Museum of the Order of St. John

From the Announcement in the Newsletter:

St. John’s Gate in Clerkenwell once formed the entrance to the ancient Priory that was the headquarters of the Knights of St. John, perhaps better known as the Knights of Malta. The Gate’s colourful history is closely linked with Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, William Hogarth and Charles Dickens.

The historic buildings and collections are owned by the Priory of England of the Order of St John. A tour of the museum includes a history of the Knights Hospitallers (in existence since 1099), their Clerkenwell Priory and Crypt, the Chapter Hall, Old Chancery, Council Chamber, West Tower and various museum galleries.

Our private tour will give us an insight into the Museum’s extraordinary history, atmospheric rooms and galleries.   Members Only, on a Saturday in February at 12 noon


From the Report in the Spring 2016 Newsletter:

On a drizzly Saturday morning at the museum entrance in St John’s Gate, guide David greeted us, to our surprise, in Dutch and continued (in English) with a short introduction to the fascinating story of the Order of St John.  Founded in 1080 as a hospital in Jerusalem (Brother Knights) and recognised by the Pope as a Catholic Military Hospitaller Order, it was originally headquartered in Jerusalem.  After the fall of Jerusalem, the Order moved to Rhodes where it established its base until the Ottomans conquered it.  The Knights moved on to Malta where they remain until today.

The old Priory of the Knights of St John in Clerkenwell was set up in the 1140s as the English headquarters of the Order.  The museum now occupies two sites: St John’s Gate, the entrance to the former Priory, which dates from 1504 and the Priory Church of St John, with its surviving twelfth century crypt.

When King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established a new Anglican Church, the Order of St John in England was dissolved and all its lands and enormous wealth were seized by the Crown.  The Order was restored briefly by Henry’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, who granted it a Royal Charter. However, on the accession of her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I, the Order in England was dissolved for good.  The Order moved back to Britain in the early 1830s and it was first constituted in 1888 by Royal Charter from Queen Victoria.  Today Queen Elizabeth II is at the apex of the Order as its Sovereign Head.

After the short introduction we followed the guide to see the Chapter Hall, but we first stopped in the corridor to be shown two paintings depicting symbols of the Order.  One painting shows the flags on ships with a white cross on a red background, the symbol of St John the Baptist.  The other painting depicts a Brother Knight with the cross with the ‘splayed’ four feet, known as the Maltese crest.  Though according to our guide this was also the emblem of Amalfi merchants who may have been sponsors of the Order.

George Gilbert Scott Jr., son of the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, designed the beautiful Chapter Hall in the beginning of the 20th century.  This impressive hall is embellished all around with the medieval and modern coats of arms of the Priors that tell the turbulent history of the Order.  Through its history many hospitals were created with their own coat of arms and in the beginning of the 19th century, because of turmoil in Europe, the Order began to disintegrate into separate orders.  The hall contains furniture dating from the sixteenth century and imposing portraits of British monarchs and Order dignitaries.  The guide pointed out the fireplace ornamented with the St John’s Wort flower and the Royal Charter from Queen Mary.

The Council Chamber, where the council meets ten times a year, dates from 1504 and is decorated with portraits of Queen Victoria and her son King Edward VII.  The walls are paneled with plaques to the memory of Knights and Dames of the Order of St John.  Florence Nightingale is also commemorated.  In this room the guide explained that, after the Order was dissolved, the buildings of the museum were put to different uses: a storage for hunting equipment, a gentlemen’s magazine and a coffee house (run by William Hogarth’s father) among others before it was bought by the Chancellor in 1870.
The Malta room displays objects that are connected with Malta and is furnished with pieces from the grand palaces of Valletta and Medina, including a painting of seventeenth century panorama of Valletta’s fortifications.  We continued the tour by climbing down the sixteenth century spiral stair that survived the Great Fire for a short stop at the St John’s Gate.

At the St John Gate’s the guide drew our attention to the archways and window frames that seems half buried under the ground.  It shows that the original level was probably over two meters lower.  This Tudor style gate used to be the entrance gate of the large estate of the Priory.

After crossing St John’s Square (now a public traffic road), we stopped in front of the Priory church of the Order of St John that was rebuilt in 1950s – having first been demolished during the reign of Henry VIII’s son Edward, rebuilt by Queen Mary and then hit by a German bomb in 1941 during the blitz.  Next to the entrance of the church is the old church cloister garden.  Inside the church you can see different Order banners, including those of overseas Priories.

We ended our tour in the Norman crypt dating from the twelfth century with a Gothic extension.  The crypt, facing to the East, is nowadays buried half underground and is the only surviving part of the original priory church.  Inside you can see beautiful stained glass from the original church.

After the extensive and informative tour the group headed for a delicious lunch in The Dovetail, a Belgian restaurant.  We would like to thank David for guiding us around this unique historical site and Marietta Freeman for organising this interesting and enlightening excursion.