Any building that makes a group of seasoned London bloggers go ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ must be pretty special. But you don’t have to be very seasoned to appreciate this fascinating pocket of history.
St John’s Gate is home to the Museum of the Order of St John, which tells the story of a monastic order dating back to the 12th-century.
You can visit this small museum (and the Church Cloister Garden across the road) anytime, or if you’ve got 80 minutes to spare then they also run tours of the rest of the building, including the 12th-century crypt.
Here are my highlights from the tour to whet your appetite.
1. St John’s Gate was built in 1504…
The gate was built as part of Clerkenwell Priory (established in 1140) which was the headquarters of the religious Order of St John — known as the Hospitallers.
St John’s Gate would have been the main entrance to the walled inner precinct of the priory; it’s thought that this gate replaced an even older one, which was built in the 1160s.
2. …Before Clerkenwell Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII
You can’t get far in a beautiful building in London without running into this guy, and Henry VIII makes his rather large presence felt yet again at St John’s Gate.
During the reformation, the Order of St John was dissolved and Clerkenwell Priory was seized by the crown — aside from being briefly restored during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, the Order was not to return to the gate for 300 years.
In the time after it was dissolved, though, the gate was put to good use…
3. Shakespeare had some of his plays licensed here
Our tour guide was not kidding when he suggested that this room deep within St John’s Gate was one of the most important rooms in English cultural history.
Back in the 16th century, this was the office of the Master of the Revels — the guy who had the power to grant licences for plays to be performed in public.
He could even ask you to perform some of it (or even the whole thing) for him, so many of the period’s well known plays were performed for the first time here.
And of course, no story about 16th-century culture would be complete without mention of William Shakespeare, who came here for licences for 30 of his plays; it was in this very room that the first performance of Twelfth Night took place.
4. It was once a coffee shop run by William Hogarth’s father
In 1703, Richard Hogarth opened Hogarth’s Coffee House as a place for gentlemen to meet and talk in Latin.
Consequently, William Hogarth grew up in this area, and would later paint the grand staircase at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which now leads from the museum to the Great Hall.
5. Dr Johnson worked here in the 1730s and 40s
Long before he compiled his famous Dictionary or uttered anything about being tired of London, Samuel Johnson (as he was then known) worked as a contributor, translator and editor for The Gentleman’s Magazine, which was established here at St John’s Gate in 1731 and based in the same room as the Master of the Revels office above.
Several of Johnson’s books were also printed here; join a guided tour and they’ll show you the spot where Johnson’s desk would have been. Other connections to the 18th-century culture include the actor David Garrick’s first public London performance, and the printing of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity.
To complement this part of the building’s history, a first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary and some of his other work is on display in the museum.
6. The Jerusalem Tavern was based here (which was a favourite of Charles Dickens)
From the 1700s until the 1870s, the gate served as a tavern, known as the Old Gate, the St John’s Gate Tavern, the Jerusalem Tavern or Old Jerusalem Tavern. A fireplace from the original tavern still lives in the gate.
During this time, the gate started to change shape; the battlements were pulled down in the 1760s, probably because they were unsafe, and a double entrance was removed in 1771 to ease traffic. More work was done in the 1800s.
Much of the building we see today is a Victorian reconstruction, as the original Tudor buildings had decayed so much that the Watson family — who owned the gate at the time — were faced with either repairing it or pulling it down.
7. The crypt is the only part of the original priory to have survived from the 12th century
Go on a guided tour around St John’s Gate and you’ll also get to see the crypt, which is the only part of the complex to have survived everything that the rest of it has been through.
You can’t get much quieter than an underground crypt, even on a tour, and you’ll also get to hear why there is no one buried down here.
8. And The Church Cloister Garden is pretty special, too
The monks of the old priory would have grown herbs here and the space is now a walled garden open for the public to enjoy.
Take a pew on one of the benches and take in the view of the old church and galley that line the walls.
9. You might recognise the crosses dotted around the building…
In 1887 the Order of St John were able to return to the gate, and this has been their headquarters ever since.
They even still have the same motto that the Knights Hospitaller chose 900 years ago: ‘For the Faith and in the Service of Humanity’, and they take this objective very seriously…
The Order’s full title is The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and is itself an international charity with two charitable foundations: the St John Eye Hospital Group in Jersalem and St John’s Ambulance.
While on a tour, look out for the eight-pointed cross on a black background, which you might recognise from the St John’s Ambulance logo.
St John’s Gate: the essentials
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Monday-Saturday (plus Sundays in July, August and September)
Nearest Tube: Farringdon / Barbican
More information: Visit the Museum of the Order of St John website