Southwark Cathedral

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. 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. 

What is now Southwark Cathedral (“S. Mary owver” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of early Modern London) was originally founded as a nunnery in 606, becoming the Augustinian priory of St Mary Overie in 1106, the  parish church of St Saviour  following the Dissolution in 1540, and the Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie – or Southwark Cathedral – in 1905.  In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow described it as  “a fair church … of old time, long before the conquest, a house of sisters, founded by a maiden named Mary; … and then, in the year 1106 … again founded for canons regular by William Pont de la Arche and William Dauncy, knights, Normans”.  He added that “[t]his priory was burnt about the year 1207 [actually, in 1212], wherefore the canons did found a hospital near unto the priory, where they celebrated until the priory was repaired”, and that “this church was again newly built in the reign of Richard II. and King Henry IV. [following another fire in 1390]”.  And that it “was surrendered to Henry VIII., the 31st of his reign, the 27th of October, the year of Christ 1539”.

Being over  the “rie” or river, the church was undamaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and vived the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676, and the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War. 

Some elements of the present structure are survivors  from the  twelfth century building, although most are from the thirteenth-century rebuild following the fire  of 1212, or from the fourteenth-century rebuild following the fire in 1390. 

The interior contains  many memorials, including those  of an unknown knight who died  in around 1275; …

… of Geoffrey Chaucer’s friend and fellow poet John Gower (d. 1408); …

… of William Shakespeare’s   brother Edmond Shakespeare (d. 1607); …

… and of the cleric Lancelot Andrewes (d. 1626), who was responsible for the translation of the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible. 

The Harvard Chapel commemorates John Harvard, who was christened in the church, and who lived with his family in the nearby Queen’s Head Inn on Borough High Street. Most of the family died in an outbreak of the Plague in 1625, but John survived, and emigrated to the Americas to seek his fortune. The university that he helped to found there, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, now bears his name.

One of the legends surrounding  the foundress Mary Overie is worth recounting.  According to which, her father John Over was a ferryman, and a very mean man.  Indeed, such was his miserliness that one day, in order to avoid having to fork out for provisions, he faked his own death, assuming that his servants would fast for a day to show their respects.   Unfortunately for him, his  plan back-fired when, instead on fasting, his servants feasted.  Enraged by this, he leapt out of his supposed death-bed to confront them, in so doing so alarming them that they beat him to death with a broken oar, thinking his body possessed by the Devil.  Mary was so distressed by this bizarre and tragic turn of events that she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to the service of God, and used her  inheritance money  to found the priory church, eventually being made a saint for her chastity.

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