St Leonard Shoreditch

Another in the series on the historic churches of the out-parishes 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. There were a further twelve  in the out-parishes of Middlesex (north of the river) and Surrey (south of the river).

St Leonard Shoreditch was originally built at least  as long ago as the twelfth century, sometime before 1150, and was subsequently rebuilt by George Dance the Elder in the eighteenth, between  1736-40, and was restored in the twentieth following damage during the Blitz. 

An engraving of the Medieval church  still  survives, from  1735, i.e., just before it was demolished and rebuilt, which shows some apparently fifteenth-century features, possibly associated with the chantry chapel of Sir John Elrington, known to have been founded in 1482.  Other than than, essentially only the crypt of the Medieval church remains.  However, plans have recently been announced to undertake an archaeological survey in search of its site, under Prof. Maurizio Seracini of the University of California, San Diego, an expert in non-invasive investigation of historical sites and artworks (best known for his research on a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci mural in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence). 

St Leonard’s is known as “The Actor’s Church”, on account of the number of theatricals buried here, many of whom performed at the nearby “The Theatre” and “Curtain” in Shoreditch in the post-Medieval period.  Among them are Henry VIII’s jester Will Sommers, who died in 1560; the actor Gabriel Spencer, who was killed in a duel with Ben Jonson in Hoxton in 1598; and three members of the Burbage family, the impresario, James, who built “The Theatre” in 1576, and died in 1597, and his sons Cuthbert, who built the “Globe” in Southwark in 1597, and died in 1636,  and actor Richard, famous for his “Hamlet”, who died in 1619.   One might now also describe it as an acting church, characterfully inhabiting the role of St Saviour-in-the-Marshes in the sitcom “Rev”.

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