St Mary-le-Bow

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-le-Bow or de Arcubus, also known as Bow Church (“Bowe church” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of Early Modern London) was originally built in around 1077-87 by the Norman King William I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, one Lanfranc (possibly on the site of an even older, Saxon, church). It was subsequently rebuilt following damage by a tornado in 1090/1; following a fire during “William Longbeard’s Revolt” in 1196; following a partial collapse in 1271; and in 1512-6.  The  tornado of 1090/1 virtually levelled the church, and drove four 26’  rafters vertically into the “marish” ground.  From accounts of the damage, meteorologists estimate that it  would have rated T8 on the T scale, which runs from T1 to T10, with winds in excess of  200 mph. It also damaged 600 other buildings, including London Bridge, and caused two fatalities.

Historically, St Mary’s was the principal of the thirteenth – non-Royal – “peculiars” in the City of London, which fell under the direct jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than that of the Bishop of London. A full list of the “peculiars” reads as follows: All Hallows Bread Street; All Hallows Lombard Street; St Dionis Backchurch; St Dunstan in the East; St John the Evangelist; St Leonard Eastcheap; St Mary Aldermary; St Mary Bothaw; St Mary le Bow; St Michael Crooked Lane; St Michael Royal; St Pancras Soper Lane; St Vedast. The Ecclesiastical Court of Arches or Curia de Arcubus sat in the church from at least as long ago as the thirteenth century onwards. The court is mentioned in Middleton & Decker’s play “Roaring Girl“, written sometime between 1607-10, and in Pepys’s diary for 1663. In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow recorded the monuments of numerous worthies in the church, including “John Coventry, mercer, mayor, 1425” and “Nicholas Alwine, mercer, mayor, 1499”.

The church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt again by Wren between 1670-83.  It was then gutted by bombing on 10th/11th  May, 1941, the last night of the Blitz of the Second World War, and rebuilt yet again between 1956-64.

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The famous  bells, used to sound the nine o’clock “curfew” in the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, survived the Great Fire, but were destroyed during the Second World War. It used to be said that only those born within earshot of the bells  could truly call themselves “Cockneys”. 

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The  eleventh-century crypt also survived the Great Fire, and was incorporated into Wren’s rebuilt church.

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The iron balcony overlooking Cheapside is said to echo the former grand-stand built nearby by  Edward III, as a vantage point from which to view jousts taking place  on the tilt-yard  in  Crown Fields.  

The wonderful 9’ long copper weather-vane made by Robert Bird in 1679 in the form of a flying dragon is also worthy of note. 

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In the churchyard is a statue commemorating the Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith  (1580-1631), who founded Jamestown in Virginia (“from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples”). 

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