Hidden London: Museum of the Order of St John
London is one of my favourite cities to visit. I never stay in the city but I go for the day when we come to England to visit family. I have seen the major sights– mind you, there’s always something new to discover- so I try to explore new areas for me. This time, I visited Clerkenwell.
If you’ve been following my travels, you know that I’m very keen on History and love to visit old places. Clerkenwell is steeped in history. It dates back to medieval times and the Order of St. John, the Knights Hospitallers, founded a priory here in the 12th century. The Order had been founded a century earlier in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Little remains of the massive priory nowadays, only St. John’s Gate, where the Order’s museum and headquarters are located, and the Priory Church. What is actually original is the 12th century crypt, which is one of the few Norman structures still standing in London. The original church was destroyed centuries ago. The later building was destroyed in the 1941 Blitz and rebuilt in the early 60’s. The church is not used for religious ceremonies but for the Order’s.
I recommend doing a guided visit to St. John’s Gate because it’s the only way you’ll be able to see the historic rooms.
I was late for the 11.30 tour thanks to my inability to orient myself and calculate distances. I apologized profusely. The kind receptionist took me to where the tour party was and said that, indeed, it is not terribly easy to find this place.
I missed the Chapter Hall, having joined the tour in the Old Chancery. Here, a collection of the Order’s silver from Malta and Naples is on display. The Council Chamber, still in use, is located over the archway. It has an 18th century fireplace from its days as a printing shop (after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century the buildings had many owners who put them to different uses.)
We then went down the original Tudor oak spiral staircase – very steep and narrow- and out into the street to visit the Priory Church. The modern streets belie the history of Clerkenwell: this vibrant area was part of the medieval monastery.
The Remembrance Garden, adjacent to the church, covers a part of the original cloisters. It is an oasis of tranquility: birdsong, squirrels, medicinal plants and herbs (a nod to the Order’s mission), some tourists, office workers eating their lunch. It is a lovely place to sit and contemplate life. Or eat a sandwich.
This was the end of the visit. We returned to St. John’s Gate. I roamed around the galleries, learning about the past and the present of the Order. Nowadays, they don’t obviously have a military role but a humanitarian one. The St. John Ambulance was created in 1877 to provide civilians with healthcare as the British Red Cross took care of soldiers only.
Nowadays, the Order of St. John is a charitable organization with presence in over 40 countries. It provides ambulance and care services, clinics and first aid training.
There is no admission charge to either the Order’s museum or the church but a contribution is suggested and appreciated.