Category Archives: London Churches

The wrong kind of tornado, the church of St Mary-le-Bow, and “Citizen Smith”

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On this day in 1091, a tornado hit London, killing two persons and destroying 600 houses and the church of St Mary-le-Bow, also known as Bow Church, on Cheapside.  The church was virtually  levelled by the tornado, the force of which drove four 26’  rafters vertically into the ground (*).

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It was rebuilt, only to be substantially burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, with only the crypt surviving, and subsequently rebuilt again by Christopher Wren.

3-Statue of John Smith

There is a statue of Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith (1580-1631) in Bow Churchyard, adjoining St Mary’s.  Smith sailed on the “Susan Constant” from Blackwall to found the first permanent English settlement in America, in  Jamestown, Virginia, in 1606, “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples” (a plaque on what is now Virginia Quay in Blackwall commemorates the event).    He is buried in the church of St Sepulchre, Newgate Street.  Incidentally, the  Algonquin  princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in America in 1607, visited London in  1616-17, with her by-then husband the tobacco planter John Rolfe, staying at the Bell Savage Inn off Ludgate Hill.  She died in Gravesend in 1617.

(*) From accounts of the damage, meteorologists estimate that the  tornado would have rated T8 on the T scale, which runs from T1 to T10, with winds in excess of  200 mph.

The “Lion Sermon” and the church of St Katharine Cree

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Gayer plaque, St Katharine Cree

The “Lion Sermon” is given at the church of St Katharine Cree on the  Thursday nearest to this day each year, and  has been since 1643, in remembrance of the Merchant Adventurer (of the Levant Company) and later Lord Mayor of London Sir John Gayer being spared by a lion in Syria on October 16th of that year.  I attended the 371st “Lion Sermon” in the church of St Katharine Cree on  Leadenhall Street.    It was by Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, and on the subject of, and I paraphrase,  “Freedom, and what it means in the metaphorical Lion’s Den of the modern world”.   Freedom, and the  Human Rights of Dignity, Equality and Fairness (“and the greatest of these is Equality”).  Admirable sentiments, especially resonant in a church that at the time of the Civil War in the 1640s stood for the supposed “divine” rights of the king over those of the commoner.

The church itself was originally built in the grounds of Holy Trinity Priory sometime before 1291 (being mentioned in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of Pope Nicholas IV), and possibly around 1280, and rebuilt between  1500-4, in the Gothic style, and again between 1628-31, this time in the Renaissance style.  It was undamaged by the Great Fire of 1666, although later required to be restored  in 1878-9, and again, after being damaged by bombing in the Blitz of the Second World War, in  1956-62.   The interior contains some Gothic elements, such as the east window, in the form of an elaborately stylised Katharine Wheel, and the intricately ribbed ceiling; and some Renaissance ones, such as the Corinthian columns in the nave.  It also contains monuments to Sir Nicholas Throkmorton (d. 1570) as well as to  Sir  John Gayer (d. 1649).  The church was  consecrated in 1631 by Archbishop Laud, who went on to be executed in 1645 for his close association with the then-king, Charles I, and for his persecution of Puritans. The Father Smith organ, once played by Purcell and Handel, dates to 1686.

Southwark Cathedral (1539)

 

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On this day in 1539, the Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie was dissolved, the priory church then becoming the parish church of St Saviour, and eventually the Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral).

The cathedral was originally founded as a nunnery in 606, becoming a priory in 1106.  Some elements of the present structure are survivors  from the  twelfth century building, although most are from the thirteenth or early fifteenth rebuilds following fires in 1212 and 1390 (the former of which, incidentally, reportedly killed 3000 people).

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The interior contains  many interesting features , including a wooden effigy of a knight buried in around 1275 …

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… a stained-glass window commemorating Geoffrey Chaucer, who would have walked past the Cathedral on the  pilgrimage to Canterbury that he immortalised as “The Canterbury Tales” …

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… the burial-place of William Shakespeare’s brother Edmond …

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… the tomb of Lancelot Andrewes, who was responsible for the translation of the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible …

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… and a chapel dedicated to local-boy-made-good John Harvard, who was baptised here, and who, after most of his family died in an outbreak of plague in 1626, set sail for the Americas to start a new life.  The university that he established there bears his name to this day.

 

 

 

The Knights Templar and Hospitaller

The Knights Templar came into being in around 1129 as an Order of “fighting monks” tasked principally with the protection of  Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with participation in Crusades, and incidentally with infrastructure and finance.  They soon became immensely wealthy and powerful, and at the same time the subject of much mistrust, on account of the secrecy surrounding  their activity, making themselves many dangerous enemies as well as friends.

On 13th October 1307 – according to myth the original unlucky “Friday the Thirteenth”,  the leaders of the Knights Templar were arrested on a  variety of charges, at least some no doubt trumped up by debtors and other vested interests, under a warrant reading “God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the Kingdom” (“Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume”).  They were later tortured into confessing to having “spat three times on the Cross” (”  … craché trois fois sur la Croix … “), and done to death by being burned at the stake, and the entire Order was  eventually disbanded, essentially to be subsumed into that of the Knights Hospitaller.

Interestingly, there are two Knights Templar or Hospitaller sites still in existence in London.

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One  is Temple Church, home of the Knights Templar, in a precinct off Fleet Street.  The church was originally built in 1160-85 and 1220-40 (although it has been restored or rebuilt on a number of occasions subsequently, most recently following bomb damage sustained during the Blitz).  The round nave, modelled on either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, is twelfth-century, and Norman, or Romanesque in style, with typically round-arched windows.    The rectangular chancel is thirteenth-century, and Early Gothic, with pointed-arched lancet windows.

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The famous Purbeck Marble effigies of Knights are also thirteenth-century.

The other is the Priory of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, home of the Knights Hospitaller, in a precinct in Clerkenwell.  The priory was originally built in around 1145, and destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 (it was actually deliberately targetted at this time because  the then prior, Robert Hales, was also the Lord High Treasurer, and responsible for the introduction of the hated Poll Tax).  It was rebuilt by Prior John Redington immediately afterwards and restored by Prior Thomas Docwra in 1504, and dissolved in 1540.  It is said that the last Prior, William Weston, died on the very day the priory was dissolved, of a broken heart.

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The former priory and later parish church, also with a round  nave, was substantially destroyed during an air raid  on the last night of the Blitz, 10th-11th May, 1941, and subsequently rebuilt (the original outline picked out on the paved area to the front).

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Remarkably, the original crypt of 1145 still survives, with its memorial to Prior Weston.

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A separate gate-house of 1504 also survives.  The gate-house served between 1560-1608 – that is, immediately after the Dissolution – as the “Office of the Revels” (how wonderful!), where theatrical performances were licensed, and sets and costumed procured.  It re-entered the possession of the  by-then Order of St John in 1873, and now houses the Order’s museum.

In 1237, Matthew Paris  chronicled the departure of  a party of Knights Hospitaller to the Holy Land  as follows:

“They … set out from their house at Clerkenwell, and proceeded in good order, with about thirty shields uncovered, with spears raised, and preceded by their banner, through the midst of the City, towards the bridge, that they might obtain the blessings of the spectators, and, bowing their heads with their cowls lowered, commended themselves to the prayers of all”.

 

Feast of St Ethelburga

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Today is the feast of St Ethelburga, the Abbess of Barking, and founder of the church of All Hallows Barking in the City of London, in the seventh century (also the sister of Erkenwald, Bishop of London).

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The church dedicated to her on Bishopsgate in the City of London was probably originally built in timber in the Saxon period, and subsequently rebuilt and extended in stone in the later Medieval to post-Medieval.

It survived the Great Fire of London and the Second World War, only to be severely damaged by an IRA bomb on 24th April, 1993, and substantially rebuilt, and reopened as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, focussing on the role of faith in conflict resolution, in 2002.

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The  “Peace Garden” and “Tent” at the back were built at the same time,  to encourage inter-faith dialogue.

The Battle of Flodden Field, and the bizarre tale of the King’s Head (1513)

St Michael Wood Street

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden Field, one of the bloodiest ever fought on British soil, between the English and the Scots, which took place in 1513.  According to Stow, in his “Survay of London written in the Year 1598”, sometime after the battle, the decapitated head of the defeated Scottish King, James IV, ended up being buried in  the church of St Michael, Wood Street, just off Cheapside (*). The church was later  burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt  by Christopher Wren between 1670-75, and modified  in 1887-88, only to be demolished in 1897. Nothing remains of it at its former site, now occupied by a public house – called not the “King’s Head” but the  “Red Herring”!

(*) The relevant part of the text reads more-or-less in full as follows:

“There is …  , … without any outward monument, the head of James, the fourth king of Scots of that name, slain at Flodden field, and buried here by this occasion: After the battle the body of the said king being found, was enclosed in lead, and conveyed … to the monastery of Shene in Surrey … .  Since the which time workmen there, for their foolish pleasure, hewed of his head; and Lancelot Young, master glazier to her majesty [Elizabeth I], … seeing the same dried from all moisture, and yet the form remaining, with the hair of the head, and beard red, brought it to London to his house in Wood Street, where for a time he kept it … , but in the end caused the sexton of that church to bury it amongst other bones … ”.

City of London Buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666

ChurchesOf the 97 parish churches within the walls of the City of London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, only 8, namely, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Helen, St Katharine Cree, and St Olave Hart Street, survived,  and still survive, with at least some pre-Great Fire structures standing, above ground (*).

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Of the secular buildings, only the Tower of London and the Guildhall, and parts of the Merchant Taylors’ and Apothecaries’ Livery Company Halls, and of the “Olde Wine Shades” public house, still survive.

(*) A further 5 churches, namely All Hallows on the Wall, St James Duke’s Place, St Katherine Coleman, St Martin Outwich and St Peter-le-Poer, also survived  the fire but were either rebuilt or demolished afterwards.

And 84 were burnt down in the fire, of which 49 were rebuilt afterwards, and 35 were not.

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