The Museum of the Order of St John is a hidden jewel in Clerkenwell. In fact, it’s housed in the remains of the monastery that the whole area grew around. We were privileged to be given a personal tour by the museum’s curator, Tom Foakes.
With Tom as our guide we were given an extremely unusual tour, we skipped past the galleries and were taken straight through to the lesser seen parts of the site:
Before we started our tour proper, we had a quick peek at the garden. Complete with a recently planted olive tree as an impressive centre-piece, the garden features the same varieties of medicinal herbs and scented flowers that would have been there when the priory was set up in middle of the 12th century. It’s now a very popular site for many weddings and functions.
The Priory Church
The entrance to the church (across the treacherously busy Clerkenwell Road) is rather modest. But as we entered we found a bright, striking space with a stunning chequered floor. We admired the huge portraits that adorned the wall and Tom gave us a brief overview of the history of ‘The Order’, talking us through the few dozen flags on display in the process.
Tucked away below the the church is the original Norman Crypt. We descended in to the dark, cold space and admired the stained glass and stonework. Tom told us about the history of the tombs on display, particularly that of William Weston – the last prior of The Order, he died on the same day it was dissolved in 1540.
Getting to see the ‘private’ areas felt like a real treat and made for a extraordinary introduction to The Order
The Chapter Hall
My favourite part of the tour was this grand wood-panelled room – embellished with the coats of arms, 16th century furniture and imposing portraits of monarchs and dignitaries. Tom gave us a sneak-peek at a hidden gem in the room, an amazing ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that unfolded and unfurled the reveal some magnificent craftsmanship.
The Council Chamber
Dating from the early 16th century, this room gives a real sense of history. The walls are adorned with plaques to the memory of distinguished Knights and Dames of The Order. There isn’t much space left so you have to be pretty special to get a spot.
We trod carefully down a spiral staircase and in to some of the storage areas for the museum. A process of auditing and re-organisation is ongoing, but plenty of interesting items were still on hand to see. I was especially fascinated by some stone canon balls from the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565.
We climbed back to ground level and Tom left us in St Johns Square (explaining how it used to look before it was somewhat disrupted by the intersecting Clerkenwell Road). It was a great to get an insight in to this amazing site with somebody so knowledgeable. Getting to see the ‘private’ areas felt like a real treat and made for a extraordinary introduction to The Order – I can’t wait to return on my own for a proper look in the galleries too.