Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 2.36-2.37: Monument of Rahere and St. Bartholomew's Priory Church

Plates: Two engravings by James Basire (1730-1802) after drawings made by John Carter (1748-1817) in 1784. Plate 2.36 is based on a detailed drawing of the tomb of Rahere (SAL Red Portfolio: London, A-B, f. 15) and Plate 2.37 is based on two sheets detailing the architecture of the church that contains the monument, St. Bartholomew’s Priory Church (f. 16-17). Carter was appointed draftsman to the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1784 and the drawings were likely commissioned with a view toward engraving them for Vetusta Monumenta. Richard Gough (1735-1809), the director, took a leading role in this process and is the author of the unsigned letterpress account that accompanied these engravings. The engravings were commissioned on 26 March 1783 and Basire delivered the proofs in February 1784 (SAL Council Minutes II.236-37, 271). Gough delivered the paper printed to accompany the account on 18 March 1784 (SAL Minutes XIX.266-67).

Objects: The main object in Plate 2.36 is the tomb of Rahere (d. 1143), who founded the Augustinian Priory and Hospital of St Bartholomew in 1123, located in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew, Smithfield, London. This tomb was built much later (c. early fifteenth century) and was inserted between the Romanesque choir piers north of the high altar. A “wall monument,” the tomb comprised five bays of Perpendicular arcading with the tomb of Rahere and its canopy occupying the first three bays, while the two eastern bays contained a priest’s door set within uniform Perpendicular murage (Cherry 1990). During nineteenth-century restorations, the two easternmost bays were removed to expose the entirety of one bay of the Romanesque arcade, thus shortening the monument to four bays. Also featured in this engraving are two seals from St Bartholomew’s, which are described in detail in the commentary.

The largest element in Plate 2.37 depicts an elevation of a bay of the main arcade and gallery in the east arm of the Norman church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London. The enclosing arch of the gallery contains four subsidiary arches. The arches have billet moldings of two kinds, while the capitals are of multiple scallop forms and one with volutes. To left and right there are details of three capitals, two with volutes and the third with large leaves. In the space of the central arch are two square panels from the spandrels of the crossing arches. Beneath are elevations of the upper parts of two supports.


Plate 2.36, Top:
The Priory Seal of St Bartholomew near London in Com. Midds. SIGILLVM COMMVNE PRIOR' ET CO[n]VE[n]TVS S[an]C[t]I BARTHOLOMEI LONDON'.

The Counter Seal of St Bartholomew. The Priory Church in a Ship. CREDIMVS: ANTE: DEVM: PROVEHI: PER: BARTHOLOMEW.
[Scale in feet.]

Plate 2.36, Bottom caption:
The Monument of RAHERUS, Founder and first Prior of St Bartholomew’s Priory & Hospital, in the year 1123, as it now remains in the Priory Church, near Smithfield, after having been repaired and restored in the time of K. Henry VIII.

Plate 2.36, below:
J. Carter fecit. Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Published according to Act of Parliament, 23 April 1784. J. Basire Sc.   

Plate 2.37, Bottom caption:
[Scale in feet.]
Specimens of Architecture in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew near Smithfield.

 Plate 2.37, below:
J. Carter fecit. Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Published according to Act of Parliament, 23 April 1784. J. Basire Sc.


Plate 2.36, Top:
The Common Seal of the Prior and Convent of St. Bartholomew, London.

Counter-Seal: We believe that we are brought into the presence of God by the aid of St. Bartholomew.

Plate 2.36, below:
Made [drawn] by J. Carter. Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Engraved by J. Basire.

Plate 2.37, below:
Made [drawn] by J. Carter. Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Engraved by J. Basire.

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plates 2.36-2.37.

Commentary by Eric Fernie and Matthew M. Reeve:
Note: Although the engraving of the late medieval tomb (Plate 2.36) precedes the architectural details of the Norman church (2.37), this commentary adopts chronological order.

Plate 2.37: The Church

The Augustinian priory church of St Bartholomew and a hospital were founded in 1123 just north of the London city wall by Rahere, a prebendary and canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. Most hospitals were for the aged, so St Bartholomew’s was unusual in being for the poor. The church provided management and support, including fund raising. It was known as the Great to distinguish it from the chapel with the same dedication inside the hospital, known as the Less, which provided services for the patients and staff. The eastern parts of the main church were built by Rahere who was the first prior, from 1123 to 1143. Following a break, possibly from 1133, the structure was continued by his successor prior Thomas, in office from 1144 to 1174. The history of the establishment is recorded in the foundation book written in the second half of the twelfth century. The original is lost, but the text is preserved as Cotton Vespasian B IX in the British Library, a fourteenth-century copy with an English translation (Webb 1923). Jeffrey West has provided sound queries concerning whether building started in 1123, the dating of the foundation book to the twelfth century, and even whether such a predecessor to the text of the fourteenth century existed (West 1993, 16, 6, 10).

The original parts of the church which survive today are, in plan, the aisled east arm, the ambulatory, the crossing and parts of the easternmost bay of the nave, and in elevation a main arcade, a gallery and a wall passage at clerestory level, plus the crossing arches. The elevation, like that of Reading Abbey of 1121, has no vertical divisions between the bays (Bradley 1977, 200). While it had unusual radiating chapels the church as a whole is representative of its period. It was a good size, but, at 242 feet or 74 meters, it did not compete with the major cathedral and monastic churches (Fernie 2000, 304). The eastern chapels, the nave, and the transepts were destroyed in later centuries, and in the seventeenth century a tower was built over the westernmost bay of the south aisle of the nave, marking the new entrance.

These plates are accompanied by an eight-page letterpress account titled simply “Plates XXXVI. XXXVII. Vol. II.” This account (unsigned, but attributable to Richard Gough) names Rahere as “founder of the hospital and priory of St Bartholomew the Less, in Smithfield, in the west suburb of London, in the reign of Henry I” (1). Citing the fourteenth-century copy of the foundation book (Cotton Vespasian B.IX), Gough says that the founding took place in 1123 in the thirty-third year of Henry I, and that Rahere “continued prior of his new foundation twenty years, to his death,” noting further that “a magnificent building arose in a short time, to the astonishment of all who beheld it” (1-2). According to Gough, “From the form of the pillars and arches of this part of the priory church, engraved in Plate XXXVII, one may fairly conclude, that it is the original building of Rahere’s time” (8). Then follows a description of the fabric:

The church is supported by ten round arches, with massive round pillars. Over these are round arches, inclosing each four others, and above these are the nunneries, single pointed arches. The east aile, or presbytery, is continued quite round the altar, as in Robsey, and several of our more ancient churches; and under it is a crypt, or charnel-house, now full of bones, and called purgatory, dug below the foundation of one of the pillars. The tower rests on two round arches charged with dentals, and two pointed ones (8).

The misnaming of the priory church as the Less rather than the Great (1) is a slip of the pen, not of knowledge, because there is a subsequent reference to the priory church as St Bartholomew the Great (7) and another to the chapel of the hospital as the Less (8). 1123 is the twenty-third rather than the thirty-third year of Henry I, which again looks more like a passing mistake than a considered statement and which may have been derived from the foundation document (West 1993, 9).

The most surprising thing in the text is the astonishment that greeted Rahere’s new church. This could be straightforward exaggeration, or due to how quickly it was built, or to its size or because of the marshy ground on which it was built, but the original wording in the foundation book on which this statement is based is significantly different. There it says that, when Rahere “raised up an immense fabric... all men were greatly astonished... at the novelty of the rising fabric” (Franklin 2006, 120), thus providing the important information that it was the novelty of the building that caused the astonishment. Speed of construction, large size and overcoming the difficulties posed by the land cannot be described as novelties, so I think we can assume that the word refers to something in the design.
However, there is nothing about the church as it survives today that can be called highly innovative, as the radiating chapels, though they are or were unusual, are certainly not dramatic enough to warrant the response. On this basis Franklin (2006, 121-23) has proposed that there was a group of five towers at the crossing, the main one and four smaller ones at the corners, that is, two over the west bays of the aisles of the east arm and two over the equivalent east bays of the nave (fig. 2). The proposal is based on the shape of the westernmost piers of the east arm and what they support (figs 1 and 3). While the other piers of the arm are plain cylinders, these two are of a massive compound type, carrying extra orders in the arch to the crossing pier and in that to the aisle respond. The first bays of the east arm are also different in being square in plan rather than the oblong shape of the other aisle bays to the east. The surviving equivalent two piers marking the easternmost bays of the aisles of the nave, while they have been damaged and altered, had the same form. The tower erected in the seventeenth century stands over the east bay of the south aisle of the nave. As it rests on twelfth-century masonry, there is the possibility that the form was suggested by the remains of a Norman tower in the same position. This association is strengthened by the evidence that there were two earlier towers, on the north and south sides of the nave, illustrated in a sixteenth-century plan of the city (Webb 1921, plate 56b).

The proposed design is indeed unusual. Franklin offers a parallel of high status in a reconstruction of the fourth-century east end of Trier Cathedral, a design that remained part of the church in the rebuilding of the eleventh century (fig. 4) (Franklin 2006, 125; Krautheimer 1986, fig. 42). It consisted of a square building with a central tower, four short arms and a smaller tower at each corner of the main one, the whole set against the east end of the nave. The arrangement of the main tower and the four is therefore exactly as has been proposed at St Bartholomew’s, but the way that they relate to the rest of the church is different. The closest designs of the years around 1100 are pairs of towers at the ends of aisled transepts, so over aisles but separate from the crossing, as experimented with at Winchester Cathedral and most dramatically as built at Tournai Cathedral. There are or were also towers clasping the eastern parts of the main structure at Durham and attached to the aisles at Canterbury. Franklin’s reconstruction therefore has in its favor the types of the piers and their bays at the four corners, and that it would undoubtedly have been very unusual and very prominent, and hence worthy of the astonished reaction claimed for its novelty.

There are, however, two potential difficulties. First is a scarcity of evidence for towers in the fabric above the aisle bays. For instance, the only surviving tribune bay of the four (that above the first bay of the south aisle of the east arm) has nothing more unusual than some rough masonry above its south arch. To explain this absence Franklin suggests that the upper parts of the towers could have been made of timber (Franklin 2006, 124). The other difficulty is that the compound piers have been explained as intended to mark the extent of the liturgical choir (Webb 1921, II, 4). This is plausible, as marker piers are common and because the boundary between the presbytery and the choir was indicated just east of the compound piers by a step down in the floor level, and the equivalent piers in the nave would probably have related to the position of the choir screen. Against this explanation is that the special design applies not just to a pier but to a whole bay of the aisle, as such a bay is not part of other examples and is arguably much more than a choir marker would require (Fernie 2014, 225-27). While the compound piers and their associated bays do present an intractable problem, it can be maintained that towers provide a better reason for them than any other explanation.

Gough’s conclusion that the part of the church engraved in Plate 2.37 is “the original building of Rahere’s time” (Gough 1784, 8) is correct, as long as one acknowledges that the sub-arches of the gallery and the separately illustrated panels, capitals, pier, and respond may be of a second phase of construction, in the 1140s, after Rahere’s death (Bradley 1997, 200). The text also mentions the clerestory, the pointed arches of which are much later, though the wall passage is original, and the arches of the crossing, which again may be of the second phase. The charnel house appears to have no connection with the architecture as it is probably an insertion of the seventeenth century (Webb 1921, II, ch. 2, n22). The text says that the east arm has ten arches, whereas there are only four rather than five straight bays on each side (fig. 1). The description is due to the first pair of arches in the apse being far less stilted than the others to the east, making them more like those in the straight bays. The term “nunneries” for the clerestory could be based on the assumption that its wall passage was used by nuns attending services, as happened with galleries. Gough’s account makes reference to an endowment not being sufficient “for the master, brethren, sisters” (1748, 2). The “dentals” on the round arches on the east and west sides of the crossing are chevron mouldings, though it should be noted that there are also chevrons on the north and south arches.

The text mentions ambulatories at Romsey and other places. Among these Norwich Cathedral, founded in 1096, has a unique link with St Bartholomew’s, because of the unusual placing and shape of their chapels. Whereas standard ambulatory chapels radiate from the main apse on a single axis, there is a subset where the chapel is attached by its side to the wall of the ambulatory, as at Canterbury Cathedral. Norwich and St Bartholomew’s belong in this category, but they are different in that the body of the chapel is bulbous rather than rectangular, completely so at Norwich and partially at St Bartholomew’s (fig. 1). There are no other examples of such chapels in England. The cathedral and the priory are also linked by two other things. First is their twelfth-century seals, which, as Heslop has pointed out, are very alike (Franklin 2006, 117-18, figs 6 and 7); the seal illustrated in Plate 2.36 and discussed by Gough (1784, 5) is a later one. They depict a building, but as a formula which bears no relationship to the forms of either church. Then there are Rahere’s professional contacts, for which see below.

As Rahere is the central character in this discussion, it is fitting to conclude with more details of his life, even if this means starting with another error. Unlike the two errors noted above, which are clearly minor, the same cannot be said of a third, as it involves a blatant contradiction. Gough (1784, 1-2) makes it crystal clear that Rahere founded the priory in the reign of Henry I, in 1123, that he was the first prior and that he remained so until his death twenty years later. Despite this the text also says that his death “probably happened early in the thirteenth century, if we suppose G. canon of Osney, who is said in the Chronicle of Dunstaple (l) to have been elected prior of St Bartholomew in London 1213, to have been his immediate successor” (2). Dating the election of Rahere’s immediate successor to 1213 not only conflicts with the preceding statements, it also makes the founder decades over a hundred years old at the time of his death.

Rahere’s professional contacts have been established by Franklin (2006, 117-19). He was a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, as was Eborard, who became bishop at Norwich in 1121 and who had associations with St Giles, a church only a few hundred yards from St Bartholomew’s, with which Rahere had close connections. The Vetusta Monumenta account includes the following, under the masters of the hospital: “Alfune, that had not long before built the parish church of St Giles without Cripplegate, was the first hospitaler, or proctor for the poor, of this house” (1784, 6).

Rahere’s “might have been the life of a comfortable easy-living courtier, famous just in his own little day for pleasant conversation, accustomed as his work in life to repeat daily a short portion of the psalter, and attending formally in his office of Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral such of the services as was his duty” (Chadwick 1930, 13). But, as the Vetusta Monumenta text says, he went to Rome and, having fallen ill, promised to found a hospital when he returned. He acquired, with the help of the bishop of London, the site that Bartholomew had indicated to him, and, having begun building the hospital and its church, he received a royal charter to protect the two institutions, which included St Bartholomew’s fair.

Plate 2.36: Rahere’s Monument

The tomb of Rahere occupied an important place in the physical and spiritual environment of St Bartholomew’s Priory Church (Luxford 2011, 426-28). Commemorating its founder, the tomb served as a sign of institutional self-consciousness and pride for the Augustinian community. The front of the tomb was embellished with four cusped quatrefoils in square panels, each bearing a shield with the following arms:the City of London, the Priory, France, and England. Upon the tomb was the recumbent stone effigy of Rahere, who is dressed in a black Augustinian habit with its hood thrown back, and Rahere’s head upon a cushion. To either side are small bedesmen holding books with quotations from Isaiah 51:3, “the Lord shall comfort Sion… and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose,” doubtless commenting upon Rahere’s foundation. The front of the effigy bears an inscription, “Hic jacet Raherus Primus Canonicus et Primus Prior hujus Ecclesiae” [Here lies Rahere, the first canon and prior of the church.] At the founder’s feet on the end wall, an angel emerges from cloud holding a shield of the Priory. The tomb is in the style of the period’s pre-eminent architect, Henry Yevele (d. 1400). Whether designed by Yevele or a follower, Rahere’s tomb was clearly a lavish commission that emulated the leading monuments of the period (Wilson 1995, 471–72, n. 93).

Rahere’s tomb belongs to a specific category of medieval funerary monument: the retrospective or “back-dated” tomb. These monuments were created or often re-created to commemorate a figure of particular significance to the religious house, whether a founder, benefactor, bishop, abbot, royal, or secular worthy. In this, Rahere’s tomb stands with the series of episcopal effigies at Hereford and Wells, the thirteenth-century effigy of Robert Curthose at Salisbury, and the sixteenth-century tomb of Osric at Gloucester among others (Lindley 1995). Retrospective funerary monuments were created to achieve a range of objectives for religious communities: they provided tangible evidence of the possession of the remains of the deceased (when the possession of remains was disputed); they were the focus of commemorative masses and para-liturgical commemoration; they served to link an institution’s present with a venerable past through commemorating its illustrious dead; and, materially, they provided splendid elaboration of the church itself.

Typical of the creation of retrospective tombs, Rahere’s tomb was only one manifestation of a larger contemporary movement to commemorate its founder. Although no evidence records the commissioning of the tomb, it was very likely part of the “Great Restoration” of St Bartholomew’s at the beginning of the fifteenth century, which included the remodeling of the east end, the extension of the parish chapel, and probably also the transcription and translation into Middle English of the late twelfth-century foundation legend of The Book of the Foundation of St Bartholomew’s Church, mentioned above. In this text Rahere is described in quasi-saintly terms (Webb 1921, 1.xxiv; 2.11-12; Varnam 2018). It is also likely that the tomb represented in Vetusta Monumenta is not the first monument to Rahere at St Bartholomew’s. An original monument must surely have existed in the 1120s, and the creation of the Latin Book of the Foundation suggests another opportunity for updating Rahere’s tomb. In either case, we can be reasonably certain that the tomb, like much of the “Great Restoration,” was sponsored by Roger Walden (d. 1406), Bishop of London and favorite of Richard II. Laura Varnam (2018) has recently suggested that Walden may also have instigated the translation of the foundation legend as a parallel activity to his involvement in the material restoration of the church. Interest in St Bartholomew’s in their founder’s tomb did not wane toward the Reformation; John Stow records that Rahere’s monument had been “of late renued by pryor Bolton [1506–32]”. We do not know what Bolton’s contribution was: it may have been a comprehensive repainting of the tomb or perhaps the addition of fittings or other elaborations which are now lost (Stow 1971, 2.25).

Atop the tomb in Plate 2.36 are impressions of the late thirteenth or fourteenth-century Common Seal of St Bartholomew’s. The main seal shows St Bartholomew seated on a magnificent throne resembling the great seal of Edward I. In his right hand he holds a book and in his left a flaying knife, the conventional attribute of St Bartholomew. The counter-seal (so called because it was impressed on the back of the main seal impression) shows a micro-architectural model of the priory built with ashlar masonry and elegant c. 1300 traceried windows, set within a ship at sea with the inner inscription NAVIS ECCLIE (Webb 1921, 1.318-20).

The Society of Antiquaries of London’s interest in St Bartholomew’s and its founder is not difficult to understand. St Bartholomew’s presented an important and immediately local destination to the Society for the study of medieval art. An early drawing by James Hill FSA of 1720 (SAL Drawings, vol. 2, f. 6; cf. SAL Minutes I.22, 42) attests to an early interest in the tomb before it was drawn by John Carter in 1784 (SAL Red Portfolio: London, A-B, f. 15) for this engraving. But St Bartholomew’s was also London’s oldest hospital (retitled The House of the Poor, commonly known as St. Bartholomew's Hospital near West Smithfield in the City of London of the foundation of King Henry VIII after 1547) and it had an important yearly fair, later celebrated by Ben Jonson in his comedy Bartholomew Fair (1614) and by Wordsworth in the Prelude (1805). Although the plates focus on the church and its furnishings rather than the hospital, the SAL’s interests in St Bartholomew’s may have been quickened by its impending rebuilding: in 1723 the hospital hired the leading architect James Gibbs to rebuild it and work took place between 1730-69 which completely destroyed the medieval hospital (Whitteridge and Stokes 1961).

Works Cited:

Bradley, Simon and Nicholas Pevsner. 1997. London 1: The City of London. London: Penguin Books.

Chadwick, Percival S. 1930. St Bartholomew the Great Smithfield. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Cherry, Bridget. 1990. “Some New Types of Late Medieval Tombs in the London Area,” Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in London, edited by Lindy Grant, 140-54. Leeds: British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions X.

Fernie, Eric. 2000. The Architecture of Norman England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

------. 2014. Romanesque Architecture: the First Style of the European Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Franklin, Jill. 2006. “The eastern arm of Norwich Cathedral and the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield in London,” Antiquaries Journal 86: 110-30.

Gough, Richard. 1784. “Plates XXXVI.XXXVII. Vol. II.” Vetusta Monumenta, vol. 2.

Krautheimer, Richard. (1965) 1975. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Harmondsworth: Pelican.

Lindley, Phillip. 1995. “Retrospective Effigies, The Past, and Lies,” In Medieval Art and Architecture at Hereford Cathedral, edited by D. Whitehead, 1995, 111-121. British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XV.

Luxford, Julian. 2011. “The idol of origins: Retrospection in Augustinian Art during the Later Middle Ages,” The Regular Canons in the Medieval British Isles, edited by Janet Burton and Karen Stöber, 417-42. Turnhout: Brepols.

Society of Antiquaries of London. Minutes of the Council of the Society of Antiquaries.

------. Drawings Volume 2 [197h].

------. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

------. Red Portfolio: London, A-B.

Stow, John. 1971. A Survey of London. Introduction and notes by C. L. Kingsford, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Varnam, Laura. 2018. The Church as Sacred Space in Middle English Literature and Culture. Manchester.

Webb, E[dward]. A. 1921. “The fabric of the church: Architecture”, in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 2, Oxford. British History Online

------. 1923. The Book of the Foundation of St Bartholomew’s Priory.

West, J. 1993. The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield. The twelfth-century building and its context. Typescript of a lecture delivered to the Guild of Rahere.

Whitteridge, Gwenyth and Veronica Stokes. 1961.  A Brief History of the Hospital of Saint Bartholomew. London.

Wilson, Christopher. 1995. “The Medieval Monuments,” The History of Canterbury Cathedral, edited by Collinson, N. Ramsay, and M. Sparks, 451-510. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1. St Bartholomew Smithfield, plan of the twelfth-century parts with the kind permission of Jill A. Franklin; fig. 2 in the article of 2006.

2. St Bartholomew Smithfield, hypothetical reconstruction with the kind permission of Jill A. Franklin; fig. 9 in the article of 2006.

[3. St Bartholomew Smithfield, north aisle of the eastern arm, to west. (To be drawn after Covid lockdown is lifted.)]

4. Trier Cathedral, reconstruction as in c.380. Krautheimer, 1975, fig. 42, as redrawn by Chris Kennish.

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