15 May 2018
Saint Mary Woolnoth:
a London church
celebrated by TS Eliot
The Church of Saint Mary Woolnoth is an arresting landmark at the centre of the City of London, on the corner of Lombard Street and King William Street near Bank junction.
The church is interesting as one of the Queen Anne Churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, but also for its associations with many interesting people, including the founder of Lloyds Edward Lloyd, the abolitionist and hymnwriter John Newton and his friend William Wilberforce, and the poet TS Eliot.
When I visited the church late one afternoon last week, an artist was paining a scene of the interior, and someone else was practising on the piano as sunshine streamed in through the windows and filled the church with light.
This site has been used for worship for at least 2,000 years. Traces of Roman and pagan religious buildings were found under the foundations of the church, along with the remains of an Anglo-Saxon wooden structure.
The full and unusual dedication of the church is to Saint Mary of the Nativity. The name of the church is first recorded in 1191 as Wilnotmaricherche. The name ‘Woolnoth’ may refer to a benefactor, possibly Wulnoth de Walebrok, a Saxon noble who lived in the area earlier in the 12th century. Alternatively, the name may be connected with the wool trade – this was so with the nearby church of Saint Mary Woolchurch Haw.
The present church is at least the third church on the site. The Norman church survived until the mid-15th century, when it was rebuilt. The new building was consecrated in 1438, but additional work appears to have taken place towards the end of the century, and a spire was added in 1485.
The advowson was given by the founder or his heirs to the Priory of Saint Helen, Bishopsgate. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII gave it to Sir Martin Bowes of Lombard Street, a goldsmith and Lord Mayor of London in 1545-1546. The advowson passed from Bowes to the Goldsmiths’ Company, and the patronage subsequently passed through various hands.
The church was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was partially rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670-1675. Sir Robert Vyner, Lord Mayor of London in 1674, made a major contribution to the cost of this work, and the church was known at one time known as Sir Robert Vyner’s church. Vyner had his own entrance to the east end of the church, a privilege inherited by the Post Office which later stood on the site of his mansion in Lombard Street.
Two new bells, the treble and the tenor, were cast in 1670, and in 1672 the middle bell was cast. The original west organ gallery with organ case is dated 1681.
Nearby Saint Mary Woolchurch Haw was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It was not rebuilt, and its parish was united with Saint Mary Woolnoth.
The style of the church was described as ‘modern Gothick’ in 1708. But Saint Mary Woolnoth was only partially-repaired by Wren. The building became unsafe and in 1711 it was decided to build a new church under the Fifty New Churches Act – the only church in the City to be built under the Act. By 1712, the condition of the church was so dilapidated that the parishioners were afraid to worship there, and repairs to the existing structure were undertaken.
Edward Lloyd, the founder of Lloyd’s of London, was a member of the vestry at the time. He founded Lloyd’s coffee house, which later developed into Lloyd’s Corporation. When he died in 1713, he was buried in the crypt, although the site was going through a radical transformation.
The church was rebuilt by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. Work began in 1716, when excavations uncovered remains thought to be Roman, and there is evidence of major Roman buildings in the immediate vicinity.
The new church opened for worship on Easter Day 1727. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, assisted by John James. It is one of Hawksmoor’s most distinctive and original designs and his only church in the City of London.
Hawksmoor designed an unusually imposing façade in the English baroque style. It is dominated by two flat-topped turrets supported by columns of the Corinthian order, which are used throughout the church. The west side of the façade, facing Lombard Street, has distinctive recesses bearing an inset forward-curving pediment resting on skewed columns.
Hawksmoor’s treatment of the north elevation has been described as ‘a piece of sheer architectural eloquence hard to match’ (John Summerson, Georgian London, 1945). The absence of windows on this wall insulates the interior from the noise of Lombard Street.
Despite its small size, the church is surprisingly spacious inside. The layout is typical of Hawksmoor, forming a ‘cube within a cube,’ or a square enclosed by three rows of four columns that is itself enclosed by a wider square.
In the shallow chancel, an ornate, baroque wooden baldacchino with twisted columns and canopy ornamented with gilded cherubs, was made by John Meard and carved by Gabriel Appleby. It was modelled on Bernini’s baldacchino in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The pulpit, with its unusual bulging shape, was made by Thomas Darby and Gervaise Smith and is inlaid with sunbursts by Appleby. The tester echoes the shape of the ceiling. The galleries were made by Meard and carved by Darby and Smith.
The Revd John Newton (1725-1807), the former slave trader who became an abolitionist, and an evangelical hymn writer, was the Rector of Saint Mary’s Woolnoth from 1780 to 1807. His best-known hymn is Amazing Grace, and his parishioners included the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce (1759-1833).
John Newton died in December 1807, shortly after the Abolition Act was passed. He was buried beside his wife in the crypt of Saint Mary Woolnoth. A memorial tablet on the north wall bears an epitaph written by Newton himself, which begins:
John Newton, Clerk. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.
The church was threatened with demolition on several occasions but was saved each time. Its galleries were removed by William Butterfield in 1875-1876, who thought they were unsafe, and a number of other significant changes to the interior were made at the time.
Butterfield raised the chancel, forcing the baldacchino high into the elliptical chancel arch. The polychromatic flooring of the chancel also dates from this time.
Between 1897 and 1900, the City & South London Railway (C&SLR) built Bank Underground station beneath the church. The company had permission to demolish the church, but public outcry forced the company to think again.
The crypt was sold to the railway and the bodies there were moved for reburial at Ilford, including Edward Lloyd. However, the bodies of John Newton and his wife Mary (Catlett) were reburied at Olney, where he had been a curate and then vicar before moving to London, in 1893.
The crypt and plinth of the church were used as a booking hall in 1897-1900. The walls and internal columns of the church were then supported on steel girders while the lift shafts and staircase shaft for Bank station were built directly beneath the church floor. At the same time, the bells were also rehung with new fittings.
The lower part of the south elevation is now masked by the single-storey former Underground station entrance, with a new vestry, in a style that pays tribute to Hawksmoor.
A second organ, dated 1913, is placed at the east end of the north aisle.
TS Eliot, who worked nearby at Lloyd’s Bank, refers to this church in 1922 in a passage in his poem The Waste Land, Part 1, ‘The Burial of the Dead’:
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying, “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”
In his notes to the poem, Eliot remarks that the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ was ‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’
Saint Mary Woolnoth was the only City church to survive World War II unscathed. The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950, and it became a guild church in 1952.
The church is the parish church of the Lord Mayors of London. The Mansion House stands almost opposite, on the site of Saint Mary Woolchurch Haw. This association helped protect the church from repeated threats of demolition between 1863 and 1926.
Saint Mary Woolnoth is the active parish church for the combined parish of Saint Edmund the King and Martyr, and Saint Mary Woolnoth Lombard Street with St Nicholas Acons, All Hallows, Lombard Street, Saint Benet Gracechurch, Saint Leonard Eastcheap, Saint Dionis Backchurch and Saint Mary Woolchurch Haw – usually shortened to ‘St Edmund & St Mary Woolnoth,’ Saint Mary Woolnoth and Saint Edmund are the only two churches in this list to have survived.
The Church of Saint Mary Woolnoth continues to be used actively, with celebrations of the Holy Communion every Tuesday. The church is used by the German-speaking Swiss community in London, and is also the official church in London of the government of British Columbia.