17 August 2022

Saint Magnus the Martyr
and TS Eliot’s ‘splendour
of Ionian white and gold’

The Church of Saint Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street in London, close to London Bridge, is celebrated in the poetry of TS Eliot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

– TS Eliot, The Waste Land, lines 259-265

Despite my abiding interest in the poetry of TS Eliot, it has taken me far too long to visit the Church of Saint Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street in London, close to London Bridge.

This city church has been admired for its beauty and its location by many writers, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s family home was nearby.

Charles Dickens refers to Southwark Cathedral and to Saint Magnus the Martyr in a scene in Oliver Twist where Nancy secretly meets Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie against Bill Sikes’s will: ‘the tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom.’

In The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macauley, Father Chantry-Pigg’s church is said to be several feet higher than Saint Mary’s, Bourne Street and some inches above even Saint Magnus the Martyr.

Two of us spent a few hours in the City of London last week, and I found time to visit a number of City churches, including Saint Magnus Martyr. TS Eliot celebrated the architecture and spiritual importance of the church, with its ‘inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.’

For Eliot, ‘the interior … is to my mind one of the finest among Wren’s interiors.’

Some commentators suggest his reference to the place ‘where the fishermen lounge at noon’ is a reminder of an earlier allusion to the legend of the Fisher King. But, perhaps, Eliot is referring to the annual Fish Harvest Festival, celebrated at Saint Magnus until 1922, the year he wrote ‘The Waste Land.’

The service moved in 1923 to Saint Dunstan in the East and then to Saint Mary at Hill, two churches I also visited for the first time this week. Saint Magnus retained its close links with the local fish merchants until the old Billingsgate Market closed and relocated to Poplar in 1982.

The north door of Saint Magnus the Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A report in 1920 proposed demolishing 19 City churches, including Saint Magnus. A general outcry ensued among parishioners and members of the public alike.

TS Eliot wrote that the threatened churches gave ‘to the business quarter of London a beauty which its hideous banks and commercial houses have not quite defaced … the least precious redeems some vulgar street …

‘The loss of these towers, to meet the eye down a grimy lane, and of these empty naves, to receive the solitary visitor at noon from the dust and tumult of Lombard Street, will be irreparable and unforgotten.’

The rector uses the title ‘Cardinal Rector’ and is now the only priest in the Church of England continuing to use the title ‘Cardinal’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Magnus the Martyr, close to London Bridge and the Monument to the Great Fire of London. The rector uses the title ‘Cardinal Rector’ and, since the abolition of the College of Minor Canons of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 2016 – including the post of Senior Cardinal and Junior Cardinal – is the only priest in the Church of England to use the title ‘Cardinal.’

The church is dedicated to Saint Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney, who was executed ca 1116 on the island of Egilsay after being captured in a power struggle with his cousin and rival, Hakonxc. He was canonised in 1135 and gives his name to Saint Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

However, the church was not linked to Saint Magnus of Orkney before the 18th century. It may have been first dedicated to Saint Magnus or Magnes, or Saint Mammes of Caesarea, who was martyred in the year 276.

The Danish archaeologist Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae (1821-1885) promoted the attribution to Saint Magnus of Orkney in the 19th century. The discovery of the relics of Saint Magnus of Orkney in 1919 increased interest in a Scandinavian patron and this connection was encouraged by the Revd Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton who was Rector from 1921.

Thames Street appeared in the second half of the 11th century immediately behind the old Roman riverside wall. Saint Magnus was built to the south of Thames Street to serve the growing population of the bridgehead area in the 11th century.

A dedication to Saint Magnus of Anagni may have been influenced by King Cnut’s pilgrimage to Rome in 1027. The feast of Saint Magnus the Martyr on 19 August (Friday) appears in most liturgical calendars, and was still celebrated in London in the 16th century

William the Conqueror was said to have granted Saint Magnus to Westminster Abbey in 1067, although this charter was a later forgery by Osbert of Clare, Prior of Westminster Abbey, as is a charter of confirmation from 1108-1116.

The Abbot of Westminster and the Prior of Bermondsey disputed the advowson of Saint Magnus in the second half of the 12th century, and so it was divided equally between them. The Pope was the patron of the living in the mid-14th century, and appointed five rectors.

The east end of Saint Magnus the Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Dr John Young was titular Bishop of Callipolis and Rector of Saint Magnus in 1514-1515. He pronounced judgment in the heresy case of Richard Hunne in 1514. Thomas Bilney preached at Saint Magnus in 1527, criticising the new rood as idolatrous. He was tried for heresy, recanted, was released, was tried again in 1531 and was burned at the stake in Norwich on Saint Magnus Day, 19 August 1531.

Maurice Griffith, Bishop of Rochester, was rector from 1537 until he died in 1558, and his funeral was held at Saint Magnus.

The patronage of Saint Magnus passed to the Crown at the Tudor Reformation, and Queen Mary granted it to the Bishop of London in 1553.

The church had many distinguished rectors in the late 16th and early 17th century, including Myles Coverdale (1564-1566). His resignation may have been caused by the vestments controversy and Archbishop Matthew Parker’s edict on clergy dress.

Much of the church’s pre-Reformation glass and its Laudian liturgical style, including the Communion rails, were destroyed by zealous Puritans in 1642-1644. After the Caroline restoration, the parish resumed Laudian practices in 1663 and re-erected rails around the Communion table.

Despite escaping destruction by fire in 1633, the church was one of the first buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Saint Magnus was less than 300 yards from Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Farriner was a former churchwarden of Saint Magnus.

The parish engaged George Dowdeswell to start rebuilding in 1668. The work was carried forward in 1671-1687 under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren. Saint Magnus was built at a cost of £9,579.19.10, making it one of Wren’s most expensive churches.

Like many Wren churches, the chancel has a chequered marble floor, while the nave and aisles are paved with freestone flags. The steeple is considered to be one of Wren’s finest, and a lantern and cupola were added in 1703-1706.

The clock on the church tower was once a landmark in the city over the roadway of Old London Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The large clock projecting from the tower was a well-known landmark in the city as it hung over the roadway of Old London Bridge. It was presented to the church in 1709 by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Charles Duncombe. It was made by Langley Bradley, a clockmaker in Fenchurch Street, who had worked for Wren on many other projects, including the clock of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Lord Mayor’s sword rest dates from 1708.

Before he died in 1711, Duncombe commissioned an organ for the church by Abraham Jordan, father and son. The organ case is one of the finest examples of woodcarving by Grinling Gibbons’s school.

Canaletto drew Saint Magnus and old London Bridge as they appeared in the late 1740s. JMW Turner painted the church in the mid-1790s. The church was ‘repaired and beautified at a very considerable expense’ in 1825, when the east window was restored and the organ was rebuilt.

The Vestry House at the south-west of the church, replacing one built in the 1760s, may have been designed by Robert Smirke in the 1830s.

Saint Magnus ceased to be the gateway to London after 600 years when a new London Bridge opened further upstream in 1831 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Until 1831, London Bridge was aligned with Fish Street Hill, so the main entrance into the City from the south passed the west door of Saint Magnus on the north bank of the river, with about two-thirds of the bridge in the parish of Saint Magnus. Sir John Rennie’s new bridge opened further upstream in 1831, the old bridge was demolished, and after 600 years Saint Magnus ceased to be the gateway to London.

Canon Alexander McCaul (1799-1863), who was born in Dublin, was the Rector of Saint Magnus in 1850-1863. He was a missionary to Jews in Poland from 1821, and was appointed Professor of Hebrew and Rabbinical Literature at King’s College, London, in 1841. It is he who coined the term ‘Judaeo Christian’ in a letter on 17 October 1821.

McCaul’s son, Alexander Israel McCaul (1835-1899), was curate (1859-1863) and then rector (1863-1899). Another son, Joseph Benjamin McCaul (1827-1892) was also curate (1851-1854).

The threat of closing 19 City churches in 1920 introduced uncertainty about the church’s future, and the patron deferred filling the vacancy. However, the Revd Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton (1875-1929) was appointed rector in 1921, indicating the proposed demolition would not go ahead. His mother, Thomasina Gordon Shaw, was from Ballyoran, Co Down.

Saint Magnus the Martyr remains a beacon of the Anglo-Catholic tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The interior was restored by Martin Travers in 1924 in a neo-baroque style, reflecting the Anglo-Catholic style of Fynes-Clinton. The Lady Chapel was dedicated to the rector’s parents in 1925 and the other side chapel was dedicated to Christ the King. A statue of Saint Magnus of Orkney stands in the south aisle, and the church also has a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. A Russian Orthodox icon dates from 1908. The Stations of the Cross are by Robert Randall and Ashley Sands.

Fynes-Clinton held very strong Anglo-Catholic views, and generally said the Roman Mass in Latin. To a Protestant who had come to see Coverdale’s monument he is reported to have said: ‘We have just had a service in the language out of which he translated the Bible.’

Fynes-Clinton refounded the Fraternity of Our Lady de Salve Regina in 1922, erected a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham and arranged pilgrimages to the shrine, where he was one of the founding guardians.

He was General Secretary of the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union and its successor, the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association (1906-1920), and secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Eastern Churches Committee (1920-1924).

Fynes-Clinton was the first incumbent to hold lunchtime services for City workers. JA Kensit, leader of the Protestant Truth Society, stood up at the midday service on 1 March 1922 and protested against the style of worship. Saint Magnus was one of the churches that held special services before the opening of the second Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923.

The dedication to Saint Magnus of Orkney was confirmed by the Bishop of London in 1926, and a patronal festival was held on 16 April 1926.

A bomb hit London Bridge in 1940 during the Blitz and blew out all the windows and damaged the plasterwork and the roof of the north aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A bomb hit London Bridge in 1940 during the Blitz and blew out all the windows and damaged the plasterwork and the roof of the north aisle. The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950 and was repaired in 1951. It was re-opened in June 1951 by Bishop William Wand of London.

Fynes-Clinton died in 1959, and was succeeded in 1960 by Father Colin Gill, who was rector until he died in 1983. By the early 1960s, traffic congestion had become a problem and Lower Thames Street was widened over the next decade to form part of a new east-west transport artery. The setting of the church was further affected when a new London Bridge was built in 1967-1973.

After Father Michael Woodgate (Rector, 1984-1995), the presentation to the living was suspended until 2010. The Ven Ken Gibbons was Priest-in-Charge in 1997-2003. Since 2003, the Cardinal Rector is Father Philip Warner, previously priest-in-charge of Saint Mary’s Church, Belgrade.

Saint Magnus is the guild church of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and the Worshipful Company of Plumbers, Every other June, newly-elected wardens of the Fishmongers’ Company walk from Fishmongers’ Hall to Saint Magnus for an election service.

The vista from the Monument south to the River Thames, over the roof of Saint Magnus, is protected (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The vista from the Monument south to the River Thames, over the roof of Saint Magnus, is protected, although the South Bank of the river is now dominated by the Shard.

Saint Magnus is in the Diocese of London but is under the pastoral care of the Bishop of Fulham. Saint Magnus traditionally has a high standard in liturgical music and is the venue for many musical events. A new ring of 12 bells was installed in the tower in 2009.

The church remains a beacon of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The church is open for daily prayer and celebrates a rich and musical High Mass at 11 am each Sunday. Afterwards, the bells are often rung around 12:15 by the Guild of Saint Magnus.

Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge seen from the South Bank at Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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