Either welcome for the first time or welcome back to my little series here about a great trip to Malta in 2013 and, as always, a very brief word of explanation and an apology to those that follow this nonsense. If you have come upon this page by “accident”, welcome but I would recommend you scroll back through to the 13th of February 2013 where I start this trip and it will read more sensibly.
If you have been following you will know that I had spent two absolutely fantastic but quite exhausting days sightseeing Floriana and then Rabat / Mdina, both of which I had enjoyed immeasurably but I am not a young man any more (I write this in 2019 but even then I was starting to feel the pace) and using my images of this day as a guide to what I did, as is my usual habit, I find two of a meal which cannot ever be described as haute cuisine but the sight of which evoked such happy memories as it was the day’s special and I remember it even now as particularly tasty. This lack of images suggests to me that I spent the entire day in San Giljan (St. Julian) in the peerless Dick’s Bar, which I have mentioned here before and undoubtedly will again as it was such a staple of my time on the island.
The complete lack of items of travel interest on this day leaves me in a position to do something rather strange, as if my entire life to date has not already been composed of strange things. My experiences writing for other commercial travel websites were hugely rewarding and yet they did not afford me the opportunity to do what I am going to do now. I do hope this new-found editorial control does not go to my head! Not that I am hoping to be a Robert Maxwell (Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch), Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer (who would?) and my 20 or so readers certainly do not form the basis of a global media empire. None of this, so please allow me to explain.
This entry being what I have described previously here as a “slow news day” I am going to write here about two institutions nowhere near Malta but within walking distance of my home in the East end of London. I visited both on the same day about four months before I had even decided to visit Malta and whether there was some subliminal element in my choice of winter destination I could not possibly say but again I return to a quote from the late Douglas Adams about “the interconnectedness of all things”, a concept I firmly believe in and for which I can provide numerous examples.
For no better reason than it was an area of London I did not know too well albeit that I had played many gigs there, I took myself, suitably wrapped up on a chilly winter day, to Farringdon / Clerkenwell. As usual I had come totally unprepared and, having visited a lovely garden area which had been taken over and run wonderfully by the local people and a church of some note I happened, purely by chance, upon the Church of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Obviously was in there like a shot, albeit probably more accurate a shot than one from their ancient muskets, and as always I shall let my original writing and images speak for themselves.
“The Priory Church of St. John, situated right in the heart of the City of London is a fascinating and unusual place. To look at the front of it, it does not look like a traditional church at all and resembles some sort of provincial hall or similar. However, like so many other things in this city, have a closer look and you will find some amazing history dating all the way back to the Holy Land crusades. Let’s start there then.
Let us go back all the way to 1099 when the First Crusade had captured Jerusalem from the “Saracens”. The Crusaders, at least the officer class, were rich nobles from Western Europe who had seen it as a sacred religious duty to take control of the area, specifically Jerusalem, from what they saw as heathens / Musselmen / Mohammedans or various other names, effectively what we today call Moslems. If you talk to most people about this period they may well speak of the Knights Templar who have been made famous by things like Freemasonry conspiracy theories and the Dan Brown book and subsequent film called the Da Vinci code (totally plagiarised from an earlier excellent scholarly work). However there was also another Order, arguably slightly older, called the Knights of St. John and it is this Order we are concerned with here.
The present Church is built on the site of a priory which was established in the 12th century to care for the religious needs of the Order. The first thing to look at is actually outside the front of the Church. If you look at the ground you will see the outline of the original round church that stood here. The overwhelming majority of churches in the UK are cruciform i.e. cross shaped but the Crusaders, both Templars and Hospitallers, for such were the St. John knights known, were round. This is believed to reflect the design of the Temple in Jerusalem and is best seen today in the Temple Church, also in the City of London and just off the Strand.
Attached to the church was a crypt primarily for the burial of the dead but also used for other purposes and it is on the site of this that the present church stands. When you enter initially, you will be greeted by the very friendly attendants who will give you any information you need. I should add at this point that the normal way to visit is by joining one of the guided tours from the nearby museum of the Order although it is perfectly acceptable to wander in by yourself as I did. Admission is free although donations are obviously welcomed. I was left to explore by myself and did not see another person the whole time I was there.
The church itself is pleasant enough and has a few interesting artefacts like the banners on the walls. Also of note is the Book of Remembrance immediately to the right of the main door which commemorates members of the Order and the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade in the First World War. The St. John Ambulance, which will be familiar to many readers worldwide was a later incarnation of the original Order, the Order having long been associated with care of the sick. Just beside the Book of Remembrance are a couple of old hand pushed stretchers which were obviously designed for people much smaller than me!
I should note here that in my rugby playing days I was more than grateful for the kind assistance of the members of this excellent organisation on many occasions and I thank them here publicly again as I did then if I was not too concussed!
So why does the church look so modern (it is actually 1950’s). Well, in 1941 the old church which had been renovated and extended many times was hit during the Blitz by the German Luftwaffe and virtually obliterated. Whilst the main church is interesting enough, it is downstairs that the true gem lies, the crypt of the original 12th century building. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place with many, many fascinating plaques and memorials, a few tombs and some pleasant stained glass. You could easily spend a lot of time just looking round, and I did. Regrettably, because of the very nature of the place, I do not believe the crypt is accessible to wheelchair users although the upper church certainly is.
Having looked around all you want, take a moment to visit the very peaceful Garden of Remembrance to the South of the church which provides a welcome respite from the hubbub of central London. As you do, have a look at the lower wall of the building as you can see some of the original masonry. I had walked past this place many, many times before I even realised what it was. Don’t make my mistake and seek it out as it really is worth a visit.
Well, that was the start of it but there was more to come as a notice directed me a very short distance to the Museum of the Order.
I mentioned the priory / church because it is inextricably linked with the Museum which forms the basis of the following paragraphs. It is accessed through the wonderful St’ John’s Gate which you see above.
The Knights of St. John were largely concerned with the physical well-being of pilgrims to the Holy Land both by physically protecting them from attack and by caring for their needs should they become ill or injured. The Order were actually known as the Knights Hospitaller from which our modern word hospital derives not to mention the now very trendy area of Spitalfields which I walked through to get home that day. For readers in many countries the term “St. John’s” is habitually followed by “ambulance” and they do indeed provide voluntary medical services in many parts of the world.
For readers not aware, the Order, although it still exists as such, changed it’s emphasis over the centuries from being combatant Knights to the current 21st century position where it is effectively a charity focusing on healthcare in various guises. They are keen to stress that it is not a pre-requisite of the St. John’s Ambulance to be Christian or have any faith at all. All are welcomed and, indeed, one of the oddest and most touching things I saw in the Museum was a photo of a young apparently Muslim woman wearing traditional Islamic headdress in the uniform of the charity, for such it is now. Changed times indeed.
Given the history of St. John’s as outlined briefly above, it is scarcely surprising that the Museum is divided basically into two parts. There is the more ancient history of the Order and the more modern “first aid” section and both are equally fascinating.
Let us start with the building which really is magnificent as I hope my fairly amateur image shows with a sympathetic new addition tacked into the obviously much older building. The Order began in the 12th century and due to noble patronage, encouraged by the Pope and so soon had an a huge amount of land in what was then the outskirts of the City of London. Today, it would be worth tens of millions if not more. Remarkably, the Order retains a fair holding here. The Museum is the old building, very ancient and very impressive.
After Henry VIII decided to split with the Catholic Church and form his own, Britain had the “dissolution of the monasteries” as it was called. Effectively, all Church land was seized by the State / King (same thing in those days) and effectively redistributed amongst his supporters. In subsequent years the structure stood duty as office of Master of the Revels, where over 30 Shakesperian plays were licensed, a coffee house run by the father of the famous artist Hogarth and almost inevitably a pub where Dickens used to meet his friends.
Once inside, you will be greeted by one of the extremely friendly and helpful staff. There are regular tours covering this and the nearby Church mentioned above, but I decided to go it alone being a little pressed for time. Whilst a guide would have been nice, I was well able to negotiate the place myself as everything is well annotated. Deciding to go chronologically, I went to the ancient section first and there was much to see.
The entire old history of the Order, including their expulsion from the Holy Land and subsequent residence in Rhodes and Malta is very well covered. Incidentally, the modern St. John badge is based on the “Maltese Cross” which derives from this time. The cannon you can see in the image is a good example of the somewhat nomadic existence of the Order. During it’s life, which dates from 1527, it has served in Rhodes, Sicily, Libya and Cyprus, which is quite some history for an artillery piece. There are also some fine paintings in this section, as you can see in another image. Note the very prominent St. John / Maltese cross in some of the paintings. Something in the back of my head keeps whispering that they were perhaps not very good at fighting.
Having fully acquainted myself with the older history of the Order, I moved on to the more modern incarnation, first granted a Royal Charter in 1888 by Queen Victoria. Long stripped of it’s old chivalric trappings, it was effectively a forerunner of what so many people worldwide are so grateful for nowadays and the last couple of images show this work. From the variety of child’s uniforms shown to the mock-up of the WW1 wicker basket also shown, it is a fascinating insight into the workings of the modern St. John’s organisation.
Now, this has been a total remove from my trip to Malta but I do hope the reader sees the logic (if such there is) behind it and as always any feedback is much appreciated. I hope you have found this interesting but please let me know as I am very much floundering about in uncharted waters here.
As a final little teaser, you will have noticed that the “Maltese” cross of the order, and which incidentally adorned the blazer of the poor school that was daft enough to have accepted me way back in 19XX, is not what is normally thought of as the Christian crucifix. It is not a cross of St. Andrew which is shaped as it is for well-publicised reasons, so why is it that shape and why does it have eight points? There are some interesting theories about that albeit the official line is that it represents the eight obligations of a Knight of the Order. When I get a bit of time I shall write about it all here and, indeed, I have even mentioned at least one place that will feature in this piece. Please write to me if you have guessed what it may be about.
There will be much more to come about my actual trip so stay tuned and spread the word.