Thursday, 29 September 2016

Saint Lawrence Jewry, a ‘very municipal,
very splendid’ Wren church in London

Saint Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall is the official church of the City of London Corporation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Somehow, I manage to go for longer daily walks in England rather than in Ireland. During my working visit to London on Wednesday [28 September 2016], I managed to walk over 15 km, a distance surpassed in recent months only by a walk through the fields and farms in Comberford [19.11 km, 5 June 2016] and a day in Cambridge a month ago [16.02 km, 28 August 2016].

One of the pleasures of walking through the city of London, between Liverpool Street Station and Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the way to Southbank, Southwark and meetings of the Trustees of USPG, is topping to see the great churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

On Wednesday morning, and again on Wednesday afternoon [28 September 2016] this week, I stopped to see two churches that once took their names from the former Jewish ghetto that once stood in this part of London: Saint Lawrence Jewry and the surviving tower of Saint Olave Jewry.

The Guildhall, London, across the square from Saint Lawrence Jewry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Lawrence Jewry is a guild church on Gresham Street, in the City of London, forming a square with the Guildhall. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. It is now the official church of the Lord Mayor of London, and this morning [29 September 2016], for example, the church was the venue for the Lord Mayor’s Election Day Service at 10.45 a.m.

There has been a church on the present site since the 12th century. Before the great fire of 1666, there were 156 churches in the City, many with the same saint’s name. To distinguish them from another, another title was attached. The first church on the site of Saint Lawrence Jewry is thought to have been built in 1136 and was dedicated to Saint Lawrence, the Deacon of Rome.

The story of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom is told in a painting above the main altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The story is told that when the Emperor Valerian demanded that the Church had over its riches, Pope Sixtus II refused the imperial demand and was executed. The emperor then turned to Lawrence and made the same demand. In reply, Lawrence presented the sick, the weak and the poor of the city to the Emperor, and declared: ‘Here are the treasures of Christ’s Church.’ For this reply, Lawrence was executed on a gridiron and became a martyr.

There are two paintings of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom in the church: one above the main altar dates from the 1950s and is the work of the architect of the church’s restoration in the mid-20th century, Cecil Brown; the second painting in the vestibule is a 16th century Italian work and survived both the great fire in 1666 and the Blitz in the 1940s. In addition, the weather vane of the church is in the form of his instrument of martyrdom, the gridiron, a symbol of Saint Lawrence.

Plaques and street names recall the presence of the mediaeval Jewish community in this corner of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The church is called Saint Lawrence Jewry because it stands near the former mediaeval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry. The Jewish community lived from 1066, when they came to England with William the Conqueror, until to 1290, when they were expelled from England by Edward I. There are still reminders of their presence and contribution in plaques and street names in the surrounding streets.

From 1280 until 1954, Balliol College, Oxford, was the patron of the church and had the right to nominate the vicars of the parish. This connection is commemorated in one of the south windows, which depicts Saint Catherine, the patron of the college, surrounded by coats of arms representing dioceses whose bishops had once been Vicars of the parish.

Sir Thomas More depicted in window on the south side at the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was born nearby in Milk Street, then in the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen, and was probably baptised there. One of his early mentors and tutors was the Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry, William Grocyn, the English Renaissance scholar credited with reintroducing Greek to the academic curriculum in England. Erasmus described Grocyn as 'the patron and preceptor of us all.’ While Grocyn was Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry (1496-1517), Thomas More lectured in the church in 1501 on Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which was formative in his thinking on church-state relations. Appropriately, he is commemorated in a window above the pulpit.

In 1618, the church was repaired, and all the windows filled with stained glass paid for by individual donors.

But the mediaeval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1670 and 1687. This was one of many churches rebuilt by Wren, and it was one of Wren’s most expensive City Churches.

The window depicting Saint Michael recalls the former parish of Saint Michael Bassishaw (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At the time, the parish was united with that of Saint Mary Magdalene, Milk Street, which was not rebuilt. Later the parish was also amalgamated with the parish of Saint Michael Bassishaw in 1892.

The church is entirely faced in stone, with a grand east front, on which four attached Corinthian columns, raised on a basement, support a pediment placed against a high attic.

George Godwin, writing in 1839, described the details of this façade as displaying ‘a purity of feeling almost Grecian.’ But he points out that Wren’s pediment acts only as a superficial adornment to the wall, rather than, as in classical architecture, forming an extension of the roof.

Sir Christopher Wren is depicted in a stained glass window in the vestibule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

This is said to be Wren’s most expensive parish church in London. Wren is honoured in a window in the vestibule that also with his master carver Grindling Gibbons and his master mason Edward Strong. A small cameo at the bottom of this window shows the architect Cecil Brown planning the 1950s restoration with the vicar. Sir John Betjeman described this church as ‘very municipal, very splendid.’ It was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950.The church is 81 feet long and 68 feet wide.

Inside, Wren’s church has an aisle on the north side only, divided from the nave by Corinthian columns, carrying an entablature that continues around the walls of the main body of the church, where it is supported on pilasters. The ceiling is divided into sunken panels, ornamented with wreaths and branches.

During World War II, the church was extensively damaged but not completely destroyed during the Blitz on 29 December 1940.

After World War II, the City of London Corporation agreed to restore the church because Balliol College had no funds to carry out the work. It was restored in 1957 by Cecil Brown to Wren’s original design. It is no longer a parish church but a guild church, and the advowson has been transferred to the City of London as its official church.

Saint Lawrence Jewry has an interesting list of past vicars and clergy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The present vicar is Canon David Parrott. Past vicars and clergy include John Tillotson, who became Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1689 and the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1691, and who is buried in one of the vaults in the church.

Other past vicars include John Wilkins, who was a founding figure in the Royal Society and became Bishop of Chester; Ben Cowie, who became Dean of Manchester and then Dean of Exeter; John Wilkins, who was Dean of Ripon and Dean of Chester; and Edward Reynolds, who later Bishop of Norwich and who was the author of the ‘General Thanksgiving’ in the Book of Common Prayer, possibly inspired by a private prayer of Queen Elizabeth that was issued in 1596. This prayer was added to the Book of Common Prayer in 1662:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
We thine unworthy servants Do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
For all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us, and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
But above all, for this inestimable love
In the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
For the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
That our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
And that we may show forth thy praise,
Not only with our lips, but in our lives;
By giving up ourselves to thy service,
And by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
To whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit,
Be all honour and glory, World without end. Amen.


Saint Lawrence Jewry also has an interesting link with Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, through the mathematician, astronomer and bishop, Seth Ward (1617-1689).

Seth Ward was born in Hertfordshire, and entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge as a sizar in 1632, when he was only 15. His patron there was Samuel Ward (1572-1643), Master of Sidney Sussex (1614-1643). Samuel Ward was one of the scholars involved in the translation and preparation of the King James Version of the Bible. He was a member of the Second Cambridge Company charged with translating the Apocrypha.

After he graduated from Sidney Sussex (BA, 1636; MA, 1640), Seth Ward became a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College in 1640. In 1643 he was chosen university mathematical lecturer. However, he was deprived of his fellowship at Sidney Sussex in 1644 for opposing the Solemn League and Covenant.

He moved to Oxford, and in 1649 he became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, where he gained a high reputation by his theory of planetary motion. He received a doctorate in theology (DD) at Oxford in 1654 and at Cambridge in 1659.

Ward was engaged in a decades-long philosophical controversy with Thomas Hobbes, particularly after Leviathan was published. Ward was also one of the original members of the Royal Society of London.

He was elected Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, in 1657, but Cromwell installed another candidate. In 1659, Ward was appointed President of Trinity College, Oxford, but he did not hold the statutory qualifications and resigned in 1660.

King Charles II then appointed him to the livings of Saint Lawrence Jewry in London, and Uplowman, Devonshire, in 1661. He also became Dean of Exeter Cathedral (1661) and Rector of Saint Breock, Cornwall, in 1662.

Later in 1662, he was appointed Bishop of Exeter, and in 1667 he became Bishop of Salisbury. He died in London on 6 January 1689.

The piano in the church is a fine Steinway Concert Grand, which is used every Monday for a piano rectal in the church. This piano once belonged to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961).

The stained-glass windows are among the glories of this church, and as I was preaching on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels this morning [29 September 2016], I found myself paying particular attention to the window depicting Saint Michael and recalling the links with the former parish of Saint Michael Bassishaw.

The tower and churchyard of Saint Olave Old Jewry survive in a laneway behind Old Jewry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Later during Wednesday’s visit to London, on my way back to Liverpool Street Station, I also visited the remains of a second Wren church whose ancient name is a reminder of the old Jewish quarter of the city.

Saint Olave Old Jewry, sometimes known as Upwell Old Jewry, stood between the street called Old Jewry and Ironmonger Lane. It too was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The church was demolished in 1887, except for the tower and the west wall, which remain today.

The name of Saint Olave, Old Jewry, recalls both the mediaeval Jewish community in this area and the 11th-century patron saint of Norway, Saint Olaf.

The earliest surviving reference is in a manuscript ca 1130, but excavations in 1985 revealed the foundations of an earlier Saxon church, built in the 9th to 11th centuries using Kentish ragstone and recycled Roman bricks.

Saint Olave’s was the burial place of Robert Large, Lord Mayor, mercer and master of William Caxton, in 1440.

After the church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, the parish was united with the adjacent Parish of Saint Martin Pomeroy, a tiny church that shared the small churchyard of St Olave Old Jewry. Rebuilding began in 1671, incorporating much of the mediaeval walls and foundations. The tower was built separately, projecting from the west of the church. The church was completed in 1679, partly from rubble from the neighbouring, ruined Saint Paul’s Cathedral for rubble.

In outline, the church was shaped like a wine bottle on its side, with the projecting west tower a truncated neck, the angular west front its shoulders, tapering towards a narrow base to the east. The main façade was on Old Jewry and featured a large Venetian window with columns and a full entablature.

The Master of the King’s Music, Maurice Greene, was buried in Saint Olave’s in 1755, as was a later Lord Mayor and publisher, John Boydell, the founder of the Shakespeare Gallery, who was buried there in 1804.

The church was restored in 1879, but under the Union of Benefices Act, the parish combined with nearby Saint Margaret Lothbury, the body of the church was demolished in 1887, the site was sold and the proceeds were used to build Saint Olave’s Manor House.

The dead bodies were moved to the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, Greene’s body was moved to Westminster Abbey, Boydell’s monument was moved to Saint Margaret Lothbury, and the furnishings were dispersed among several other churches. The tower, west wall and part of the north wall were kept and incorporated into a new building that included a rectory for Saint Margaret Lothbury.

The 88 ft (27 m) tower is the only one by Wren that is battered, in other words it is slightly wider at the bottom than the top. The door to the tower has a segmental pediment and is flanked by Doric columns. On top of the tower is a simple parapet with tall obelisks on each corner with balls on top. The vane in the centre of the tower is in the shape of a sailing ship, and came from Saint Mildred, Poultry.

The remains of the church were designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The late Victorian building was replaced in 1986 by an office building, in a sympathetic style, designed by the firm of architects Swanke, Hayden, Connell. The churchyard survives as the courtyard to the office building, and is open to the public for a few hours each day.

From there, I had to visit Saint Margaret Lothbury before I caught the train to Stansted. But that’s a story for another day.

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