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St Bartholomew-the-Great (Smithfield)

Updated: Feb 11


London's oldest surviving parish church. This historic church is snuggled away in the area of Smithfield by the meat-market, pubs and "greasy spoons" (cafes). This area was, until relevantly recently, a very working-class area of London sitting alongside the wealth of the financial centre of London, the City of London. From the outside it looks interesting, but it is when you enter that your realise what a gem of a building this is! One of the best example of Norman architecture second only to the Chapel of St John's at the Tower of London. The atmosphere inside is mystical, sacred and you feel immediately transported back to the time when the monks would have performed their solemn rituals of devotion, surrounded by the silence of the stone walls, protecting them from the hustle and bustle of city life, as it still does today.


Founded in 1123 by Rahere, a courtier of King Henry I. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Rahere contracted a fever and vowed that, should he recover, he would build a hospital for the poor in London. On his way home after returning to health, he had a vision of the Apostle Bartholomew, in which he commanded Rahere to build a church in Smithfield to the glory of God and to name it St Bartholomew.

Above is the tomb of Rahere. This dates back to 1405. The coat of arms, with the two crowns and the two lions in gold with a red background, tell us that the priory was a royal foundation.

Always there are surprises to be seen in London churches. Here at St Bartholomew is a piece of modern art by the British artist Damien Hurst. It's called "Exquisite Pain" (2006) and depicts St Bartholomew showing us his martyrdom.


According to the legend, he was skinned alive and beheaded, so is often depicted holding his flayed skin and knife with which he was skinned; thus, he is remembered and approved as the saint of leather makers. Just think of that next time you put on your leather belt or shoes!


There is something truly magical about this golden statue that seems to glow with life in contrast to the darkness of heavy stone work that bears the weight of the history of London and its people. Also the anatomically correct depiction of the body of St Bartholomew is startling and hypnotic.

But here is a little tip for you... After visiting this magnificent building, head to St Bartholomew-the-Less, a sister church inside the grounds of St Bartholomew's Hospital and you will see some relatively recent stained glass window that remember those nurses who gave their lives for this country during WWII. Although my mother was a baby during WWII, she would become in her adult life a nurse, serving the NHS for almost 50 years. So this is a very special church to me.


So next time you're in the City why not take a stroll into Smithfield and enjoy a journey back to the 12th century or indeed join me on my Clerkenwell Tour, where we visit the church during the tour.


Details for a visit.

St Bartholomew the Great, Cloth Fair, Barbican, London EC1A 7JQ https://www.greatstbarts.com/

St Bartholomew the Less, 57A W Smithfield, London EC1A 9DS

https://www.greatstbarts.com/about/st-barts-the-less/

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