obo Article - Clerkenwell - what’s in a name?

Welcome to the third installment of #clerkenwellcuriosities

Clerkenwell may now be considered a trendy - and desirable - place to live and work but it does have a somewhat shady past, one aspect of which we touched on in our previous “Gin” blog (here) and there will be more insights into its sordid past in future installments.

However, the parish of Clerkenwell originated from rather more worthy beginnings with the historic centre of the area revolving around the Nunnery of St Mary of the Benedictine order (later replaced by St. James, Clerkenwell Green, in 1792) and the Priory of St John of Jerusalem. Both establishments were founded in the 12th century by Jorden de Briset.

The Priory was the English base of the Knights Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of Malta) which was a monastic order which provided medical care to the knights of the 11th-century crusades. The Order of St John was the forerunner of our modern-day St Johns Ambulance Association which was established in 1877 to teach and practice First Aid around the world. Their distinctive black and white insignia echoes the design used by the original Knights Hospitaliers.

Today only the 16th-century gatehouse, known as St. John’s Gate, site of the Museum of the Order of St John, and the priory’s 12th-century crypt remain.

St. John's Gate, the old south gate of the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem and museum

The actual name of Clerkenwell is believed to have derived from the spring which was on the site of St Mary’s Nunnery of the Benedictine order. The well above the spring was the location for performances of stories based on biblical themes to be enacted by clerks - not the office admin types we associate with the word today but actually the original name for those of the religious order we now call clerics. The collective term for a bunch of clerks (or clerics) was then referred to as “Clerken”. These “miracle plays” were the most effective way to spread the word amongst the illiterate. A bit like a medieval YouTube. And so - as the plays gained in popularity (you might say they went viral), the well came to be widely associated with the clerken ensemble.

The Clerk’s Well fell out of use in the 19th century but was rediscovered when builders accidentally came across it in 1924. The well was incorporated into a building named Well Court on Farringdon Lane in the 1980s and can be visited on several official walking tours or by appointment. It can also be seen through one of the ground floor windows to the right of the wall plaque. Don’t expect anything too glamorous. It looks a bit like an oversized primitive loo.

Perhaps not a particularly auspicious beginning for an area with rather more desirable associations nowadays!

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