The Order of St John

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell has been a London landmark for many centuries. From medieval priory to Georgian coffee house and Victorian pub, the building is now a museum exploring the history of a military order of ancient origins from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its present day role with the St John Ambulance Service. Combining historic weapons, medals, hospital equipment, art and a cannon given by Henry VIII, the Museum of the Order of St John spans 900 years of history and a fascinating story.

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The St John Ambulance logo of a white eight-pointed cross on a black background is recognised around the world where it appears on the sides of ambulances and on the uniforms of its volunteers. Although the charity has only been around since 1877, the symbol dates back almost 1000 years. The Brother Knights in the ancient hospital in Jerusalem were also recognised by the symbol on their robes.

 

The History of the Order of St John began shortly before Pope Urban II (d.1099) declared a crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslim Arabs who had been in control since AD 638. In 1080, a hospital was established in the city by a group of monks under the instructions of Brother Gerard (c.1040-1120) who would shortly become the founder of Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), which was officially recognised by the Church in 1113.

The purpose of the hospital was to care for the many pilgrims who had become ill on their travels to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers, as they were then recognised, took in people of all faiths and race, treating everyone equally. It was only after the fighting in the Crusades that the hospital workers became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

From the description of the hospital provided by the museum, the Hospitallers/Knights were ahead of their time in terms of care and treatments. Brother Gerard combined traditional Muslim practices with those used in the western world in order to improve medical care. He was also concerned with healthy eating, emphasising the importance of fresh fruit as an aid to recovery.

During the 11th and 12th century, only rich people could afford to sleep in a bed, however, Brother Gerard insisted each patient should have a bed “as long and as broad as is convenient and each should have a coverlet and its own sheet.” The wards were also well-aired and clean and workers, both male and female, were encouraged to pray for the speedy recovery of the sick.

In some ways, the hospital was a combination of a hostel and a hospice with clothing, shoes and money provided to those who needed it as well as beds. The Hospitallers also looked after orphaned children and provided an ambulance service for the injured. Typically, the hospital could house 1000 people but at times of need could find space for double the number.

 

Unfortunately, the antagonism between Christians and Muslims, in general, meant the hospital in Jerusalem could not last forever, especially after Emperor Saladin (1138-93) led a Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. Jerusalem was captured in 1187 and the Knight Templars moved their Order and hospital to Acre in the north of Israel. Yet, by 1291, Muslim forces had succeeded in recapturing the entire Holy Land, forcing the Order of St John to seek refuge in Europe.

The Order briefly moved to Cyprus before settling on Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, in 1309. Another hospital was set up and the Knights remained here for 213 years until the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), conquered the island. The Museum owns a copy of the Rhodes Missal, an illuminated manuscript printed in 1504 that contains the services for a Roman Catholic Mass. In another display case, the Museum shows two handwritten letters from brothers Rostand and Claude de Merles to their father whilst on their journey to Rhodes to join the Knights.

 

Forced out of Rhodes in 1532, the Knights were, temporarily, without a home. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-58) offered to rent them the island of Malta, which they eventually settled on in 1530. Again, they quickly set up a hospital for “pilgrims and to all the sick that happened to come to Malta from all parts of the world.” Once fully established, the knights began to build a fortified city, now the capital of Malta, Valetta.

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Jean Parisot de la Valette

The capital city was named after the military commander Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). Born into a noble family in south-west France, Valette joined the Order of St John at the age of 20, thus being present at the Great Seige of Rhodes. Later in his career, he became the Master of the Galleys then, in 1557, the Grand Master.

During his time as a knight, Valette was captured by Muslim pirates and forced to be a galley slave for a year. Although slaves were required to row for 12 hours a day on very little provisions, Valette beat the odds by living three times as long as most slaves before his rescue.

The city named after the military commander was where many of the knights were housed on the island. It was also the location of the Order’s religious centre, the Church of St John the Baptist.

The Order of St John remained on the island of Malta until the 18th century, when, as fate would have it, their home was once again invaded. On this occasion, it was General Napoleon Bonaparte who ousted the knights from their location, thus ending their rule over the Mediterranean.

 

Although patients of all faiths were treated at the hospital, the Hospitallers like to treat each individual as though he or she were Christ, the Son of God. Only the best possible supplies were used including silver plates and decorated medicine containers, which can be seen on display in the museum. Many other items belonging to the Knights are also preserved in glass cases to offer insight into their lives.

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The Cardsharps – Caravaggio

As well as objects, there are a few paintings, such as panoramas of Jerusalem, however, one artwork initially appears out of place. This is The Cardsharps by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the painting does not add any further insight into the lives of the Knights Templar, Caravaggio was a Knight of the Order. Accused of murder in 1606, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he was made a Knight; unfortunately, he later upset another member of the Order causing him to flee back to Italy.

 

Down the road from the museum is the remainder of the Order of St John’s English priory. In 1144, the Order was gifted 10 acres in Clerkenwell to establish its religious community. The English Knights of the Order of St John remained at St John’s Gate until 1540, when Henry VIII abolished all monastic orders. Since then, the church has changed many times, particularly after extensive damage by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Although the church was rebuilt in 1958, the majority of the original architecture has been lost. Nonetheless, the Order of St John Museum offers guided tours of the church and crypt on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When not open for tours, a small gallery and garden are available to the public.

 

The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem lives on in the St John Ambulance Association set up in 1877. The founders wanted to reflect the Order’s ethos of caring for the sick and revolutionising health care. First Aid classes were given to the public, which encouraged a large number of “ordinary” people to sign up to become part of a trained St John Ambulance Brigade. By training volunteers, more people were on hand to help the injured and the sick, thus saving more lives that could have perished whilst waiting for a doctor.

The Brigade also provided medical resources during the wars of the 20th century, the first being the South African War (1899-1902). Over 2000 members of St John enlisted, with the army’s medical staff, the medical orderlies making up approximately 25% of the volunteers. Later, during the First World War (1914-18) St John, along with the British Red Cross organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which provided nurses, ambulances and hospital supplies for wounded soldiers. A similar feat occurred during the Second World War (1939-45) in which they also provided food parcels, clothing and provisions for prisoners-of-war, particularly those stranded on the Channel Islands.

 

The museum has a number of resources, photographs and medals belonging to past members of St John Ambulance. These include examples of old medical objects, such as a triangular bandage, tourniquet and first aid kits. Interestingly, the majority of the photographs are of women of whom 100,000 had served in VADs by the time the Armistice was called in 1918. One of these volunteers was Veronica Nisbet who joined the John Ambulance Brigade in 1915 when she was 28-years-old.

As part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook from the years 1916-19 can be viewed by the public. The museum details a little of her life but her incredible story is best viewed through the photographs in the online version of her scrapbook. As a VAD Nurse, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, nursing and hygiene in order to volunteer during the First World War. After enlisting to work abroad, Veronica was sent to the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, the largest of the British voluntary hospitals. Veronica’s scrapbook shows pictures of the insides of the hospital, which could contain 750 patients at a time, and the nurses’ accommodation. There are also photographs of other St John Ambulance Brigade members and the activities provided to entertain the injured soldiers.

Throughout WWI, the Hospital Étaples cared for over 35,000 patients and was run by 241 members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Despite the expert care, the building was constructed from several wooden huts, which was not the best conditions for patients recovering from serious injuries. Nonetheless, many soldiers survived due to the medical aid they received from the volunteers. Unfortunately, in 1918, the hospital was struck by a bomb on two occasions, the first killing five members of staff and the second a further eleven. The building was too damaged for the hospital to continue, however, the staff moved what they could to the coastal town of Trouville where they operated for the remainder of the war.

 

St John Ambulance is still going strong today and has members of all ages and backgrounds. The association has spread throughout the world with divisions being formed in other countries. Its primary aim is to be the difference between a life lost and a life saved and has been a valuable service to the modern world.

Since the association’s conception, branches have been formed to include younger people with the leading First Aid training provider. St John Ambulance First Aiders support local communities and emergency services and is determined to work with schools and develop youth programmes. As early as 1922, the St John Cadets was founded for teenagers to attend and get involved with all their great work. This also provided training for the future, either within St John or in other medical professions. Eventually, in 1987, a group for younger children was formed. The St John Badgers cater for 6 to 10-year-olds, providing them with basic first aid knowledge and the chance to earn badges to sew onto their uniforms. Finally, in 1989, LINKS units were opened at universities to provide opportunities for students to be part of a unique team of lifesavers. In total, over half of St John members are under the age of 25.

St John Ambulance relies mostly on volunteers and donations in order to keep running its expert service. To help with funding, the St John Fellowship was formed on St John’s Day 1983, which raises a generous amount of money every year. Supporters help to set up and run exhibitions, displays, concerts and competitions as well as assist at many national events.

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The Museum of the Order of St John is an excellent place to visit in London for those wishing to learn more about the original Knights of St John and the St John Ambulance. A concise timeline helps to make sense of the mass of objects displayed within the gatehouse that date back several centuries and the information about St John Ambulance is very fitting with the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It is also reassuring to know there are so many kind and caring people in the world, despite the many conflicts.

For children, some of the details may be beyond their comprehension, however, the museum provides a fun sticker trail with simple questions to keep youngsters entertained. There are also colouring sheets and simple, child-friendly first aid tips to take away.

The museum is free to enter, however, a donation of £5 is recommended for the tour of the church and priory. The museum receives no government funding, and needs continued financial help to maintain the historically important buildings and collections.

All Hallows by the Tower

The City of London is full of old buildings with historical connections, however, there are very few remains of the original construction of Londinium in AD43. Visible at Tower Hill station is the remains of the London wall that was built around about the year AD200; the majority of the buildings, on the other hand, would have been made with wood, therefore, no longer exist. Nonetheless, Tower Hill is home to some of London’s oldest buildings, for instance, the Tower of London, but there is one site that is 400 years older.

Situated close to the original border of the London wall sits the oldest church in the city, All Hallows by the Tower. Part of the Diocese of London, this Anglican church is still open today for regular services and events, attracting international worshippers and tourists. Founded in AD675, this church predates all the places of worship in the city and has played a part in many significant historical events.

The original wooden building founded by Erkenwald, Bishop of London, no longer exists, however, some sections of the first stone church on the site are still visible. All Hallows, named in honour of all the saints, both known and unknown, was established as a chapel of the abbey of Barking. Historical documents often refer to the church as All Hallows Barking or Berkyngechirche as a result of the connection.

It is estimated that the first stone building was built circa AD900. Within the current building is an arch that has been dated back to the time of the Saxon and Viking invasions on Britain. Unlike most archways, this particular one – most likely the oldest surviving Saxon arch in London – has no keystone and was built using Roman floor tiles. Further evidence of the age of the original stone church was the discovery of a Saxon wheelhead cross during repair works after the Second World War.

 

Beneath the church is an undercroft, which is also thought to date back to the original stone structure. This has been converted into the All Hallows Crypt Museum that tells the story of the church throughout history. It is free to enter and also contains a couple of chapels that are still regularly used today.

The museum begins with evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain. This includes a section of tessellated flooring from the 2nd-century, situated at the bottom of the steps into the crypt. A small model of London, made in 1928, reveals what the city may have looked like in AD400 in comparison to the abundance of buildings that now run alongside the River Thames. In a case opposite the model is a range of artefacts that predate the church. These include Samian pottery, which would have been very expensive in that era, suggesting that the homes of wealthy families may have sat on the site before it was purchased by the abbey of Barking.

As visitors progress through the museum, the timeline takes a sudden leap to the 1600s with a display of silver chalices, basins and medals that made up the Church Plate. These date from 1626 until the 20th century and show the influence the Tudor reformation had on the new Protestant church.

 

The museum progresses through the history of the church until it reaches the first of two underground chapels. The Crypt Chapel or the Vicar’s Vault, as it is also known, contains the Columbarium of All Hallows. This was constructed in 1933 and is the resting place of the ashes of many people who have been associated with the church. During the excavations prior to building the chapel, many of the Roman fragments mentioned above were unearthed. Also discovered, and left where they were found, were three coffins dating from the Saxon era.

The Crypt Chapel is still used for small services today, however, visitors to the museum are asked not to enter, only stand at the back and peer in at the altar on the opposite wall. This altar comes from Castle Athlit or Château Pèlerin in Palestine and has strong connections with the Knights Templar – the Templar cross can be seen carved into the stone frontal. Castle Athlit is thought to have been the last remaining Templar stronghold in the Holy Land during the crusades before being evacuated in 1291.

The Knights Templar were a small band of noblemen founded in the 12th century during the First Crusade who pledged to protect pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they also became money lenders and their wealth gave rise to corruption and jealousy.

The altar in the crypt is not the only connection All Hallows has to these fearless warriors. In 1307, Pope Clement V (1264-1314) ordered the Templars to be restrained and their possessions seized. Edward II (1284-1327) was persuaded to allow the Inquisition judges to use All Hallows as one of the venues for the trials of the Templars. Fortunately, these trials were less violent than those held elsewhere.

Next door to the Crypt Chapel is the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi where the Holy Sacrament is kept in a niche above the altar as a continual reminder of the presence of Jesus Christ. Originally a crypt dating from c1280, it became buried for several centuries, finally being rediscovered during excavation works in 1925. After careful refurbishment, it was opened two years later as a chapel and dedicated to St Francis. It is claimed that this chapel is one of the quietest places in the City of London. Visitors are invited to use the space for their private thoughts and prayers.

Excluding the Saxon arch, the main sanctuary of All Hallows does not look as steeped in history as the crypts and chapels within its foundations. This is because the church has been victim to a number of historical events which caused damage to the architecture and surrounding area. The first recorded disaster occurred on 4th January 1650 when seven barrels of explosives caught fire in a house on Tower Street. Many of the buildings in the vicinity were destroyed and the church’s structure was damaged and every window blown out. Described as a “wofull accydent of Powder and Fyer,” 67 people were killed and many found themselves homeless.

The following year, despite England being under the thumb of the Parliamentarians, permission was granted to rebuild the church. The church’s tower was named the Cromwellian Tower after the original Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Yet, the door to the tower is known by another name: the Pepys Door.

In 1666, a great fire ravished the streets of London, devouring hundreds of buildings. The flames worked their way down Tower Street, scorching the south side of the church but, thankfully, progressing no further. The tower of All Hallows remained safe from the blaze and it is from here, the diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) took in the sight of the devastation as he later recorded:

“I up to the top of Berkeing Steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw. Everywhere great fires, the fire being as far as I could see … ”

– Samuel Pepys, 1666

The greatest destruction All Hallows suffered transpired during the Second World War in December 1940. The church had survived all the events of the past centuries, however, in less than a minute, a great amount of history was destroyed forever. A firebomb landed on the church, flattening most of the main body of the building. By some miracle, the Cromwellian Tower remained standing, which, thankfully, sheltered the ancient Saxon arch beneath it.

The vicar at the time, Tubby Clayton, was determined to rebuild the church and was supported by connections worldwide. Donations of money and building materials poured in and in July 1948, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of George VI, laid the foundation stone. A photograph of the occasion and the trowel she used can be seen in the crypt museum.

The Australian born Reverend Philip Thomas Byard “Tubby” Clayton (1885-1972) was installed as the Vicar of All Hallows in 1922, however, he was already well-known in the Christian community. After his ordination in 1910, Clayton spent time as an army chaplain during the First World War. During this period, Clayton and fellow chaplain, Neville Talbot (1879-1943) set up a rest house for soldiers in Poperinge, Belgium. Officially called Talbot House but often referred to as Toc H, the international Christian establishment allowed soldiers of all ranks to spend their time on leave in a safe, friendly place.

In a corner of All Hallows known as the Lady Chapel, a lamp sits on the altar tomb of Alderman John Croke (1477). This “Lamp of Maintenance” is a replica of the oil lamp that burnt in the top room of Talbot House during the First World War. Clayton and his work are also remembered by an effigy in the south aisle of the church. His ashes are interred in the Crypt Chapel.

The architecture of the reconstructed church is not as grand as places of worship built in the past, however, it is a large, well lit, open space suitable for a number of different services. Although the majority of the structure was built after the Second World War, the inside houses items from a range of eras. The pulpit originally stood in St Swithin’s Church near Cannon Street and is similar to the one that sat in All Hallows in 1613. The sounding board above it, in the shape of a scallop shell, is a much more modern design.

Like many other churches, the high altar sits in front of a mural of the Last Supper. This painting was produced by Brian Thomas in 1957 after the rebuilding of the church. It shows Christ blessing the bread surrounded by his apostles, however, on the right-hand side, Judas Iscariot is depicted leaving the room to betray Jesus to the Romans. The altar, apart from a cloth decorated with a phoenix-like bird, remains fairly bare – a cross would obscure the face of Jesus in the painting behind it.

To the right of the high altar is an open plan chapel containing memorials of sailors and maritime organisations. Situated near the River Thames, All Hallows was popular with dock workers and their families; the Mariner’s Chapel honours the workers and sailors who lost their lives at sea. Windows along the south wall also contain memorials, such as for the seamen lost on HMS Hood. The crucifix above the altar in the chapel is made from the wood of the Cutty Sark and ivory from one of the Spanish Armada ships.

There are other memorials around the church dating from Tudor times until the World Wars. Up above, and easily missed, is the Organ Loft containing an organ built for the reopening of the church in 1957. Hanging on the balcony is a set of arms that belonged to the Stuart king, Charles II.

Due to its lengthy history, a number of famous names have become associated with All Hallows by the Tower. Miraculously preserved in a dry lead cistern, documents of births, weddings and events in Tower Hill record the names and dates of many who passed through the church, including a couple of well-known individuals.

Handwritten on the baptismal register dated 23rd October 1644 is the entry “William, Son of William Penn & Margaret his wife of the Tower Liberties”. This baby boy, William Penn (1644-1718), would grow up to become an admiral, play a significant role protecting the church during the Great Fire of London, and, finally, move to America and found the state of Pennsylvania.

Another American connection can be found in the marriage register under the date 26th July 1797. On this date, soon to be the sixth president of the USA, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), was married to Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775-1852). Louisa was a local London girl and, until now, was the only First Lady to have been born outside the United States.

All Hallows by the Tower is so steeped in history, it is impossible to list every connection. Many people and events are remembered through memorials, artefacts, windows and so forth around the church, and special services take place throughout the year. A medieval custom, Beating the Bounds, is observed yearly (this year on Ascension Day) and the Knolly Rose Ceremony, a symbolic event dating from 1381, is held every June.

The church holds regular Sunday services beginning at 11am, which includes a sung communion. There are also a few services throughout the week, for instance, Morning Prayer and a Taizé service. As well as regular attendees, All Hallows attracts an international community and welcomes all visitors to the area.

Free to enter and sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the capital, All Hallows by the Tower is worth a visit. Whether you come for religious purposes, to learn about the history of London or just out of curiosity, you are assured of a warm welcome.