Project Canterbury

Prior Rahere's Rose

By Emily Malbone Morgan

New Haven: Published for the Benefit of the Building Fund of Christ Church, New Haven, Conn., 1892.


FOR all of history in this little book I am indebted to one, now in India, who spent some years at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, as a nurse, and who later, in ministering to me during a weary convalescence from fever at Rome, beguiled many an hour by tales of the Hospital. Later we made a pilgrimage together to the “Isola di S. Bartolommio,” the island in the Tiber where the monks of the monastery of St. Bartholomew still labor for the sick, and where Prior Rahere had his vision. And later still in London we visited the result of that vision, the Hospital and Priory Church of St. Bartholomew, and there realized how his work of over seven centuries ago still follows him.


I NEVER was regular Hospital Chaplain at St. Bartholomew’s the Less, but one autumn I went up to London to see my old friend, Bill Savage. Publicly he was known as the Rev. William Savage, but always by me as Bill, a survival of old University days, when we both were on the “varsity,” and he a most noted and rugged specimen of muscular Christianity. No one would have thought then that in later years he would have drifted into the position of a. hospital Chaplain, where all that strength was largely spent for the sick and suffering, but now, for years, he had been the companion and comforter of many of the City’s poor in their hours, of distress, and the consoler of their dying moments. He had been overworked during the summer, when I had seen him for a day, but now I found him in the gray November fogs, in a condition sadly belying his former athletic activities. His broad chest had been examined by one of the visiting physicians of the hospital, a man of note, and he had been ordered peremptorily southward to the Riviera, that beautiful graveyard of so many lost hopes and so much once strong manhood. That was the way, in brief, that I became temporary Chaplain at St. Bartholomew’s, and he took a year’s absence. I was just back from some years’ service in Canada, and had been staying at my brother’s home down in Norfolk, on the “Broads,” and had grown very weary of two months’ idleness, therefore entered into my London work and new hospital experiences with zest.

I had much of the enthusiasm of the American for the “old City.” For its innumerable churches, its narrow winding streets, its literary landmarks, its carefully preserved homes and haunts of the old English worthies; for I, too, had been living in a country where history had not yet impressed itself upon buildings and streets, whose traditions and customs were, in a measure, borrowed, and where that which was only a century old was spoken of in awed whispers. I soon grew, therefore, to love the gray old pile of hospital buildings, facing the historic Smithfield, where John Rogers and so many others perished at the stake in good Queen Mary’s time. I spent hours also under the beautiful Norman arches of the old Priory Church of St. Bartholomew’s the Great; sometimes silently kneeling on the pavement in the choir near the tomb of Prior Rahere, the hospital’s founder. What a marvel of quiet beauty that tomb was, with its carved stone canopy, and beneath Prior Rahere himself in effigy, clad in his black Augustinian habit; at his feet an angel, and on either side an attendant monk, and nun holding open books of stone on which was inscribed the prophecy of Isaiah

“The Wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

God bless old Prior Rahere! It is seldom a man’s works follow him through so many centuries, and that he so long may minister to suffering generations. Seldom, also, that visions are fulfilled in such blessed realities, that lives teach such long lessons as his—for he, lying underneath the marble of his own Priory Church, being dead, yet speaketh to modern London’s suffering poor. The story of how he came to found his church and hospital is full of mystery and interest.

To begin at the beginning, as the children say, we must go way back to the loss of the White ship off the coast of Normandy, and the loss with it of the young Prince, whose father, tradition tells us, never smiled again. The nation received a sobering shock. The people gave up feasting and rioting, and hastened to save their souls as best they could, and amongst them was one Rahere, described in the old chronicles as the “King’s Minstrel,” who decided that his way of salvation should begin by a pilgrimage to Rome. Alas! he came near reaching heaven quicker than he dreamed of, for shortly after he arrived there he was brought low by malarial fever, and sought refuge on an island in the Tiber, occupied by a monastery, said to contain the remains of St. Bartholomew. Into this refuge Rahere, sick well nigh unto death, was received by the monks. As he lay there he thought of his past life spent in the frivolous atmosphere of courts, and vowed that if his life was spared he would himself build a monastery and dedicate his future life to God. A few nights afterwards the holy Bartholomew appeared to him in a vision, and told him he would recover and return to London, where he must seek a waste place, outside the city wall, called the “Smooth Field,” and there he was to found, not only a monastery, but a refuge for the sick and old, and call it St. Bartholomew’s.

On his arrival in England, Rahere obtained a grant from King Henry I. of Smooth Field, now Smithfield, and in former days a Roman burying ground. There, in 1123, he founded a church and monastery of Austin Friars, and a hospital, which he designed for the relief of “all poor sick folk, until such time as they should be healed of their infirmities.”

Of the beauty of those original hospital buildings we can only form an idea from what is left of the Priory Church, whose massive Norman columns have defied the wear and tear of seven and a half centuries of English climate, and still look as lasting as the everlasting hills themselves.

Rahere was himself the first prior of St. Bartholomew’s, and after many years spent in works of piety and charity he passed to his reward, and was buried in the Priory Church. Thus a monk’s vision had blossomed into the charity work of centuries, and through all this time the wilderness of great East London had been glad of him, and the desert of sad humanity had again and again received through him the unfolding rose of life.

But I have wandered in my enthusiasm for the good old monk,

“Who dreamed not of a perishable home,
Who thus could build.”

Within the walls of St. Bartholomew’s, with its ancient memories, the tide of human life still ebbs and flows daily. The days are full of work for some—full of suffering for others. Daily a still release, a passing out into silence; daily some new corner to take the place of the released, bowed down in the mystery of pain. Through the great gate of King Henry VIII. many pass out yearly cured, others are carried out beyond the need of cure, for they have reached that country where the inhabitants shall no more say, “I am sick.” Simply to stand still in the shadow of that gateway and think of those who have lived and suffered there for over seven centuries, of the multitudes of the unknown poor, and in contrast, the names of now world famous men: of Harvey, of Abernethy, of Brodie, of Lawrence, and many another who have lived and worked within the hospital walls, is to give one a sense of immortal life, and make them realize that time is always victor over death. Then to pass onward up the great hall staircase adorned with large wall paintings of the Good Samaritan, and the Pool of Bethesda, painted by Hogarth; and later to stand in. the great hall of King Henry VIII., whose portrait, in gorgeous array, in the stained glass window faces one on the opposite side of the gentle and meek Bartholomew, is to lose sight of anything but the history of the place. One could almost find a soft spot in their heart for the bluff old monarch, who, though he destroyed monasteries, towards the end of his reign refounded the hospital with a royal charter, thereby keeping the memory of, at least, one hated monk forever green. But it is with the living, not the dead, I have to do. With simple, nameless lives, not men who have graven their names on Time.

Certainly in ministering to those who suffer one learns more than in all the years they may have ministered to the strong and well. It is enough to walk through the hospital quadrangle in summer, where, under the green trees, men had been carried out on stretchers, and covered with red blankets, to breathe the fresh air, to listen to the cool splash of the great stone fountain in the centre and the sweet songs of birds, to realize this. It was a community all by itself I had been called upon to minister to, a sad congregation indeed; and again and again I longed for the tongue of a Ugo Bassi to speak to them of courage, of strength, and of that rare patience which endureth to the end.

I kept a note book of these new experiences, when I first went there, I came across so many curious bits of history, so many humorous episodes, so many pathetic glimpses into the shadier sides of London life. It ended, however, after a few weeks with the story I am writing, the simple record of a child’s life that went out some years ago, the briefest possible history, last and least of the lives of those who had made the hospital famous, and of the unknown ones who had taken shelter there. A life leaving no impress behind it, or any one to miss its loss, for it belonged to one of the small waifs of the great City, with that early sharpening of feature, and that wretched old look in her face, which is a type in East London—a product of our nineteenth century civilization—the faces of children who have no future and no past, only an endless present struggle for the right to live.

Hers was not the life of a young saint, and she would never make a proper heroine of a Sundayschool story. Her language was by no means always choice, and she had the flavor of the streets about her; they had been her only home. Yet in another state and under different circumstances she would have been just such a child as mother-eyes always follow with rare tenderness, and whom they delight to clothe in velvet and lace. She had blue eyes of singular sweetness, and tangled yellow hair, and a white colorless face. Up to the day she died the nurses could never quite get the tangle out of her curls, they had missed the caress of fingers so long. I say “died,” yet she never seemed to really die. It seemed only a sequel to her story which she told me at intervals during several weary weeks, and which I have put, as far as possible, into a complete narrative. Some would ask, why preserve anything so simple? It is because I think we need, in our complex age, simple stories of very unobtrusive lives constantly brought before us. We have the lives of many saints, long since passed into glory, recorded for our encouragement and emulation; and we very often fling them down (is it not so?) saying, “These people are too good for anything! I can never be as good as all that.” And that is perhaps the reason I have written out the life of a little London sinner, who for a short time was one of “Prior Rahere’s wards,” as we sometimes called the hospital children; to show how much natural goodness God puts into the nature of the untaught, and how much untrained sweetness may lie in very ignorant little lives.

I had been at St. Bartholomew’s only a few days when I was sent for by one of the nurses, a ward-sister, an earnest, sympathetic woman, who told me a little girl had been brought in that evening, whom they thought to be dying. She had tried to mount a ladder, left by the workmen, who were repairing the tower of a neighboring church, and having fallen, had been picked up unconscious. She was talking very confusedly to herself about the ladder and the sky, and the sister thought I might make out something of what she was saying.

I found her lying on her little bed, keeping her head and fingers moving restlessly, her blue eyes wandering from object to object„ That was my first introduction to Nanno. She did not speak to me but went on talking to herself at intervals. She seemed always struggling up an ascent, and then followed an interval of confusion and bewilderment. I left her shortly afterwards, and when I inquired for her the next morning, one of the nurses told me she had spent all the night in the same restless way.

“She seems all the while ascending a ladder, sir,” said the nurse, “and never getting to the top.” Of course we knew the child’s case was hopeless from the beginning, but she lingered on from day to day. I did not see her again until the fourth day after she had been brought in, then she was quite comfortable, rational and free from pain.

It wanted only a few weeks to Christmas, and the weather that December had been extraordinarily cold. I had been out about some Christmas shopping for my nieces and nephews in the country, and had brought in with me two or three roses which I gave to Nanno. Those were what brought delight into her eyes and at last won her confidence.

“Yous be th’ parson, bes you?” she asked, looking lovingly at the flowers.

“Yes,” I answered, “and I have brought these roses to you because I want you to tell me mare about yourself, what your name is, and where your home is?”

So here she began her autobiography in a quaint dialect of her own, and I took it down as far as possible from her own lips.

“Yous wants to know whos I be?” she asked, “the womans wid th’ caps askes me that lots o’ times since I comes here, but I keeps mum. I would na tell yous if yous had na gives me them flowers. Please, I donna know whos I be. They uses to call me Nanno, down the street I lives. Firstest it be Nan and then bes No, and now it bes Nanno. What street yous askes? Donna yous know Smoker Alley, down by th’ river bank? I lives there ever so long, wid a womans they calls Granny. Well, Granny, she wer’na bad to me. She uses to give me sunthin’ to eat every day, and hardly ever beats me mor’ na onct a week. Onct she knockses me down stairs, but then she bes a drinkin’, and persons donna know what they ‘s loin’ then.”

Her nurse came up with her tea at this moment, and seeing that the child was growing weary, I bade her good bye, and promised to come and see her again next day.

I went over to the Priory Church to take Evensong for the Vicar. The street was full of shadows, and there were only two or three present in the dimly lighted choir, but I always counted Prior Rahere in his prostrate attitude, with his folded marble hands, as one of the worshipers, and the little monk and nun on either side holding their stone books, as two more. My thoughts were full of the child I had just left. Next day when I visited her I found her propped up in bed actually waiting for me, her roses in a small glass beside her. She evidently was in a communicative mood. “I’se bin watchin’ them flowers all day,” she said. “Makes me ‘member. Yous sees I niver goes much out o’ Smoker’s Alley; but onct, ever so long ago, I did go out into th’ country. I donna know jest how I gits there, but I do knows th’ sun was shinin’ and th’ sky kinder drooped down at th’ end o’ th’ medder, as if it wer tryin’ to kiss th’ tree tops. Yous know how th’ sky drops down at th’ end o’ medders, parson, donna you?” I gave an assenting nod. “Then ther were sum birds, way up a tree, wid color’d fedders, an’ Ise tried to talk to ‘em, but they flewed off. Lawks, I knows why: ‘T was acause I wer ragged. Them kinds o’ birds bes very ‘spectable, yous knows, an’ I could na find eny black birds. Yous thinks I donna know ‘bout black birds, but I dos. Ther ‘s lots o’ boys down our Alley as they calls black birds. I dinna care so much, I jest feels kinder sore down here.” And she put her hand on her heart. “Ise got feelin’s, I has.”

“How did you like the country, Nanno?” I asked.

“Ise dinna know what to make o’ it all. Ise never seen much sky afore, acause o’ smoke; an’ th’ sun dizzle dazzled m’ eyes, and th’ little water drops seems to glisten o’ everythin’. I was na used to much grandeur, an’ so ‘s the dark comes on I gets scared o’ it all. I jest yanks up a blue flower on th’ road, an’ left th’ great big fields an’ things as seems to bes stretchin’ ‘emselves all over, like one o’ Granny’s yawns, an’ me an’ th’ flower walks back to town.”

“What did you do with the flower?” I asked.

“I puts it in a old tin can to grow, an’ kisses it, by way o’ charm, two nights arunnin’; but crickets! It’ dinna do no good. I picks it Friday, an’ it dies o’ Monday. It no more belonged to Smoker’s Alley than I to th’ country.”

She paused a moment, as if in thought, then went on.

Ise allers thought, parson, p’r’aps that’s why th’ sky in th’ country wer so blue an’ purelike i acause’ all th’ blue flowers what fades down here kinder gets up ther, sumhow. I thought o’ that sky at long time afterwards.”

She was growing weary, and her nurse told me that earlier in the day she had been very naughty and exhausted herself by punching the pillows, wrathfully. As I said, she was no model. She was rude, of the streets, at times; but of course in writing memoirs, even Nanno’s, one is expected to skip over the naughty passages. With me she was always quaint and good. Everyone who had anything to do with her at the hospital had grown singularly fond of her, and one thing they all agreed upon, that though at times refractory, she was very patient in bearing pain.

All this time we had found out very little about her because she wandered away into so many fancies. When I saw her next day I asked her at once what she was doing before she was hurt? Sister Lindall, one of the nurses, also came and knelt down beside her to see if she was comfortable, for she had not been as well that day and needed constant attendance.

“Ise kinder o, mixed like,” she said. “I canna jest think. It wer one real cold day, I ‘member. I wer wanderin’ up and down th’ streets atryin’ to find suthin’ t’ eat, acause I. had na had nothin’ that mornin’, an’ I happin t’ pass a churchy kind o’ house. It wer na none o”em where peoples sits up in silkses and fixin’s, and looks fine all locks up in ‘em boxes. Ise bin in ‘em, but here they wer singin’ awful sweet, an’ I peeps in th’ winder, an’ they looks so warm, an’ I so cold outside, so I goes to th’ door an’ jest steps inside, an’ then, parson, what yous think they sings? They told me where I could goes, an’ says there wer a Friend for all little children up in th’ blue sky. ‘A Friend who never changes, whose love will never die.’ They did say it, parson, acause I hears ‘em myself, an’ I was so glad t’ hear it I jest claps in’ two hands together, an’ then a big mans comes an’ tells me I had no business there, an’ turns me out. I did na care, acause I wer jest thinkin’ an’ thinkin’ how I could get up to th’ sky, jest to tell that Friend, yous know, how very hungry I wer, an’ if He ‘d only give me a bit t’ eat an’ let me warm myself at His house how I’ d do anything for Him after my hands gets thawed out.”

“Poor little dear!” said nurse Lindall, gently stroking back her curls.

“O’ course, I did, na really thinks he lives in th’ sky, as yous see it, but I thinks he live sumwher way up high ‘bove th’ smoke an’ fog. So I thinks ‘bout it all day an’ says to Granny at night, ‘Granny, how’s th’ best way to get up in th’ sky?’ Then Granny. laughed.and says gruff-like: `Take a ladder, child.’ Now wer it- na sharp o’ Granny to thinks o’ that ladder?”

“Well, next day I did na wait, I goes out, early, an’ never tells Granny where I wer goin’; but I jest makes up my mind to look tills I find a ladder as would go right up into th’ sky. So I walks an’ walks till I gets mixes like, an’ it grows colder an’ colder, an’ th’ wind it whistles down th’ streets, an’ I get so hungry, yet I know there wer a ladder sumwher as would go right up into th’ sky. A man wer atalkin’ to a real pretty little girl at th’ corner o’ a street, an’ he seems so kindlike I goes up to him an’ asks where I could really find a ladder. ‘Ladder, child!’ says he, as if he wer wantin’ to laugh, ‘what you want a ladder for?’”

‘O Please,’ says I, real specterful, for he had on a smooth coat an’ his boots they shines like anythin’. Please, I wants it to climb on, sir. The peoples I hear singin’ yesterday, says a Friend wer waitin’ at th’ other end, an’ who wer real kind to children, an’ Ise in such a hurry to find a ladder acause Ise so cold an’ hungry.’ Then he askses what parish I belongs to. Please, parson, what’s a parish, anyhow? I looks at him an’ he goes way, an’ I did na ask anybody more. But pretty soon, near night, I finds a big, tall ladder on th’ side o’ a big high, tower, an’ I could na see th’ end o’ it, so I knows it must be sumwhere near th’ sky. But firstest I wer se scarred, acause it wer so late an’ grows so dark down below, an’ I did na know but by th’ time I gets up there th’ Friend might agone way or might na thinks I wer nice acomin’ that time o’ night. At last I thinks I would begin to climb, an’ I begins to make speeches to myself what I would say to Him, that Friend, yous know, when I sees Him, an’how I would tell Him I hopes He would na send me away, an’ that I would na come a beggin’ so late o’ night if I had na bin so cold an’ hungry. But as I goes higher I grows not so cold an’ hungry, the words come back so clear like ‘bout th’ Friend o’ little children—oh, I canna think o’ th’ rest now.”

So the good ward-sister finished for her:

“Above the bright blue sky,
The Friend who never changes,
Whose love will never die.”

“Is that it, Nanno?”

“Yes, that ‘s it. And do yous know, I did na seem to care so much for sumthin’ to eat or make me warm after that; but I thinks more ‘bout some one to love me an’ take me up in their arms, acause I wer growin’ so tired. I stops to rest little, an’ then you never see such a sight in you life. A blue light, an’ a pink lights, an’ a great gold light all ‘bout me, an’ then they goes way as I goes on. An’ up above me. I sees all th’ streetlamps o’ th’ sky a. lighted one after one, an’ then I knows I wer gettin’ nearer, an’ my heart goes hard, an’ my head goes round so queer like, an’ I loses hold o’ everythin’, an’ that ‘s why Ise here. I feels so ugly at firstest when I finds myself here, acause I wer almost there, yous know, almost at th’ top, an’ this place seemed kind o’ strange like, not Smoker’s. Alley or th’ country.”

“But strange to say,” I answered, “you have come to find the very Friend you wanted.”

“O you’ve bin kind,” she said wearily, “but yous not th’ One I wer lookin’ for.”

“I know I am not,” I answered, “but He is here. He has been waiting for you a long time.”

“Awaitin’ for me?” she asked incredulously. “Why, who could have told Him ‘bout me?”

“O He knew you were climbing to reach Him, for He knows everything.”

I saw how tired and weak she was growing so I. rose to go away, and looking at my watch said: “I must leave you now for a little while, but I will come back soon and tell you all about Him.”

“And bring Him with you?” she asked eagerly.

“You shall rest in His arms to-night, if you would like to,” I answered, “though you may not see Him; but in a few more days, I cannot tell how many, I promise you shall really see Him as He is. And as I went out the sister bent over her with a new and tender look, born of deeply stirred emotions, on her face.

That night I told Nanno, as simply as I could, the story of the Christ child, and she went to sleep holding a little picture of Him in her hand. Next day I finished the story to her, and then told her He was waiting for her to become His own special child, and to sign her with the sign of His Cross.

“I knows ‘bout that,” she said, “Nurse wer tellin’ me all ‘bout it this mornin’, an’ she says I can have a new name, too, a real name, not a made alp one.”

“Yes,” I said, “what would you like to be called?”

She drew a faded, crumpled rose from under her pillow, one of the roses I had brought her on one of my first visits. “I wants to be called Rose, after this one, please, parson.”

So that day she was christened, nurse Lindall acting as one of the godmothers, and became a rose of the Lord’s garden.

Talking with nurse Lindall afterwards, I said that I could not get the text on the little stone books, on Prior Rahere’s tomb, out of my head in connection with Nanno, and I wished that the good old Prior might know of this last and sweetest rose that had blossomed at St. Bartholomew’s.

The thought was fanciful but it pleased her, and thenceforth Nanno was known throughout the hospital as “Prior Rahere’s Rose,” and from that day until the end there were fresh roses always on the table beside her. For a day or two after that she seemed brighter. I used to visit her everyday and tell her stories or have quiet talks with her, and then she began to fail. Her mind wandered distressingly over old times of hunger and cold, or she was climbing a ladder and never reaching the top. At last on the morning of Christmas Eve they brought me the message that she was dying, and the doctors said she would hardly linger through the day. I spent most of the day beside her; her mind was clearer than it had been for a week, so I could talk with her at intervals when she was not overcome with sleep.

Poor little waif! Gradually she had won her way into everybody’s heart at the hospital, so that when the news went forth that Prior Rahere’s Rose was dying, though death was not infrequent there, it came with a new and painful surprise. All day the nurses on her ward would come up one after, another to see if they could do anything for her, and the old hospital porter, keeper of the Little Britain Gate, tiptoed in sheepishly and laid some Christmas roses on her bed. Towards noon she roused herself and said to nurse Lindall who was watching beside her

“Parson says I’ll see that good Friend afore ‘evenin,’ and I wer thinkin’ p’r’aps sum o’ you would alike to send Him a word.”

That saying of Nanno’s spread through the hospital, and all through the afternoon the sick folk sent up messages for her to carry to Him, and she would repeat them over so as to remember them all. Toward the late afternoon she seemed to sink into a half stupor and we gathered about her bed. Outside the bells of old St. Paul’s were ringing antiphonally with the bells of St. Sepulchre’s, and those of the Priory Church sounded joyously on the clear frosty air. It had been a beautiful Christmas Eve, with a white pall of snow spread all over the earth. We had almost thought she had passed away with the clanging bells but she opened her eyes suddenly and half raised herself and looked up with such a ‘look as the young St. Stephen might have had on his face when heaven opened. We stood there hardly daring to breathe for fear we should break in on the radiancy of the vision, then she smiled at me and said:

“I sees Him. Yous wer right. I bes at th’ top o’ th’ ladder now, an’ ther ‘s sure enuf sum one awaitin’ for me!”

Peal joy bells, peal in your gray old domes and towers! Peal over the great city the news of the New Birth! Peal for a soul redeemed and a life released from pain. For “the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

This was as the twilight of the Saturday evening faded into night. The night when Christ was born.

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