St Bartholomew the Great. Bartholomew Fair. London Walking tours London Sightseeing Tours.
Walk all the way to the end of Little Britain where on the right you will find the:-
Gatehouse of St. Bartholomew the Great. Take a step back to fully appreciate this picturesque relic of a bygone age. Above the gate is one of the earliest surviving timber-frame house fronts in London. It was built by William Scudamore in 1595 and restored in the early 20th century following damage to its structure from a Zeppelin bomb in 1916. Parts of the stone gate date from 1240, but most of the stonework was installed during the 1932 restoration.
Beyond the gatehouse is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church, which dates from 1123. It possesses a dark and mysterious interior, the ancient walls of which drip with so much atmosphere that it’s ambience has been described as the “holy gloom.’ It is one of those churches that, the moment you step inside it, you sense that it is a sacred place and it makes the perfect spot in which to spend a few moments, or even a few hours, in peaceful contemplation, oblivious to the bustle and rush of modern London outside. For here, in this little oasis of genuine calm, time well and truly stands still.
The beginnings of this wonderful old church, are tinged with the supernatural. Rahere, a man who, according to legend, was once a jester at the court of King Henry 1st, founded it in 1123. In November 1120, the King’s only son and heir had been drowned when the White Ship was lost in a winter storm off Calais. The court was plunged into despondency, and Rahere opted to become a monk and set off on a Pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there, he fell dangerously ill with malaria and on his death bed vowed, that if he were cured and allowed to return to his own country, he would ‘erect a hospital for the restoration of poor men.’ Miraculously, Rahere’s prayer was answered, and he duly set off for England. But on the way he had a terrible dream in which he was seized by fearful winged creature and taken up onto a high ledge where he was set down, teetering on the brink of a yawning chasm. Just as he was about to fall, the radiant figure of St Bartholomew appeared at his side, and told Rahere that he had come to save him. In return, said the saint, “in my name thou shalt found a church…in London, at Smedfeld (Smithfield).” Thus the church was founded, and when he died in 1145, Rahere was buried inside, and although now moved from his original location, his tomb can still be viewed to the left of the churches high altar.
If you look up on the wall opposite the tomb you will spy a lovely oriel window called Prior Bolton’s Window. Bolton, who was prior of the monastery from 1506 to 1532, had his quarters behind this window, which he had constructed in order that he might keep a watchful eye on the monks at their service. Beneath the central pane is his rebus - a pictorial representation of his name - dating from an age when few people could read or write. It depicts a crossbow bolt piercing a wine barrel, meaning “Bolt tun.”
If you cross over to the far aisle (the one behind Rahere’s tomb) and look into the second window recess you will find a wall monument to John and Margaret Whiting, a couple who died within a year of each other. The inscription ends with the poignant lines:-
Shee first deceased, hee for a little Tryd
To live without her, Liked it not and dyd.
Following the priory’s Dissolution by Henry V111 on 25th October 1539, a sudden transformation overtook it. The nave was knocked down and the stone sold; a new west front was built and the monastery’s choir became a parish church. The cloister became a stables, the north transept a cottage, a blacksmith set up business in the north aisle, and a printing press was situated in the Lady Chapel where Benjamin Franklin worked in 1725.
The church is also a star of the silver screen having featured in Shakespeare in Love, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Exit the church and go out through the main gate ahead. Turn right, then take the first right into:-
Cloth Fair. Named for Bartholomew Fair which was held annually from the 12th Century until 1855. Although the main market took place on open ground now covered by West Smithfield, and was a horse fair, a fair dealing in English broadcloth was held. It was established by the monks of St Bartholomew’s to bring in much needed revenue for their priory, every stallholder having to pay a rental to the monastery. The income from this fair, the largest in London, changed hands several times prior to the Reformation, during which time the reputation of the area seriously declined. The nature of the market is well demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, which features strolling players, wrestlers, dwarfs, fire eaters and tightrope walkers. But the fair also attracted unsavoury elements such as cut purses, who could cut money from the purse on a victim’s belt without the loser feeling even the slightest touch.
Until the reign of Elizabeth 1st the fair held in Cloth Fair was England’s main cloth fair, and merchants came from all over Europe to attend. The street was generally inhabited by drapers and cloth merchants. Although the local residents would have been troubled by the fair for only three days a year. It was held on the eve, day and morrow of St Bartholomew’s feast day, and their were many who were against it, although remarkably it survived the regime of the puritans under Cromwell’s Protectorate. In 1688 the fair witnessed a tragic accident when the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Shorter, came to open it. He was imbibing ‘a cool tankard of wine, nutmeg and sugar’ at the entrance to Cloth Fair, when he slapped the lid of the tankard down so loudly that his horse shied and threw him; he died from his injuries the next day.
Gradually, however, the city authorities came to see the Fair as encouraging public disorder and, having purchased the right to it in 1830, they suppressed it in 1855.