SHAMUS IN LONDON | Smithfield, St. Bartholomew-the-Great

Updated: Nov 12

"The streetlamp hung off a half-timber gatehouse in the middle of a row of storefronts with offices over, there to light the gatehouse arch and a path running through it to a churchyard beyond ... The church had a square tower over a doorway framed in checkerboard stonework. An iron-studded door stood half open on a porch, a police officer hunched in its shadow. The pallid giant beat one glove against another in a slow handclap, then raised a salute as I walked up the churchyard path." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 1]

For over 400 years, passers-by could have stood with their backs to this gateway and witnessed fires being kindled on West Smithfield square to roast martyrs and murders alive, or watched executioners cut down hanged men and tear out their innards while the victims still breathed. Hardly surprising then that in 1849 excavations for a new sewer right in front of the gatehouse of St. Bartholomew-the-Great brought to light a quantity of stones, blackened by fire, and covered with ashes and charred human bones. Little more than one hundred years later, before dawn on Christmas Day, 1947, Newman meets City Police, watching over a corpse in the porch of the same church. Plus ça change.

West Gateway leading to the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London

"There’s an eight hundred year-old story about a traveler who went to Rome, fell into a fever there and saw a vision that left him shaken but also stirred. The traveler said Bartholomew the apostle had appeared to him in a dream, hooked an icy finger in his shirtfront and drawn him near. So close up he could smell incense on the specter’s breath, the traveler made his pitch: only pull him through the fever and he’d go back to his own city, build a hospital there and name it for the saint. The fever faded. The traveler kept his word. On the smooth field, where horse fairs traded outside the City wall, he built Bartholomew a hospital and for good measure, a priory for the safety of his soul.

Call it beginner’s luck, but as prime locations go Smithfield had been charmed. In time, six-wives Henry sold it off. A dicing lawyer subdivided. The Great Fire of London stopped yards short and Hitler’s blitzkrieg missed it. Just. There were bombed-out acres all around. As of now, loud money had the monopoly on charm. And if you found yourself pitching to save your skin, it wasn’t likely you were talking to a saint." [Outtake Shamus Dust, Chapter 1]

The parish church of St. Bartholomew the Great is the relic of the traveler’s priory - a mere fragment of a vast complex of Augustinian monastic buildings and properties that was once the second wealthiest in London. You can see the original extent below outlined in red.

The detail is taken from "Civitas Londinum", a bird’s-eye view of London first printed from woodblocks in about 1561. Widely known as the Agas map, from a spurious attribution to surveyor Ralph Agas (c.1540-1621).

It's said that the church survived the Great Fire in 1666 because it was protected by the city walls. Others claim it's because the wind changed when the fire reached Pie Corner only three hundred yards away. Hand of man, hand of God? The jury's still out. But what's not in question is that St. Bartholomew-the-Great is the oldest surviving church in the City by some 500 years.

The massive Norman columns of the choir now form the body of St. Bartholomew-the-Great.

"St. Bartholomew the Great was so cavernous inside it was shrugging off ten degrees of frost. At right a halo of candlelight flickered, impossible to tell how far off. Up ahead, a blood-red sanctuary lamp burned and might have been a distant planet. The rest of the interior took its time to collect. A half circle of arches floated on squat, massive columns. Moonlight pale as butter slanted from high in the walls. I moved right, followed along a line of fat pillars, kept going and came level with the halo of light and stopped when it divided in two." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 1]

When the priory was dissolved in 1539, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor snapped it up, lock stock and barrel - then started demolishing parts of it, including the nave of the church and a part of the cloister. What was left was used for secular purposes and over time housed a school, a wine cellar, a smithy and perhaps with a nod to Bethlehem - even a stable. Just over two hundred years later the lady chapel was turned into a printing works employing no less than Benjamin Franklin as a journeyman printer.

The lady chapel of St. Bartholomew-the-Great.

"Inside the rail of a side chapel, on a wrought iron stand thick with wax, two tapers were burned almost through. At the foot of the stand, catching their glimmer, a nativity was bedded in a scatter of straw on the stone-flagged floor. It had a crib in a stable, an ox and an ass in a stall, shepherds on their knees beside the crib, and a pageboy a little way off, beckoning wide-eyed to three kings that they’d better come see. On a rise behind the stable, a somber angel who knew how it all would end was at the edge of tears." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 1]

Did you know?

  • St Bartholomew-the-Great has appeared in feature films including: The End of the Affair 1991; Four Weddings and a Funeral - 1994; Robin Hood Prince of Thieves 1991; Shakespeare in Love 1998; Amazing Grace 2006; Elizabeth: The Golden Age 2007; The Other Boleyn Girl 2008; Sherlock Holmes 2009; Richard II of Th Hollow Crown 2012; Snow White and the Huntsman 2012; Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015; Transformers: The Last Knight 2017

  • The poet and heritage campaigner Sir John Betjeman kept a flat opposite the churchyard on Cloth Fair. Betjeman considered the church to have the finest surviving Norman interior in London.

Janet Roger is the author of SHAMUS DUST : HARD WINTER, COLD WAR, COOL MURDER - available for purchase on Amazon UK and Amazon US

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