London – St. Bartholomew The Great

Opposite St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is Smithfield, new and blatant, and smelling hideously of raw meat. Take courage and go on northwards, for in a few minutes you will come to the most wonderful old church in Londonolder than any other except the chapel in the White Tower. There is something about the almost primitive simplicity of its massive stone pillars that carries one back more directly to the times of the Norman conquerors than a thousand long descriptions gathered from history books.

What you see is only the choir and transept of a much larger church built for the Priory of St. Bartholomew by the founder Rahere in or about the year 1102. His tomb is on the left as you enter, and high up on the right is the lovely oriel window where Prior Bolton, who died in 1532, could sit or kneel at his ease, without even the trouble of coming downstairs from his house, and look down into the church he did so much to rebuild and restore.

St. Bartholomew’s has had a turbulent history. There is the dramatic story of Archbishop Boniface of Lambeth Palace, a Savoyard who took it into his crafty head that he would like to annex the offertory of St. Bartholomew’s. On a certain Sunday morning he set out from Lambeth, with a train of attendants with mail armour under their robes. The description of what happened is delicious in Matthew Paris’s words, as quoted by Stowe :

Amongst other memorable matters, touching this priorie, one is of an Archbishop’s Visitation, which Matthew Paris hath thus. Boniface (sayeth he) Archbishoppe of Canterbury, in his Visitation came to this priorie, where being received with procession in the most solemne wise, hee said that hee passed not upon the honor, but came to visite them, to whom the Canons aunswered that they having a learned Bishop, ought not in contempt of him to be visited by any other; which aunswere so much offended the Archbishop that he forthwithe fell on the Supprior, and smote him on the face, saying, indeede, indeede, dooth it become you English Traytors so to aunswere mee, thus raging with oaths not to bee recited, bee rent in peeces the rich Cope of the Supprior, and trode it under his feete, and thrust him against a pillar of the Chauncell with such violence, that bee had almost killed him: but the Canons seeing their supprior thus almost slayne, came and plucked off the Archbishoppe with such force that they overthrewe him backwardes, whereby they might see that he was armed and prepared to fight, the Archbishoppe’s men seeing theyr master downe, being all strangers and their master’s countrimen born at Prowence, fell upon the canons, beat them, tare them, and trod them under feete, at length the Canons getting away as well as they could, ran bloody and myry, rent and torne, to the Bishoppe of London to complaine, who had them goe to the king at Westminster, and tell him thereof, whereupon some of them went thether, the rest were not able, they were so sore hurt, but when they came to Westminster, the king would neither heare nor see them, so they returned without redresse, in the mean season the whole Citie was in an uprore, and ready to have rung the Common bell, and to have hewed the Archbishoppe into small pieces, who was secretly crept to Lambhith, where they sought him, and not knowing him by sight, sayd to themselves, where is this Ruffian, that cruell smiter, hee is no winner of soules, but an exactor of money, whome neyther God, nor any lawfull or free election, did bring to this promotion, but the king did unlawfully intrude him, being utterly unlearned, a stranger borne, and having a wife etc: but the Archbishop conveyed himselfe over, and went to the king with a great complaint against the Canons, whereas himself was guilty.

But in spite of Henry III’s refusal to see the outraged sub-prior and his loyal canons they had their revenge in time.

The final result of that little Sunday morning jaunt of Archbishop Boniface was that he was obliged to build the chapel of Lambeth Palace about the year 1247 as a penance for having tried to encroach on the right of the holy Prior of St. Bartholomew’s.

The quaint gateway by which one enters the scene of the exploits of these energetic churchmen adds a special charm to the place. The timbers of the old Elizabethan house above it were only discovered in 1915, when some of the tiles that long concealed them were loosened.