The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, a magnificently gothic-looking church in central London is marking its 900th anniversary this year — which makes it a good year to pay a visit. It’s also that famously large church that is so often used in TV and films because frankly, it looks damn stunning inside.
The church on this site was founded in 1123 by the Anglo-Norman priest Rahere – so 900 years ago this year.
The story goes that while in Italy, he had a dream that a winged beast came and transported him to a high place, then relayed a message from “the High Trinity and…the court of Heaven” that he was to erect a church in the London suburb of Smithfield.
For some reason, he chose a plot of land owned by King Henry I, and had to persuade him to hand it over, which eventually he did. Quite why he didn’t choose some other empty field is a mystery. The priory suffered the anger of a later King Henry, and about half the site was ransacked before being demolished in 1543, and although it survived the Great Fire of London, it decayed until it was restored in the 19th century.
What makes the church so special to visit is that, in a way, it doesn’t look restored at all. It has a delightfully unfinished medieval charm to the building, from the Tudor gatehouse to the rough stone inside and the many nooks and crannies to explore.
A main nave in the centre is surrounded by a series of massive stone pillars to support the rest of the church, and it’s slightly unusual that the choir sit at the back of the church, away from the main altar. You can also walk under the organ loft — just as you can at Westminster Abbey, although theirs is rather grander in appearance.
It’s an odd layout though and almost feels like a church within a church — with a dark atmospheric corridor running around the central space which suddenly bursts with light as you walk into it.
One of the features they point out is the oriel window high up the main wall, which was installed by Prior William Bolton, allegedly so that he could keep an eye on the monks. The symbol in the centre panel is a crossbow “bolt” passing through a “tun” (or barrel), a pun on the name of Prior Bolton. Bolton was also the man responsible for the Canonbury Tower, and you can see that same joke symbol on some of the nearby houses.
Off to one side is a golden St Bartholomew, shown with his skin flayed as he is often shown as a result of his martyrdom.
It’s a remarkable church, and so unlike any parish church you will ever visit simply because it looks so magnificent in its raw minimally restored state.
Do also wander through the side door by the main entrance into the cloister, as there are some history explanation boards there.
In 2007, they started charging for entry to the church, but that was dropped a few years ago, and it’s now free to visit, with donations always appreciated.
According to the sign by the door, there is also a daily tour of the church at 12 noon, lasting about an hour.
The church is open Mon-Sat 10am to 5pm and on Sunday between services, and if visiting on a Sunday, easier to stick to the afternoon as there are no services then. You can find it next to St Barts hospital and Smithfield meat market.
If you visit before 3rd May – there’s also an exhibition in the church of over twenty-five artistic interventions from a multitude of different disciplines and mediums including sculpture, sound, painting, textiles, olfactory work, and more.