Rahere, Founder & First Prior of St. Bartholomew's Priory & Hospital

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Hic jacet Raherus Primus Canonicus et Primus Prior hujus Ecclesiæ

Here lies Rahere, first canon and first prior of this church.

Rahere's tomb effigy

The legend of Rahere, the minstrel who founded a church and a hospital, has been celebrated -- and exaggerated! -- by poets and playwrights for centuries. Rahere, the canon who founded St. Bartholomew's, is harder to find. The primary source of biographical information on the life of the founder is the Book of the Foundation. This document was written within decades of Rahere's death, based on the recollections of men who had known Rahere in life:

But of what kind he was before and in what order he laid the foundations of this most holy Temple, let us show in a few words as they testified to us who saw him and took part in his works and conversations, of whom some have fallen asleep in Christ, some are alive to this day and are witnesses of those things we are about to relate.

Rahere appears, at least circumstantially, in two other historical documents. Diana Greenway's Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300: v. 1 (St. Paul's, London) lists "Raherius" as the holder of the Chamberlain's Wood prebend at St. Paul's from approximately 1115 to 1143. Her information is taken from Hutton's transcript, British Museum, Harley MS. 6956 folios 91-96r, of a now lost thirteenth-century catalogue; and from an early fourteenth-century catalogue, St. Paul's Liber C, WD 2 fos. 110/117r-112/119r. We have no way of guaranteeing that "Raherius" is our Rahere, but the association is strengthened by the fact that the next holder of the prebend was Geoffrey Constable, who is likely to be the Gaufridus Cunestable listed as a witness in Henry I's charter. If this is correct, then Rahere maintained his prebend until he died, throughout the time during which he founded and managed St. Bartholomew's Priory and Hospital.

Chamberlain's Wood was part of the manor of Willesden, held by the canons of St. Paul since the time of the Domesday Book according to James Thorne's Handbook to the Environs of London [London: John Murray, Albemarle Street), 1876, pg. 697]. The manor was divided and assigned to specific prebends some time in the 11th century. Chamberlain's Wood was somewhere in the southern and eastern part of the parish.

A prebend
is a source of financial support for a canon in a cathedral chapter, commonly a manor or rectory from which income was derived. The recipient of such a benefice is called a prebendary, and was required to participate in the daily services of the cathedral, either in person or through the appointment of a "vicar choral," who could sing the appropriate parts of the daily services. Reverend Edward Cutts, in his "Parish Priests and Their People in the Middle Ages in England" [(London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 1898] describes a prebendary's primary responsibility:

One of the statutory duties of the prebendaries is very little known, and is so curious and interesting as to deserve mention here, even though it requires a few words of preface to make the spirit of it quite intelligible. Among other remarkable designs which entered into pious minds in those mediaeval communities was that of maintaining a ceaseless service of praise -- laus perennis -- or a daily recitation of the whole Psalter. The former was a conventual devotion, and was done in this way: there were always two priests before the altar, night and day, relieved at regular intervals, singing the Psalms. The latter was a cathedral devotion, where it was a rule that the dean and prebendaries as a body should say the whole Psalter every day to the glory of God. The same devotion was maintained at Salisbury, Wells and St. Paul's. The task was not a hard one, for the Psalter was divided among them; one prebend said the first, second, third, fourth Psalms, another the fifth, sixth, seventh, and so on; the 119th Psalm was divided between several of them; each made it a matter of conscience to say the Psalms alloted to him; and thus, from the time of Bishop St. Hugh, the prebendaries of Lincoln, wherever they were scattered, were brought together in spirit by this interesting observance, and said the whole Psalter daily to the glory of God. 

Moore's The Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Its Foundation, Present Condition, and Funeral Monuments [(London: Adlard and Son), 1894] provides the details of Rahere's prebend:

He was an ecclesiastic, and filled the stall of Chamberlayne's Wood, in St. Paul's Cathedral. His stall was the sixth on the north side of the choir, and his portion of the whole psalter, repeated daily by the Chapter, began with the words "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most Highest." Every day he repeated the ninety-second and following Psalms to the end of the ninety-eighth.

Rahere was suffficiently well-educated to manage his portions of the daily service, and was probably in holy orders in order to receive the income granted by his prebend.

Rahere's second appearance comes from the Historical Gazetteer of London before the Great Fire, which documents "d
etailed property histories for five parishes in the central Cheapside area of London, from the 12th to the late 17th century. It includes accounts of the parish churches, and information about the people and buildings associated with the properties." The thirteenth century record for the property St. Martin Pomary 95/3, which extended from Ironmonger Lane on the east to St. Lawrence Lane on the west, states that 2 shillings were due for rental of part of this property to "Raerus de sancto Bartholomew," who is almost certainly "our" Prior Rahere. Unfortunately the British History Online article does not include a more specific date for this rental, although it notes that Rahere died in 1144. This location is close to the site of the now lost churches of St. Martin Pomery and St. Olave.

Ironmonger Lane as it currently appears Ironmonger Lane
St. Olave's garden St. Olave's garden, perhaps the location of Rahere's property


InThe Oldest Church in London, as well as in the biography of Rahere that he wrote for the Dictionary of National Biography, Dr. Norman Moore cites unspecified French charters as evidence that Rahere was originally from the Duchy of Maine, and may have travelled to England in the company of Richard de Belmeis, later Bishop of London.
His name, which is probably of Frankish origin, occurs as that of a witness in serveral charters of the district on the eastern boundary of Brittany, and the fact that Rahere was a follower of Richard de Belmeis (d. 1128) [q.v.] makes it possible that he came from La Perche. He first appears as a frequenter of the dissolute court of William Rufus (ORD. VIT. pt. iii. bk. xc. p. 2: Liber Fundacinis c.s) and adopted the church as a career. His patron, Richard de Belmeis, became bishop of London in 1108, and the bishop's nephew, William, dean of St. Paul's in 1111, so that the occurrence of his name as a prebendary of St. Paul's, in the stall of Chamberleyneswode (Le Neve, ii. 374) is easily understood.
However The Origin of Some Anglo-Norman Families (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company), 1975 states that Richard de Belmeis was from Beaumais-sur-Dive, in Calvados, Normandy; nowhere near La Perche, which is in the Limousin. There is no reference to William Rufus (who reigned from 1087 to 1100; see BBC - Historic Figures - William II (Rufus) for a brief biography) in the English translation of the Book of the Foundation. Without more information on Moore's sources, it is hard to evaluate the reliability of his guess at Rahere's origins, or his association with the court of William Rufus.

All we can say for certain is that by 1114, Rahere was old enough -- and sufficiently well-educated -- to hold the Chamberlain's Wood prebend; that he was known in the court of Henry I (based on the evidence of charters to the church and hospital); and that he died in 1144.

Whatever Rahere's background and level of education, the Book of the Foundation informs us that Rahere was sufficiently well-spoken to be received in the court:

THIS man, sprung of humble lineage, when he reached the flower of youth began to haunt the household of nobles and the palaces of princes. Sewing pillows upon all elbows (Ezek. xiii. 18), he drew to friendship with himself those whom he had soothed with jokes and flatterings. And, not content with this, he approached the king's palace with some frequency and resorted to the tumults of that tumultuous court and with jocular flattery desired to attract to himself with ease the hearts of many. There he made it his business all day long to attend spectacles, banquets, jests and the rest of the trifles of the court, and, with shameless face betaking himself to the suite -- now of the king, now of the nobles -- he assiduously employed a complaisance that should please them and obtain with greater ease anything that it pleased him to seek. By these means he was well known to, intimate with, and a comrade of the king and of the great men of the court.

Ezekiel 13:18 states "And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and make kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls! Will ye hunt the souls of my people, and will ye save the souls alive that come unto you?" in the King James translation of the Old Testament. In the New International Translation, the verse says "'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the women who sew magic charms on all their wrists and make veils of various lengths for their heads in order to ensnare people. Will you ensnare the lives of my people but preserve your own?" Presumably the author of the Book of the Foundation is emphasizing Rahere's ability to act the perfect courtier: witty, charming, self-effacing, and entertaining.

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Photographs and text copyright Tina Bird, 2003-2019
Last modified 15 February 2019
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