Saturday, 13 February 2016

This Church is a Film Star: London's St. Bartholomew's

The Church of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London is probably familiar to you.  Even if you have never been there in person, you almost surely have seen it on the big or little screen. It has been used in many popular films and TV shows, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Amazing Grace, The Other Boleyn Girl, Richard II, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

The church's stardom helps explain why it was the first parish church in England to charge tourists an entrance fee.  For a parish church it is quite large, which may explain its attraction to film-makers. Being in the heart of London doesn't hurt either.

The church, which stands just to the south of the famous meat market of Smithfield, dates from 1123, when a man of some wealth named Rahere, founded the Priory of St. Bartholomew, with an attached hospital. Rahere had recovered miraculously from a fever while on a pilgrimage to Rome, and in a dream the saint instructed him to set up a monastic foundation, or so said Rahere. 

The hospital, the oldest in London, is next door inside a high wall. The wall contains a memorial to William Wallace, Braveheart, who was executed for treason nearby, one of many people who met that fate here, including the heretics/martyrs burned under Bloody Mary. 

A statue of Henry VIII, father of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I, stands over the entrance gate to the hospital, legs splayed, looking very kingly indeed. The statue was his reward for dissolving the monastic foundations and giving the hospital to the City. 

Since Henry’s time the hospital has been a secular establishment, known affectionately as “Bart’s.”  Another interesting and just as old church sits inside the hospital walls known as St. Bartholomew the Less. The “Less” is not a put-down, but was coined to distinguish it from its larger namesake nearby. Both are part of the same parish of the Church of England today.

How convenient. In one little place, you might be cured of illness (not likely), executed (more likely), and given the necessary rites to speed your way to heaven (unlikely).

Just to the south of Bart's Hospital lies the former site of London’s notorious Newgate Prison, now replaced by the Central Criminal Court. But that is another story.

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