11 May 2017
Saint Mary-le-Bow, the Cockney church
that came back to life after the Blitz
I enjoy my regular strolls through London, between Liverpool Street Station and the USPG offices in Southwark, using the opportunities these walks offer to see a church designed by Christopher Wren or one or two guild or city churches I have not visited before.
This week I visited six of these London churches or their ruins – Saint Mary-le-Bow, Christ Church Greyfriars, Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe, Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf, Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey and Saint Mary Aldermary – all within walking distance of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
On Wednesday morning [11 May 2017], I stopped once again as I walked along Cheapside to visit Saint Mary-le-Bow, one of the many churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Tradition says that a true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells and the sound of the bells of Saint Mary’s is said to have persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back at Highgate with his cat and to return to London, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of Mayor.
Archaeological evidence indicates that a church has stood on this site since Saxon times. This was replaced by the Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, built ca 1080 by Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury who accompanied William the Conqueror from Bec in Normandy.
Archbishop Lanfranc’s church was destroyed by the London Tornado of 1091, and a new church was built, although the newly-built arched crypt survived.
During the later Norman era, the church, known as ‘Saint Mary de Arcubus,’ was rebuilt and was famed for the arches (‘bows’) of stone. At that period, the 12 ft 6 in (3.8 metres) high vaulted crypt – although only accessible from within the church – had windows and buttresses visible from the street. The crypt has been much altered since then, but it gives an idea of how it once looked with its two aisles and a nave.
The name le-Bow or de arcubus may refer to the Norman arches which were something of a novelty. But the crypt really served as an undercroft, or a subsidiary structure on which the upper church was built.
After a fire in 1196, a substantially new church was built, perhaps replicating that church that had been destroyed.
The church was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s principal ‘peculiar,’ although it is in the middle of London, and it remained in the Diocese of Canterbury until 1850. From about 1251, Saint Mary-le-Bow was the home of the Court of Arches, the final appeal court of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England.
The mediaeval church included an image of Virgin Mary, painted and crowned by a legacy in 1348, and altars to Saint Nicholas, Saint Agnes, Saint Thomas Becket, who was a parishioner, Saint Katherine and the Holy Trinity.
Saint Mary-le-Bow acquired additional prominence because its bell was the principal curfew bell, rung at 9 p.m. each day from at least 1363.
The tower at the south-west corner had collapsed into the street in 1271, but its rebuilding was not completed until 1512. This second tower was crowned by five lanterns, four at the corners of the tower and the fifth held aloft on flying buttresses.
The church with its steeple became a landmark in London, and the second most important church in the City of London after Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Every monarch, until James II, processed along Cheapside on the way to the coronation.
After the Great Fire in 1666, this was one of the first churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and his office. The current structure was built to Wren’s designs in 1671-1673.
Wren’s design for the upper church was almost square and was based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The entrance is based on the hotel de Conti in Paris and the vestibule at the base of the tower ranks among Wren’s finest designs.
However, Wren took into account the need for a preaching room, rather than designing a place for Catholic liturgy. Similarly, Wren had little interest in the crypt – which he seems to have thought was Roman – and simply encouraged its use as a burial chamber.
An attempt was made to shore up the old tower, but Wren wanted this to be his second tallest structure, after Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and moved the tower to the street. The 68 metre tower was completed in 1680. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation.
In the 1820s, George Gwilt (1775-1856) installed staircases that provided access to the north aisle of the crypt.
In 1914, a stone from the crypt of Saint Mary-le-Bow was placed in Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, to commemorate King William III’s grant to the vestry of Trinity Church of the same privileges as the vestry of Saint Mary-le-Bow.
Since the early 1940s, a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for the English-language broadcasts. It is still used today preceding some English-language broadcasts.
Much of the current church building was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz on 10 May 1941. During the fire, the bells crashed to the ground.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. The bells resumed ringing in 1961. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964, and the architect Laurence King (1907-1981) also adapted the south aisle of the crypt as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.
High above the Altar hangs a Rood, carved by Otto Irsara of Faith Craft, with figures of the Crucified Christ and those who gathered at the foot of the Cross. It was a gift of the people of Germany in 1964, and the first such Rood since the Reformation.
The church has two pulpits, one for reading the Epistle and one for reading the Gospel, and they are used today for a busy programme of exchanges, lectures and debates.
The north aisle chapel is a memorial to members of the Norwegian resistance who died in World War II, with a commemorative plaque and a relief of Saint George and the Dragon.
There is a memorial to the first Governor in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who was born and baptised in the parish. He was the commander of the first convict fleet and the first Governor of New South Wales.
A statue in the churchyard commemorates Captain John Smith of Jamestown, the founder of Virginia and a former parishioner.
Saint Mary-le-Bow It is still home to the Court of Arches today. The Vicar General’s court also sits at Saint Mary-le-Bow, and each diocesan bishop in the Province of Canterbury receives confirmation of his or her election at Saint Mary-le-Bow and there takes the Oath of Allegiance, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, before being enthroned.
The church ministers to the financial industry and livery companies of the City of London. An earlier tradition was recently revived when the Boyle Lectures returned to the church. In these lectures, a distinguished theologian or scientist explores the relationship between Christianity and contemporary understandings of the natural world.
Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who was born in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford, was one of the most celebrated natural philosophers of the 17th century. He wrote a number of important books on philosophical theology, including Discourse of Things Above Reason (1681), Disquisition About the Final Causes of Things (1688) and The Christian Virtuoso (1690).
The first Boyle Lectures were delivered in Saint Mary-le-Bow by Richard Bentley, an important protégé of Sir Isaac Newton and later Master of Trinity College Cambridge. Some of Bentley's lectures were delivered, thus establishing a connection between St Mary's and the Boyle Lectures, which endured for many years.
The lecture series has been supported by the Company of Grocers, the Company of Mercers and Gresham College. The next Boyle Lecture will be given by Dr Martin Harris (University of Edinburgh) on 7 February 2018 at Saint Mary-le-Bow.
I visited Saint Mary-le-Bow on Wednesday morning, 76 years after the building was destroyed in the Blitz on 10 May 1941. During the fire, the bells crashed to the ground. As I left the church, the bells were chiming 9 o’clock.
Tomorrow: Christ Church Greyfriars
Postings on London City Churches:
Greyfriars Christ Church.
Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf.
Saint Lawrence Jewry.
Saint Margaret Lothbury.
Saint Mary Aldermary.
Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.
Saint Olave Jewry (tower).
Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.
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ISt Mary le Bow was my weekday church when I worked nearby. I still visit it whenever I can. My favourite City Church. Thanks for this potted history.
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