The Medieval Secrets of Smithfield, London

London Charterhouse - Joachim Moxon

London Charterhouse – Joachim Moxon

In Smithfield, amidst the heap of a neglected area in London, lie some of the city’s most intriguing medieval fragments.

Smithfield, once at the fringe of a great heaving metropolis during the last stages of the Middle Ages, has since been engulfed to the point of getting lost in a maze.

Nominally within the financial heart of business London, the relative peripheral position within that center has ensured a separate character. The streets follow a bewildering pattern that defies orientation, making Smithfield something of a point to nowhere, a nonentity on the London map. Consequently, visitors and locals habitually miss out on intriguing fragments of the past.

The area is at first glance a shabby collection of brick buildings, in which offices cram for space in structures ill-suited for the purpose. Tenants and owners do not seem to be here out of choice and up-keep is often kept to a rather sorry minimum.

However, the fate of neglect has also ensured a curious twist of survival. Secure beyond the famous flames that raged in 1666, vestiges of older times still have room to crop up in the midst of the Victorian city fabric.

For one thing, there is the curiously unknown St. Bartholomew’s the Great, which is perhaps the finest example of Norman church architecture still extant in London. The church exists now in a much-mutilated state, and the exterior betrays little of the archaic air of wonder within. However, the church was once the lesser only to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in size.

St. Johns gate ,

St. Johns gate ,

St Bartholomew’s was originally part of an Augustinian priory and a jumble of monastic buildings surrounded the site, creating an imposing complex, which the remaining fragments still hint at. However, The western façade is all but gone, and its surviving gateway leads into open air, rather than to a murky nave. In fact, only half of the church has survived the upheavals of history. Nonetheless, the surviving interiors are as if suspended in time and a must-visit for fans of religious architecture. Entry charge is 4 pounds.

Above the remaining stump of a gateway sits a half-timbered Tudor structure looking onto Smithfield market. The open space gathered crowds for centuries to take part in cloth fairs and witness ghastly executions. Movie fans will be intrigued to know that this was the site for the execution of William Wallace, the hero portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In the 16th century, plenty more blood was spilled as Catholics and Protestants made use of the site to burn each other as heretics.

The market is still operated by meat vendors, and is the last of its kind in London, though the open-air existence was ended in Victorian times. The resulting structure is a boastful piece of Victorian engineering, with iron and steel rendered in loving classical detail. The scene is a far cry from the long gone fields of pasture that once abutted the area to the west and made the market ideal for the sale of meat in the first place.

Across the road is St Bartholomew’s hospital, which still serves the needs of the infirm and harkens back to the traditional role of the priory. St. Bartholomew’s the less, a smaller church, still peeps out amongst the largely classical buildings of the complex.

The Augustinian monks were not alone in choosing Smithfield for monastic life. London Charterhouse was once a Carthusian monastery, which was brutally suppressed during the early stages of the reformation by Henry VIII. Though since converted to other uses, it is still a rambling set of medieval houses in a Tudor style that only through occasional use of brick hints at the cusp of newer times.

Further north, St. Johns gate remains at the border with Clerkenwell and stands testimony to the priory of St John of Jerusalem, which once stood here. An order of the knights Hospitallers, the order once rivaled the knights Templars and succeeded it when the latter was suppressed.

That is not all, at the other end of Smithfield, just across from what used to be one of the gates to the City wall, we find the parish church of St. Sepulchre without Newgate. Though damaged by the fires of 1666, the church has kept a relatively authentic medieval exterior.

Just next to the church of St Bartholomew’s the Great, down the lane of Cloth fair, we also find one of the few remaining pre-1666 domestic buildings in the city. The building is now converted to offices.

Smithfield, thus, remains a seldom visited part of London, despite the impressive remains of a medieval past still lurking around every corner.

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