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.
St Sepulchre without Newgate was originally built in the early twelfth century, on the site of an earlier Saxon church dedicated to St Edmund, and originally known as St Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre, after the “Knights of the Holy Sepulchre”, who had a home here from 1103-73. It was subsequently rebuilt in the fifteenth century, in around 1450. In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow referred to it as “a fair parish church, … , newly re-edified … about the reign of Henry VI. or of Edward IV.”, and added “that “[o]ne of the Pophames [in fact John Popham, the Treasurer to Henry VI] was a great builder there, namely of one fair chapel on the south side of the choir, as appeareth by his arms … in the glass windows thereof, and also the fair porch … towards the south”.
The church was “very much damnified” in the Great Fire of 1666, “with only the outward walls and tower being left standing”. Nonetheless, it proved possible to repair it, using the surviving structure and materials, between 1667-74.
A Watch-House was added in 1791, to deter “resurrectionists” from robbing the graves in the churchyard and selling the cadavers to nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
The west tower and south porch still survive essentially intact from the fifteenth century.
Among those buried in the church were Roger Ascham, tutor to Queen Elizabeth, who died in 1569; and Captain John Smith, citizen, cordwainer, merchant-adventurer and founder of Jamestown in Virginia, who died in 1631.
On the stroke of midnight on the day of the execution of a prisoner from nearby Newgate Gaol, the church sexton would ring his handbell and recite lines urging the condemned man to repent his sins, ending with the words “And when St Sepulchre’s bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your soul”. The same handbell is on exhibit in the church.