As a born and bred Londoner it is such a joy to be stopped in my tracks by something entirely unexpected. Such was my pleasure yesterday, however, when I stumbled across the Museum of the Order of St John in Farringdon.
Basking in a bright, crisp Friday afternoon in November – the type that makes wandering through London a magical journey – I took advantage of a spare 20 minutes to wander through the narrow cobbled streets around Farringdon station.
Having found my lunch venue on Turnmill Street, I took a sharp right up Benjamin Street – an old city passage way flanked on the left by a small, neat public garden surrounded by wrought iron gates (St John’s Gardens, as it turns out) – toward St John Street, which I know for its eponymous – and delicious – meat lovers restaurant.
As I wandered, my feelings of incredulousness at the impossibly picturesque, centuries old buildings around me growing (a year in the developing world proving tricky to readjust from), I was stopped dead in my tracks toward the end of St John’s lane by what looked like the entrance to a castle.
As I approached the sand coloured brick archway framed by two medieval towers – Victorian London lamplights carving a processional path forward – I was fairly stunned. Three ornate stained glass windows sat atop coats of arms across the entrance way, while etchings of London’s cultural fathers – Shakespeare, Hogarth, Johnson, Dickens – watched from the windows of the ancient building on my right.
I soon saw a small wooden sandwich board sign underneath the arch – “The Museum of the Order of St John – come inside. Free.” I wracked my brain for some memory of what this might be, some dull recollection of one of my grandfather’s many city history tours – but nothing.
Ducking, I stepped through the small, almond shaped mahogany door into what felt very much like a vestry. I was met by a beaming 18 year old girl behind a desk on the left – a complete anachronism inside this shadowy castle – who advised me how I could walk around the building to view the exhibit.
“Dark shadows frame devotional paintings and murals of saints and apostles”
At this point I made the connection between St John and St John’s Ambulance – a well known volunteer-led medical charity in the UK that is promoted and encouraged in schools. (They will forever be linked with the movie The Exorcist for me thanks to my father’s story about St John’s volunteers scooping up feinting teenage girls at the first showing of the film in Newcastle).
Inside, the building was just, if not more, impressive – dark shadows framing devotional paintings and murals of saints and apostles. I walked to the right – as directed by the sprite at the desk – and began to follow the story of the Order of St John, the knights behind St John’s ambulance.
Founded in 1080 by humble monk Brother Gerard, the order began as a single hospital in Jerusalem that cared for weary pilgrims to the Holy Land. Half a century later, as the Christian crusades swung into action, the order militarised, and the knights of St John were born.
Over the subsequent 800 years the order was ousted from Jerusalem by the Ottomans, setting up shop in Cyprus, Rhodes, and finally Malta. The small and engaging display of artefacts in the room to the right of the entrance tells this story.
Some of the highlights include an intricate model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, inlaid with mother of pearl and built entirely to scale with every room and passageway recreated in miniature. These were, apparently, the souvenir de rigger of the day for fashionable pilgrims of the sixteenth century.
Suits of armour and grand, baroque paintings of holy men and women are perhaps more eye-catching, as is a one meter model of one of the cargo ships used to transport goods from Europe to Malta bound for the Middle East and Africa – one of the reasons this was such an important settlement for the British – which has pride of place in the large central glass-housed display.
This part of the order’s history is perhaps more glorified than it’s British history, ending as it did when the impetuous Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic church and swiped the knights’ land and buildings for himself in 1534. Before this, the knights home was here inside these thick medieval walls and within an elaborate building complex opposite known as the Priory.
“Dynasties rise, nations fall, some trinkets survive”
After the monks were sent on their way the building and its grounds became a cultural hub. The Priory was where Shakespeare brought his plays to be licensed, while Hogarth grew up in one of the grand buildings that grew up around St Johns Gate – as the area became known. The Jerusalem Tavern – just a stone’s throw from where I was standing – is where Dickens and Johnson enjoyed a tipple.
This building is, however, very much dedicated to the history of the Order of St John and its modern incarnation – St John’s Ambulance, with the final part of the display dedicated to St John’s service during the past two world wars.
Exiting the museum into the now darkening light of a winters evening I felt bereft – the small display had been entirely immersive and nourishing, an escape from the present. Reading the near 2,000 year history of the Order was, for me, a reminder that everything is transient and history is cyclical. While one nation may hold another for a hundred or even two hundred years, another will take over and the world will keep spinning – people will live, things will survive. Dynasties rise, nations fall, some trinkets survive.