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St Bartholomew the Great: still secret in Smithfield

20 January 2023

The City of London’s oldest parish church marks its 900th anniversary this year, writes Charlotte Gauthier in a new book


The west end of the church, with its porch on the south side

The west end of the church, with its porch on the south side

“THIS spiritual house Almighty God shall inhabit, and hallow it, and glorify it: and His eyes shall be open and His ears intending upon this house night and day, that the asker in it shall receive, the seeker shall find, and the ringer or knocker shall enter. Truly, every soul converted [and] penitent of his sin, and in this place praying, shall be graciously heard in heaven.”

Those who have greeted visitors to the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great — the church that Rahere built in fulfilment of his vow to St Bartholomew, and about which the Apostle spoke the words quoted above — will countless times have heard some variation of the sentiment “I don’t really believe in God, but there’s something about this place. . .”

© London Metropolitan Archives, City of LondonPainting of St Bartholomew’s Priory by John Crowther, 1880

There is something about it, though whether what the visitor experiences the moment they enter is the presence of God or the comforting weight of history or the palpable expression of what the Creed means by “the communion of saints” must be left to their own understanding.

Certainly, many of our forebears would have traced the workings of God’s providence in the 900 years of the priory church’s history. We live in an age that is (perhaps justly) wary of metanarratives — of overarching interpretations of history that seem to mould all events together into a cohesive story, as though they had been consciously shaped for a particular end.

Historians more than anyone should be cautious about the human tendency to shape facts to fit our individual desires. Yet in some sense our forebears had the advantage of us: they did not share our modern embarrassment about ascribing to providence (rather than to a stream of implausibly fortuitous happenstance) the events and people that have made it possible for St Bartholomew the Great to serve God and the people of the City of London continuously for the past 900 years.


ANOTHER continual refrain of visitors who stumble upon St Bartholomew the Great is “I never knew this church existed.” It is a phrase as likely to be uttered by someone who has lived in the neighbourhood 30 years as by the tourist who arrived in London yesterday.

Screened from Smithfield by an ancient gate and a sunken narrow path, and from Cloth Fair by a pleasant churchyard that looks like nothing so much as a garden belonging to the surrounding residences, the church is easy to miss. It was as easy — or perhaps easier — to miss in 1839, when the architect and antiquarian George Godwin called it “a most interesting relic of olden time, — which, although situated in the midst of the City of London, and open to the inspection of all its inhabitants, is comparatively little known and less sought for, even by those who are curious in such matters”.

St Bartholomew’s Priory resisted the efforts of its late-medieval inhabitants to turn it into a place of mass pilgrimage. It unobtrusively decayed behind rows of smothering buildings — bits of it being alienated at need for secular uses — for several centuries after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

As a Victorian parish church, it remained largely hidden in what was then a slum, even as the great and good descended upon it to open various parts as they were restored by the Webb family of architects during the decades of their involvement. It remains largely hidden today despite its appearance in numerous feature films and its frequent use as a concert venue.

Wellcome CollectionAquatint of St Bartholomew the Great, interior view, showing the organ gallery, c.1740

As with all hidden gems, however, if you know, you know. When a new visitor can be enticed down the path or through the churchyard, it is a source of unending delight to watch them as they experience the church for the first time — and turn, many of them, in an instant from tourists into pilgrims. Once they visit, they tend to return.

In what might seem an irony to anyone who has not read scripture, we know Rahere’s name precisely (and only) because he gave up worldly wealth and fame in order to follow God. That act of devotion — of oblation — has won him 900 years of just praise, as those served by the church and hospital he founded have lifted his name to God in thanksgiving.

Centuries of quiet lives have been given in devotion to St Bartholomew’s, from that of its first canon and first prior, and those canons and priors who followed him, to the rectors during the Webb restoration who spent both their personal wealth and their own heart’s blood to minister to the people and bring the church back from ruin, to the curate (himself later rector) who spent nights kicking incendiary bombs from its roof during the Blitz at the risk of his own life.

Centuries of laypeople, known and (mostly) unknown — from the possibly apocryphal children who helped Rahere gather stones for the foundation, to Charlotte Hart, for more than 30 years parish sextoness, who on her death in 1889 left the church her unsuspected wealth; to the Webb family, to whom we owe both the church as it presently stands and much of our understanding of its history; to the pioneering Mrs Burne, the only female rector’s warden in the City of London in 1937; to those who sit and worship in their accustomed seats or serve in their accustomed places each Sunday in the present day — have given their time and money and prayers for its preservation. The church is built upon them as much as upon its piers of stone.


FROM its beginning, the priory church has gone through cycles of wealth and expansion, followed by reverse and decay. Prior Rahere’s great beginning in 1123 was punctuated by long stoppages of work as funds ran out; the priory was still incomplete at its founder’s death. The impecunious canons of the later Middle Ages nearly beggared themselves by improving the church and extending hospitality in accordance with the rule of their Order.

The orgy of wanton destruction we euphemistically call the Dissolution of the Monasteries was followed by centuries of neglect, which brought the church to the point of ruin. The vision, generosity, and painfully slow and difficult labour of several generations then effected its glorious renewal, the fruits of which we enjoy today.


This is an edited extract from 900 Years of St Bartholomew the Great: The history, art and architecture of London’s oldest parish church, edited by Charlotte Gauthier, published by Paul Holberton at £45 (Church Times Bookshop £40.50); 978-1-91540-103-8.

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