The Priory of the Knights Hospitaller of St John at Clerkenwell.
The Great South Gate, now known as St John’s Gate, from an engraving by Wenceslaus Holler
On this day, 30 March 1485, which fell on a Wednesday (1), King Richard lll stood in the great hall of the Priory and denied in a ‘loud and distinct voice’ he had ever intended to marry Elizabeth of York (2). The rest is history and it is the Priory which is my subject here today.
Steel engraving of St John’s Gate by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd 1829-83. Note the inscription as described by Stow appertaining to the rebuilding completed by Prior Docwrey 1504.
The original Priory founded about 1100, by Jorden Briset (3) on a site which covered 10 acres of land, had a chequered history, being burnt down by a mob in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt , who caused it to burn for seven days allowing noone to quench the flames, being rebuilt, and not being finished until 1504. However it must have been sufficiently grand enough in 1485 for Richard to hold his council there. The Priory’s troubles were not yet over, later being suppressed by order of Henry Vlll. Still, according to Stow the priory church and house were ‘preserved from spoil of being pulled down’ and were ’employed as a storehouse for the kings toils and tents for hunting and wars etc.,’ (4) . Don’t hold your breath though, for moving on, in the third year of Henry’s son, Edward’s reign, ‘the church for the most part, to wit, the body and the side aisles, with the great bell tower, a most curious piece of workmanship, graven, gilt and enamelled, to the great beautifying of the city, and passing all other I have seen, was undermined and blown up with gun powder. The stone thereof was employed in the building of the Lord Protector’s house at the Strand (me: the first Somerset House and also the porch of Allhallows Church, Gracechurch Street, which sadly was lost in the Great Fire of London) That part of the choir which remaineth, with some side chapels, was by Cardinal Pole, in the reign of Queen Mary, closed up at the West End and otherwise repaired. Sir Thomas Tresham, knight, was then made lord prior with restitution of some lands” (5). Unfortunately this revival of fortunes did not last as the priory was again suppressed in the first years of Elizabeth l’s reign.
An engraving by Joseph Pennell 1860-1926 in which some the vaulting of the gateway can be seen.
As late as 1878 some of the remains of Prior Docwra’s church had survived in the south and east walls and the capitals and rib mouldings underpinning the pews (6) The church was gutted by bombing in 1941 and what we see today is more or less after that date being rebuilt in the 1950s. The outline of the original round church, consecrated in 1185, is marked out in St John’s Square in front of today’s church(7)
The priory church of St John from an engraving by Wenseslaus Holler
Outline of the old church which stands in front of today’s church
Today all that remains of this once magnificent range of buildings are the Grand South Gate now known as St John’s Gate, largely reconstructed in the 19th century and the crypt which has survived beneath the nearby parish church of St John.
St John’s Gateway as it is today.
So sadly we may not be able today to stand in the Great Hall as Richard did when his voice, strong and steady, rung out to deny the insidious rumours – for we now know they were indeed just rumours as plans were afoot for him to marry a Portuguese princess and Elizabeth a Duke – but we can most certainly walk through the Great Gateway which Richard rode through that day.
(1) The Itinerary of King Richard lll Rhoda Edwards p34 Mercers Court Minutes pp 173-4
(2) Croyland p.499
(3 ) Stow A survey of London p363
(4) Stow A Survey of London p 364
(5) Stow A Survey of London P364
(6) Prior Thomas Docwra or Thomas Docwrey as spelt by Stow, was the Prior who completed the rebuilding in 1504.
(7) St John Clerkenwell Wikipeda