12 May 2017

The ruins of Greyfriars
are all that remain of
a mediaeval friary

The tower and some walls remain on the site of Christ Church Greyfriars, near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my strolls through London on Wednesday [11 May 2017], to and from Liverpool Street Station and the USPG offices in Southwark, one of the former Wren churches I visited was Christ Church Greyfriars, within walking distance of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Christ Church Greyfriars, also known as Christ Church Newgate Street, stood in Newgate Street, opposite Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The church began as the conventual church of a Franciscan friary, and the name Greyfriars refers to the grey habits worn by the Franciscan friars.

The first church on the site was built in the 13th century, but this was soon replaced by a bigger building, begun in 1306 and consecrated in 1326. This new church was the second largest in mediaeval London, measuring 91 metres (300 ft) long and 27 metres (89 ft) wide, with at least 11 altars. It was built partly at the expense of Margaret of France, the second wife of King Edward I.

Queen Margaret was buried at the church, as was Queen Isabella, the widow of Edward II who was complicit in her husband’s murder. The heart of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, was also buried here.

Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, more often associated with Saint Mary-le-Bow and its bells, founded a library in connection with the church in 1429.

Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent,’ was buried on the site after she was hanged at Tyburn in 1534 for preaching against Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. But her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, the only woman ever accorded that dishonour.

The Monastery of Christ Church Greyfriars was dissolved at the Reformation in 1538 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The monastery was dissolved in 1538 at the Reformation. The building and fittings suffered heavy damage in this period, when tombs disappeared and were sold for their marble and other monuments were defaced.

In 1546, Henry VIII gave the priory and its church, along with the churches of Saint Nicholas Shambles and Saint Ewin, Newgate Market, to the City Corporation.

A new parish of Christ Church was created, incorporating those of Saint Nicholas and Saint Ewin, and part of that of Saint Sepulchre. The priory buildings later housed Christ’s Hospital, a school founded by Edward VI, and the church became the principal place of worship for the schoolchildren.

In the 1640s, Christ Church was associated with the Presbyterian polemicist Thomas Edwards, and in 1647 it became a centre of operations for attempts to disband and pay arrears to members of the New Model Army.

The mediaeval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren, who was commissioned to rebuild the church, oversaw the programme to rebuild Saint Paul’s Cathedral and about 50 parish churches destroyed or damaged in the fire.

The parish was united with Saint Leonard, Foster Lane, which was not rebuilt. The parishioners raised £1,000 to begin work. To save time and money, the foundations of the gothic church were partially reused. The new church and tower, without steeple, were completed in 1687, at a total cost of over £11,778.

The new church was smaller than the gothic structure, and measured 35 metres (114 ft) by 25 metres (81 ft), occupying only the eastern end of the site of the mediaeval church, while the west part became the churchyard.

The tower, rising from the west end of the church, had a simple round-arched main entranceway and, above, windows decorated with neo-classical pediments.

Large carved pineapples, symbols of welcome, graced the four roof corners of the main church building. The east and west walls had buttresses that were unique for a Wren church.

Inside, the church was divided into a nave and aisles by Corinthian columns, raised on tall plinths so that their bases were level with the gallery floors. The aisles had flat ceilings, while the nave had a shallow cross-vault.

The north and south walls had large round-arched windows of clear glass, which allowed for a brightly lit interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The north and south walls had large round-arched windows of clear glass, which allowed for a brightly lit interior.

The east end had three-light windows, a large wooden altar screen and a carved hexagonal pulpit, reached by stairs. There was elaborate carved wainscoting. A pavement of reddish brown and grey marble to the west of the altar rails was said to date from the original gothic church.

The pews were said to have been made from the timbers of a wrecked Spanish galleon. The galleries over the north and south aisles were erected as seating for the schoolchildren from Christ’s Hospital or the ‘Bluecoat School,’ who included Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the steeple of Christ Church Greyfriars as one of Wren’s finest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The steeple, which was 49 metres (160 feet) tall, was finished in 1704 at an extra cost of more than £1,963. According to the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the steeple is one of Wren’s finest, ‘a square version of St Mary le Bow.’ It is square in plan with three diminishing storeys. The louvred belfry section gives way to a central staged encircled by an open free-standing Ionic colonnade topped by 12 urns, and above them a delicate square spire capped with a vase.

In 1760, a vestry house was built against the south side of the façade and part of the south wall.

The church was an important centre in the political and cultural life of London. The Lord Mayor attended an annual service to hear the Ancient Spital Sermon on the second Wednesday after Easter, placing his ceremonial sword in a special holder. Felix Mendelssohn played Bach’s Fugue in A minor and other works on the organ in 1837. Samuel Wesley also performed at the church.

Christ’s Hospital moved out of London to Horsham in West Sussex in 1902, reducing the Sunday attendances considerably, and the school building was sold to the GPO. In the years that followed, numbers continued to decline, and by April 1937, the figures had dropped to 77.

The church was severely damaged in the Blitz on 29 December 1940. During one of the fiercest air raids of World War II, a firebomb struck the roof and tore into the nave. Much of the surrounding neighbourhood was also set alight, and eight Wren churches burned that night alone. The roof and vaulting of Christ Church collapsed into the nave. The tower and four main walls remained standing but were smoke-scarred and gravely weakened.

The parish of the former Christ Church Greyfriars was merged with nearby Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate in 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When the parishes in London were being reorganised in 1949, it was decided not to rebuild Christ Church. The remains of the church were designated a Grade I listed building in 1950, and in 1954, the parish of Christ Church was merged with nearby Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

The steeple was dismantled in 1960 and reassembled. The surviving lower part of the south wall and the entire east wall were demolished in 1962 for the widening of King Edward Street. In 1981, neo-Georgian brick offices were built against the south-west corner of the ruins, in imitation of the 1760 vestry house that once stood there.

In 1989, the former nave area became a public garden and memorial. The paths follow the lines of the former aisles, the pergolas represent the piers, the box hedging represents the pews, and the plants represent the former congregation.

In 2002, the US investment bank Merrill Lynch completed a regional headquarters complex on land to the north and west. Along with this project, the site of Christ Church underwent a major renovation and archaeological examination, King Edward Street was returned to its former course, and the site of the church has regained its pre-war footprint.

The tower once served as commercial space, but it was converted into a private residence in 2006.

The flowers and plants in the garden represent the former congregation of Christ Church Greyfriars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Next: Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe.

Postings on London City Churches:

Greyfriars Christ Church.

Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.

Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf.

Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate.

Saint George-in-the-East.

Saint Lawrence Jewry.

Saint Margaret Lothbury.

Saint Mary Aldermary.

Saint Mary-le-Bow.

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

Saint Olave Jewry (tower).

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

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