Prior Rahere and his legacy: Rahere Lodge No. 2546

Sunday, 01 July 2007

The link between Rahere Lodge and St Bartholomew's Hospital is explained by John M. Grange

One of the most awe-inspiring and atmospheric buildings in all of London is the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in Smithfield. Perhaps because it is hidden away from the hurly-burly of London life, this haven of peace and tranquillity is not nearly as well known as it deserves to be. 

On the north side of the altar is a tomb on which are engraven the words “Hic iacet Raherus Primus Canonicus et Primus huius Ecclesiae” (Here lies Rahere, the first canon and first prior of this church). Today, Rahere is remembered not just as the founder of the Priory Church but also of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, popularly known as ‘Bart’s’. On June 29th 1895, a Masonic Lodge was consecrated at this great and famous hospital by the M.W. Pro Grand Master, The Earl of Lathom, in the presence of the M.W. Grand Master H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and the Crown Prince of Denmark, Grand Master of Danish Freemasons. This new Lodge was, very appropriately, named The Rahere Lodge. 

Little is known of the origins and early life of Rahere. Much of what is known of him comes from a book called the ‘The Book of the Foundation of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London, the Church Belonging to the Priory of the Same in West Smithfield’ (or, more usually, ‘The Book of Foundation’). This was written in Latin by a canon of the Priory Church around the year 1180 (about 40 years after the death of Rahere) and a translation into modern English made in 1923 is available from the church. 

Rahere probably came from a humble background but he had great personal charisma and charm, a rich sense of humour and a liking for the good things of life. He used his personal charms to gain a place in the court of Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror, where, according to the Book of Foundation, “…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.” 

It is said, though not confirmed, that he held the high and influential office of Court Jester. 

Despite his self-indulgent life style, there are hints that even then there was a more profound side of his character and he may have held a clerical appointment as the unusual name Rahere first appears in the list of Canons of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1115. 

Certainly, he deeply admired Queen Matilda, a spiritual and charitable lady, and he was profoundly affected by her death in the year 1118. Two years later, in 1120, the king’s son and heir, William, and other members of the royal family and household perished when their ship sank in a storm in the English Channel. 

In the words of Leonard Clark, in a booklet entitled The Story of Rahere (available from the Priory Church), “Sudden death and grief challenged Rahere, perhaps for the first time. He realised that there was much more to life than a round of pleasure and merrymaking.” Rahere therefore left the royal court and set out as a humble pilgrim on a long and perilous journey in the hope of finding enlightenment. After enduring great hardships, he arrived in Rome but while staying on the Island of St. Bartholomew in the River Tiber he became seriously ill with the ‘Roman Fever’ – possibly malaria. Fearful for his life, he made a vow to God that, in the event of his recovery, he would return to England and found a hospital for the poor. 

He did recover and set out for his native land but on his journey he had a dreadful vision in which he was carried by a winged beast to the edge of a horrible abyss, into which he thought he was about to plunge. 

As he cried out in terror a figure appeared beside him ‘bearing royal majesty in his countenance, of wonderful beauty and imperial authority’ who identified himself as St. Bartholomew and directed Rahere to found a church and hospital in his name at Smithfield. The saint also told Rahere that he should have no doubt or anxiety at all concerning the expenses of this work, but should merely apply himself diligently to his appointed task. 

The cost of the promised building work proved no problem as Rahere received the patronage of the king and the Bishop of London and work commenced in the rather dreary and muddy land known as Smoothfield, or Smithfield, the site of a gallows. Beside the effigy of Rahere on his tomb is a small figure of a kneeling monk reading a bible. The words being read are from Isaiah 51:3, “Consolabitur ergo Dominus Sion, et consolabitur omnes ruinas ejus; et ponat desertum ejus quasi delicias, et solitudinem ejus quasi hortum Domini.” (For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord). It has been suggested that this refers to the new life brought to this desolate place by the building of the Priory Church and hospital. 

The construction of the church, to become part of an Augustinian monastery, and the hospital, now the oldest active hospital in London, commenced in 1123. 

Work must have progressed at a great pace, as both buildings were completed within 20 years. Rahere, by then an Augustinian canon, became the first Prior of the church and the first Master of the hospital, posts he held until his death in 1143. 

The original church was much larger than the present-day building; indeed, it was larger than most cathedrals at that time. Sadly, after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, several parts fell into disrepair and others were used for different purposes. The now-restored North Transept, for example, was for some time a blacksmith’s forge. 

In addition to founding the church and hospital, Rahere was given funding by the king to establish an annual cloth fair at Smithfield, running for three days from St Bartholomew’s Eve, August 23rd. The fair proved extremely popular and it became one of the great annual events in London and a public holiday. It eventually developed into a huge market, trading in many commodities other than cloth, including meat and livestock, and there was a myriad of entertainment – jugglers, fire eaters, jesters, minstrels, storytellers and many more, and Rahere himself would sometimes amuse the crowds with juggling. 

Also, the operative guilds prepared and performed mystery plays but, alas, the collapse of the guilds and the puritanical attitudes fostered by Protestantism brought the mystery plays to an end but their tradition is perpetuated in Masonic rituals. 

The fair was last held in 1855 but, to this day, there is a large meat market at Smithfield. 

After his mystical experience Rahere devoted his life to preaching and teaching and, in the Christian tradition of those days, to healing. From the very beginning, miraculous events occurred. On one evening during the building of the church, as night was descending, many people witnessed a mysterious light over the church which remained for around one hour. Not long after the monastery was founded, there were claims that Rahere had gifts of healing and the sick and lame came on pilgrimages from afar in the hope of being healed. Even after Rahere’s death, people would lay prostrate in the Priory Church praying to St Bartholomew for healing. The Book of Foundation states that “many and innumerable tokens of miracles were performed, but on account of their abundance they were neglected and were handed down to memory by scarcely anyone” and so the author of that book resolved only to describe those he had personally witnessed. The many reports include healing of the blind, deaf, dumb and paralysed (in one well described case a girl who was blind, deaf, dumb and paralysed was healed) and also those with severe deformities, strokes, epilepsy, tinnitus, severe mental disorders, insomnia and dropsy. 

Clearly, Rahere saw no conflict between healing of Divine origin in his church and curing by the ministration of the medical profession in his hospital. 

Some 860 years after the death of Rahere, the church and hospital still stand, the former smaller than the original and the latter very much larger. Both have endured threats to their very existence – the hospital having recently survived attempts to close it. But the spirit of Rahere is stronger than those of mortal men and these great institutions, and the fine Masonic Lodge bearing his name, are active and flourishing today. 


The author is grateful to W.Bro. Trevor Dutt, Honorary Archivist to the Rahere Lodge, for information on the consecration of this Lodge. 

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