The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great is an Anglican church located at West Smithfield in the City of London, founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123. The church possesses the most significant Norman interior in London, which once formed the chancel of a much larger monastic church.
The church’s name (sometimes shortened to ‘Great St Barts’) is owed to the fact that it is one of two, nearly neighbouring, churches both linked with the hospital and priory and both dedicated to St Bartholomew. The other, inside the hospital precinct, is considerably smaller (hence its naming as St Bartholomew-the-Less), less architecturally distinguished, and of less obvious historical importance.
It was established in 1123 by Rahere, a prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral and later an Augustinian canon, who is said to have erected the church in gratitude after recovering from a fever. Rahere’s supposedly miraculous recovery contributed to the church becoming known for its curative powers, with sick people filling its aisles each 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. In April 2007 St Bartholomew-the-Great became the first parish church in Britain to charge an entrance fee for tourists.
The temple, built in the 12th century, has not survived in its original form. Fortunately, both the 1666 Great Fire of London and World War II spared the church, which is quite popular among tourists and film-makers today. It was also the place of the memorial service for William Wallace on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish hero’s execution.
The church was originally part of a priory adjoining St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but while the hospital survived the Dissolution about half of the priory church was demolished in 1543. The nave of the church was pulled down (up to the last bay), but the crossing and choir survive largely intact.
The entrance to the church from Smithfield now goes into the churchyard through a tiny surviving fragment of the west front, which today is surmounted by a half-timbered Tudor building. From there to the church door, a path leads along roughly where the south aisle of the nave was. Parts of the cloister also survive and are now home to a small café. Very little trace survives of the rest of the monastic buildings.
The church escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but fell into disrepair, becoming occupied by squatters in the 18th century. It was restored and rebuilt by Aston Webb in the late 19th century.
The Lady Chapel at the east end had been previously used for commercial purposes and it was there that Benjamin Franklin served a year as journeyman printer. The north transept had formerly been used as a blacksmith’s forge. The church was also one of relatively few City churches to escape damage during World War II.
The organ was installed by John Knopple in 1715. This was superseded by a new organ in 1731 from Richard Bridge. In 1886, it was replaced by the organ from St. Stephen Walbrook which was installed by William Hill. Further modifications were made in 1931 by Henry Speechly & Son, 1957 by N.P. Mander and in 1982-83 by Peter Wells.
A ghost of a monk is said to haunt the site, looking for a sandal stolen from his tomb. There have been reports of people feeling uncomfortable inside the church. The nearby area was also the place for many executions, especially during the reign of Mary Tudor. At night a strong smell of burning flesh is said to permeate the air.
St-Bartholomew-the-Great church was the location of the fourth wedding in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and of some scenes in various others: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, “Shakespeare in Love”, the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s 1951 novel “The End of the Affair”, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007), “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008), and “Sherlock Holmes” (2009).