Vic Keegan’s Lost London 113: The literary history of St John’s Gate

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 113: The literary history of St John’s Gate

If you walk through this mediaeval gateway with your imagination on high alert it will be like treading through an amazing repository of English religious, political and literary history. Only St John’s Gate and a restored church the other side of Clerkenwell Road remain above ground to remind us of the Clerkenwell Priory, which was established in the 1140s as the English base of the Knights of the Order of St John, known as the Knights Hospitaller, the crusading military monks who cared for and protected pilgrims of all faiths who journeyed to the Holy Land. The St John Ambulance charity, whose offices are to the right of the gateway, is descendant from them.

The original St John’s Gate was built in 1504 as an entrance to the priory’s inner precinct. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s also saw the dissolution of the Hospitaller order, and its property passed first to Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor and later to a succession of aristocratic owners, including the dreadful Protector Somerset who blew up the nave to provide stone for his palatial residence Somerset House between the Strand and the Thames. He died before it was completed. The Hospitallers were briefly brought back under Henry’s Catholic daughter Queen Mary, then dissolved again by her half-sister Elizabeth I. The Order of St John was re-established under Victoria. The Gate was greatly restored during the 19th century. Before that, the building it formed an entrance to was put to a great array of uses. 

As you walk through its archway you will be beneath rooms Shakespeare would have frequently visited, because it housed the offices of Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels to Elizabeth and King James, to whom Shakespeare would have presented most of the 30 plays of his that were registered here. On the right as you come out of the archway was a coffee house run by Richard Hogarth, father of the great artist William Hogarth, where customers were invited to speak in Latin. An advertisement stated that “there will meet daily some learned gentleman who speak Latin readily where any gentleman who is either schooled in that language or desirous to perfect himself in speaking thereoffwill be welcome”.

This building was where the Gentleman’s Magazine, a hugely influential journal, was founded in 1731 by Edward Cave. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin, some of whose books he printed there, and, in 1752, he erected a lightning conductor of the kind invented by Franklin.

This was where Dr Johnson, a contributor to the magazine, worked in a garret and wrote some of his books. In 1749, Johnson’s friend David Garrick gave what is believed to have been his first public performance in Henry Fielding’s The Mock Doctor. Oliver Goldsmith was a frequent visitor. 

The eastern side of the gateway also hosted the old Jerusalem Tavern for many years. The gatehouse and associated room is now the St John Ambulance’s headquarters. Once through the Gate you can sense the ghost of a palace that is no longer there. Hollar’s engraving is the only memory of what it once looked like, though if you cross Clerkenwell Road, which runs straight across the original site,  you come to St John Square with the reconstructed church with a 1950s facade on the right. The circle of cobblestones on the square in front follows the line of the circular nave of the 12th century church. The very impressive crypt  dating back to the 1140s can be viewed during official visits and is one of the very few Norman buildings in London. 

Vic Keegan’s latest book of poems, Selective Memories, has just been published and can be bought here. All previous instalments of his brilliant Lost London series are archived here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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