Great St Barts was founded in 1123 and has been at the centre of virtually everything ever since. It was just outside the church gates that Braveheart (yes, that one) met his very grisly end in 1305. It was here that Wat Tyler and Richard the Second faced each other down over the peasants revolt of 1381. There was a ducking pond for witches outside, and those that didn't float were not guilty but drowned anyway, and those that did float were burned. And they say justice isn't blind?? Smithfield was also used as a tilt yard and a market place among much else, and for hundreds of years this church was at the centre of it. In later times there was even a wife market outside, as divorces were too expensive for commoners and one could sell on an unrequired wife (yes, really) as late as the Georgian period. The well-named Bloody Mary had her opponents burned here, facing towards the church on the offchance that their souls might get to heaven after all. The church was given by her father, Henry VIII, to Sir Richard Rich (he was in the Tudors TV series if that helps) during the 16th century reformation of the church, and was eventually bought back by the locals. The cloister was demolished and is now partially reconstructed as one of London's most unusual cafés, with excellent and large slabs of cake. The entrance to the path leading to the front door marks the end of the original nave, so what remains is a lot smaller than the original church. It is, however, superb. It's solid and dark. It's not frilly or fussy. Its so ancient it feels as if it's breathing, and that all the stones have become one indivisible structure. It's early Norman so many of the characteristics are Saxon in origin; it was after all founded only about 60 years after the Conquest. The form of the vault makes the acoustics just superb...try to attend evensong or any choral effort here if you get a chance. The church was established by a slightly eccentric monk named Rahere who went to Rome and promptly caught malaria. Being nursed back to health by nuns of the order of St Bartholomew, he was startled to be visited by a devil who ordered him to return to Smithfield and build a church and hospital. He returned, started the project and dropped dead before it's completion. The church and St Barts hospital (which contains St Barts the Less church) are testament to him and those who came after, notably the energetic William Bolton whose mark (a barrel [tun] transfixed by a crossbow bolt) can be seen in at least one of the stained glass windows that he had built so he could keep an eye on the lazy monks working in the gardens outside. The church achieved some prominence in the Tudor period and a chancellor is buried there...spot the most tasteless tomb in the place. Also some rather charming double memorials, and bilingual Latin/English inscriptions, as this was the period that the church really loosened its hold on society. William Hogarth the famous artist and satirist was christened here in the font that yet remains, and Benjamin Franklin worked in the back room as a journeyman printer before legging it for the States where he became...something or other. If all of this doesn't grab you then perhaps this will. You have already seen this church. It's been in the Other Boleyn Girl, Shakespeare in Love and Robin Hood...and indeed any other film requiring dark and Mediaeval church aesthetics...and if THAT wasn't enough, this is also where Duckface punches Hugh Grant in the face in Four Weddings and a Funeral...and that has to be worth a look. The only objection I have to the church is the fact that they charge to enter, but bearing in mind that it does go to the restoration of this glorious old pile, I am more or less mollified. Go see it. You will love it.
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