Thursday, 31 January 2013

Church of St John of Jerusalem

Very little remains above ground of the once great priory church of St John of Jerusalem. The church has had a very colourful history being owned by many different religious and secular groups. St John of Jerusalem was founded by an order of solider monks who built forts and hospitals in the holy land in the year 1145 when ten acres of land was given to them near Clerkenwell just outside the city the London. It was here where they built their priory church, the design of the church was similar to the Temple church off fleet street having a round nave and small rectangular chancel. St Johns also had a crypt beneath the chancel which survives to this day. The priory church was built chiefly in the twelfth century but with some later additions with the nave being replaced with a more conventional rectangular one. Later a tower was added in the north west corner of the building. 

In 1381 Wat Tyler on his way to Smithfield to meet the king during the Peasants Revolt set fire to the church. The building was quickly rebuilt afterwards and continued to be used by the the order until the dissolution of monasteries. The dissolution in 1540 dissolved the order of St John and demolished all structures except the chancel. 

After the destruction of the dissolution the church was used for secular use becoming an office, the Master of the Revels which licensed plays including those of Shakespeare. The building was however quickly reverted back to religious use as a chapel and in the early eighteenth century it is recorded as being a Presbyterian meeting house. In 1721 it was bought and was mostly rebuilt giving it much the appearance it has today. In the late nineteenth century at the church above was 'restored' by the Victorians taking out many Georgian additions. From the same restoration project the twelfth century under the chancel was restored and cleaned and converted into a chapel. The church became the parish church of St John for some years until 1921 when it was given to the new order of St John of Jerusalem who used it as their chapel. During the Second World War the church was badly bombed, by the end of the war it was left a blackened shell. The order of st John restored and rebuilt the church afterwards, although not to original designs. One new positive feature is the cloister garden built in the 1950's. 

Unfortunately the church today is in my view a rather ugly mess of restoration and post war rebuilding. However, the twelfth century crypt (pictured left ©) survived the disasters inflicted on the church and is one of the most atmospheric and authentic medieval crypts in London and is well worth a visit. Another remnant of the priory church is St Johns gate which was originally the gateway to the priory. St Johns gate is just to south of the church on the road to Smithfield. 

First Picture © showing church post-war plans for the church. More information including opening hours at

Friday, 4 January 2013

Brief history of St Olave

This small medieval gem in the heart of the city of London has managed to retained an atmosphere of a country parish church. The church of St Olave's which stands on Hart street is dedicated to king Olave of Norway for his assistance against the Danish invaders in which he pulled down old London bridge thus stopping them from entering the city. This puts the start of the churches history over 1000 years ago just before the Norman conquest. The earlier church was mostly rebuilt in Perpendicular Gothic some time in the fifteenth century in which most of the current church dates, although there are some thirteen century fragments from the older church. The only other major alteration in its early history was the rebuilding of the top half of the tower which was rebuilt in brick on top of the earlier tower in the eighteen century. 

The church escaped the great fire due to a quick thinking of the diarist Samuel Pepys and local resident William Penn Senior who ordered the destruction of surrounding buildings to create a fire break which stopped the fire spreading to the church. However, it did not escape damage during the second Great fire during the Second World War when it received a direct hit leaving it a gutted shell. Whilst it underwent restoration the parish was moved to the nearby site of All Hallows staining where a temporary nave was built. The church was reopened after a long restored in 1954. Although it was badly damaged in the war it has been relevantly sensitively restored and it has managed to keep its medieval charm.

The church has many interesting features of note the first is the thirteenth century crypt which has managed to survive without much alteration or destruction. Another interesting feature is the vestry door is thought to be from the previous building dating from the thirteenth century. The graveyard also has an interesting history, it was raised up from street level in 1665 to bury the dead of the 1665 great plague, this is marked by the entrance arch to the church yard displaying