My last post was all about the Knights Templars and the re-discovery of a possible long-lost religious centre in caves beneath Shropshire. In passing, I mentioned the Knights of St. John or the Knights Hospitaliers.
Unlike the unfortunate Templars, the Hospitaliers are still very much alive and kicking in Malta but whilst planning out a new walking tour in London last week and also doubling up and researching a new book, I came across some incredible remnants of the Knights Hospitaliers right in the middle of London, well a bit into eastern London, in Clerkenwell to be precise.
I already was aware of their excellent museum but whilst out exploring you can imagine my surprise to find this what to me at least was something incredibly new and interesting. Right amongst the maze of old terrace streets was the old gate house to the Grand Prior of the Knights of St. John.
Like many other religious buildings, King Henry VIII decide to appropriate all of the property of the Knights in England.
These days Clerkenwell is very much an inner-city and not too glamorous district of London but in the times of the Grand Priory, it was no doubt different. In fact the amount of land that fell under the Priory was immense as can be seen on the old map below.
The Priory was so big that I continued wandering around the streets working out my tour route. I was more than happy with the gate house I had found and made a note to return one day when I had more time.
However, a few minutes walk away I found a very active church of the order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Hospitaliers aren’t just a religious order but are famous for the St. Johns ambulance service, a voluntary medical organisation that provide First Aid at public events.
The poor Knights of St. John may be around today and fared better than the Templars but it took until the late 1930s for them to manage to obtain their church which King Henry VIII had taken away from them. Tragically, it was then heavily bombed and all but destroyed in the Second World War.
As you can see from the photo below however, it was patched back together with a modern 20th century roof sitting atop the original beautiful walls. I did try to get into the church but it was not open at the time and I didn’t want to sneak around the complex… though long-time readers know that I am not above such a thing when out and about 🙂
Adjoining the old church was a lovely old garden which is a garden of remembrance for all those who have served in the Order and particularly the volunteer Ambulance service.
Leaving the best to last, in the far end of the garden I found something I never imagined I would find just laying around in London. I’m going from memory as I was actually too excited to remember what the white notice board said behind me but I am pretty sure it is an old cannon ball from the Knights. Once the Christian Crusaders had been ejected from the Holy Land, the Knights Hospitaliers remained a potent force in the Mediterranean not just in Malta. They also had a very strong power base in other places including the Greek island of Rhodes. When the Ottoman Empire came a knocking, the Knights saw it as a continuation of their Christian duty to defend the island and in 1480 they were very successful in doing so, something not many can say against the Ottomans of that time who are actually one of my great historic favourites.
This giant granite ball weighed around 260kg or 573 pounds and would be fired around 100-200 metres (300-600 feet) by the Knights at the attacking Ottomans. You can probably tell by the fact that I never appear in my blog posts that I was quite delighted to find a bit of my favourite history in such an unexpected location.
Anyway, it just goes to show that you never quite know what you will find if you just go off exploring London, especially the non-touristy parts. It’s just a co-incidence I found an excuse to use these new photos as they tie in so well with the last post on the Knights Templars.