The Great Cathedral-Builders

There are probably few of our readers who, as they have gazed on those architectural wonders of the middle ages, our cathedrals and larger ecclesiastical structures, and thought of the endless difficulties, mechanical and otherwise, surmounted in their construction, but have felt a strong desire to look back to the periods of their erection, and to note all the variety of interesting circumstances that must have marked such events. What, for instance, could be at once more gratifying and instructive than to be able to familiarize ourselves with the motives and characters of the chief founders, with the feelings and thoughts of the people among and for whom the structures in question were reared? If our readers will now follow us into the history of St. Bartholomew Priory, Smithfield, Ave think we can venture to promise them some such glimpse of those fine old builders at work; and that too founded upon the best of authorities—an inmate of the Priory, who wrote so soon after its foundation, that persons were still alive who had witnessed the whole proceedings. We shall borrow occasionally the language as well as the facts of the good monk’s history; which has been printed in the ‘Monasticon,’ and in Malcolm’s ‘London.’ In the reign of Henry the First there was a man named Rahere, sprung and born from low lineage, and who when he attained the flower of youth began to haunt the households of noblemen and the palaces of princes; where, under every elbow of them he spread their cushions, with japes and flatterings delectably anointing their eyes, by this manner to draw to him their friendships. Such was the youthful life of Rahere. But with years came wisdom and repentance. He would go to Rome, and there seek remission of his sins. He did so. At the feet of the shrine of the Apostles Peter and Paul he poured out his lamentations; but, to his inexpressible pain, God, he thought, refused to hear him. He fell sick. And then he shed out as water his heart in the sight of God; the fountains of his nature to the very depths were broken up; he wept bitter tears. At last dawned a new life upon the penitent man. He vowed, if God would grant him health to return to his own country, he would make an hospital in recreation of poor men, and minister to their necessities to the best of his power. With returning health to the mind not unnaturally came back health to the body. And now more and more grew upon him the love of the great work he had determined to perform. Visions, as he believed, were vouchsafed to him for his guidance. On a certain night he saw one full of dread and sweetness. He fancied himself to be borne up on high by a certain winged beast, and when from his great elevation he sought to look down, he beheld a horrible pit, deeper than any man might attain to see the bottom of, opening, as it seemed, to receive him. He trembled, and great cries proceeded from his mouth. Then to his comfort there appeared a certain man, having all the majesty of a king, of great beauty, and imperial authority, and his eye fastened upon Rahere. “0 man,” said he, “what and how much service shouldest thou give to him that in so great a peril hath brought help to thee?” Rahere answered, “Whatever might be of heart and of right, diligently should I give in recompense to my deliverer.” Then said the celestial visitant, “I am Bartholomew, the apostle of Jesus Christ, that come to succour thee in thine anguish, and to open to thee the sweet mysteries of Heaven. Know me truly, by the will and commandment of the Holy Trinity, and the common favour of the celestial court and council, to have chosen a place in the suburbs of London, at Smithfield, where in my name thou shalt form a church.” Rahere with a joyful heart returned to London, where he presently obtained the concurrence of the king to carry out his views. The choice of the place was, according to the monkish historian, who believed but what all believed, no less a matter of special arrangement by Heaven. King Edward the Confessor had previously had the very spot pointed out to him when he was bodily sleeping, but his heart to God waking; nay, more, three men of Greece who had come to London, had gone to the place to worship God, and there prophesied wonderful things relating to the future temple that was to be erected on it. In other points, the locality was anything but a favoured one. Truly says the historian, the place before his cleansing pretended to no hope of goodness. Right unclean it was; and as a marsh dungy and fenny, with water at most times abounding; whilst the only dry portion was occupied by the gallows for the execution of criminals. “Work and place determined on, Rahere had now to begin to build; and strange indeed were the modes adopted by him to obtain the gift of the requisite materials, bring together the hosts of unpaid workmen, or to find funds for such additional materials and labour as might be necessary. He made and feigned himself unwise, it is said, and outwardly pretended the cheer of an idiot, and began a little while to hide the secretness of his soul. And the more secretly he wrought the more wisely he did his work. Truly, in playing unwise he drew to him the fellowship of children and servants, assembling himself as one of them; and with their use and help, stones, and other things profitable to the building, lightly he gathered together. Thus did he address himself to one class of persons, those who would look upon his apparent mental peculiarities as a kind of supernatural proof of his enjoying the especial care of the Deity. Another class he influenced by his passionate eloquence in the churches; where he addressed audiences with the most remarkable effect, now stirring them so to gladness that all the people applauded him, now moving them to sorrow by his searching and kindly exposure of their sins, so that nought but sighing and weeping were heard on all sides. A third mode of obtaining help was by the direct one of personal solicitation at the houses of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, in the course of which, St. Bartholomew often, it appears, redeemed his promise to Rahere of assistance. Alfun, a coadjutor of Rahere’s, the builder of old St. Giles, Cripplegate, went one day to a widow, to see what she could give them for the use of the church and the hospital of St. Bartholomew. She told him she had but seven measures of meal, which were absolutely necessary for the supply of her family. She, however, at last gave one measure. After Alfun had departed with her contribution, she casually looked over the remaining measures, when she thought she counted seven measures still; she counted again, and there were eight; again, there were nine. How long this very profitable system of arithmetic lasted, our good monk does not state. And thus at last was St. Bartholomew’s Priory raised, clerks brought together to live in it, a piece of adjoining ground consecrated as a place of sepulchre, privileges showered upon it by the hands of royalty, and the whole stamped, as was thought, with the emphatic approval of Heaven by the miraculous cures that were then wrought in the establishment. Yes, the work was finished, and Rahere made the first Prior. No wonder that the people, as we are informed, were greatly astonished both at the work and the founder; or that St. Bartholomew’s was esteemed to belong more to the supernatural than the natural. No wonder that as to Rahere it should be asked, in the words of the monkish chronicler, “Whose heart lightly should take or admit such a man not product of gentle blood, not greatly endowed with literature, or of divine lineage” notwithstanding his nominally low origin? Rahere fulfilled the duties of Prior in the beloved house of his own raising, for above twenty years, when the clay house of this world he forsook, and the house everlasting entered.


Figure 528
528.—Prior Rahere’s Tomb.

Of this very building, or rather series of buildings erected by Rahere himself, there remains in a fine state of preservation an important portion, the Choir of the Conventual Church, used as the present parish church (Fig. 526). There can be no doubt that we have there the original walls, pillars, and arches of the twelfth century; the massive, grand, and simple style of the whole tells truly enough the date of their erection. This choir, therefore, forms one of the most interesting and valuable pieces of antique ecclesiastical architecture now existing in England. Among its more remarkable features may be mentioned the continuous aisle that runs round the choir, and opening into it between the flat and circular arch-piers; the elegant horseshoe-like arches of the chancel at the end of the choir; and the grand arches at the opposite extremity, shown in our engraving, on which formerly rose a stately tower corresponding in beauty and grandeur to all the other portions of the pile. The tomb of Rahere is also in the choir, but is of somewhat later date than the Priory. Nothing so exquisitely beautiful in sculpture as that work, with its recumbent effigy, and attending monks and angels, its fretted canopies and niches and finials, had yet burst upon Old England when Rahere died (Fig. 528). The very perfect state in which it now appears is owing to Prior Bolton, who restored it in the sixteenth century, as well as other parts of the structure; a labour of which he was evidently very proud, for wherever his handiwork may be traced, there too you need not look long for his hand writing —his signature as it were—a Bolt in tun (Fig. 530). This Prior was an elegant and accomplished man; if even he were not much more. The beautiful oriel window in the second story of the choir which encloses the Prior’s pew or seat, nearly facing Rahere’s monument as if that the Prior might the better look down on the last restingplace of the illustrious founder, this was added by Bolton, and has been supposed, for reasons into which we cannot here enter, to be from his own designs. Another part of the ancient structure is to be found in the old vestry-room, which was formerly an oratory, dedicated to the Virgin. Among the burials in the church the most important perhaps was that of Roger Walden, Bishop of London, who rose from a comparatively humble position to the highest offices of the state; he was successively Dean of York, Treasurer of Calais, Royal Secretary, and Royal Treasurer, and, lastly, Primate of England, on the occasion of the banishment of Archbishop Arundel by Richard the Second. That ecclesiastic, however, returned with Bolingbroke, to his country and office, and Walden became at once a mere private person. Arundel, it is pleasant to relate, behaved nobly to the unfortunate prelate, making him Bishop of London. He died, however, shortly after. Fuller compares him to one so jaw-fallen with over-long fasting that he cannot eat meat when brought unto him. Sir Walter Mildmay, founder of Emanuel College, Cambridge and Dr. Francis Anthony, the discoverer and user of a medicine drawn from gold (aurum potabile he called it), also lie here buried. There are other monuments not unworthy of notice, though at St. Bartholomew’s, as now at most other churches, the major portion refer to those who were, like “Captain John Millet, mariner, 1600,

Desirous hither to resort

Because this parish was their port;


Figure 524
524.—Plan of the Priory of St. Bartholomew.
Figure 525
Jailer walking into the dark

but who have not, like him, told us this in so amusing a manner. Of the other parts of the Priory, there remain the entrance gateway (Fig. 529), portions of the cloisters, and of the connected domestic buildings; above all, the Refectory, or grand hall, still stands to a great extent entire, though so metamorphosed that its very existence has hardly been known to more than a few. It is now occupied by a tobacco manufactory, and divided into stories; but there can be no doubt that any one who shall attentively examine the place will come to the same conclusion as ourselves, that the whole has formed one grand apartment, extending from the ground to the present roof, and that the latter has been originally of open wood-work. It may help to give some general idea of the magnificent scale of the Priory, to state that this hall must have measured forty feet high, thirty broad, and one hundred and twenty in length. Another illustration of the same point is furnished by the plan, which shows the pile in its original state (Fig. 524).* If we look at the part marked O, the present parish Church, and the old Choir, and see how small a proportion it bears to the entire structure, we have a striking view of the former splendour and present degradation of St. Bartholomew’s. The site of the other buildings there marked are now occupied by the most incongruous assemblage of filthy stables and yards, low public-houses, mouldering tenements, with here and there residences of a better character; and in few or none of these can we enter without meeting with corners of immense walls projecting suddenly out, vaulted roofs, boarded-up pillars, and similar evidences of the ruin upon which all these appurtenances of the modern inhabitants have been established. The only other feature that it is necessary to mention is the Crypt, which extends below the Refectory, and is one of the most remarkable places of the kind, even in London, so rich in crypts (Fig. 525). It runs the whole length of the Refectory, and is divided by pillars into a central part and two aisles. Popular fancy has not even been satisfied with these suffiently


  1. The East Cloister, the only one of which there are any remains.
  2. The North Cloister, parallel with the Nave.
  3. The South Cloister.
  4. The West Cloister. The Square thus enclosed by the Cloisters measures about a hundred feet each way.
  5. The North Aisle of the Nave.
  6. The South Aisle, to which the existing Gateway in front of Smithfield was the original entrance.
  7. The Nave, no part of which or of the Aisles now remains.
  8. St. Bartholomew’s Chapel, destroyed by Fire about 1830.
  9. Middlesex Passage, leading from Great to Little Bartholomew Close.
  10. The Dining Hall or Refectory of the Priory, with the Crypt beneath.
  11. Situation of the Great Tower, which was supported on four arches, that still remain.
  12. The Northern Aisle of the Choir.
  13. The Southern Aisle of the Choir.
  14. The Eastern Aisle of the Choir.
  15. The present Parish Church, forming the Choir of the old Priory Church.
  16. The Prior’s House, with the Dormitory and Infirmary above.
  17. Site of the Prior’s Offices, Stables, Wood-Yard, &c.
  18. The Old Vestry.
  19. The Chapter House with an entrance gateway from
  20. The South Transept.
  21. The North Transept.
  22. The present entrance info the Church.

On the top of the plan is Little Bartholomew Close, on the left Cloth Fair, at the bottom Smithfield, and on the right Great Bartholomew Close.

noticeable facts as to the subterranean regions of St. Bartholomew’s, but has stretched the Crypt all the way to Islington, where the Prior had his country residence and pleasance or garden of Canonbury; and where the mansion and garden house of Prior Bolton are still preserved, close by the famous Tower of Canonbury. The tower of course formed a part of the Canonbury estate, which evidently derives its name from the canons of the Priory.