Great Characters of the Middle Ages: Rahere, Hospital Founder and King’s Fool

This is the second in an irregular series of the unsung heroes, villains, and fools of the fourteenth century. You’ll notice as the series proceeds that there’s a lot of crossover between these categories, but none makes that so clear as the story of Rahere, companion and fool of King Henry I of England–and founder of St. Bartholomew the Great, which still stands in London today, along with the hospital of the same name.

tomb of Rahere, in St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London.  Photo by Mike Quinn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

tomb of Rahere, in St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London. Photo by Mike Quinn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the few sources we have, Rahere was born to a poor family, but had such a cheerful nature that he made friends easily, and soon had joked his way to the court of Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror, where he accompanied Henry in most of his travels, perhaps formally taking on the role of jester. However, his good humor apparently concealed great depths, and he may have been influenced by the pious Queen Matilda to look for a greater purpose. He may also have been inspired by the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, in which Henry’s heir was lost along with other members of the royal family.

Repenting of his trivial life at court, Rahere resolved to make a pilgrimage to Rome, where he visited many of the great churches to pray and seek forgiveness. In the vicinity of the church of San Bartolomeo, he was struck ill, perhaps with malaria, and was near death. In his fevers, he made a vow that, should he survive, he would found a hospital to minister to the poor. His health improved, and he headed home for London. On the way, a vision seized him in which Saint Bartholomew told him that he had chosen a location for the hosptial and a church besides. At the time, all hospitals were religious institutions in any case, so this was no great surprise–although the vision made a big impression on the fool.

At home, he asked for the king’s permission to use that part of the Smithfield market to erect the Priory and hospital. It was chartered in 1122, and finished by 1127, to be dedicated to Saint Bartholomew. Rahere himself became the prior until his death in 1143, and was buried in the church he had founded. The elaborate sculpted tomb, complete with effigy, was not built until a remdoeling in 1405.

Priest, prior, visionary. . .and fool, Rahere remains one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my research–and I’m pleased to help spread his curious tale.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Great Characters of the Middle Ages, historical medicine, history, medieval, profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Great Characters of the Middle Ages: Rahere, Hospital Founder and King’s Fool

  1. This is a great post, and so interesting that this guy went from having nothing to the prior and founder of a priory and hospital.

    • Thanks for stopping by!
      One of the things you’ll hear about the Middle Ages is that there was much less social mobility, i.e., if you were born a peasant, you stayed that way. But the more closely I examine the period, the more I find that ambitious people were always working to make things happen for themselves and, in this case, for the benefit of the poor.

  2. Enjoyed this as always! Sounds like another great subject for a historical novel!

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