the vast Warenne lands were administered by the 3rd earl’s youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron Wormegay, who was a renowned and accomplished administrator and estate manager. A charter issued in c.1148, in the name of William of Blois as earl of Surrey, had the proviso ‘that if God should bring back the earl [from the crusade] he [Reginald] would do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation, or otherwise that of his lord earl William, the king’s son.’1 We do not know when news reached England of the earl’s death, the tidings may have arrived before the return of the earl’s half-brother, Waleran, later in the year. However, the future of the earldom was already secure with the succession of Isabel and her young husband, carefully watched over by Isabel’s uncle, Reginald.

In 1154 the young couple’s future prospects could have changed drastically when William’s elder brother Eustace, their father’s heir, died. As a consequence, William inherited his mother’s County of Boulogne from his brother, adding to his already substantial domains. He may also have expected to inherit his brother’s position as heir to the throne However, the young man was removed from the succession by his own father, in the interests of peace. Stephen made a deal with Empress Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death, thus restoring the rightful line of succession.

William seems to have been reluctant to accept this as there is some suggestion of his involvement in a plot against Henry later in 1154, during which William suffered a broken leg. In the event of Henry’s accession, though, William served Henry loyally, until his death, returning from the king’s campaign in Toulouse, in 1159.

Now in her mid-20s, and as their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity; the archbishop’s objection was not that Isabel and William were too closely related, but that William and Isabel’s first husband had been cousins. William died shortly after the archbishop refused to sanction the marriage – it is said, of a broken heart.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, author’s own image

King Henry was not to be thwarted so easily in his plans to bring the Warenne lands into the royal family, proposing his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin. The natural son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Hamelin was born sometime around 1130, when Geoffrey was estranged from his wife, Empress Matilda. His mother was, possibly, Adelaide of Angers, though this is by no means certain. Geoffrey had a second illegitimate child, Emma, who may have been Hamelin’s full sister. Emma married the Welsh prince, Davydd ap Owain of Gwynedd.

Hamelin and Isabel married in April 1164; Isabel’s trousseau cost an impressive £41 10s 8d. In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and Surrey in her right, though was more habitually called Earl Warenne. Hamelin was incredibly loyal to Henry and his marriage to an heiress was reward for his support, whilst at the same time giving him position and influence within England.

Hamelin supported his brother the king in the contest of wills that Henry was engaged in with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. When Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him, Hamelin was at the trial and spoke in support of his brother. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. The archbishop’s retort was ‘Were I a knight instead of a priest, my fist would prove you a liar!’ Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow Henry’s brother, William – Hamelin’s half-brother – to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife.

Hamelin’s animosity to Becket was not to survive the archbishop’s martyrdom and he actively participated in the cult that grew up around Thomas Becket after his violent death. In later life, the earl claimed that the cloth covering Becket’s tomb had cured his blindness, caused by a cataract, in one eye.

Hamelin was an influential and active member of the English barony. He supported Henry during his sons’ rebellion in 1173 and formed part of the entourage which escorted the king’s daughter, Joanna, to Sicily for her marriage to King William. Hamelin remained close to the crown even after Henry’s death, supporting his nephew, Richard I. Hamelin was among the earls present at Richard’s first coronation in September 1189; and carried one of the three swords at his second coronation in April 1194. During Richard’s absence on Crusade, Hamelin sided with the Regent, William Longchamp, against the intrigues of Richard’s brother John. Hamelin held great store in the rule of law, attested by the legend on his seal, ‘pro lege, per lege’ (for the law, by the law). This adherence to the law explains Hamelin’s support for Longchamp against that of his own nephew, John, and even as the justiciar’s overzealous actions alienated others. Later, Hamelin was one of only two magnates entrusted by Eleanor of Aquitaine with the collection and storage of the king’s ransom, after he was captured by Duke Leopold of  Austria; the other was William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. Hamelin’s involvement with the court continued into the reign of King John; he was present at John’s coronation and at Lincoln when William, King of Scots, gave his oath of homage in November 1200.

Conisbrough Castle, author’s own image

Away from court, Hamelin appears to have been an avid builder; he built a cylindrical keep at his manor of Mortemer in Normandy. He then constructed a larger and improved version, using all the latest techniques of castle design, at his manor of Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He may also have been the one to build Peel Castle at Thorne, a hunting lodge which had a 3-sided donjon that was of smaller, but similar, design to Conisbrough. Hamelin spent a lot of time and money on Conisbrough Castle, which took almost 10 years to complete, and it appears to have been a favourite family residence. King John visited there in 1201, and two of Hamelin’s daughters married landowners from the nearby manors of Tickhill and Sprotborough.

Hamelin was also involved in a famous dispute with Hugh, abbot of Cluny, over the appointment of a new prior to St Pancras Priory, Lewes. Abbot Hugh was known as a man of great piety and honour; he had been prior of Lewes but became abbot of Cluny in 1199. In 1200, Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander to the vacant position of prior of Lewes, but Hamelin refused to accept the nomination. In establishing the priory at Lewes, the abbots of Cluny had apparently reserved the right to appoint the prior, and to admit all monks seeking entry into the order; however, Hamelin claimed that the patronage of the priory belonged to him, and it was his right to appoint the prior.

The dispute dragged on, and it was only after intervention from King John that agreement was eventually reached whereby, should the position of prior become vacant, the earl and the monks should send representatives to the abbot, who would nominate two candidates, of whom the earl’s proctors should choose one to be appointed prior.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes, author’s own image

The marriage of Hamelin and Isabel appears to have been highly successful. They had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Matilda Marshal, eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, regent for King Henry III. Ela married twice, firstly to a Robert de Newburn, of whom nothing else is known, and secondly to William Fitzwilliam of Sprotborough, a village just a few miles from Conisbrough. Isabel was married, firstly, to Robert de Lascy, who died in 1193, and secondly, no later than the spring of 1196, to Gilbert de Laigle, Lord of Pevensey.

Matilda married Henry, Count of Eu, who died around 1190; by Henry, she was the mother of Alice de Lusignan, who struggled to maintain her inheritance during the reign of King John, when another lord asserted his hereditary rights to her castle at Tickhill. Matilda then married Henry d’Estouteville, a Norman lord. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, Baron Chilham, who was born, possibly, around 1190, by her cousin, John (the future King John). This must have caused considerable family tensions!

Hamelin died on 7th May 1202, in his early 70s and was buried in the chapter house at the family mausoleum of Lewes Priory, in Sussex. Isabel died in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin. In 1202, Countess Isabel had granted ‘for the soul of her husband earl Hamelin, to the priory of St Katherine, Lincoln, of similar easements for 60 beasts, namely for 40 as of his gift and 20 as of hers.’2 Together, Hamelin and Isabel had played important roles in English politics for almost 40 years, all while raising a family and managing their vast estates which stretched from Yorkshire in the north to the south coast, and into Normandy.

Footnotes: Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenneibid

Author bio:

Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, her latest being Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon also writes the popular history blog, and is a feature writer for All About History magazine. Her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘.




Twitter: @Thehistorybits