St Mary Woolnoth

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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 Mary Woolnoth (reversed “P” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of Early Modern London) was originally built at least as long ago as 1191, and subsequently rebuilt in 1438, and extended in 1485.    In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow noted that the steeple, part of the body of the church, and “a chapel called the Charnell” were “new built” by “Sir Hugh Brice, goldsmith, mayor in the first year of Henry VII [1485], … deceased 1496 … [and] … buried in the body of the church”. He also noted a large number of monuments, including that of “Sir John Percival, merchant tailor, mayor about 1504 [actually 1498]”, and “Sir Martin Bowes, mayor [in 1545], buried about 1569”. Thomas Kyd, the author of the “Spanish Tragedy” was baptised in the church in 1558.

The church was severely damaged    in the Great Fire of 1666, and repaired by Wren  between 1670-4, in the Gothic style.

It was then rebuilt by Wren’s brilliant pupil and later successor Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1716-24, in the Baroque style (and restored in 1875-6, and again in the 1990s). 

Hawksmoor’s Other London Churches

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Hawksmoor’s other London churches are the equally impressive, yet individually distinct, St Alfege Greenwich (1712–14), …

… Christ Church Spitalfields (1714–29), …

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… St George-in-the-East (1714–29), …

… St Anne Limehouse (1714–30), …

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… and St George Bloomsbury (1716–31).  He was also responsible for the spire of St Michael Cornhill (1715-24) and the west towers of Westminster Abbey (1734-45), and partly responsible for St John Horselydown (1726-33), just off Tooley Street, and St Luke Old Street (1727-33), with its striking, obelisk-like spire.   Sadly, St John Horselydown was substantially destroyed during and  demolished after the Blitz, and  the surviving parts were subsequently incorporated into the London City Mission.  A photograph of the bombed church taken in 1940 still survives, which shows a spire in the form of a fluted Ionic column similar to that of St Luke Old Street, topped by a weathervane supposed to be shaped like a comet, but in actuality more like a louse! 

Hawksmoor’s brand of Baroque is characterised by an  imaginative use of geometry, with, as the architectural historian Ian Nairn put it, “intellect and emotion … exactly matched”, as exemplified in the distinctive proportions and broach spire of Christ Church, and in the towers of St Anne Limehouse and St George-in-the-East.  It is also diagnosed by constant allusion to antiquity, and in this sense may be said to anticipate the later Neo-Classical style. Note in this context the  serliana of St Alfege, and the  portico and pyramidal tower of St George Bloomsbury. The portico of St George Bloomsbury was modelled on that of the Pantheon in Rome (pictured, for comparison, below); the tower on the tomb of Mausolus, or Mausoleum, in Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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