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A Royal Visitor: Henry II Visits the Priory of the Order of St John

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

Although the Order of St John had existed in Jerusalem since the 1080s, they only began receiving land in England and Scotland in the 1130s and 1140s. The Priory here at Clerkenwell was first established in 1144 on land granted by Jordan de Bricet and his wife Muriel de MunteniThe site here at Clerkenwell was to become the provincial headquarters for the English Langue.  

In this period, control of the city of Jerusalem was contested. The city contains sites of religious significance to Christians, Muslims and  Jews. The crusades were a series of wars fought between Christians and Muslims over territory in the Levant region. Prior to the First Crusade, this land had been under Muslim Control. The First Crusade ended in 1099, with the Christians taking control of Jerusalem from the Fatimid Caliphate.  

Nearly a century later, Christian Jerusalem felt threatened. Many of the Muslim states of the Levant region had been unified under the powerful General, Saladin and they posed a significant military threat. The fragile situation worried the incumbent Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius. The title of Patriarch is given to the highest ranking Catholic Bishop in a region who has jurisdiction over the church in that region. Keen to ensure the safety of Jerusalem, Heraclius set off for Europe with an embassy in the hope of persuading a European monarch to provide support to the Latin kingdoms. The King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV had an heir but he was a small child and the Barons in the Latin kingdoms were divided and factionalised over the issue of succession. It was felt that a strong successor was needed to protect Jerusalem. Among those travelling in the embassy was Roger de Moulins, Grand Master of the Hospitallers. The embassy travelled across Europe and arrived in England in January 1185 after been dismissed by King Philip II of France. The group sought a meeting with King Henry II of England.  

Henry II had been on the throne of England since 1154. He also ruled half of France, including Aquitaine through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. A member of the  influential House of Anjou, he was related to many rulers across Europe. Indeed, he was first cousin to Baldwin IV as their shared the same grandfather, Falk V of Anjou.  

Henry is perhaps best known for his fraught relationship with Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was killed by knights in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170. He suffered backlash from the rest of Christendom following the murder, with Philip II calling for him to beexcommunicated. In 1172 he signed the Treaty of Avranches with the Papacy which held him to providing 200 knights for the crusade and to going on crusade himself. By the time the delegation arrived in England in 1185, Henry’s circumstances had changed. His sons were frequently in conflict with him and each other, jostling for territory and power. The discontent first broke out in 1173 with the Great Rebellion which lasted for eighteen months. Following the Rebellion, the issue of succession was never fully quashed and further conflict took place during the 1180s  

Upon the arrival of the Patriarch Heraclius’ embassy in January 1185, they met with the King at Reading Abbey. At this meeting, they presented him with the keys to the tower of David and the banner of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It has been alleged that they offered him the Kingdom too but it is not certain that this was the case. Historical sources report that Henry was moved by Heraclius’ passionate appeal, however he wanted to consult his council. It was arranged that the council would reconvene at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell on 10th March.  

The Church and Crypt at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem had recently been extended and refurbished, in part thanks to an increase in bequests made to the order in response to the tensions in Jerusalem Archeological records suggest that in 1185 the old single-aisled chancel had been demolished and the crypt expanded to three times its original size with north, east and south extension. In the image below, you can see that, the arches cease to be rounded as we approach the altar and become gothic and pointed in shape as was the fashion by the 1180s; this shows us where the extension was.  

Image of the crypt looking down the nave. Low arches can be seen leading towards an alter and a large window.


The Chancel in the church above had three aisles, similar in style to the architectural innovations that had taken place at Lesnes Abbey in Kent and St Cross in Winchester. The original round nave, replicating that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, remained. In St John’s Square, you can see the nave marked out on the pavement. 


Photograph of stones in a circle on the floor of St Johns Square
The shape of the original round nave can be seen marked out on the floor of St Johns Square

Large amounts of archeological excavation have taken place here on the site of the old priory. We hold a large collection of stones, , that come from the twelfth and thirteenth century Priory. This is largely thanks to the help of another Henry, Henry Fincham, the church warden, who collected fragments of stone that make up our archaeological collection over several years from 1898 onwards. He would obtain stones found in the foundations of demolished neighboring buildings as well as from excavations at the church. Accounts note that Fincham visited the site daily to ensure that archaeological remains of the original 12th century Church were preserved. Much of this stone is Reigate Stone which can also be found at St Bartholomew the Great down the road.  


Excavations in front of the Church, late 19th century
Excavations in front of the Church, late 19th century
A black and white photograph of fragments of stone display on shelves and arranged on the floor
A collection of worked stones in the crypt, photographed by H.W. Fincham in 1907

These examples stones show how the church walls were painted and there were several decorative features on the arcades such as palm fronds with date bunches. From the archeology, we believe that three colours were used, black, red and blue. It is one of the best surviving examples in England.  


 Two carved stones and two painted stones
Stone fragments from the Priory Church of the Order of St John c.1143 – 1545. This selection show painted details and carved stonework.

Henry was the first known royal visitor to the Priory which at this point had at least three separate buildings. The Church had a deliberately high vantage point to make it visible across the fleet valley and Smithfield area 

At the meeting, Heraclius re-consecrated the Priory Church and Crypt in a ceremony that was attended by the King and Roger de Moulins. This was the first time that a Grand Master of the Order of St John had visited the Priory in England. The English Langue was officially founded by de Moulins. 

Henry II was reminded of his earlier pledge to go on crusade by Heraclius. Despite their pleas, the efforts of the embassy were futile. Henry’s council persuaded the king to stay in Europe and attend to his lands and people. Heraclius returned home without the backing of a European monarch. On 16th March, Baldwin IV died leaving his young nephew, Baldwin V, as King of Jerusalem, under the regency of Raymond of Tripoli and guardianship of Joscelin III of Edessa.  

Heraclius’ fears that the Christian hold of Jerusalem could be lost were realized two years later in 1187 when the city fell to Saladin. It took this defeat for the monarchs of Europe to become enthused with crusading vigor. Henry II announced his intention to go on crusade in 1188 and raised a tax to support a campaign. His son Richard was particularly keen to travel to the Holy Land and was angered at the slow progress of the preparations. Tensions spilled over between the father and son once again around this time and resulted in violent conflictHenry died in Chinon, France in 1189, having just agreed a surrender to his son Richard and betrayed by his favourite son John who defected to support his brother. Richard succeeded his father as king and spent much of his early reign overseas fighting in the Third Crusade against Saladin. Whilst he is remembered as being brave and daring for his actions in the crusades, his actions cost his subjects a large amount of money.  

Although Henry’s time here at the priory was brief, it marked the first known visit by a monarch to the priory church making it a very special occasion in the history of the site. In future, many English monarchs would use the site to lodge, as Henry II’s son  John did in 1212, or to hold other large meetings as Richard III would centuries later to refute claims that he wanted to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. The event marks the start of a long-term relationship between this site, the priors of the Order and English Monarchy.  

 If you are interested in finding out more about the Order’s connection with the crusades, the Bearers of the Cross Project developed a fantastic online resource detailing the relevant aspects of our collection. Blogs written as part of the project can be found here and details of other archaeological items from our collection relevant to the period discussed in this blog, and later periods can be explored here.



Sloane, Barney and Gordon Malcolm, Excavations at the priory o the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London (Museum of London Archeological Service, London) 2004.  



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