Malcolm had a curiously productive day.
Trinity & St John’s
The main event was supposed to be the London-resident TCD geriatrics gathering at the Museum of the Order of St John.
Once upon a historical-novelist’s time, this was the Priory of the Knights of Saint John in Clerkenwell. Now, it is all gimmied up to look very ancient, and St John’s Gate (which sits on the site of the entry to the priory which Henry VIII dissolved) is a perfect, if pretentious traffic restriction. In fact, almost everything we see is a Victorian mockery — thanks to Norman Shaw and Gilbert Scott’s less talented son.
The place has any importance because, in 1888, Queen Victoria created a brand-new “order of chivalry”, the Grand Priory of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem in England (they’ve modified that description over the years). This means that a variety of odd-bods can parade around, from time to time, in fancy dress, and add inexplicable initials after their names. Inevitably anyone linked to the royal household ends up with a consolation prize of one or other of the hierarchies of this nonsense.
At a level well below all the flummery, something useful is happening. At any public British outing one sees the “St John Ambulance“. These are do-gooding volunteer first-aiders. And good luck to them. They just don’t get within a league of the pretentious affectations that go with the ceremonial stuff.
There are two grand moments in the organised tour.
On is the “crypt” of the original St John’s temple. It clearly was more of an undercroft, else the windows would haves been redundant. It sports too much of that Victorian “every picture tells a story” stained glass. and a whole gallimaufry of memorial plaques to the self-appointed and committee-annointed “Great and Good”.
The claims is that this is one of the half-dozen oldest structures in London. Fair enough. Take that as “a starter for ten“:
- OK, there are various places where the original Roman wall of Londinium is still visible. That’s from around AD200.
- Around the same time the road pattern radiating from London (probably based on long-established tacks) was formalised. So the A2 was the Roman “Iter III” or (to the natives who’d been tripping down to Kent since Adam wor a bu’ a lad) Watling Street, and Ermine Street took you from Bishopsgate to Eboracum (on a modern road map, long stretches of it are numbered A10 or A14).
- Even before that, when the spooks were erecting their palace at Vauxhall, half a dozen piles from the Mesolithic period were discovered.
- London Stone has been about the place since Æðelstān, which is the end of the ninth century. A romantic would wish this was where Arthur drew the sword from the stone.
- Bits (admittedly small bits) of the Tower of London go back to five minutes after Guillaume le Bâtard took over in 1066, and he decided walls and fences make good neighbours, particularly when he had the heavy metal to frighten the ordure out of the locals.
- We’d better allow in Westminster Abbey.
- And the Temple Church.
Oh, look ! we’ve overrun our number limit. And we still didn’t list the Iron Age burial mounts, like the one on Hampstead Heath. Or Alfred’s dock at Queenhithe. And let’s not speculate about those piles that appear at low water near London Bridge and at Westminster.
So, in Michelin terms, worth a visit, even — if you’re at a loose end — worth a short detour. Just don’t make a special journey.
“Unfair!” you cry
Well, to each his own. The (excellent) lady guide made a big thing that the room over the gateway was the office of the Master of the Revels. or, as the potted history on line has it:
However, on the accession of her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I, the Order in England was dissolved for good.
The buildings in Clerkenwell were put to different uses in the years that followed. During the sixteenth century they were used as the offices of the Master of the Revels. Thirty of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here.
In the eighteenth century the Gate was briefly used as a coffee house, run by Richard Hogarth, father of the artist William Hogarth. Dr. Samuel Johnson was given his first job in London at St John’s Gate, writing reports for The Gentlemen’s Magazine. At the end of the eighteenth century the Gate was used as a pub, The Old Jerusalem Tavern, where artists and writers, including Charles Dickens, used to meet.
All of which deserves some credence. Only an irredeemable cynic would wonder which pub of any age Dickens is not alleged to have frequented: it’s quite incredible how he still managed the odd thousand or two words a day. As for the office of Master of the Revels, it would be hard at this distance to assert without any smidgeon of doubt which “room” was Edmund Tilney‘s “office”.
Ah! yes! Tilney.
He really deserves some extended study, sooner or later.