What’s behind the gate? 500 years of history to be told

Friday, 15th July — By Charlotte Chambers

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Rachel Job at St John’s Gate where the landmark’s story is told in a museum exhibition

IF bricks could talk, an imposing archway in Clerkenwell could relive 500 years of changing times and local history.

For the next best thing, a museum is trying to do that with a special tour for visitors at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell.

At different times the almost 50-ft tall landmark has been home to world famous artists and the world’s first magazines.

The Museum of the Order of St John now hopes to bring those stories and many more alive with Knights, Saviours, Revellers: the many lives of St John’s Gate.

“I think people know so little about this building,” said Rachel Job, from the museum which is housed inside the gate itself.

“Many people just don’t realise it exists. Even those who do, you hear people so often saying, ‘Oh, it’s a gate to the City of London,’ things like this, from when there were city walls and so on. So people know so little about it – there’s so much to know and it’s all quite fun and interesting.”

A view of the gate from before 1873

The gate was once the entrance to a church that in the Middle Ages became known as the “Palace of St John” due to extraordinary wealth amassed during the Crusades – a time when people commonly donated to the religious order in a bid to enter Heaven.

At its peak, the priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem was 10 acres that stretched across land now split by the Clerkenwell Road and was home to famously heroic knights – known as the Knights Hospitaller – who travelled across Europe to take part in the Crusades, originally in Jerusalem.

After Henry VIII dissolved all Catholic churches in 1536, he expropriated the priory’s land and money and gave the palace to his daughter, “Bloody Mary”, who stayed there at least once with her ladies in waiting.

Henry VIII severed ties with the Pope after he was refused permission to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. What followed was the greatest redistribution of land ownership in Britain’s history, from churches, aristocrats and royals.

Portraits of St John Ambulance volunteers

While the gate now stands alone, housing a multitude of floors and a still-functioning spiral staircase, it was once the second, inner gate to an even more impressive outer gate which has long since gone.

For many years it was a pub known as the Jerusalem Tavern in a nod to its connection with the Crusades. During this time it is believed it was a favoured watering hole of Victorian writer Charles Dickens, who lived and worked in the area. There was also a time it was unsuccessfully turned into a coffee shop with a twist: customers had to speak Latin inside its walls.

The venture was a failure and the proprietor, the father of a certain (later to become world-famous) painter by the name of William Hogarth, was thrown into debtor’s jail unable to pay the debts he had accrued. Many observe that Hogarth’s professional obsession with the disadvantaged in society stemmed from the ill-treatment his father suffered.

And before the building was ultimately handed back to the order of St John, after a more than 300-year hiatus, it also went through a period where it was home to the world’s first periodical to have the name magazine in its title: Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine

It was also where Samuel Johnson first worked before going on to write the world’s first dictionary.

Two other tours – The Lost Priory of the Medieval Order of St John and St John Ambulance: A Victorian Masterpiece – can also be booked on the museum’s website: www.museumstjohn.org.uk

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