Last week I was thrilled to attend "A Midsummer Day's Dream" Champagne Tea at the Museum of the Order of St John. The museum occupies two historic sites, the gatehouse which houses the museum's galleries and has a series of stunning rooms and a seperate building which includes the Priory Church and the Norman crypt. The magnificent suite of historic rooms provided the perfect backdrop for a splendid afternoon of Shakespearean entertainment of drama, music and dance and the balmy hot summer weather just addded to the surreal and magical atmosphere.
The Order of St John were a group of soldier monks, originally caring for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land, who became known as the Knights Hospitaller. During the Crusades, together with the Knight's Templar and other military orders they defended Jerusalem. Gradually forced back they moved to Cyprus and Rhodes and then onto Malta. Valletta, the capital of Malta, is named after Jean de la Vallette, the Grand Master of the Order.
St John's Gate
In the 1140s the Order of St John located their English headquarters in Clerkenwell. The Tudor gatehouse, which dates back to 1504, was once the entrance to their medieval priory.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the priory buildings were used for a range of fascinating purposes. In the 1500s it housed the office of the Master of the Revels. Originally responsible for over seeing royal festivals, known as revels, the position was later extended for a time to include stage censorship. So it was here that 30 of Shakespeare's plays were licensed.
In the 1700s the gatehouse the was childhood home of the painter William Hogarth, when his father Richard briefly opened a Latin speaking coffee house. It was also at one time the offices for The Gentleman's Magazine and it was here that Dr Samuel Johnson, of the dictionary fame, had his first regular employment as a writer. In the 1800s it became the Old Jerusalem Tavern which was frequented by CharlesDickens.
The Order established the St John's Ambulance in 1877 and today it is an international organisation who train and administer first aid.
Given the museum's forementioned Shakespearean connections the afternoon's entertainment was was most apt. The grand, medieval styled Chapter Hall with its large fireplace, heraldic glass and great timber ceiling was a fitting venue for Shakespearean music and dance performed by Passamezzo.
Then moving into the smaller and more intimate atmosphere of the Council Chamber, with its beautiful panelled walls, we enjoyed enchanting performances of fairy dances, by the Lions part and children from the Emanuel School, London.
The visit also allowed for free time to explore the fascinating museum telling the history of the Order from its medieval origins to its current work with St John's Ambulance. The museum's galleries are well laid out and contain many interesting artifacts.
Across the road from the Gatehouse is the elegant Priory Church, which really has the wow factor. It has magnificent candelabras, colourful banners, scarlet seat covers and black and white chequerboard flooring standing out from the contrasting simplicity of its whitewashed walls.
An earlier church with a large circular nave was destroyed during the Peasants Revolt in 1381 and the previous church's outline is marked out on the cobbles outside.
Underneath the church the original Norman crypt and it's one of the few buildings in London from this period to still survive. It was extremely atmospheric desending into the rib vaulted room with Romanesque and Gothic arches. It's an interesting space to explore with its intriguing tomb effigies.
The Priory Garden is an enclosed walled courtyard filled with fragrant medicinal herbs. It was a lovely place to sit and enjoy the delicious selection of fine food and drink that was attentively served by Suzanne James Catering.
As regular readers to my blog know I have a bit of sweet tooth and so can't pass up the opportunity to include a photo of the very tasty lemon and lavender cake.
Bandit the donkey in Priory Garden
Bandit, the donkey wearing a colourful flower garland, was extremely good natured despite the constant attention on such a hot day.
This was a return visit for me to the Museum of the Order of St John and previously I have only explored the gatehouse, so I was delighted to get the chance to see the Priory Church and crypt. There is much more than just the museum to see, it really is one of the undiscovered gems of London with a very intriguing history and it's well worth a visit.
I had the most delightful and fun afternoon and would like to thank the Museum of the Order of St John for inviting me to their very special "A Midsummer Day's Dream" Champagne Tea.
Address: Museum of the Order of St John, St John's Gate, St John's Lane, London, EC1M 4DA
Nearest Tube/ Train Station: Farringdon in Travelcard Zone 1 and the museum is an easy 5 minute walk away.
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am - 5pm
Tours: Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 11am and 2.30pm.
Prices: Free entry to the museum but a £5 donation is suggested for guided tours.
For information about event hire please click here.
If you enjoyed this blog post you might like to read you might like to read about nearby Smithfield.
The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.