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The Church Jester

Text only version

On the eastern side of Smithfield stands a small ancient-looking arched gateway with a half-timbered room above. Through this gateway is the graveyard of one of London’s oldest churches, the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great and next to the gateway stands the hospital, which bears the same name.

In May 1999, as the verger of the church lay snug and warm in his bed in the house next door, he was awoken by a telephone call from the security company that monitored the church. One of the alarms had gone off inside the building. Annoyed at being forced from his bed at such an early hour, the verger found his keys and unlocked the main doors.

All was silent as he entered the church. He searched the entire building but found it empty. As he switched off the lights and prepared to leave, he suddenly became aware of the sound of soft footsteps moving slowly down the central aisle.
The verger called into the darkness, “Who’s there?” Although the footsteps stopped for a moment, there was no reply. After a few moments of silence, the footsteps began again.

Frightened he quickly left the church, locked the doors and hurried to his home to call the police. He returned to the church door just as the police arrived and he guided them around the church. A thorough search revealed that nothing had been disturbed and all the doors and windows were locked.

The next morning, the alarm company arrived to check the motion sensors (beams of light that trigger an alarm if they are broken). The technician was very surprised to discover that, although none of the beams covering the doors or windows had been disturbed, the central beam of light had been broken. This meant that whoever, or whatever, broke the beam had somehow managed to appear, as if by magic, in the centre of the church.

Now, this central beam passed over an old ornate tomb. In the tomb lay the bones of a very important man. To find out more about him we have to go back many years, to medieval times and the rule of King Henry I.

At this time the area around the market was known, not as ‘Smithfield’ but as ‘Smoothfield’. It was also a time of spectacles, banquets and jests. One of the best entertainers, or jesters, of the time was a man named Rahere. He was a member of the Court of King Henry I and a favourite of the king and his nobles. But the court was not always full of laughter because, in 1118, Henry I’s wife Matilda died.

The tragedy did not end there for, two years later, in November 1120, the King's much loved son and heir to the throne, Prince William, was drowned when the White Ship was lost in a winter storm off the coast of France. His brother, half-brother and sister, also drowned. The King and the whole court were plunged into despair and sadness.

In the hope of helping his King, Rahere decided to become a monk and go on a pilgrimage to Rome, to pray for the King and his children. It was a long journey and, at that time, fraught with danger.

Whilst on his way to Rome, Rahere fell dangerously ill with malarial fever. At the height of his fever, and believing that he was going to die, he vowed that if he were to recover he would return home and ‘erect a hospital for the restoration of poor men’.

Rahere’s prayers were answered; he recovered and set off home for England. On his journey home he had a terrible dream in which he was seized by a huge winged creature and carried up to a high mountain ledge, where he was left to balance over a deep yawning chasm.

As he was about to fall, the figure of St Bartholomew appeared at his side and told Rahere that he had come to save him, as long as he returned to London and founded a church in his name at Smoothfield. Rahere kept his promises, returning to England and founding both the hospital and the Priory Church next door.

Rahere served as both prior of the priory and master of the hospital and tended the sick at St Bartholomew's before his death in 1145. He was buried in the church he founded, just to the left of the alter.

Here Rahere rested in peace until the 19th century, when curious parish officials decided to open the tomb, to see if it really contained the remains of the famous founder of their church.

When they removed the lid of the coffin, there was Rahere, well-preserved, with even his clothes and sandals still intact after 700 years. They re-sealed the tomb but a few days later one of the group of men fell very ill and he confessed that he had stolen from the coffin - one of the monk’s sandals.

The shoe was hastily put back inside the coffin and the man recovered. But they had not put the sandal back on Rahere’s foot and, since that day, the founder of the church has haunted the building. He usually appears as a hooded, shadowy figure gliding from the gloom, brushing past terrified visitors and then fading away into the darkness, with only his soft footsteps remaining.

And it seems Rahere has continued to haunt the church, right up until recent times for, as the verger thought back over the events of the previous night, he remembered that the footsteps he had heard had reminded him of a particular type of footwear – they sounded just like someone walking over the stone floor whilst wearing... sandals!

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