MUSEUM OF THE ORDER OF ST JOHN
I may not have attended Hogwarts, but my school did have ‘houses’. Rather than being sorted by a magical hat, our gym teacher lined us up and counted down the row, “Smith, Montgomerie, Crawfurd, St John.” I found myself in St John; our colour blue and emblem the Maltese Cross. I couldn’t have told you anything about the history of St John, although the fact that local neighbourhoods boasted names like Temple and Knightswood should have given me a clue.
So when J led me to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell last week, and told me we were going to visit the Museum of the Order of St John, I was excited to finally learn something about the history of my house from (cough) all those years ago.
Briefly, in 1080, monks under the leadership of Brother Gerard built a hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Called Hospitallers, they cared for everyone, no matter their faith. With the coming of the crusades, the order was militarized and became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Over the next few centuries, following defeat to Muslim forces, the order retreated first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes then finally to Malta. When the Templar Knights were forcibly disbanded, their wealth was transferred to the Knights of St John. They remained in Malta until the island was lost to Napoleon in 1798.
In 1140, the Priory in Clerkenwell became the English HQ of the Order of St John. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s, the priory was seized. For a while it housed the offices of the Master of Revels – who licensed plays, including Shakespeare’s – then a coffee-house and finally a pub which Charles Dickens used to frequent.
The modern order of St John came into being in 1888, its principal charity in the UK being the St John Ambulance (to teach first aid to the general population). Providing medical care in both world Wars, they also returned to their roots in the Middle East by founding the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem which still exists to this day.
Like Charterhouse, which I talked about a few days ago, the Museum of the Order of St John is a hidden gem of a place. It’s open to the public Monday-Saturday, from 10am-5pm, and entrance is free. Guided tours are available Tuesday/Friday/Saturday at 11am and 2.30pm on a first come, first served basis, with a donation of 5GBP is suggested.
Every time J and I go back to London, we try to explore a ‘new’ area. Although this year our focus was on Spitalfields, Clerkenwell is a fascinating district and I don’t doubt we’ll be back again to explore it in more depth.
And next time you’re at a hockey game or football match, and see St John Ambulance personnel in attendance, take a moment to think about their 1,000 year history.