Going Underground

Posted March 17, 2017 12:56 pm by William Purkis under Events History Public engagement

Earlier this month various news organisationswebsites and social media platforms were reporting an exciting discovery in rural Shropshire: an underground network of tunnels and caves, supposedly constructed in the Middle Ages by members of the Order of the Temple, better known as the Knights Templar. Many medievalists were sceptical about a direct association between this admittedly unusual site and the Templars, with one historian suggesting it was just as likely to have been made by hobbits. More recently, it has transpired that the caves have been known about for some time and were probably constructed in the mid-1800s; the story has thus been consigned by some to the category of ‘fake news’.

The medieval crypt of the priory church of the Order of St John, as photographed in c.1900

However, to borrow from the BBC, there is still at least one ‘underground sanctuary said to have been used by devotees of a medieval religious order’ that survives in the UK – and it is to be found at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell! The medieval crypt of the priory church of the Order of St John, which was built by and for members of another military-religious order associated with the crusades, the Knights Hospitaller, is one of the few twelfth-century sites that still survives in twenty-first century London. It is a wonderfully atmospheric space that boasts a number of fascinating features, including tombs and effigies of medieval members of the Order, a thirteenth-century font basin, and a relic from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that was presented to the museum in the mid-twentieth century.

Rosie (R) examines the crypt’s relic of the Church of the Nativity with Vardit Shotten-Hallel (L), an archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority, in September 2016.

Although the crypt is not open to the general public, it can be seen on guided tours and visits can be arranged on request. But if you’re really keen to see this magnificent (and genuinely medieval!) subterranean site, why not come along to our next public event on Wednesday 29 March? Guided tours of the crypt will be leaving the museum at 5.20pm, 5.40pm and 6pm, ahead of a public lecture on ‘Crusade in Europe: The “Home Front” of Holy War in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’ at 6.30pm.

The medieval crypt of the priory church of the Order of St John, as it appears today. Photograph: David Nash

Tickets for the event are free and available here.

The thirteenth-century font basin in the medieval crypt of the priory church of the Order of St John. Photograph: David Nash

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