24 February 2017

Saint Vedast, a church with a long history,
an unusual name, and a vibrant life

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London … the new glass doors by Bernard Merry allow the inside of the church to be seen from Foster Lane, even on a cold and dark evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

A full working day in London earlier this week [22 February 2017], taking part in a day-long meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) left few opportunities to continue my search for churches and interesting works of architecture I have yet to visit.

However, on my walk back from Southwark to Liverpool Street to catch the train to Stansted Airport on Wednesday, as the evening was turning to darkness, I found myself in Cheapside at Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London.

This church, standing close to the north-east corner of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, is noted for its small but lively baroque steeple, its secluded courtyard, its stained glass, and a richly-decorated ceiling. This is one of only a few city churches that are open seven days a week, and has a dynamic congregation. The church describes itself as ‘an Anglican church in the Catholic tradition … with a vibrant schedule of ecclesiastical, musical and social events.’

Famous figures associated with the church include John Browne, sergeant painter to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII, who was born in nearby Milk Street, and Robert Herrick the poet. Thomas Rotherham, who was rector of the parish from in 1463-1448, later became Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of King Edward IV.

The church is dedicated to Saint Vedast, and the alternative name Foster is simply an Anglicisation of the name Vaast by which the saint is known in continental Europe. This French saint is little known in Britain. He was Bishop of Arras in northern Gaul around the turn of the sixth century. Saint Vedast is known as Vedastus in Latin, Vaast in Norman, Waast in Walloon, and Gaston in French.

After decades of destruction in the region by invading tribes during the late Roman Empire, Saint Gaston helped to restore the Church and to convert Clovis, the Frankish king, who was baptised on Easter Eve 496. The saint was buried in Arras cathedral, and is remembered to this day for his charity, meekness and patience.

In England, his name was corrupted from Vaast, by way of Vastes, Fastes, Faster, Fauster and Forster to Foster, the name of the lane at the front of the church. This explains why the official name of the church is Saint Vedast-alias-Foster.

In the 12th century, Saint Vedast was venerated in particular by the Augustinians of Aroasia in the Diocese of Arras, who were founded in France in 1097. The Augustinians from Arras were probably responsible for the foundation of the few churches in England dedicated to Saint Vedast. The one and only other surviving church in England that is dedicated to him is Saint Vedast in Tathwell, Lincolnshire. A third parish in Norwich is remembered only in a street name. Later, Rathkeale Abbey in Co Limerick was founded in 1280 by Gilbert Hervey for the Augustinian Canons of the Order of Aroasia.

Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London has ‘a vibrant schedule of ecclesiastical, musical and social events’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tradition says Saint Vedast Church in London was established by 1170. It has been suggested that a small colony of French merchants from Arras settled here in the late 12th century, bringing with them the name of their local saint. For the rest of the 12th century it was under the jurisdiction of the Prior and Convent of Canterbury. Because of these links with Canterbury, Saint Vedast was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, making it one of the 13 ‘Peculiars’ of London.

The first church was probably quite small, but additions were made through the centuries. As it was enlarged, a chapel dedicated to Saint Dunstan was added in the 15th century, and other altars, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Nicholas, were added in the 16th century.

Stow in his Survey of London described Saint Vedast as ‘a fair church, lately rebuilt’ in 1603.

Although no complete or accurate account survives for this early church, evidence of its construction can still be seen in the external south wall. Evidence of earlier openings for doors and windows, as well as the mediaeval stonework, has been examined in archaeological surveys and reported in London Archaeologist.

In 1614, Saint Vedast was enlarged by 20 feet, thanks to a gift from the adjacent Saddlers’ Company, and ‘beautified.’ In 1635, the then Rector, the Revd James Batty, petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, for permission to set up a rail around the communion table as there are many ‘disorders and undecencies’ among the parishioners when they were receiving Holy Communion.

For his loyalty to King Charles I, Batty was ‘sequestered, plundered, forced to flee, and died’ in 1642. How the church may have suffered during the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century is not recorded. But the Cromwellians kept horses stabled in the chancel of Saint Paul’s Cathedral nearby, we can image that it suffered badly. The current Rectors’ Board lists the years between 1643 and 1661 as under Foulke Bellers, a ‘Commonwealth Intruder.’

On an initiative taken in the parish after the Restoration, the church was restored by 1662. Four years later, the Great Fire that swept through the City of London in September 1666 reached Saint Vedast on the third day. Afterwards, it was thought that although the roof, pews, pulpit and other fittings had been destroyed, the church could be repaired satisfactorily, and so it was omitted from the original list of 50 churches to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

However, the structural flaws had become so significant by the 1690s that rebuilding began. It was altered, enlarged and restored by the office of Sir Christopher Wren between 1695 and 1701. Only small parts of the older building that survived were incorporated in the new church. These included parts of the mediaeval fabric in the south wall that were revealed during cleaning in 1992-1993.

The three-tier spire of Saint Vedast may have been designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Apart from Wren, either Robert Hooke or Nicholas Hawksmoor were involved in this restoration work. The three-tier spire of the church, which is considered one of the most baroque of all the City church spires, was added in 1709-1712 at a cost of £2,958. It may have been designed by Hawksmoor, and correspondence between Hawksmoor and the churchwardens survives.

The master mason Edward Strong was responsible for the cherubs that grace the west front and bell tower, and for the dove in glory sculpture now situated at the east end of the south aisle.

The organ was originally intended for Saint Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange. It was built by Renatus Harris in 1731 and was installed in 1773.

Many more minor changes were carried out throughout the 18th century, and heating was first introduced in 1790 with open stoves that were replaced in 1807 by a double-fronted one.

The Revd Thomas Pelham Dale, who was the Rector of Saint Vedast from 1847 to 1882, was a former Fellow of Sidney Sussex College. In 1876, he fell foul of the Public Worship Regulations Act of 1874 when he was prosecuted for ‘ritualistic practices.’ Although he gave up these practices for a time, he was brought before a court in 1880 and was sent to jail in in Holloway.

The greatest change to the church in the 19th century was in the windows. A square headed window was removed in 1848 from the east end, along with the Dove in Glory sculpture by Strong above it. Twelve new stained glass windows were introduced in 1884, making the church much darker. Shortly afterwards, internal changes were made to the pews, screens, pulpit and altar rails.

The interior of Saint Vedast was reordered in collegiate style by the architect Stephen Dykes Bower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1919, Saint Vedast was one of 19 City churches selected for demolition by the Diocese of London’s City of London Churches Committee. The plan was to sell off the land and use the money to build churches in the north-west suburbs. The church, measuring only 23 yards by 17 yards, would perhaps not have provided a fortune, especially as it was hoped that the tower would be kept.

The church was destroyed internally a second time on the night of Sunday 29 December 1940 by firebombs during the London Blitz. Saint Vedast was gutted and left a burnt-out shell, when the roof, pews, pulpit and fittings were all ruined.

Sir Hugh Casson proposed leaving the church ruins and several other ruins in London as war memorials, but these ideas were never put in place. After World War II, the city parishes were reorganised and St Vedast-alias-Foster was united with three other former parishes – Saint Alban, Wood Street, Saint Anne and St Agnes, Saint Lawrence Jewry, Saint Mary Aldermanbury, Saint Michael-le-Querne, Saint Matthew, Friday Street, Saint Peter Chepe, Saint Olave, Silver Street, Saint Michael, Wood Street, Saint Mary Staining, Saint Mary Magdalene, Milk Street, Saint John Zachary, and Saint Michael, Bassishaw – of which only the buildings of Saint Lawrence Jewry and Saint Anne and Saint Agnes remain, along with the tower of Saint Alban, Wood Street.

As the structure of the church and its tower were deemed to be safe, plans to restore the church began in 1947, although the restoration work only started in 1953, under the auspices of the new Rector, Canon Charles Bernard Mortlock (1888-1967), Canon Treasurer of Chichester Cathedral.

Mortlock, who had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, was a former army chaplain, an authority on church architecture and had lectured in Ecclesiastical Art at King’s College in London while he was the curate at Saint Mary le Strand. He was the originator of the ‘Peterborough’ column in the Daily Telegraph, contributed to the Church Times, Punch and the Dictionary of National Biography, and was briefly an assistant editor of Country Life.

In 1947, the Dean and Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral offered Charles Mortlock the living, which included 12 other City parishes whose churches had variously been lost in the Great Fire of 1666, demolished in the 19th century, or had completely perished in the Blitz – although there was only one stipend.

He faced three challenges: to build up a congregation, which he commenced using Saint Sepulchre’s, Holborn, to rebuild Saint Vedast’s and to build a rectory. During this stage, he had to ‘live out,’ in Warwick Square, Kensington.

Evening lights in Saint Vedast, which looks like a perfect Cambridge or Oxford college chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The post-war restoration within the old walls of the church was overseen by the Parochial Church Council, whose members included the Poet Laureate and conservation champion Sir John Betjeman and the great organ builder Noel Mander.

The architect was Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-1991), best known for his work at Westminster Abbey, Bury St Edmunds Cathedral and the Chapel at Lancing College. In his 1994 obituary in The Times, Stephen James described Dykes Bower as a devoted and determined champion of the Gothic Revival style through its most unpopular years. He rejected modernism and continued traditions from the late Victorian period, emphasising fine detail, craftsmanship and bright colour.

He re-ordered the interior of Saint Vedast in a collegiate chapel style with seating down each side, so that it looks like a perfect Cambridge or Oxford college chapel. By making an almost imperceptible taper in the pews and floor pattern, he gave a false perspective towards the altar, so that the church looks longer than it is. He squared the old walls that were not rectangular in plan so that the altar now faces the nave squarely. These changes allowed a strong black and white patterned terrazzo floor to be laid.

Dykes Bower screened off the south aisle, where he placed a side chapel, Bernard Merry designed the aumbry by the south chapel altar. Dykes Bower also designed the richly decorated 17th-century-style plaster ceiling was built to a pattern near that of the Wren original and was finished with gold leaf and aluminium, donated by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. In his work, he reused fittings from other churches destroyed in the City, including the richly carved pulpit from All Hallows’ Church, Bread Street, and the font and cover from Saint Anne and Saint Agnes in Gresham Street.

Dykes Bower commissioned the Whitefriars glass windows in the east end of the church, showing scenes from the life of Saint Vedast. These windows are largely opaque to hide tall buildings behind and to disguise the fact that the east wall is a wedge in plan. The work was completed in 1962, and some of the works and legends of Saint Vedast are celebrated in these windows.

The new glass doors by Bernard Merry are inscribed with the words of ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.’ They allow the inside of the church to be seen from Foster Lane, even on a cold and dark evening like last Wednesday.

Dykes Bower also built the small parish room north-east of the church in 17th-century style and the Georgian-style rectory, beside the church, on Foster Lane in 1959. An adjacent plot along Foster Lane to the north, formerly the location of the Fountain pub, was bought as the site for this new rectory, and a small secluded courtyard was built between this Rectory and the former parish school, which is now the parish hall.

The Grinling Gibbons font in Saint Vedast-alias-Foster was recovered by Noel Mander from Saint Anne and Saint Agnes, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Noel Mander, who soon became a churchwarden, rebuilt the organ having found a fine but derelict a fine 18th century organ that he moved from a church in Fulham and restored. Mander also found the disused Wren pulpit with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, originally in All Hallows’ Church, recovered the Grinling Gibbons font from Saint Anne and Saint Agnes, and sourced the reredos from Saint Christopher-le-Stock Parish Church in Threadneedle Street, which was demolished in 1781. The reredos had been taken by Ernest Geldart to Great Burstead in Essex, but now stands behind the altar in Saint Vedast and is inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and The Creed.

The church also has a set of six bells, cast in 1960, that many regard as among the finest sounding six in London.

The church’s Fountain Courtyard features part of a Roman floor found under Saint Matthew, Friday Street, and a Sumerian stone or baked brick which is inscribed with cuneiform writing. This stone , which comes from a Zigurrat built at Kalhu in the 9th century BC. It was presented to Canon Mortlock by the Syrian Government to mark his work with the novelist Agatha Christie and her husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, and was found during his 1950-1965 dig on the site on the borders of modern Syria and Kurdish Iraq. The stone bears the name of Shalmaneser who reigned from 858 to 834 BC. Kalhu is named in the Bible as Calah and is now known as Nimrud.

Mortlock was also a friend of the sculptors Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), whose statue of the former rector stands in the yard behind Saint Vedast. Epstein’s great sculptures in Anglican churches and cathedrals include his ‘Saint Michael’ (1958) at Coventry Cathedral, and his ‘Christ in Majesty’ (1954–55) above the nave in Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. On the Sunday after Epstein’s death, Mortlock stepped down into the middle of Saint Vedast’s and asked the congregation to ‘pray for the soul of Jacob Epstein, who died unbaptised.’ Later, he delivered the eulogy at Epstein’s funeral.

Mortlock’s later successors at Saint Vedast included Canon Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1974-1986), former Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and the Revd Dr Alan McCormack (2007-2015), former chaplain of Trinity College Dublin. John Betjeman saw Gonville as something of a saint and referred to him as ‘the martyred Dean of Johannesburg.’ As a parish without resident parishioners, Saint Vedast gave him space to concentrate on writing and spiritual direction from 1974 until he retired at Christmas 1986.

The Saddlers’ Company, whose Hall courtyard garden abuts the church wall to the east, is associated with Saint Vedast’s, and Saint Vedast’s is also linked with Saint Botolph without Bishopsgate.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The rectory was listed as a Grade II building on 15 July 1998.

The church is open on weekdays between 8 am and 5.30 pm, on Saturdays between 11 am and 4 pm, and on Sundays.

The reredos in Saint Vedast came from Saint Christopher-le-Stock Parish Church in Threadneedle Street, which was demolished in 1781 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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