The History of St Bartholomew the Great

A stained glass window showing Rahere and St Bartholomew

The Priory Church was founded in AD 1123. as part of a monastery of Augustinian Canons. The Priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the Church was demolished. The monastic buildings were largely intact and the Canons' choir and sanctuary were preserved for parish use. Under Queen Mary, there was briefly a house of Dominican friars here, before it reverted to being a Parish Church under Queen Elizabeth I. Various parts of the building were damaged or destroyed through the centuries until the restoration began in the 19th century, first in the 1860s and then, under Sir Aston Webb, in the 1880s and 90s and on into the 20th century. St Bartholomew the Great is a living church but it also attracts those of no particular religious belief because of its architecture and sense of history.

Prior Rahere

St Bartholomew's was established by Rahere a courtier and favourite of King Henry I. It is thought that it was the death of the king’s wife Matilda, followed two years later by the drowning of their heir Prince William, his brother, half–brother and sister, that prompted Rahere to renounce his profession for a more worthy life and make his pilgrimage to Rome.

In Rome, like many pilgrims, he fell ill. As he lay delirious he prayed for his life vowing that, if he survived, he would set up a hospital for the poor in London. His prayers were answered and he recovered. As he turned for home the vision of Saint Bartholomew appeared to him and said “I am Bartholomew who have come to help thee in thy straights. I have chosen a spot in a suburb of London at Smithfield where, in my name, thou shalt found a church.” A “suburb” here means outside the walls of the City but not outside the City itself, whose boundary is defined by the “bars” (e.g. Temple Bar, Holborn Bar)

True to his word Rahere set up both a church, a priory of Augustinian canons, and the hospital. He lived to see their completion – indeed he served as both prior of the priory and master of the hospital – and it is possible that he was nursed at Barts before his death in 1145. His tomb lies in the church.

Altarpiece in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich depicting the St Bartholmew, St Agnes and St Cecilia

St Bartholomew

Bartholomew was one of the Twelve Apostles, brought to Jesus by Saint Philip. He is reputed to have brought Christianity to Armenia where tradition states that he was later flayed alive and crucified head down. After his martyrdom, his body is said to have been washed to Lipari (a small island off the coast of Sicily) where he is now the patron Saint. It is not clear where his remains ended up, but both Benevento and the church of San Bartolomeo in Rome claim him. There are also numerous reliquaries in the museums and churches of Europe said to contain some portion of his body.

There is a magnificent altarpiece in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich that depicts the Apostle, with St Agnes and St Cecilia. The artist, active 1470–1510, in Cologne, is unknown and has been given the title of the “Master of the St Bartholomew altarpiece”.


List of Rectors of the Priory Church, following the Dissolution

1. John Deane, 1544–63
2. Ralph Watson, 1565–69
3. Robert Binks, 1570–79
4. James Stancliffe, 1580–81
5. John Pratt, 1582–86
6. David Dee, 1587–1605
7. Thomas Westfield, 1605–44 (later Bishop of Bristol)
8. John Garrett, 1644–55
9. Randolph Harrison, 1655–63
10. Anthony Burgess, 1663–1709
11. John Pountney, 1709–17
12. Thomas Spateman, 1719–38 (President of Sion College, later Prebendary of St Paul's)
13. Richard Thomas Bateman 1738–60
14. John Moore, 1761–68
15. Owen Perrot Edwardes, 1768–1814
16. John Richards Roberts, 1814–19
17. John Abbiss, 1819–83 (elected President of Sion College, 1838)
18. William Panckridge 1884–87
19. Sir Borradaile Savory, Bt, 1887–1906
20. William Fitzgerald Gambier Sandwith, 1907–29
21. Edwin Sidney Savage, 1929–44
22. Newell Eddius Wallbank, 1944–79 (Prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral)
23. Arthur Brown, 1979–91
24. David Lawson, 1991–93
25. Martin Dudley, 1995–2015 (May 31st)

List of Rectors of Great St Bartholomew
after St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew the Less
were joined in the new united benefice

1. Martin Dudley, 1st June 2015–31st Dec 2016
2. Marcus Walker, 11th Feb 2018–

List of Priors of St Bartholomew's Priory, Smithfield

Rahere, 1123, died 1144
Thomas, elected 1144, died 1174
G., elected and resigned 1213
John, removed 1232
Gerald, elected 1232
Peter le Duc, resigned 1256
Robert, elected 1256
Gilbert de Weledon, elected 1262
John Bacun
Hugh, died 1295
John, died 1350
Edmund de Braughyngg, elected 1350, resigned 1356
John de Carleton, elected 1356
Thomas Watford, died 1382
William Gedney, elected 1382, resigned 1391
John Eyton or Repyngdon, elected 1391
Simon Wynchecombe
John Eyton, died 1404
John de Watford, resigned 1414
William Coventree
Reginald Colyer, died 1471
Richard Pulter, elected 1471, died 1480
Robert Tollerton, elected 1480, died 1484
William Guy, elected 1484
William Bolton, elected 1505, died 1532
Robert Fuller, elected 1532, surrendered 1539

For more information on how you can contribute to the preservation of this Church’s history find out about the Heritage Trust.