St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, EC1A
London is a dynamic city and its landscape reflects its ever-changing, restless spirit. It is rare to see a perfectly preserved example of how London once looked and when we do, the least we can do is stop and admire. If you turn left out of St Paul’s tube station and walk along Newgate street and turn right into King Edward Street you will soon come to Little Britain (a name that is somehow apt these days but is actually a corruption of Breton), the location of Mr Jagger’s office in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House.
At the bottom of Little Britain you will see a magnificent gatehouse, guarding the entrance to one of London’s oldest churches, St Barthlomew-the-Great, founded in 1123 as an Augustinian priory by the monk, Rahere. Rahere has a curious history. He was originally a jester in the court of Henry I and whilst on a pilgrimage to Rome fell so ill with malaria that he began hallucinating. He claimed that it was the vision of St Bartholomew that healed him and so on his return he built an abbey and a hospital dedicated to his patron saint. The hospital, St Bart’s, is still in existence.
The dissolution of the monasteries put an end to the abbey and many of its buildings were destroyed or converted into housing, Sir Richard Rich having bought the site. But the doorway to the southern nave somehow survived the transformation until William Scudamore got his hands on it in 1595. He was able to build a two storey timber-framed house complete with attic above it. This is what we see today – one of the only complete Tudor buildings remaining in London. Under the window of the first storey is a coat of arms and between the windows of the second floor a statue of St Bartholomew.
The gatehouse owes its survival to two enormous pieces of good fortune. Firstly, it survived the Great Fire of 1666 primarily because of the protection afforded it by what remained of the priory’s walls. By the time the fire had got to this point it was on the verge of being under control, stopping a short way away at Giltspur Street.
Sometime in the 18th century someone decided that a Tudor wooden-fronted building was a bit out of date and so a Georgian façade was built to hide the beams and the premises were used as a shop. The second piece of good fortune came in 1917 when a bomb from a Zeppelin raid damaged the building and when the rubble was cleared the original Tudor edifice and 13th century stonework from the abbey’s nave were revealed.
The gatehouse was fully restored in 1932, serving as a rectory and is Grade II listed, although it is not open to the public. The wife of one of the rectors, Phyllis Wallbank, ran a Montessori school on the premises between 1948 and 1974, before transferring to larger premises in Bethnal Green.
It is said that the gatehouse was where Queen Mary watched Protestant martyrs being burnt at the stake whilst stuffing her face with chicken and drinking red wine. This is highly unlikely as the building above the gate wasn’t built until forty years after her death. But it is true that many a Protestant met their grisly end nearby as did William Wallace aka Mel Gibson.
The gatehouse today stands as a proud reminder of London’s Tudor past.