St Magnus the Martyr

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Another in the series on historic churches in the City of London …

By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were over a hundred parish churches and other places of Christian worship within and immediately without the walls of  the City, despite a number having been closed down during the Reformation. To be precise, according to  Parish Clerks’ records, there were 97 churches within the walls of the City, and 16 without, making a total of 113.


St Magnus the Martyr  (“S. Mangnus” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of Early Modern London) was probably originally built in the twelfth century (Magnus, Earl of Orkney,  was martyred sometime between 1115-18 and made a saint in 1135).  It was recorded in Pope Nicholas IV’s “Taxatio Ecclesiastica” of 1291 as “S. Magnus ad Pontem” (St Magnus by the bridge).  The church is referred to  in a contemporary account of Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450, as follows: “Now had the Londoners lost the Bridge, and were driven to S. Magnus Corner, but a fresh supplie being come, they recouered the Bridge and drove the Kentish beyond The Stoupe in Southwarke”.  It is also referenced in Shakespeare’s later account of the event, in “Henry VI“.

Henry Yevele, who was the master mason to three successive kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, between c. 1360-1400, during which time he either built or rebuilt large parts  of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster,  was buried here, in 1400, Stow noting in his “Survey of London” of 1598 that “his monument yet remaineth”, despite many others being “utterly defaced”.   Miles Coverdale, who, with William Tyndale, published the first authorised version of the Bible in English in 1539, and who was church rector here between 1564-66, was also buried here, in 1569.

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The church was burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt by Wren in 1671-87, and, despite eighteenth- to twentieth- century modifications and restorations, retains much of the  “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” alluded to by T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land”.

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Among the many treasures inside the church are: a modern statue and stained-glass window depicting St Magnus in a horned Viking helmet; …

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… further modern stained-glass windows depicting the churches of St Margaret New Fish Street and St Michael Crooked Lane, burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and the chapel of St Thomas (a) Becket on the Medieval London Bridge, demolished in 1831; …

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… and a modern scale-model of the bridge as it would have looked in its heyday.

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On the outside wall is a Corporation Blue Plaque marking the approach to the Medieval bridge.

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Nearby are some stones from the bridge, and a timber from the Roman wharf purporting to date to 78, but in fact recently shown on tree-ring evidence to date to 62, i.e., the year after the destruction of Roman Londinium during the Boudiccan Revolt.

Most believe the  dedication to be to Magnus Erlendsson, a piously Christian Viking (!), who was the Earl of Orkney at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and who was murdered on the island of Egilsay sometime between 1115 and 1118 (sources differ), evidently by his loyal servant Lifolf, acting on the orders of his  covetous and treacherous kinsman  Hakon.  According to the Orkneyinga Saga, this was despite his, Magnus, having made three placatory offers to Hakon: first, to  go   on a pilgrimage to Rome, or the Holy Land; second, to  be kept under guard; and third, to be mutilated or blinded, and locked in a dungeon.  He, Magnus, was made a saint in or around 1135.  St Magnus’s Cathedral in Kirkwall in Orkney was built in his honour, and to house his remains,  by his nephew Kali Kolson, also known as Rognvald, in 1137. Magnus’s remains were recently uncovered here, and a reconstruction of him made.

However, some believe the dedication to be to another Magnus, who was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian in 276.


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