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The Priory of the Knights Hospitaller of St John at Clerkenwell.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Hollar-Church-1053x658.jpgThe priory church of St John from an engraving by Wenseslaus Holler

 

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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.

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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

 

DID RICHARD LOVE ANNE?

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Thanks to the contemporaneous accounts given by Croyland (1) and the Acts of Court (2) we have a good insight into the events that followed, almost immediately, the death of Queen Anne i.e. the rumours that Richard, in his eagerness to marry his niece, hastened the death of his wife with the aid of poison – his denial, made publically, ‘in a loud and distinct voice’ (3) in the Great Hall of the Priory of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, Clerkenwell – pushed to it by Sir Richard Ratcliffe and William Catesby, although Croyland adds, rather slyly, it was not what he really wished himself..and there is no need to go into all the detail here as it is well known.

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The Gate House of the Priory of the Knights Hospitaller of St John at Clerkenwell.

 

I would have thought, hopefully , that nowadays, the idea that Richard could have poisoned Anne is now perceived as ridiculous, a complete and utter nonsense.  However, not entirely so.  Indeed Prof Hicks in his biography of Anne –  Anne Neville Queen to Richard lll (“The first time in ages that a publisher has sent me a book that I actually want to read” opines David Starkey – well he would wouldn’t he?)  wrote, in a chapter headed ‘Past her Sell By Date’ that ‘she was unwell, languishing and died, unattended and indeed unregretted by her husband”(4).  What?  Anne the Queen, dying a lonely death, cruelly neglected by her uncaring husband? – its a Scandal!.  And where was Richard at that desperately sad time?  One way to find out..check Rhoda Edwards wonderful little book – The Itinerary of King Richard lll 1483 – 1485(5).  And there we have it..the truth of the matter.  From the onset of Anne’s fatal illness, not long after Christmas 1484 to her death on Wednesday 16 March 1485, Richard never left the Palace of Westminster, where she lay dying, except for a total of ll days when he was at Windsor.

I would say that there could be no stronger indication than this, that, yes, Richard did love his wife and was loyal to her to the end.  He could have gone elsewhere, made his excuses, got away from it all but he didn’t.  He stayed with her until the day she died – finally leaving Westminster on Thursday 12 April – never to return.  Five months later, he too was dead.  Clearly he gave to Anne the loyalty that he was to find so disastrously lacking in others to himself.  But then again, this was a man whose motto was Loyaltie me Lie.

  1. Croyland p.499
  2. Richard lll The Road to Bosworth, P W Hammond & Anne F Sutton, Acts of Court pp 173-4.
  3. Croyland p.499
  4. Anne Neville Queen to Richard lll, Michael Hicks, Chaper 7, Past Her Sell by Date, p.212.
  5. Itinerary of King Richard lll  1483-1485, pp29, 30, 31, 32, 33.  Rhoda Edwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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