I love me a tour and I love me a potted history – and a visit to the Museum of the Order of St John satisfies on both counts, encompassing a Tudor building, museum, church, crypt and cloister garden. Exploring the headquarters of St John Ambulance and learning the story of this ancient religious military order is an exhilarating & educational experience and I’m going to share a little of my new-found knowledge in this post.
If the symbol of the Order looks familiar, it’s because the white, eight-pointed cross on a black background is an international symbol of first aid. Known as the logo of St John Ambulance and emblazoned on their ambulances and volunteers’ uniforms, the cross was also worn on the robes of the first Brother Knights in the hospital in Jerusalem. It remains an enduring emblem of humanitarian care.
The Order itself was officially recognised by the Church in 1113, its members known as Hospitallers who cared for anyone, with no distinction between race or faith. After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the Hospitallers took on a military role and became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the Order would move to Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta and, finally, Rome – where the original Roman Catholic Order still resides.
In the 1140s, the Priory in Clerkenwell was set up as the English headquarters of the Order, providing knights who went on crusade. Here at St John’s Gate, the knights were provided with medical care and hospitality, before walking (yes, you read that right) to Jerusalem. People from all walks of life were welcomed, not just Christians, and this remained the case until the dissolution of monasteries in 1540, after which the Clerkenwell buildings were used for a number of purposes.
During the 19th century, a group of Victorian gentlemen decided that there was a need for healthcare and attempted to restart the Order – only to realise that it was a Catholic institution. Instead, they founded a new Order, The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, which is still in existence.
Inside these St John’s Gate buildings reside the archives of the old Order, the headquarters of the new Order and the administrative facilities of St John Ambulance. I couldn’t wait to see inside and was inwardly thrilled as we were led up a winding staircase and on to a landing dotted with majestic oil paintings, to begin one of the Order’s thrice-weekly (and free) tours.
Our first port of call was the Chapterhall, built in 1904 by the new Order. Its wooden panelling and stained glass coats of arms lend it a formality suitable for what was once the Order’s meeting room and I was intrigued by the coats of arms of Grand Priors. These powerful and influential men played a prominent role in the life of the Order; it was Sir Robert Hales who rebuilt the Monastery after it was burned down during the Peasants’ Revolt and Sir Thomas Docwra who rebuilt the Priory and Gatehouse.
In 1540, the year of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Sir William Weston held this office; offered money to support this new law, he died from a heart attack on the day the Priory closed.
When Mary Tudor, who was a Catholic, ascended the throne, she issued the Order with a Royal Charter and tried to revive it, making this the remit of Sir Thomas Tresham, its new Grand Prior – but the idea fizzled out. Until the 19th century, therefore, the Office of the Grand Prior existed in name only. Today, the Prior is the Duke of Gloucester.
Next, we found ourselves in The Old Chancery. Connecting the Old Gate with the New, it was once used as an administrative room from which it set up branches of St John Ambulance around the world. Nowadays, it plays host to displays of 18th/19th century Maltese and Neapolitan silver – mainly of the domestic type, as very little of the Hospital silver, used by the Knights to serve their patients, survives.
We had now reached the Meeting Hall, which sits directly above the Gate and remains the only medieval element of the building. Refurbished in 1911, stained glass windows sporting more coats of arms are again a prominent feature. It’s a room redolent with history, from the plaques commemorating royal and senior supporters of the Order (including Florence Nightingale) to the portrait of Queen Victoria dressed in black and holding papers establishing the Order.
The Meeting Room has been used for many purposes since the Dissolution: notable roles include the office of Shakespeare’s Censor, the work abode of Edmund Cave (founder of the first men’s magazine) and the birthplace of William Hogarth, whose father owned a coffee shop here.
Down the original staircase we trotted and into the Malta Room, home to a number of artefacts dating back to the Order’s time in that country. These beautiful items include a writing bureau, chest of drawers, portmanteau and a marble-topped table, most of which were donated by Maltese families.
Outside, our guide explained to us that the site of the Church of the Order was consecrated during 1185, at the same time as the Knights of the Templar. Destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt, the church was never rebuilt; today, however, a modern-day church exists on the site – housing, thrillingly, the oldest crypt in London (note: you can only visit it through one of these tours).
This 1140 Crypt contains the remains of William Weston’s tomb, saved from nearby St Mary’s Church. The Church itself is used for special ceremonies and, fittingly, displays a memorial dedicated to former members of the Order: “In Memory of these Our Brethren Who Lived and Died in the Resting Faithful Service of Our Order”.
I can’t think of a better way in which to conclude this post and will add, simply, that I highly recommend taking this tour and that I will write about the excellent Museum attached to St Johns Gate in a future post.