St Stephen Walbrook

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 Stephen Walbrook (“R”  on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of Early Modern London) was originally built on the west side of the street at least as long ago as the eleventh century, the oldest written reference to it dating to around 1096. It was subsequently rebuilt on the east side of the street, on a plot provided by the sometime mayor, Sir Robert Chichley, in 1439, and repaired in the early seventeenth century, in or before 1615. In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow described it as a “fair church”, and recorded a number of its monuments, including those to “Sir Richard Lee, mayor [1460 and 1469]”, “Sir John Cootes, mayor 1542” and “Rowland Hill, mayor 1549”, not to mention “John Dunstable, master of astronomy and music”, [who died] in the year 1453″, “Dr Owyn, physician to King Henry VIII.” and “Sir Thomas Pope, first treasurer of the augmentations”.

The church was burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt by Wren between 1672-9, in the Baroque style, and with a dome that was a prototype for that of St Paul’s. It was then modified in the eighteenth century, when the spire was added, modified again in the nineteenth, damaged during the Second World War of the early twentieth,  and restored in the post-war period, and again, to redress subsidence into the soft sediments of the River Walbrook, between 1978-87.  The interior, approached up a flight of steps, is domed and filled with light, very much “in the spirit of St Paul’s”, and very beautiful (although, according to one critic, “worthy not of    Purcell, who never forgot his heart, but of J.S. Bach, who sometimes mislaid his”).  Vanbrugh is buried here, although he has no monument.

Nathaniel Hodges, a  local doctor who had dedicated himself to the treatment of those afflicted by the “Great Plague” of 1665,  is also buried here, and commemorated by a plaque.  Twice Hodges had thought himself succumbing to the symptoms of the disease, and twice he had kept it at bay by drinking increased draughts of sack (he had also taken a preventive electuary as large as a nutmeg each day). He had then gone on to write an account of his experiences, entitled “Loimologia … “, in 1672, lamenting therein the uselessness of bezoar stone, unicorn horn and dried toad as anti-pestilential treatments. Tragically, he had died a pauper in Ludgate Prison in 1688.

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