This surprisingly out-of-place medieval gate cutting across St John’s Lane is no modern folly, but the real deal. During the 12th century, the crusading Knights of St John of Jerusalem (a religious and military order with a focus on providing care to the sick) established a priory on this site that originally covered around 4 hectares.
The gate was built in 1504 as a grand entrance to the priory and although most of the buildings were destroyed when Henry VIII dissolved every monastery in the country between 1536 and 1540, the gate lived on. It had a varied afterlife, not least as a Latin-speaking coffee house run, without much success, by William Hogarth’s father during Queen Anne’s reign. Restored in the 19th century, it also housed the Old Jerusalem Tavern where writers and artists, including Charles Dickens, met. Inside is the small Museum of the Order of St John , which covers the history of the order (including rare examples of the knights’ armour), as well as the foundation of St John Ambulance, set up in the 19th century to promote first aid and revive the order’s ethos of caring for the sick.
Across the road from the gate is the fine Norman crypt of the original priory church, which houses a sturdy alabaster effigy of a Castilian knight (1575) and a battered monument portraying the last prior, William Weston, as a skeleton in a shroud. There are also further displays on the history of the area and a lovely secluded garden.
Try to time your visit with one of the comprehensive guided tours of the gate and the restored church. You’ll also be shown the sumptuous 1902 Chapter Hall and council chamber that are still used by the order to this day.