Essential Architecture-  London

Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great




West Smithfield in the City of London




the most significant Norman (Romanesque) interior in London




  Click thumbs for larger images
  Interior, the east end: Rahere's tomb to the left, Lady Chapel behind the altar

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great is an Anglican church located at West Smithfield in the City of London, founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123.


The church possesses the most significant Norman interior in London, which once formed the chancel of a much larger monastic church. It was established in 1123 by one Rahere, a prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral and later an Augustinian canon, who is said to have erected the church in gratitude after recovering from a fever. Rahere's supposedly miraculous recovery contributed to the church becoming known for its curative powers, with sick people filling its aisles each 24 August, St Bartholomew's Day.

The church was originally part of a priory adjoining St Bartholomew's Hospital, but while the hospital survived the Dissolution about half of the priory church was demolished in 1543. The nave of the church was pulled down (up to the last bay) but the crossing and choir survive largely intact from the Norman and later periods and continued in use as the parish church. The entrance to the church from Smithfield now goes into the churchyard through a tiny surviving fragment of the west front, which is now surmounted by a half-timbered Tudor building. From there to the church door, a path leads along roughly where the south aisle of the nave was. Parts of the cloister also survive and may be seen from this path, but are not open to the public. Very little trace survives of the rest of the monastic buildings.

The church escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but fell into disrepair, becoming occupied by squatters in the 18th century. It was restored and rebuilt by Aston Webb in the late 19th century. During Canon Edwin Sidney Savage's tenure as Rector the church was further restored at the cost of more than £60,000. The Lady Chapel at the east end had been previously used for commercial purposes and it was there that Benjamin Franklin served a year as journeyman printer. The north transept had formally been used as blacksmith's forge. The church was one of relatively few City churches to escape damage during the Second World War. Having been much used, abused and restored over the years the building now presents an interesting and impressive collection of architectures.

The church's name (sometimes shortened to "Great St Barts") is owed to the fact that it is one of two, nearly neighbouring, churches both linked with the hospital and priory and both dedicated to St Bartholomew. The other, inside the hospital precinct, is considerably smaller (hence its naming as St Bartholomew-the-Less), less architecturally distinguished, and of less obvious historical importance.

William Hogarth was baptised in St Bartholomew's Church in 1697.

Since November 2007, St Bartholomew-the-Great is it the first parish church in Britain to charge an entrance fee for tourists.

Other connections
Great St Barts church was the location of the fourth wedding in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and of some scenes in Shakespeare in Love.

The church also housed the chapel of the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor until 2005.

St Bartholomew-the-Great is the adopted church of the Worshipful Company of Butchers and is the setting for that Livery Company's annual Church Service.

^ "The City of London Churches" Betjeman,J Andover, Pikin, 1967 ISBN 0853721122
^ "London:the City Churches" Pevsner,N/Bradley,S : New Haven, Yale, 1998 ISBN 0300096550
^ Samuel Pepys-The Shorter Pepys Latham,R(Ed) p484: Harmondsworth,1985 ISBN 0140094180
^ Patrick Sawer (November 18, 2007). "'Four Weddings' church to charge". Telegraph. Retrieved on 2007-11-20.​
Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London

St Bartholomew the Great is located adjacent to Smithfield Market, St Bartholomew's Hospital, and the Church of St Bartholomew the Less. London's oldest parish church and its most complete Norman, or Romanesque, church, St Bartholomew the Great is a real treasure. Except for the chapel in the Tower of London, it is the city's oldest place of worship.

The priory and hospital were founded in 1123 by Rahere, a courtier of Henry I, in gratitude for being healed of fever while on pilgrimage to Rome. The priory was established as an Augustinian community with Rahere as the first prior. Following his death in 1144, he was buried in the church; his tomb was re-built with an effigy in the north side of the sanctuary in 1405.

Although never wealthy, the priory was at one time the largest in London and its church was larger than many cathedrals. When the priory was dissolved in 1539 by Henry VIII, its outer buildings were destroyed. The nave was also demolished up to the transept, leaving only the choir and sanctuary to serve as a parish church. The congregation to this day worships sitting collegiate-style in the choir stalls.

Other parts of the church were turned to other uses. The Lady Chapel was used for private housing, then as a print shop (where Benjamin Franklin worked in 1725), and finally as a fringe factory; it was re-built in 1894. The North Transept of the church, also restored in the 1890s, had been turned into a blacksmith's forge.

The photo at right shows the Tudor gatehouse built over the church's Norman archway. Dating from 1595, it is one of the earliest surviving Elizabethan timber-frame house fronts in London. The 13th-century stone archway below formerly served as an entrance to the nave. The old churchyard would have extended well out into Smithfield.

Since the Reformation, however, one enters the churchyard, shown at left, after passing beneath the gatehouse. (That's me on the bench, enjoying the fine day.) The present west front was added after the demolition of the nave and is now the entrance into the church from Smithfield. The path to the door lies in the approximate position of the former south aisle.

The bricks on the west front show a variety of styles and colours due to restorations and additions over the centuries. The bricks on the left are 12th-century; most of the rest date from the extensive late 19th-century restoration.

This is the view one sees upon entering from the west. Often called an "atmospheric" church, it has none of the clean lines or airy lightness of Wren's architectural creations (e.g., St Stephen Walbrook). There are huge Romanesque columns with fine Norman detailing, a triforium gallery above and a clerestory on top. Although the interior tends to be dark, it has dignity and simple beauty, especially when sunlight shines through the upper windows, as in this photo.

The layout is at first disorienting because the entrance leads directly into the south transept with the arches of the crossing on the left. The floor plan focuses on the high altar. The six silver candlesticks and silver cross were made in 1934. The tomb of the priory's founder Rahere is placed in the sanctuary wall to the left (north) of the altar. On the right of the altar almost opposite Rahere's tomb on the second level an oriel window, known as Prior Bolton's Window, can be seen overlooking the choir. Prior William Bolton (1505-32), whose lodgings were in this part of the church, had the window installed to enable him to view the Mass at the high altar and the monks in their stalls.

The photo at left shows the chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, found at the east end of the sanctuary. This is the third Lady Chapel on the site: the first was built in the 12th century, the second in the 14th, and this one was dedicated in 1897. In 1894, the area was largely demolished, leaving only the medieval buttresses, before the present chapel was built. The painting of the Madonna and Child was done in 1998 by the Spanish artist Alfredo Roldan.

There are many monuments throughout the church. This photo shows the largest one, located in the south aisle: the Elizabethan tomb of Sir Walter and Lady Mildmay. The Latin inscription reads, "Death is gain to us. Here lies Walter Mildmay, knight, and Mary his wife. He died on the last day of May 1589; she on the 16th day of March 1576. They left two sons and three daughters. He founded Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He died Chancellor and sub-treasurer of the Exchequer, and a member of Her Majesty's Privy Council." Emmanuel College was created to train clergy for the newly reformed Church of England. It became a centre of Puritan scholarship and evangelical piety. It was said that Queen Elizabeth did not greatly favour Sir Walter because of his suspected Puritan sympathies. (But that did not stop him from rising to become her Chancellor of the Exchequer.)

Soon after the priory first opened, a cloth fair spontaneously sprang up in the churchyard. Held annually on St Bartholomew's Day, the fair was very important to merchants, but along with it developed a myriad of crowd-pleasing entertainments–stalls, plays, freak shows, music, and revelry. It became known as Bartholomew Fair, a very popular public holiday until it was closed down in 1855.

The street running along the north side of the church is Cloth Fair, named after the event held in the churchyard. The door shown here, facing Cloth Fair, is the church's other main entrance. There are indications that Protestant martyrs burned at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary were executed here, facing the church door.

One of the buildings in Cloth Fair is believed to London's oldest residential home.

The church has been used as a location for several films, most famously, the final church in Four Weddings and a Funeral.