The jester is called Rahere and he provided entertainment at the court of King Henry I. He even features in his very own poem by Rudyard Kipling –
Rahere, King Henry’s Jester, feared by all the Norman Lords
For his eye that pierced their bosoms, for his tongue that shamed their swords;
Feed and flattered by the Churchmen – well they knew how deep he stood
In dark Henry’s crooked counsels…
Apparently he was deeply moved by the death of Prince William on the White Ship and set off in search of spiritual enlightenment. Certainly he managed to contract malaria during a pilgrimage to Rome and during his illness experienced a vision featuring St Bartholomew who rescued him from a winged monster. On his return to England Rahere built an Augustinian priory dedicated to St Bartholomew and in 1133 the monks were permitted to hold a fair on their land. The St Bartholomew’s Fair continued until the Victorian period. It is said that the jester turned canon used to juggle again during the fair. Rahere died in 1144 and his tomb can still be seen inside the church, which today is the oldest church in London.
The Tudor gatehouse looks incongruous, not least because the doorway is the thirteenth century entrance to the church which was pulled down upon the dissolution of the monasteries. It is surrounded by architecture from other periods and is only a stone’s through from Smithfield Market but as you go through the doorway, into the graveyard and head down the path towards the current entrance of the church it feels as though you’ve stepped out of time.