Faith, Care & Valour

4th November 2011

The Knights Hospitallers were famed as one of the great military and medical orders during the Crusades. A museum at a little known Tudor gatehouse in Clerkenwell tells their fascinating story, says Jack Watkins…

What’s in a name? When it comes to London streets, the answer is dozens of long lost forgotten historical associations. At Farringdon, for example, you exit the Underground into the hubbub of workers funnelling in all directions along the narrow street. This is nothing, though, to the pungent smells and the noise which would have greeted you had you visited the district centuries ago. The sign to the left reads ‘Cowcross Street’, a clue that this was the road along which the drovers from Middlesex and Hertfordshire urged their cattle on to Smithfield, just around the corner, crossing the Fleet River (today tunnelled below the ground and functioning as a sewer) at this point.

A little further on is St John’s Lane, which once wound up, doubtless between hedgerows and fields where there are now tall buildings, towards the walls of one of the great priories of England: the headquarters of the Order of St John, better known for their deeds overseas as the Knights Hospitallers, and for their modern descendents, the St John Ambulance service.

All that’s left above ground of this vast estate which sprawled over ten acres across and beyond the modern Clerkwenwell Road is St John’s Gatehouse. Dating to 1504, the gatehouse and its two towers straddle the street, and locals pass under the arch each day as they go about their business – but few, perhaps, are aware of the story its old Kentish ragstone walls contain, and of the illustrious deeds of the religious men responsible for its existence.

Just lately, however, considerable effort and expense has gone into raising its profile. There has actually been a museum open to the public here for some time, and last November a new ‘link’ gallery was opened, part of a £3.6m scheme to upgrade visitor facilities and the presentation of the exhibits. As Tom Foakes, deputy curator, explains: “The Gatehouse is a landmark, but its importance is not necessarily understood. This is what we have been trying to address, and to become more outward focused.”

A year on, it seems to be working. On the day of my visit, throngs of animated primary school children were enjoying a tour with ‘Brother Hugh’, one of several costumed tour guides whom you can pre-book to escort you round (others include a WWI Nurse and Dr Johnson). On the recent Open House weekend over one thousand visitors passed through the doors. What might once have been a somewhat disparate collection of artifacts has now been woven together to form a continuous narrative from the Order’s earliest days up to the present. Some of the most illustrious contemporary names to have been inducted into the order include Nelson Mandela, the Duke of Gloucester and the actor Christopher Lee.

The Order of St John was founded in the late 11th century, its origins lying in a hospital which cared for pilgrims in the Holy City of Jerusalem, at time of rising tensions between Christians and Muslims. The first master of the order was Brother Gerard, whose commitment to aiding the ‘holy poor’ foreshadowed that of the Franciscans. No distinction was made between religions, and the Hospitallers took vows of chastity, but before long they had joined the Knights Templars in forming their own military order, the Knights Hospitallers.

They would go on to play a major part in the defence of the Holy Land, building castles such as the mighty Krak des Chevaliers at immense cost, while continuing to provide a high level of nursing care for the poor. Further hospitals were founded in Acre, Rhodes and Malta, again continuing the policy of treating all the sick and wounded, regardless of denomination.

Meanwhile, in England, the order’s main headquarters were established at Clerkenwell in 1140. This included a substantial priory church modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All that remains of the original church building today is the crypt beneath the current Grand Priory Church, just north of Clerkenwell Road and the Gatehouse, although the outline of the old building is marked out in the paving stones in the square. Entry to the crypt is free, and is also included in a guided tour. It is one of the few extant examples of Norman architecture in London, with its stone ribbed vaults, and there is a ghoulish effigy of the emaciated corpse – ribs protruding, cheeks hollow – of one the past grand priors.

Because St John’s was the base of Lord Treasurer ‘Bob the Robber’ Hales, collector of the despised poll tax, the priory was sacked by Wat Tyler’s men during their Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Rebuilding was carried out, but then further despoliation took place after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The gatehouse, at that time a comparatively new structure, was spared, though, and went on to perform a variety of functions over subsequent years. It was later the office of Elizabeth I’s Master of the Revels, so Shakespeare had to come here to obtain a license for his plays.

Then William Hogarth spent part of his childhood here when his father opened a coffee shop in the building. The business folded, thanks partly to Hogarth Snr’s quirky notion that all patrons must speak Latin, and it then became the home of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Dr Johnson was a contributor, and was given a room here into which he locked himself so that no-one could disturb him or lure him away from his writing. It became a pub – The Old Jerusalem Tavern – before finally being taken back into the hands of its original owner in 1878.

By this time, the Order had effectively redefined itself as a provider of emergency medical care, but at Clerkenwell they sought to re-emphasise the links to their colourful medieval past, employing big name architects such as Norman Shaw and John Oldrid Scott (son of Giles Gilbert) to bring to the chambers an air of the Gothic.

To see these rooms today you must book a guided tour (twice daily on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) which also includes the strikingly high ceilinged chapter hall, reminiscent with its wood panelling of some ancient country manor house. It holds such treasures as an ebony-veneered cabinet of curiosities, given as a gift by the King of Portugal to the Grand Master of the Order in the seventeenth century. You can admire, too, the dauntingly winding staircase which still has some of the original oak treads, one the oldest of its type in the country.

The museum itself has more exhibits, mingling art, medicine and militaria, such as the beautiful panels of the Weston Triptych by Roger van der Weyden (1470-1480), the armour of Christian and Turkish warriors, and iron shots fired by the Ottoman forces during the siege of Rhodes in 1522. A smaller gallery is devoted to the St John Ambulance Service. In England alone, there are 60,000+ volunteers, over half of whom are under the age of eighteen, and 200,000+ members worldwide. To think that it all started with the efforts of a humble monk and his followers in Jerusalem all those centuries ago…

More details: • Admission is free

Find Your Local