The Bethlem Star
The Bethlem Star is at least as old as the Hospital, and dates back to the founding of the Priory of the Order of St Mary of Bethlehem in 1247 on the edge of the City of London, near where Liverpool Street train station is today. The Order were mainly based in the holy lands, which had been seized by Europeans in the Crusades, and had adopted the Star of Bethlehem as their symbol. This was the star that in the Christian Nativity guides the three wise men to the infant Jesus, and reflects the ties of the Order to the town of Bethlehem.
The Foundation Deed given to the Order by Simon Fitzmary, who owned the land originally, insisted that the Order wear ‘the sign of the star’ on their cloaks and mantles to distinguish them from other Christian organisations operating in London. We don’t know exactly how these ‘London’ stars might have looked, but we do have a description of the star worn by Bethlehemite brothers in 1257 from an illustration in Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris (pictured here from the page digitised by the British Library). Though it is drawn with six rays, Paris describes it as having five, with a circle in the middle ‘the colour of sky’. The Cambridge group were one of many scattered around Europe, and we know they existed in Padua and Bohemia at around the same time.
As the Priory slowly changed into the Hospital, and as Bethlehem slowly became Bethlem (and Bedlam), the star survived as a symbol for both patients and staff. We believe the star was used as a badge affixed to the clothes of discharged patients in the Tudor era, signalling their association with the Hospital. As part of the coat of arms it became a part of the uniform for Bethlem staff when it moved to Moorfields in 1676- they wore silver badges with the coat of arms on it, and blue coats (blue was the colour the charity adopted, perhaps because of the star of Bethlem).
Today it lives on in the Bethlem coat of arms , in the middle between the chalice and the basket of bread, though it looks rather different in this heraldic form than Paris’ illustration, with sixteen rays coming out of its central circle.
We sell a version of the Star based on Paris’ illustration, representing a sense of belonging with the Hospital. Please see our online shop or drop into the Museum Wednesday to Saturday 9.30am to 4.45pm.