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900 Years of St Bartholomew the Great, edited by Charlotte Gauthier

21 April 2023

William Whyte enjoys a history of Smithfield’s famous parish church

A LITTE more than 900 years ago, an unlikely figure experienced an epiphany. Though “born of low lineage”, Rahere rose through society. Through “flattering and jokes”, he became the King’s jester. Then, surprisingly moving from minstrelsy to ministry, he was appointed a canon of St Paul’s. Returning from pilgrimage to Rome, he had a vision of St Bartholomew. The apostle instructed him to build a church in Smithfield, in London.

It was an unpromising site, said to “abound with filth and muddy water” and to smell “like a marsh”. Yet, undaunted and undeniably inspired by his encounter with the saint, Rahere established a double foundation: both a hospital and a priory. Work began in 1123 and was fully completed in 1133.

Just over 400 years after that, on 26 October 1539, St Bartholomew’s was surrendered to the Crown. The hospital was reconstituted by Henry VIII and the priory was dissolved. Despite Mary I’s attempts to resurrect monasticism between 1555 and 1559, Rahere’s church was sold to the unspeakable Richard Rich.

A man with “a reputation for amorality and treachery with few parallels in English history”, as one biographer puts it, Rich was another sort of nouveau riche. He grew wealthy on the proceeds of monastic dissolution and carved up the convent in Smithfield for himself. His ghastly family would remain patrons of the parish until the early 19th century. They “squeezed all the money they could from the property” without ever once contributing positively to the place.

From Rahere to Rich, the story of St Bartholomew the Great is a fascinating one; and the aftermath of the Reformation does not lack interest. Not least, there was succession of eccentric Rectors with fabulous names, whether Sir Borradaile Savory, Dr Newell Wallbank, or John Abbiss: “an autocratic gentleman of the old style, who never gave his parishioners more than two fingers to shake”. Still more, the church was subject to almost wholescale reconstruction in the 19th century, as the architect Aston Webb was employed to recreate the Romanesque form that Rahere would have known and that is now, perhaps, most famous as the location of the fourth wedding in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Marking its 900th anniversary, this new history of St Bartholomew’s (Feature, 20 January) brings together around a dozen expert authors, who write consistently well about that most intriguing of London churches. Beautifully illustrated and consistently interesting, it helps to set a new standard for such volumes.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


900 Years of St Bartholomew the Great: The history, art and architecture of London’s oldest parish church
Charlotte Gauthier, editor
Paul Holberton £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

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