You know those St. John’s Ambulance Harold-Bishop types who turn up to all those public events to help out with bleeding noses, twisted ankles and feinting attacks? It’s funny to think they were once an order of fearsome warrior monks, rivals of the Knight’s Templar, whose name brings to mind conspiracy theories, the occult and Dan Brown balderdash.
The story of the rise, fall, rise, fall and rise again of this hugely influential organisation is fascinating and you will learn all about it if you visit this compact, free and recently refurbished museum.
A visit to the museum can take one of two forms, either you can make an inpromptu visit to the museum itself, which consists of two main rooms and a lobby under a glass roof where a few key exhibits and A/V presentations are looping.
The other option is to take a guided tour, which is also free although recommendations are requested of around £5 for this, which is fair enough as the tour takes 80 minutes and doesnt not even include the main museum area.
In addition to those two, whichever you visit, or taken on it’s own, you can also visit the chapel just across Clerkenwell road. The ground floor level of the chapel was extensively rebuilt in an airy white colour, it is adorned with flags from different chapters of the St. John’s order around the world. Much more interesting is the crypt underneath, which contains the De Vergara tomb, a rehomed alabaster carving of a knight/monk from Spain’s golden age, and another medieval memento mori in the form of a withered, almost skeletal corpse. Both are beautiful and morbid objects.
Going back to the tour, the path winds up a staircase with portraits of figures from the order’s long history (900 years and counting) to the chapter hall, the main ceremonial space. Around the wall a series of coats of arms belonging to the leaders of the order show the long continuity of the order, interrupted by Henry VIII’s reformation, the priory being the last of all the English monasteries to be dissolved in Henry’s search for money. The first leaders of the order were in charge of monks who ran ‘hospitals’ (more like hostels in modern English) in Jerusalem around the time of the first crusade. Gradually the order grew and militarised until, like the Templars, they were warrior priests fighting in the holy land.
Eventually the order was kicked out of Palestine/ Syria and moved first to Rhodes, then to Malta. The Malta room, part of the tour, is full of artefacts from this period of the order’s history, particularly interesting are the paintings of the fortress on Malta from which the order operated as a stateless navy, believing themselves to be a bastion against Turkish designs on Western Europe. The major eventof their stay on Malta was a seige in 1565, where the Turkish forces, doubltess thoroughly pissed off by what they would have seen as piracy, tried to push clear them from the island – they failed to do so.
So interlinked is Malta with the order that the capital Valetta is even named after Jean Valette, Grand Master of the order.
For those who visit the museum alone one of the two rooms has artefacts from this medieval and later bellicose naval era of the order. You can see armour, weapons, coinage from the crusader states and a large cannon cast in the era of Henry VIII. The cannon travelled wit the order from Rhodes, to Malta, to Libya and then was seized by Turkish forces during which time it was at one point lost to the seas only to resurface in 1908. Plus a load more interesting stuff, much of which is housed in a central case with a map of the mediterranean to place the objects.
The second room, on your left as you enter, is about the modern work of the order. The contrast with these two eras couldn’t be much larger. The St. John’s Ambulance service is now the largest trainer of first aiders in the UK and it is prominent worldwide, as you will be able to read for yourself. There are also artefacts from both world wars (a nurse was there soon after the liberation, her harrowing photo album is amongst the objects).
The order’s history is surprsing and interesting (I know I kind of ruined the surprise but there’s more to it of course) and once again, it is a free museum (though donations are always welcomed and go back into the first aid and medicinal work of the organisation), so why not pay a visit? The tour was good, maybe 10 minutes too long but very much worth it and the museum itself gives a potted version of much of the same information.
St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell EC1M 4DA
Entry is FREE. Open Monday to Saturday, 10-5, for information on the tours (Tuesday, Friday, Saturday) check the website.