At the commencement of the
century, Rahere or Raherus, who had been jester and minstrel to Henry
the First, obtained from that monarch permission to found a Priory. The
site, also given by the king, was without the city walls, not far from
one of its gates, on a morass, which extended some considerable
distance. Stowe tells us, that in his time, there was a great water
here. The spot being intersected by many brooks, much difficulty was
experienced in forming even a foundation; but after the expenditure of
a considerable amount of time and labour this was accomplished, and a
grand building arose of which we purpose to speak, and whose noble
remains testify to its simple, solid grandeur, and cause us to regret
that so little is left to us of the original structure.
Rahere, we are told, was a man “sprung and born from low
kynage,” not having cunning of liberal science—but
more eminent than all cunning—for he was rich in purity of
conscience. His goodness showed itself towards “God by
towards his brethren by humility, towards his enemies by
benevolence.” And thus himself he exercised them, patiently
suffering; whose proved purity of soul, bright manners with honest
probity, expert diligence in divine service, prudent business in
temporal manifestations, in him were greatly to praise and commendable.
In feasts he was sober, and namely the follower of hospitality.
Tribulations of wretches, and necessities of the poor people
opportunely admitting; patiently supporting, competently spending. In
prosperity not yre prided; in adversity patient.
Such is a simple outline of the character of the man by a contemporary
biographer after his conversion; he having passed the flower of his
youth amidst the licentiousness of the soldiers’ camp and the
feudal castle, and joining in all the wild revelries of that time.
It is related he was wont to haunt the households of noblemen, and,
when under their observation, to spread their cushions with gapes and
flatterings detestable, anointing their eyes by this manner to draw to
him their friendship. He also frequented the King’s Palace,
by his suavity and intelligence forced himself amongst the noiseful
press of that tumultuous court, into the presence of the king, and
became his minstrel.
At length he felt the emptiness of all these pleasures and excesses,
and their inability to suppiy his soul’s longings, and became
“penytent of his synnes ;“ “the inward
merciful God of all, the which out of Mary Magdalen cast out seven
fiends, the which to the fisher gave the keys of heaven, mercifully
converted this man from the error of his way, and added to him so many
gifts of virtue.” Influenced by the spirit of his age he
undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, and there, at the shrine of the blessed
Apostles Peter and Paul, he, weeping his deeds, prayed to our Lord for
remission of them.
While at Rome he was seized with a grievous sickness, which brought him
to the verge of the grave. In his extremity, being full of dread on
account of his unatoned sins, he vowed that if health God would him
give that he might return to his country, he would found an hospital
for the benefit of poor men.
His prayers and repentance were heard and accepted for not long after
the benign and merciful Lord beheld this weeping man, gave him his
health, and approved his vow. After this Rahere beheld a vision, full
of dread and sweetness. “It seemed to him that he was borne
high of a certain beast, having four feet and two wings, and set him in
a high place; and when he from so great a height would inflect and bow
down his eye to the lower part downward, he beheld a horrible pit,
whose beholding impressed him with great dread, for the deepness of the
same pit was deeper than any man might attain to see; he deemed himself
to slide into that cruel adowncast, and therefore he quaked, and for
fear trembled, and great cries out of his mouth proceeded. To whom
appeared a certain man, in majesty like a king of great beauty and
imperial authority, and fastened on him his eye.”
man,” he said, “what and how much service shouldst
give to Him that in so great a peril hath brought help to
Anon he answered to this saint, “whatsoever might be of heart
of might, diligently should I give in recompense to my
And then said he, “I am Bartholomew, the Apostle of Jesus
and come to succour thee in thine anguish, and to open to thee the
secret mysteries of Heaven; know me truly, by the will and commandment
of the Holy Trinity and the common favour of the celestial court and
council, to have chosen a place in the suburbs of London at Smithfield,
where in my name thou shalt found a church. The spiritual house
Almighty God shall inhabit and hallow it, and glorify it. Wherefore
doubt thee nought, only give thy diligence, and my part shall be to
provide necessaries, direct, build, and end this work.”
Rahere came to London deeply impressed with this vision, and often
spoke of the work he intended to do to the Nobles and Barons, and also
to the King, since the place where he was to erect his building was
contained within the King’s market.
The King lent a willing ear to his petition, and granted him permission
to build the Priory on the spot desired. It was on a very marshy piece
of ground, water everywhere abounding; the only land above the water
dry was deputed and ordained to be the gallows of thieves, and to the
torment of others that were condemned by judicial authority. The work
undertaken by him required a large amount of labour and perseverance,
and like all earnest men he set to work with the determination to
conquer all difficulties, and at length succeeded in raising a glorious
It is recorded, that feigning himself an idiot, he collected daily a
little band of children, lepers, and poor people, and with these
efforts gathered stones from the waste and morass around for the use of
his building, thus showing the many dimculties with which he had to
contend, both from man and the spot where his church was to be built.
Rahere feigned himself an idiot, to hide from his enemies, who were
numerous about the court, his ultimate design, and also to enlist the
sympathy of the people, for in that superstitious age it was believed
that idiots were under the care of a special providence.
Rahere at length cast aside his assumed idiotcy, and began his
Apostolic work by instructing with cunning of Truth, and saying the
word of God in divers churches, and constantly exhorting the multitude
both of clerks and laity to follow and fulfil those things which were
of charity and alms deed. He did not make these appeals in vain, and
his purity was not unknown at Court, and after patient waiting and
labour, his church was founded in March, Anno Domini 1113 [sic
; date of
foundation is generally given as 1123AD].
The edifice was of comely stonework tablewise, and an hospital house a
little longer off from the church, which was founded for the service of
the poor, the sick, and pregnant women, with the care of such children,
till seven years old, as lost their mother at birth. The year of its
completion differs as given by various authorities, but about 1123 is
the generally received date at which the Priory was finished. The
completion of the work under all the circumstances and difficulties,
created a great amount of wonder and admiration, mixed with
superstitious awe, its grandeur astonishing the beholders by its
contrast with the desolation that previously reigned around.
confused about his dates; later researchers take 1123AD as the
beginning of St. Bart's building period, and 1133 as the year in which
it is most likely to have been consecrated.]
Rahere was appointed first Prior. He was Prior 22 years and 6 months,
and was succeeded by Thomas, one of the Canons of the church of St.
Osyth, who continued prelate about 30 years; in age 100 winters when he
died. We then have Gregory, Canon of St. Osyth, made Prior 1213, who a
few days after became monk at Abingdon.
Licence to elect a successor was granted by the King in 1256 on the
cession of Peter, 40 Henry III. Robert, the Sub-prior, was elected, and
the King consented Nov. 23 of that year.
Gilbert de Woledon was appointed 46th Henry III, The King gave his
consent, and restored temporalities Nov. 24.
John Baccen was elected 48th Henry III., Jan. II, 1264.
Edward I. granted a license to elect a Prior March II, 1295, on the
death of Brother Hugh. IIth Edward II. the King was advised of the
death of the Prior, and granted a license to elect another Nov. 4, 1317.
....to be continued...