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 Mary Abchurch (“U” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of Early Modern London) was originally built in the twelfth century, the first record to it being in a deed of 1198. It was subsequently “restored and beautified”, at the expense of the parishioners, in the seventeenth, in 1610, and the walls were painted with murals, by Isaac Fuller, in 1636. In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow describes the church as standing “on rising ground” (on the west bank of the Walbrook), whence its appellation “Upchurch”, corrupted to “Abchurch”. He also notes that “Simon de Winchcombe founded a chantry there in the nineteenth of Richard II ”, and lists a number of monuments, including that to Sir John Branch, Draper, Mayor in 1580. Sylvester records a monument to “the right worshipfull and most religious Lady” Dame Hellen Branch, who died in 1594.
The church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by Wren between 1681-7, and restored in 1708, when the ceiling was painted, by William Snow, who was a parishioner. It was then badly damaged by bombing in the Blitz of 1940, and substantially rebuilt again between 1945-57. Some fourteenth-century remains came to light in the churchyard after the bombing. However, the story that the late seventeenth-century Grinling Gibbons reredos was blown to bits during the bombing, and meticulously reassembled afterwards, appears to have no basis in fact.
The interior is a surprise and a delight, described by Betjeman as “both uplifting and intimate”, with “three levels of attraction: ground and eye level … ; wall level … ; and roof level”.