|The Order of St John|
|Seen from the North. The staircase on the right is one of the two oldest staircases in London|
|Inside the museum - blending old and new|
So what did I know about the Order of St John in advance? Well, that it was old, something to do with the Crusades possibly, and likewise something somehow to do with the modern day St John's Ambulance service. So, not a lot.
I now know a lot lot more, but I'm just going to give the highlights, not the complete history I noted down - you should go and learn that for yourself. Also, if I put it all down, it would be dozens and dozens of bullet points, which would be even drier than usual. So here it is in brief:
- Order of St John founded in around 1080, as a primarily medical order.
- Headquartered on this site in Clerkenwell, their main raison-d'etre was to provide aid to Christians fighting in the crusades (started by Pope Urban II in 1095). Hence their early name, the Hospitallers.
- As it was the crusades, they became a part medical, part religious, part military order
- Driven from the Middle East to Rhodes, they fell back for the Middle Ages to their stronghold in Malta
- The Templars, for reasons I don't fully know, made a lot of enemies, and had their goods and lands seized and handed to the Order of St John.
- Cue many many many conspiracy theories, still in circulation today as far as I can tell
- The Order treated all patients as they would treat Christ himself, serving all from silver platters.
- An interesting side-effect of that, is that silver is naturally anti-microbial, so a very sensible choice for a hospital. I suspect they knew this.
- They treated some 4000 patients a year in Malta.
- They amassed great riches, again probably feeding conspiracy theories. But honestly, that's what organisations have always done, and do today - to exist is to acquire power. To lose power is to cease to exist. Considering they have lasted 1000 years, they clearly knew how to play the game.
- Henry VIII dissolved religious organisations in 1530s, basically seizing their lands. The Order of St John was the last organisation to be dissolved. Henry turned the buildings into a store room for his hunting gear. In 1560 the Queen's Master of the Revels was headquartered here, and it was in this building that Shakespeare's plays were licensed.
- In Victorian times the Order was revived
- First as an order of Chivalry, in the 1830s
- Then as St John's Ambulance in the 1870s
- The Clerkenwell site was re-acquired in 1877.
- Today St John's Ambulance operates in dozens of countries providing emergency health care and support. They are ubiquitous at UK public events.
One bit I missed out, so I could highlight it. In the early 1700s, the building was a coffee house, run by one Mr Hogarth, who's son William grew up there. I doubt that's the last I'll see of Hogarth, who is now my tip for most linkages and appearances in London museums.
|The Missal of Rhodes|
|Collection of apothecaries' jars|
|One panel of a 15th century triptych|
I'm also not surprised that the Order and their erstwhile peers like the Templars would feature in modern conspiracy theories - they have lasted a very long time, accumulated and lost power. They blended the religious with the political through the middle ages, surviving the renaissance pretty much intact. To those not able to properly consider the nature of power and large organisations, why not assume they were up to some mystical shenanigans?
|St John's Head. In a bowler hat. I have no idea.|
|Ancient doorway with insignia|
They do tours a couple of days a week, which are well worth going on, and give you the chance to visit the crypt and other closed-off spaces.
Cost: Free. But you should make a donation.
Food and Drink: None that I saw, but there are plenty of places nearby.
Toilets: Superb - brand new.
Transport: It's here.