The Quest of Saint Bartholomew

Words by
Carole Finlay

I trained as a nurse at Barts and, of course, I knew that Rahere founded the hospital in 1123 but, at that time, that was the extent of my knowledge. Now, 30 years later, I am ‘in training’ to become a beekeeper. Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon the information that, according to legend, St Bartholomew was the Patron Saint of Bees. An incredible coincidence I thought and I wanted to know why? how? and wherefore? Barts was my first port of call and I wrote to the Chief Archivist and received a list of booklets which might be of use to me. I selected the one on the monk, Rahere. Rahere was a ‘Rangeur’ (a kind of jester) in the court of Henry I and Matilda. He was a musical man and a great favourite at court. When Matilda died the court went into mourning but, when soon afterwards the Royal Prince and Princesses were drowned crossing the channel, the whole country was devastated, especially Rahere. He felt that he could no longer continue at court and immersed himself deeply in religious works. After deep meditation, Rahere decided he must go on a pilgrimage to Rome but, unfortunately, contracted Malaria on his journey and thought he was going to die. He vowed to God that, if he should recover, on his return to London he would build a hospital for the sick poor.

We discovered that St Bartholomew was mentioned as being the Patron Saint of Bees, but what was the connection?

Rahere did recover and eventually continued on his pilgrimage to Rome. On his way home St Bartholomew appeared to him in a vision commanding him to build his hospital at Smithfield and to build a church, dedicating them both to him. This Raher did and the Priory Church and the Royal Hospital of St Bartholomew are still standing some 850 years on. No mention of Bees – I went to the local library and we scoured the bookshelves. Eventually, after delving into the bowels Of the basement, a book call ‘Cornish Folklore’ was found. We discovered that St Bartholomew was mentioned as being the Patron Saint of Bees (that was the second time I had read this in folklore books). So, what was the connection between St Bartholomew and bees? Who could help me? I next wrote to Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey – I was told the story of St Ambrose who is the Patron Saint of Beekeepers but they did not know of any connection regarding St Bartholomew and bees.

Cardinal Hume, at Westminster Abbey was my next letter heading but, although I received an interesting reply, he had not heard of any connection between the Saint in question and bees.

By now I was becoming very despondent – I could not find a picture of St Bartholomew anywhere or any relevant information pertaining to bees. I had asked all my learned friends and acquaintances –what could I do next? Being a Hagiologist isn’t easy you know! As a last resort I was advised to take a trip up to the City and visit the Priory Church of St Bartholomew and I just knew that there I would find the stained glass window of the Saint, together with the information I wanted. Just to be on the safe side, in case the church was closed, I wrote a note to the vicar. However, luck was on my side and the church was open. Imagine my dismay when I was told “no stained glass windows, no leaflets about the Saint” and no helpful advise either. My steps were slow as I walked out of the church and along to the hospital, that was it, I decided to give up the whole project. But first, I would call in to Barts the Less (the church within the hospital) just for old times sake to remind me of my nursing days. I had forgotten about the three stained glass windows behind the alter – “Who are you?” I asked in an angry voice – but they did not reply. I wandered around the church in a dejected manner and idly read some poems which had been written by some of the children from Lucas and KeIltan Wards. Whilst I was half way through a poem I read the words to the effect “When you are about to give up – don’t, because just around the corner is what you are looking for” and I thought “That’s right, I’ll not give up, somewhere, somebody knows the answers to my questions”. I went to leave my letter for the vicar on the vestry table when a lady came and asked me if I would like a light and could she help me. I explained my story and she told me – yes, she told me – that the window yo the right of the alter was Rahere and, she thought, St Bartholomew. She said I could take photos, this I did and then I left my letter and came home. The photos were developed and transcribed onto the perspex glass I had already prepared and my stained glass window was complete. But what of St Bartholomew and the bees, you ask. Well, I received a very kind letter from the vicar, but alas, still no joy regarding my quest. Now, my friends and colleagues, what do you think? How did St Bartholomew become the Patron Saint of Bees? I know what I think – I think that Rahere was the monk in charge of the apiary. Consequently, he would know of all the wonderful medicinal properties that honey, wax and propolis possess. Bees – Rahere – medicine – hospital – Barts. I wonder! I expect my “girls” know the answer – all 100,000 of them!

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