Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, London, England

Posted on June 27, 2012 by


Today’s entertaining blog on one of London’s oldest churches comes from Iago.

St Bartholomew-the-Great is probably the second oldest church in London (remnants of All Hallows-by-the-Tower are much older) and is hidden away down alleys and tiny roads in West Smithfield.

It reeks of history and character. There is no happy-clappy nonsense here (apologies if you are into that, but this place ain’t for you) – this is full-on ‘high church’ solemnity and ritual.

It was built in 1123 by a rich church dude who was grateful that he recovered from a fever. For nearly 900 years since, the sick have been coming to pray for a cure. For the past couple of decades, the sick have probably been outnumbered by a few tourists who want to soak up some serious atmosphere. When you step inside you can barely see a thing as it is so dark (hence the rather grainy images as I did not want to spoil the mood with flash and didn’t have my tripod with me for long exposure – yes, I know the story about the bad workman and his tools).

Film directors making period dramas seem to like the atmosphere too and soShakespeare in Love, Sherlock Holmes, The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; and, Four Weddings and a Funeral all had scenes shot here.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the church is haunted. Apparently the ghost of a monk walks around persistently looking for a sandal that was stolen from his tomb. It may seem a little bonkers for someone to steal a single sandal from a tomb, but I have read stories about relic hunters stealing bones from tombs of saints and even of holymen being torn to pieces as soon as they snuffed it so that people could say they have the finger of St Trevor or whoever. I am putting a call out that if anyone finds a pretty ropey old sandal down the back of their sofa, I think you should hand it back in at the church so that poor monk can get some rest.

Just imagine being preached to about eternal damnation whilst having carvings like this (above) all over the place – that should make the kiddies say their prayers before bed!To continue the haunting theme, apparently you can still smell the burning flesh sometimes in the church thanks to the rather unpleasant hobby of Bloody Mary (Mary I) who used to burn protestants (over 280 of them in her short reign) some of whom met their fate just outside the church. The memorial plaque below is difficult to photograph as it is behind bars – hence the funny angle (I know, I’m blaming my tools again), but it reads:

“Within a few feet of this spot, John Rogers, John Bradford, John Philpot, and other servants of God suffered death by fire, for the faith of Christ, in the years 1555, 1556, 1557.”

The Tudors couldn’t quite seem to make their mind up about religion: Henry VIII burned down part of this church (and hundreds of others) when he turned his back on the Pope for daring to refuse to grant him a divorce from Catherine (who just happened to be from a pretty powerful Spanish family); his sickly son Edward was then a good Protestant like his daddy; Henry’s daughter Mary, however, obviously didn’t get the memo and reversed the country back into Catholicism; then when a stomach tumour did Mary in, her sister, Elizabeth, (who never much liked Mary) decided to switch back again to Daddy’s Anglicanism (executing a few Catholics for good measure as well).

(Further digression: William Wallace – better known as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – died pretty horrifically with all sorts of bits of him chopped off and pulled out, right by the church as well when it was a mere two hundred years old. He had a tendency to make mischief whenever the English army tried to keep our noisy neighbours in the North under control. There are still little Scottish flags and thistles tied to his memorial plaque – sorry about lack of photo – not sure what I was thinking, maybe a bird flew past and distracted me).

I have pasted two photos together above of the memorial plaque of Edward Cooke (who, according to the Latin inscription was a philosopher and a doctor, but I’ve never heard of him). What’s interesting is that the statue used to weep until the church had central heating installed which dried out the stone or annoyed Him upstairs enough to switch off the miracle (you can decide which according to your chosen belief or lack of). The inscription which I have translated slightly from rather old English says:

“Unsluce your briny floods [cry!], what can ye keep your eyes from tears, and see the marble weep, burst out for shame [you should be ashamed if you can look at this statue without crying]: or if ye find no vent for tears, yet stay, and see the stones relent [if you don’t cry then at least watch these stones do it for you].” If the whole statue used to drip with water I don’t get why they thought he was crying and not sweating, but hey, what do I know!

Despite walking on Mr Jonathan’s grave above (that’s what you get if you are buried under the floor of a church mate!) I was super impressed with his job title: note he wasn’t a hairdresser or a wig maker, but a hair merchant!

This font is really old (I did read how old but have now forgotten) and the painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (famous for lots of saucy pictures in the 18th Century) had his head wet in it. Another famous connection for the church was that US Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, used to work in a printing room in the church.

The images above are of some funky little statues of the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I don’t really do religion, but I am a big fan of parts of the Bible which includes some impressive literary prowess (as you probably know the Gospel writers wrote in classical Greek) and Luke is widely considered to be one of the finest writers of his age. John was also an excellent historian. Here is a section (I have added the highlight) of St John’s Gospel that was on the page left open in a bible in the church:

Ok. I have worn myself out again with all the history – I just can’t help myself! So, let’s just look at a few more photos and enjoy in silence…