Craig recommends… Here’s my latest St. John’s Gate review. If you’re interested in the Crusades then don’t miss the Knights Templar’s Temple Church (… that’s the one that’s featured in the Da Vinci Code). You can find another Norman Crypt underneath St Mary-le-Bow church, and some good crypts under St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
The medieval Clerkenwell Priory was once the English headquarters of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who sent monks to the Holy Land to tend the injured Crusaders.
The Priory was disbanded during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, and all that remains today is St. John’s Gate and a Norman crypt.
The Priory gatehouse was built in 1504 and heavily restored in the 1800s when it became the Old Jerusalem Tavern. It then passed through many hands until it was turned into a small museum detailing the history of the knights.
The Priory church originally had a round nave similar to the one in Temple Church, and you can see the outline of it picked out in the brickwork of the square.
The church was badly bombed during the Blitz and totally rebuilt above ground, and only the crypt survives from medieval times.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
Every now and then you’ll be walking around London and come across a place that you never knew existed – and St. John’s Gate is one of those places. It looks like a castle gatehouse dropped in the middle of some shopping streets and office blocks.
Whenever I see it I always wonder what London would have been like if we didn’t knock half of it down. I’ve seen a million pictures and paintings of all the buildings we lost and you can’t help but feel a little wistful. Occasionally you’ll come across a little snapshot of how it might have been and it’s like flipping open a book and finding a faded photo of your grandad during the war. That’s what this building is: a little snapshot of our city before modern life took over.
The gatehouse houses a little three-room museum about the Knights of the Order of St John. Clerkenwell Priory was their base in England, and St. John’s Gate is the most prominent piece still standing. It’s not the biggest exhibition in the world, but it’s still worth a quick look if you’ve got half-an-hour to spare.
The museum begins with the Order’s adventures during the Crusades, about how they set up a hospital in Jerusalem to look after the pilgrims. Then it tells you how they got kicked out of the Holy Lands and moved onto Rhodes and Malta, where Napoleon sent them packing back to England. These days we know them better as St. John’s Ambulance.
The museum contains some nicely illustrated manuscripts and a few suits of chainmail armour. The rest is basically just a load of plates and pots and vases, some old coins, plus a few oil paintings and portraits.
Once you’ve seen inside the museum remember to have a little stroll down the road to the Priory Church (it’s a totally separate building – the nice guide behind the desk will give you directions). The church itself is nothing much to look at anymore because it was rebuilt after the war and looks rather bland, but you’re not here for that – you’re here to see the creepy Norman crypt underneath.
The crypt is very low with concrete arches that press down upon your head, and I’m not sure that I’d want to attend a church service in there because it seems a bit oppressive.
Remember to check out the chamber on the left – is that not the most gruesome tomb you’ve ever seen? Most people want their effigy to show them looking their best, but this lady has a face that looks like a starved skull, and ribs jutting through her chest like a famine victim.
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If you enjoy this then try: Charterhouse (you can walk it in less than 3 mins) and Temple Church (walk it in 14 mins or catch a train from Farringdon to Temple Church).