Since the 14th c, The Jerusalem Tavern has historically been the name of the pub of the priory of St. John the Baptist after the priory itself came into existence in 1140. This latest incarnation of the pub has been pouring pints only since 1996, although the building itself has a much longer history. The one and only pub to wholly sell St. Peter’s Brewery ales (as it is owned by the brewery), this side street pub is situated at 55 Britton Street, and it is a mere 3 minute walk from the Gate of St. John’s. Built-in 1720 and occupying the former store of first a merchant and later a clockmakers, its frontage dates from 1810. This pub with it faded paint and cozy alcoves usually packs them in, and who wouldn’t for a pint of St. Pete’s?
While strolling along the quite side street in this quaint area of Clerkenwell, just look for the sign with the head of John the Baptist on it. They carry the full range of St. Pete’s from the potent Winter Ale to the Cream Stout. Within the front room, there are faded white and blue painted tiles depicting the four seasons, and in the back room they are various Hogarth prints, owing to his family’s association with St. John’s (see below), along with a stuffed fox in a case. No clue what the fox is for, but hell it works. The best seat in the house sits perched above commoners below, where a two top table sits only reachable from a small staircase to overlook the pub.
Even though this public house has only had a licence since 1996, once you step inside though, there is no denying that the early Georgian character of the building is overwhelming. Besides that, no where else can you get a pint of St. Pete’s in such variety.
There are many things of note within the neighborhood of this fine establishment. Step out the front door on a sunny day, and look across the street. The carved panels at the top of the opposite building (as seen below) depict one of the former industries for which the area was known: distilleries. Follow the scenes along the frieze on what used to the be the front of a distillery, until the facade was transplanted onto this modern building.
Walk back up to Clerkenwell Road, and walk east to come to St John’s Square to find the gate and former southern entrance to the priory. Originally built-in 1504, this is one of the only remaining pieces of what was a vast priory. The Order of St. John or the Knights Hospitaller was established in the 1023 in Jerusalem to care for the sick and poor as they arrived on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Later in the 11th c-12thc they developed a military wing while also still caring for the sick. After they were driven from the Holy Land, they eventually settled on the island of Malta with tongues, or chapters, set up across Europe. Clerkenwell was home to their English tongue.
The priory in London met the same fate as all the other priories being dissolved by Henry VIII. This priory was given to his daughter Mary, or Bloody Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (whose marriage was dissolved on the spot of the Blackfriar’s Pub). Queen Mary would restore England to Roman Catholicism until her half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I, reversed it again.
During the Elizabethan period it held the Office of the Master of Revels where 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were rehearsed and licensed.
The gate was used for numerous other historically interesting purposes as well:
- The Gentleman’s Magazine (the first magazine) was written and printed here
- Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, worked here while employed at the Magazine
- Hogarth’s father set up a coffee shop there where his son and later artist was raised. He sold coffee along with Latin lessons, and needless to say it wasn’t a commercial success.
With your back to the gate, cross Clerkenwell Road to find another building associated with the priory. You can tell by the large star St. John on the front of the building.
If you look on the ground in front of this building, you can see an arch of gray stones (as seen below ending between the 2 flower planters). This is the line of the former circular church of the priory which stood on this spot. The oldest and only remaining original structure of the priory is below this spot. It is a Norman crypt which was one of the only things not destroyed when the priory was set ablaze by Wat Tyler and friends during the Peasant’s revolt of 1381, which came to a historically bloody end at Smithfield Market when Tyler was killed by the Lord Mayor and the King’s men.
Continue up Jerusalem passage taking note of the Blue Plaque on the corner for Thomas Britton, a coal merchant who built his home and shop on Aylesbury Street. He famously built a small concert venue on-site catering to all walks of life supposedly including even Handel. This tiny secluded venue became the toast of the town in the first half of the 18th c. From here, turn left onto Aylesbury Street and enter Clerkenwell Green.
This area has long had ties to actors of rebellion, all the way from the Peasants Revolt up to the current May Day marches which start at this infamous square en route to the City. It is also in this quiet green that you can find the Karl Marx Memorial Library. It is situated here within a Georgian town house, and is home to over 150,000 volumes of leftist literature. It was in this building that during 1902-3 Lenin edited issues 22-38 of his Russian newspaper Iskra (The Spark), which was reportedly printed on ultra thin paper to ensure it being better suited for smuggling back into Tsarist Russia.
The area of Clerkenwell has a rich history along with a terrific pub culture. On the grounds of former priories, many a rebellious act and delicious pint has found a home in this splendid part of town. And although the current Jerusalem Tavern maybe a few years my junior, the rich history of the area and the pub’s namesake lend this wonderful establishment a sense of legitimacy and is more than well-worth a visit.
Check it out on my map for this and other great pubs in the area:
55 Britton Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 5UQ
0207 490 4281
Sadly, only open during weekdays.