I was lucky enough to go to the church of St Bartholomew the Great, to see the Smithfield Cat, on a day when there was a 30 minute gap between two weddings – it’s a really popular church for that, being so old and so photogenic.
Most of all, it’s atmospheric, mysterious. The original nave of the church was lost when Henry VIII dissolved the priories along with the monasteries, so what is now the church is amalgamated from pieces of the original priory. Lots of nooks and crannies and tiny archways in thick walls. It’s absolutely beautiful.
The history of the immediate area is mixed: back in the twelfth century, it was a huge, open plain used for knights on horseback to joust. One hundred years after that, it was the place of execution for William Wallace, who fought so hard for Scottish independence, and later in the fourteenth century Wat Tyler of the Peasants’ Revolt was executed there too. Then, for five hundred years or so, it’s been both the site of the legendary Bartholomew Fair, and of the Smithfield Meat Market (which is still there! Very odd, since nowadays it’s right on the doorstep of the City of London financial community).
Sitting there all this time, since 1123 in fact, is the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded just before the Meat Market, a great engraving of which has been put online by Victorian Web **
I do wonder if the Smithfield cat was a local moggy! Maybe a cat that was adopted by the priors, or even by the builders of the priory? It wouldn’t have been in the nave of the church originally, the first nave is now the raised churchyard, according to the church guide.
And it’s still mysterious.
Technically the Cat is a corbel, a load bearing stone jutting out from a wall. When you see the Smithfield Cat described online, it’s often claimed that carved corbels are later than the St Bart’s interior, but just having a quick look at architectural history tells me that isn’t true. Lincoln Cathedral, for instance, was built at the same time as St Bart’s, and has a few very famous corbels (the images are copyright, so I can’t show them, sorry).
The Smithfield Cat looks a bit like the grinning Cheshire Cat … and it’s very, very high up. A bit of a photo commentary below, as I really loved the place.
The entrance to the church itself.
I only found the Cat because I asked a friendly verger – and although the whole place was bustling, she was very friendly, and led me directly to the right pillar. You know, the whole complex of buildings was built in the twelfth century; a medieval working man carved this Cat one winter, ready to be hoisted far into the air during the next spring, to be set in its place for getting on for eight hundred years now. The Cat is just a minor part of the priory, not even mentioned on their website, but weirdly I think he’s on Google. The interior of the church is available on streetview! I’ve no idea why, but it is, and if you go there, turn away from the altar and look up on high magnification, you have a sort of side view of the Cat. It’s badly lit (it’s a church!) but it’s there. Really, really something.
We need a real live cat to finish off, so here’s Miss Joan Brown, interviewed just over a year ago, who was the first lady to actually work in Smithfield Market, in 1945. She has a wonderful cat!