St John’s Ambulance we’ve all heard of them. But did you know that the Order of St John is an ancient organisation? Or that you can visit its twelfth century headquarters in London? Come with me and visit 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. You can 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. Maps, models ships and apothecary bottles are the order of the day.
The Order of St John dates back centuries but the St John’s Ambulance is a altogether newer thing. A fascinating display tells the story of the provision health care and training since the end of the nineteenth century.
TOUR OF ST JOHN’S GATE CLERKENWELL
If you’e paid for the tour then you get to see the oldest Tudor staircase in London. Shakespeare walked up here on his way to get his plays approved by the Master of the Revels
Royal patronage has always important to the Order of St John as is indicated by numerous Royal portraits that line the walls, especially the grand Chapter Hall.
St John Priory Church
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. Following a series of wars and kerfuffles they moved 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 an altogether different beast. It 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. As the English HQ of the Knights of the Order of St John it was very wealthy. 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 Priory was closed. 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.
The Priory Gatehouse has seen many uses over the years. William Hogarth grew up here as his father established a coffee shop in the St John’s Gate. He offered Latin lessons and coffee, a combination that I have not seen offered recently. Hogarth’s friend, Samuel Johnson worked here when it was the printing house for The Gentleman’s Magazine. In the nineteenth century when the Order of St John was revived it once again became the UK headquarters of the order.
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.
- Henry VIII is holding court on Wednesday evening in the summer, £16 for an audience and a glass of wine.
- This is going to sound a little odd, but ….. do not confuse the Hospitaller Knights of St John with the Knights Templar. If you want a Knights Templar museum, well not a museum but their actual church head to the Temple Church just off the Strand.
- If you fancy visiting another former monastery whilst you are in Clerkenwell then walk down St John Street toward The Charterhouse.