St John’s Ambulance we’ve all heard of them. Their eight pointed cross IS very familiar. Included in my ‘Welcome to motherhood’ pack was a leaflet offering training in infant resuscitation from the St John Ambulance. But did you know that it is an ancient order? Or that you can visit its twelfth century headquarters in London? Welcome to the Museum of the Order of St John in London.
MUSEUM OF THE ORDER OF ST JOHN
First things first, a visit to the Museum of the Order of St John comes in two parts; the gatehouse and chapel. It is possible to walk in off the street and visit the gatehouse and the museum for free seven days a week. However you can only visit the chapel on a guided tour, these run twice a day on three days a week. So if you want to see the chapel, and I recommend that you do, you need to plan carefully.
Inside the gatehouse is the museum. You are guided through the story of the order from its twelfth century beginnings in Jerusalem during the Crusades through to its modern incarnation as a supplier of first aid. The history is fascinating and there are many interesting objects but everything was quite dark and my camera failed to take any good pictures.
Over on the other side of the Clerkenwell Road to the gatehouse is what is now known as the St John Priory Church. Anybody can walk into what was once the churchyard and now is a lovely garden just right for eating picnics in. The Church buildings are locked unless you are on a tour. Black and white is the colour of the Order’s uniform and also the colour of the chapel. Black and white tiles cover the floor and very chair is emblazoned with the Order’s eight pointed star.
Colourful flags hang from the walls, these are the coats of arms of the members of the order.
Under this light and airy chapel is what is now the crypt but was the chapel of that first twelfth century monastery. Over time the pavement level of London has risen meaning that this church that would have been at ground level is now a few feet down. Whilst the black and white chapel is awe inspiring the crypt is a holy cosy place, a place to sit quietly and feel the centuries of worship swirl around you.
HISTORY OF THE ORDER OF ST JOHN
Not all knights who went on the Crusades were soldiers, some of them were doctors known as Knights Hospitallers or more formally Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. In 1080 the Order had their headquarters in Jerusalem there followed a series of wars and kerfuffles that led them to move to Cyprus then Rhodes, then Malta and finally Rome. Although based in and around the Mediterranean the Order of St John had outposts all over Europe and their English HQ was Clerkenwell Priory.
The modern Order of St John is a royal order of chivalry created by Queen Victoria in 1888 and is associated not only with the St John Ambulance Brigade but also the St John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem. The order is over seen by a Grand Prior (currently the Duke of Gloucester) and has around 25,000 members who are appointed by the Queen. Not that the members of the chivalric order are to be confused with the kindly people in uniform who tend your minor injuries at the school fete.
Clerkenwell Priory was first built in the twelfth century, all that remains of those first first building is the crypt. It was one of important monastic sites that clustered around the edge of London. All was well until it was burnt to the ground during the Peasants Revolt at the end of the fourteenth century. At some point somebody had the bright idea of asking Henry VII to be the protector of the English Order of St John and soon after the Priory was rebuilt in splendid fashion. Rather unfortunately his son Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church and the monastery was one of the many that closed during the dissolution. The building was a favourite of Mary I who lived here for a time, once she came to the throne good times returned only to be overturned by her sister Elizabeth I. In Elizabeth’s time the buildings served as the headquarters for Master of Revels.
Over time the stones from the priory were used to build new buildings in what was fast becoming part of London. All that survived were the gatehouse and the chapel, both of which still stand today. The gatehouse was a printing house for The Gentleman’s Magazine and so workplace to Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary. It was also the childhood home of the artist William Hogarth, whose father turned the building into a coffee house. When the order was being resuscitated in the 1870’s the gatehouse came onto the market and was purchased to once again become HQ for the Order of St John.
VISITING THE MUSEUM OF THE ORDER OF ST JOHN
- St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4DA
- Open: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 10am – 5pm (July – September only)
- Admission is free but there is a £5 suggested donation for the tour
- Tours: Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 11am and 2.30pm (2pm Sunday)
- Tours are limited to 15 people and are on a first come first served basis.
- Visits to the chapel can be made outside the tour times but need to be arranged before your visit
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