31 January 2020

‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by’

Charles I, executed on 30 January 1649 and remembered as king and martyr … a copy of the triptych by Sir Anthony van Dyck in the High House, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I do not particularly want to sit in this evening, watching the countdown to Brexit. Instead, two of us are going to dinner, although there is little to celebrate this evening, and I hope all the television commentaries and discussions are over by the time I get back to Askeaton.

Many recent cartoons compared Brexit to a man sawing off the branch of the tree he is sitting on, or sawing off his own arm in order to stop shaking the arm of an old friend.

I am not a royalist, by any means. But I cannot fail to notice the coincidence that Brexit is ‘being done’ the day after the Church of England recalls the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649.

I was invited last year to take part in the commemorations in Tamworth marking the 400th anniversary of the visit to the town of James I and his son the future Charles I. My talk in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, on the Comberford Family and the Moat House in Tamworth [9 May 2019], was organised by Tamworth and District Civic Society.

During that visit in 1619, the King stayed with the Ferrers family at Tamworth Castle while the Prince of Wales was a guest of the Comberford family at their town house, the Moat House on Lichfield Street.

On that occasion, the Comberford family had the long hall or gallery in the Moat House redecorated with heraldic illustrations of the family tree, showing how the family and the future king shared a common ancestry, albeit a very distant one.

Perhaps, in some ways, Charles I personalised the new unity that was being embodied in a new kingdom: he was seen in England as the next king, yet he had been born in Dumferline in Scotland. In another way, he also embodied the new, outward-looking vision of a new country claiming its place in Europe: his mother was from Denmark, he would marry a French princess, his sons would marry Portuguese and Italian princesses, his daughters would marry French and Dutch princes, his sister became Queen of Bohemia, a miniscule European Union brought together in one family.

There is no doubt that Charles I was a bumbling and incompetent monarch. However, his political genealogy links him more to the ‘one nation’ Tories who are Europhiles, while Johnson and Farage, who although appearing cavalier in their approach to politics are in truth more like the Roundheads, willing to slash and burn anything in the name of a parliament and people they truly despise.

Indeed, who could not fail to compare Dominic Cummings with Oliver Cromwell?

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … redecorated by the Comberford family for the visit of the future Charles I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have always been comfortable with the English part of my identity. In her novel Hannie Bennet’s Winter Marriage (2000), Kerry Hardie includes a number of key characters who are members of a Comerford family in West Waterford and the south-east, including John Comerford who has given recognisably Irish names to his daughters. ‘Bloody stupid name,’ says one of the figures in the book. ‘Don’t know what's come over people. Bloody stupid fashion for Impossible Blood Irish Names. Surprised at the man. Nothing Irish about Comerford. Good Norman name, papist or no.’

In an Irish context, Comerford is unmistakably English in its origins. I was always comfortable with that part of the family story, and was merely following in my great-grandfather’s footsteps when I went in search of my family roots and found myself in Lichfield and Tamworth in my teens.

My Christian faith and my Anglican spirituality as I now understand them and express them were shaped as a teenager in Lichfield, in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital and in Lichfield Cathedral. I still remember the yearning I had for a full-time staff position with the Lichfield Mercury or the Tamworth Herald. Instead, I went to the Wexford People.

I only ever travel on an Irish passport (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I am in England every month or second month. Although I only ever travel on an Irish passport, I have never been a foreigner in England. I feel at home in Lichfield in the way I feel at home in Wexford; I am spiritually at home in Lichfield Cathedral; in moments of insomnia, I can imagine being able to walk through the streets of Lichfield, or Cambridge for that matter, with my eyes blindfolded.

There have been many times over half a century or more that I have wondered like Robert Frost, had I taken the other road where would I be today:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

At times the variations in the calendars of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland catch me by surprise, and I recall how I was not prepared recently during a residential conference for the commemoration at the Eucharist of ‘Charles King and Martyr, 1649.’

Charles, King and Martyr, or Charles I, was king from 1625 until his execution on 30 January 1649, and his feast day in Anglican calendars falls on 30 January, the anniversary of his execution.

This observance was one of several ‘state services’ removed from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland in 1859. But there are churches and parishes dedicated to Charles the Martyr in England, and the former chapel in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, was also dedicated to him.

King Charles is still named in the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship and is commemorated at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, Pusey House in Oxford, and by some Anglo-Catholic societies, including the Society of King Charles the Martyr founded in 1894.

King Charles is regarded by many as a martyr because, it is said, he was offered his life if he would abandon the historic episcopacy in the Church of England. It is said he refused, however, believing that the Church of England was truly Catholic and should maintain the Catholic episcopate.

Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, wrote, ‘Had Charles been willing to abandon the Church and give up episcopacy, he might have saved his throne and his life. But on this point Charles stood firm: for this he died, and by dying saved it for the future.’

The political reality, though, is that Charles had already made an Engagement with the Scots to introduce Presbyterianism in England for three years in return for the aid of Scots forces in the Second English Civil War.

However, High Church Anglicans and royalists fashioned an image of martyrdom, and after the Restoration he was added to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar by a decision at the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1660.

The red letter days or state commemorations in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer included the Gunpowder Plot, the birth and restoration of Charles II, and the execution of Charles I. These were marked with special services and special sermons.

The State Services were omitted from the Book of Common Prayer by royal and parliamentary authority in 1859, but without the consent of Convocation. Later, the Anglican writer and liturgist Vernon Staley, Provost of Inverness Cathedral, would describe the deletion as ultra vires and ‘a distinct violation of the compact between Church and Realm, as set forth in the Act of Uniformity which imposed the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.’

Of the three commemorations, only that of King Charles I was restored in the calendar in the Alternative Service Book in 1980, although not as a Red Letter Day. A new collect was composed for Common Worship in 2000.


King of kings and Lord of lords,
whose faithful servant Charles
prayed for those who persecuted him
and died in the living hope of your eternal kingdom:
grant us by your grace so to follow his example
that we may love and bless our enemies,
through the intercession of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

This evening, however, I am reminded of the lines of John Donne, poet, priest and Caroline divine, that are worth re-reading of ‘Brexit’:

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.
— John Donne, Meditation XVII

‘A depiction of King Charles I in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Like me, perhaps many people tonight are also thinking of Robert Frost’s poem. What might have been had the vote been 48-52 rather than 52-48?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Services in February 2020 in
Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin
Group of Parishes

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window by the Harrow Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan's Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

2 February 2020 (The Presentation of Christ in the Temple):

9.30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

11.30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Morning Prayer 2.


Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 14-18.


193, In his temple now behold him (CD 12)
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten (CD supplied)
691, Faithful Vigil ended (CD 39)

Tarbert only: Canticle 9 Nunc Dimittis (CD 42, # 9).

Sunday 9 February (The Third Sunday before Lent):

9.30 a.m.: Castletown Church, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

11.30 a.m.: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Morning Prayer


Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112: 1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5: 13-20.


712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord (CD 40)
601, Teach me, my God and King (CD 34)
570, Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning (CD 33)

Sunday 16 February (The Second Sunday before Lent):

9.30 a.m.: Askeaton, Morning Prayer

11.30 a.m.: Tarbert, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)


Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3; Psalm 136 or Psalm 136: 1-9 (23-26); Romans 8: 18-25; Matthew 6: 25-34.


58, Morning has broken (CD 4)
596, Seek ye first the kingdom of God (CD 34)
365, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation (CD 22)

Sunday 23 February (The Sunday before Lent):

9.30 a.m.: Castletown Church, Morning Prayer

11.30 a.m.: Rathkeale, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)


Exodus 24: 12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; II Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9.


52, Christ whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
325, Be still, for the presence of the Lord (CD 20)
634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36)

Wednesday 26 February (Ash Wednesday):

11 a.m.: Ash Wednesday Eucharist, with optional ashing, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton


Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-18; II Corinthians 5: 20b to 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21.


535: Judge eternal, throned in splendour.
586: Just as I am, thine own to be.

Followed by tea/coffee in the Rectory.

Some dates in February:

11 February: Friends of the Hunt Museum, lunchtime lecture, Canon Patrick Comerford, ‘Unravelling the Limerick and Sephardic Roots of JD Bernal,’ the Hunt Museum, Limerick.

19 February: 8 p.m., Askeaton Civic Trust, Public Lecture, Canon Patrick Comerford, ‘Saint Mary’s Church: priests and people,’ Askeaton Tourist Office.

25 February: 8 p.m., Adare and District Historical Society, Public Lecture, Canon Patrick Comerford, ‘AWN Pugin and the Gothic Revival,’ Dunraven Arms Hotel.

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

30 January 2020

The lost Sephardic legacy
of the mediaeval Jewish
community in Valencia

The large prominent Star of David above the door in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral … were Jewish craftsmen at work here? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Two large, prominent Stars of David – one in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral, the other on the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas – and some street names in the city, set me asking questions this week about the Jews of Valencia, their history and their fate.

Valencia was once home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula. The date of the first Jewish settlement in Valencia is unknown, but there was already an important Jewish community there during the Muslim period.

A fragment of a Hebrew marriage contract from Valencia, dating from the second half of the 11th century, was discovered in the Cairo Genizah. The Andalusian poet and Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, also known as Avicebron or Avencebrol, was born in Malaga ca 1021 and died in Valencia ca 1055-1058.

A Jewish emissary represented King Alfonso VI of Castile in Valencia from 1086. When El Cid captured Valencia briefly in 1095, the treaty stipulated that Jews were forbidden to acquire Muslim prisoners of war, Jews who molested Muslims would be prosecuted, and Jews would not exercise authority over Muslims and their property.

When James I of Aragon retook Valencia and entered the city on 9 October 1238, the Jews of Valencia went out to meet him with their rabbis and delegates and presented him with a Torah scroll as a token of homage. At the time, estimates say, there were 162 Jewish families in Valencia, forming 6.5% of the total population.

As a reward for the services the Jews of the Valencia gave him at the conquest of the city, James I granted some houses that once belonged to the Moors to Jewish court favourites. The new Jewish settlers included 104 Jews who received houses and estates in Valencia and the vicinity. They included were several of the king’s interpreters, including Baḥya and Solomon Alconstantini, and Solomon Bonafos, who was Treasurer of Catalonia.

The Jewish quarter of Valencia was centred on the area around the Church of Santa Catalina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In 1239, James I granted the Jews of Valencia the same privilege as had been granted to the Jews of Saragossa. These included the right to have lawsuits between them judged according to Jewish law; the king would adjudicate in matters of criminal law; in lawsuits between Christians and Jews, both Jewish and Christian witnesses were required; the form of the Jewish oath was established; and Jewish prisoners were released to be in their homes on the Sabbath.

King James also assigned the Jews a large quarter in 1239, on the east side of the Rahbat el-qadi and in its vicinity, on the site where the Church of Santa Catalina stands today. Five years later, James I granted the Jews the whole quarter in 1244. A special gate, known as the Jews’ Gate, led to the Jewish cemetery.

In 1261 James I confirmed the right of the Jews to acquire farming and urban land from all, including members of the nobility and the clergy – an unusual right in those days. One of these owners of land, cattle, and sheep was Don Judah de la Cavalleria, who was appointed bailiff of Valencia after 1263.

The Juderia extended from the wall Aben Xemi to 'Abd al-Malik, from there to the Puerto d’Exarea or Puerto de la Ley (‘Gate of the Law’), and from that gate to the ‘horno de Aben Nulid’ and to the wall of Ibrahim al-Valenci. The boundaries were ratified in 1273, and the community had a wide degree of autonomy.

When a Muslim revolt in southern Valencia was suppressed in 1277, Moses Alconstantini was appointed bailiff. The Jews appointed to administrative offices included Muça de Portella, Aaron ibn Yaḥya and Joseph Ravaya.

However, Jewish autonomy in Valencia was short-lived. Pedro III imposed a new levy on the Jews of Valencia in 1282 to cover the expenses of his wars. The sum was collected by coercive and oppressive methods. Rabbi and Solomon ben Abraham Adret (Rashba), then rabbi of the community, pointed out that the loans and contributions were destroying the foundations of the community.

Moses Alconstantini was deposed in 1283. The properties of the Ravaya family were confiscated after the death of Joseph, and Moses Ravaya was also dismissed. Anti-Jewish policies were introduced to Valencia: the laws on loans and interest and the regulations on oaths were reintroduced; Jews were forbidden to slaughter their animals in the city’s abattoirs; and Jews were ordered to wear a ‘cloak,’ as was the custom in Barcelona.

At the close of the 13th century, about 250 taxpaying families were living in Valencia. They spoke Arabic and their names have been recorded.

But by the end of the 13th century, Jewish merchants had also helped to make Valencia an important centre of maritime trade, buying raw materials, wool, wool products and grain, and exported them through Valencia across the Mediterranean. They traded with Majorca, North Africa, and most of the Mediterranean ports, they bought raw materials, wool, wool products, and grain, and exported them through Valencia to other Mediterranean ports.

In addition, by 1315 there were 43 Jewish brokers in Valencia. Other Jews in the city were engaged in crafts such as tanning and shoemaking and often bore the name of their craft; still others sold agricultural produce and maintained commercial ties with other Jewish merchants in Spain.

The community administration in Valencia was similar to other large communities in Aragon. The community was headed by a council of 30 members, among whom five were chosen as muqaddimūn or leaders by lot. The community was supervised by the bailiff-general, the representative of the king. A Jewish mustaçaf or administrator supervised the market and its trade.

Many problems arose in the Valencia community were referred to Rabbi Solomon Adret and Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet. Pedro IV ordered the bailiff to arbitrate in community disputes about tax collecting in 1348. The Jews of Valencia suffered during the Black Death in 1348, and the persecutions that broke out in the town in its wake.

The large prominent Star of David above the door in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral … were Jewish craftsmen at work here? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Gothic rose window in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral was once known as ‘the Salomo’ because of its elaborate structure and because its principal symbol is the Star of David. It was completed in 1354, but the master builder who was responsible for the window and door below it remains unknown. Some say this is because the artists worked only for God’s glory.

Other legends claim the Star of David was the work of anonymous Jewish craftsmen or that window was paid for partly by local Jewish merchants, although many medieval cathedrals and churches display the star, including the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas in Valencia, and churches or cathedrals in Burgos, Florence, Anagni Aquileia, Orvieto, Brandenburg Stendal and Hanover.

The imposition of new regulations in 1364, based on the regulations of the Jewish community in Barcelona, was a further attempt to reconsolidate the authority of the community. The prohibitions within the community included one against gambling, for money or real estate, with Christians.

Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (Ribash) was appointed rabbi of Valencia, his native city, in 1385, and held office until the destruction of the community in 1391. He organised activities in Valencia to restore the importance of Torah study and piety.

With the growth of the Jewish population in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Jewish quarter was enlarged in 1390, when the Juderia or ghetto was first surrounded by a high wall and was provided with three gates that were closed at night.

A year later, however, the Jewish community of Valencia was attacked on 9 July 1391 and destroyed by rioters who arrived from Castile and soldiers stationed in the port who were due to sail for Sicily. In the attack, 250 Jews were murdered, while the remainder agreed to convert to Christianity or found refuge in the houses of the townspeople. Many of the synagogues were destroyed and others were converted into churches.

Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet was among those who fled. Those who converted included distinguished figures such as Don Samuel Abravalia, who took the name Alfonso Fernández de Villanova; the king’s physician, Omar Tahuel, who was one of the muqaddimūn, and his relative Isaac Tahuel. Some documents suggest Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet was among those who were forcibly converted before they fled.

On 16 July, the king ordered that Jews who had hidden in the houses of Christians should not be compelled to convert but should be taken to a place of safety. He also prohibited the conversion of synagogues into churches.

However, on 22 September, the king called for a list of the property owned by Jews who had been killed so this property could be transferred to him. In November, a pardon was granted to the Christian inhabitants of Valencia for the attack. None of the synagogues of Valencia survived the 1391 massacres.

After the destruction of the Jewish community of Valencia in 1391, Ḥasdai Crescas estimated its population to have been 1,000 ‘houseowners.’

in 1393, the king and the queen entrusted Ḥasdai Crescas and the delegates of the communities of Saragossa and Calatayud with the task of choosing 60 families who would settle in Barcelona and Valencia. A year later, John I ordered that the Jewish cemetery should be restored to the Jews of Valencia.

A small community may have come together again and Jews were living in Valencia by the close of the 14th century. But the community did not recover and nothing of the Jewish quarter survived the urban development that began in 1412, although Vicente Ferrer is known to have tried to convert Jews in Valencia in 1413.

Yet even after the destruction of the Jewish community of Valencia, the city remained a centre of Jewish trade, and Alfonso V issued letters of protection to Jewish merchants from the Barbary coast who came to trade in Valencia.

Twelve larger-than-life statues by Jacopo Bertesi in the Church of Santos Juanes represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Files survive naming conversos who were sentenced by the Inquisition of Valencia in the 1460s. The conversos had an overwhelming desire to leave Spain, and many made their way to Valencia to flee. When apprehended, they were only condemned to expulsion or fined.

The Papal Inquisition found in 1464 that many Conversos had sailed from Valencia to the East Mediterranean in order to return to Judaism.

When the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1482, Cristóbal Gualves was appointed inquisitor. The Conversos of Valencia complained to the Pope about his cruelty and his acceptance of invalid testimonies. Pope Sixtus IV removed Gualves from his position in Valencia, although King Ferdinand strongly protested against his intervention.

King Ferdinand cancelled the permission given to the Jews for prolonged stays in Valencia in 1483, and abolished the privilege exempting Jews in Valencia from wearing a distinctive badge.

Investigators of heresy were appointed in Valencia in 1484 to act on instructions from Torquemada. But they had hesitations about their duties, and up to 1492 they issued ‘orders of grace’ three times, a rare occurrence in those days. This may also have been because many Conversos had been hidden in the houses of noblemen and Muslims throughout the kingdom of Valencia.

Up to June 1488, 983 Jewish men and women in Valencia had joined the Church, while another 100 people were burned at the stake. At their trials, they were accused of acts against the Christian religion, such as having struck crucifixes.

The trial records reveal the adherence of many Conversos to the practice of Judaism. Many were found with prayer books in the Valencian dialect, and many knew their Jewish prayers.

With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Valencia became one of the principal ports of embarkation for the East Mediterranean, although we do not know how many Jews left through Valencia. Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel and his family left from Valencia in June 1492 with special permission from King Ferdinand.

The Jewish market, the zoco, was just outside the Jewish quarter, in Gallinas Street, at the beginning of Mar Street. The Jewish cemetery was outside the Jewish quarter but within the walls of the city. At the expulsion, it was given by Ferdinand to the Dominicans. Today this is the site of El Corte Inglés department store.

Carrer del Convent de Jerusalen, the Street of the Convent of Jerusalem … the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1482 and began working in Valencia in 1484 on the instructions by Torquemada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Inquisition’s regional tribunal in Valencia continued to function until the Inquisition was abolished in the 19th century.

Now, more than five centuries after the expulsions, Valencia has a vital and pluralistic Jewish presence that sponsors education, holidays, events and worship, and there are several synagogues in Valencia, including the ‎Chabad Lubavitch Valencia.

Valencia also has one of Europe’s most modern Jewish communities: the Kehillat Aviv Valencia, a 125-member Masorti-affiliated congregation was founded by an assortment of Jewish newcomers.

The Jewish quarter of Valencia was one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, but nothing of it has survived, although documents have shown us where it was located. But virtually all of the city’s Sephardic legacy has been lost and cannot be seen today.

The large Star of David window above the west door in of the Church of San Nicolas … were Jewish craftsmen at work here too? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In search of diversity
and tales of expulsion in
the streets of Valencia

Calle de la Bolseria or Carrer de la Bosseria? Street signs in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In the heart of Valencia, many of the first churches in the city were built in the 13th century on the site of former mosques, including the Cathedral, Santos Juanes and San Nicolás de Bari.

The Moorish town was conquered by King James of Aragon and his Christian armies in 1238, and 12 mosques were soon converted into or replaced by ‘royal parishes’ or ‘foundational parishes’ in Valencia.

Of course, some of these mosques had stood on the sites of earlier Visigothic, Arian churches, which in turn stood on the sites of former Roman temples.

The Boatella neighbourhood, once a working class area outside the town walls, housed some of the Morisco population, former Muslims and their descendants who were forced to convert to Christianity under threat of death after the open practice of Islam was outlawed.

The Moriscos were descendants of Spain’s Muslim population that had converted to Christianity by coercion or by royal decree in the early 16th century. The Moors who remained Muslims were known as Mudéjar.

The bell tower of Santa Catalina Church is the rebuilt minaret of a mosque that stood on this site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Santa Catalina Church in the heart of the old city is yet another example of a church that was turned into a mosque in the 13th century. Most of the interior was rebuilt after a fire in 1548, but the imposing bell tower, with an hexagonal base and five levels, was once the minaret, rebuilt in Baroque style in 1688-1705 to designs by Juan Bautista Viñes.

Moriscos were often a source of cheap labour for the local nobility in Valencia, and old Christian communities suspected the Moriscos of not being sincere in their Christianity. Despite this, many Moriscos were devout in their Christian faith, and many even became Christian martyrs, killed by Muslims for refusing to renounce their Christianity.

When Philip II issued a decree on 9 May 1609 expelling the Moors from Spain, some 300,000 Moriscos or Spaniards of Muslim descent or religion, were expelled from Spain. Between 1609 and 1614, the Crown systematically expelled Moriscos through a number of decrees.

In Valencia, Muslims made up the bulk of the peasantry and there was high ethnic tension with the Christian, Catalan-speaking middle class. At least 120,000 people were deported from Valencia to North Africa from the ports of Dénia, Alicante, Grao de Valencia, Moncófar and Vinaroz.

As a last insult, they were forced to pay their own fares. At times, small revolts broke out on the ships, and some exiles were slain by crew members. When they arrived in North Africa, Moriscos were at times attacked as invaders by local people.

In regions such as Alicante, the expulsions involved 90% of the population. Landowners found it difficult to find Christians to settle in vast, depopulated areas, to work on the land and in the fields, and to repopulate virtually abandoned villages. The expulsions brought about economic collapse and depopulation of much of the territory and was aggravated by the bubonic plague that hit Valencia only a few years later.

The majority of people expelled permanently finally settled in the Maghreb or on the Barbary coast. Between 30,000 to 75,000 people eventually returned to Spain, and those who avoided expulsion or who managed to return merged into the dominant culture.

By the end of the 18th century, indigenous Islam and Morisco identity were considered to have been extinguished in Spain. The Muslim minority in Valencia today comes from very different sources.

The Muslim presence in Valencia today has no connection with the Morisco and Mudéjar people of the past (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

But another form of diversity is visible on the streets of Valencia today.

Every street in Valencia, it seems, has two names. I was staying in the Senator Parque Hotel on the edge of Russafa, an area where the streets are lined with restaurants, cafés and bars, and it is the ideal area to go for dinner in the evening.

But Russafa is also known as Ruzafa. And as I went in search of the former Morisco districts of Valencia, I found two street names on almost every corner: was I on Calle de la Bolseria or on Carrer de la Bosseria?

Valencia has two official languages: the majority of people speak Spanish, known as both Español and Castellano, which is also a compulsory language in schools; but many people prefer to speak Valenciano, a romance language that is virtually the same as Catalan, and constitutionally recognised as the regional language.

Studies show the several dialects of Valencian belong to the Western group of Catalan dialects, and there is a political debate in Valencia about whether Valenciano is a dialect or a separate language that is different from Catalan.

Valencian is regulated by the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua, by means of the Castelló rules, which adapt the Catalan orthography to the Valencian idiosyncrasies. Because Valencian was not officially recognised for a long time, the number of speakers has dropped steadily, and the influence of Spanish has led to the adoption of a large number of loanwords.

There is a constant to and fro in naming streets, as councils change from party to party, and each insists on naming streets in Castellano or Valenciano, and sometimes the two names remain on a street corner or on facing sides of the same street.

In my search for stories of historical pluralism and diversity in the churches and on the streets of Valencia, the large Stars of David in the windows of both the Cathedral and the Church of San Nicolás de Bari also led me to ask what happened to the Jewish community of Valencia. But that’s another story for later.

Carrer de la Bosseria or Calle de la Bolseria? Street signs in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

29 January 2020

San Nicolás: a Gothic and
Baroque jewel that is the
‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia and a ‘Baroque jewel’.

The church is one of the finest examples of a Gothic church with baroque decorations. Frescoes and plasterwork cover the entire interior, from small pilasters in chapels, to the walls, apse and vaulted ceiling, creating a visual and colour spectacle.

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Valencia is tucked quite nicely into the streets of the old town. It is almost hidden from view in a laneway off Calle Caballeros, adding to the surprise awaiting visitors.

The church stands on the site of a Roman temple and a later mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church stands on the site of a Roman-Hispanic temple that later became a mosque with the Muslim conquest of the area. The church was founded in the 13th century as one of the first 12 parish churches in the city following the reconquest of Valencia by King James I in 1238, and from an early stage was associated with the Dominicans.

The church was built ca 1242, with a layout that includes a single-nave with six side chapels between the buttresses and polygonal apse.

The church was remodelled on the initiative of the Borja family in the Gothic style between 1419 and 1455, with the Gothic rib vault contracting in the central nave. The refurbishments include a rose window alluding to a miracle of Saint Nicholas.

Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458), also known as Alfonso de Borja, was the Rector of the Church of San Nicolás from 1418 and Bishop of Valencia from 1429 before becoming Pope in 1455. A plaque nearby recalls the prediction of Saint Vincent Ferrer that Alfonso de Borja would become Pope and would then canonise him.

The interior of the church was completed between 1690 and 1693 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The interior of the church was completed between 1690 and 1693, and was decorated in the baroque style by Juan Pérez Castiel.

The interior was filled with and frescoes depicting the lives and miracles of the two patrons of the church, Saint Nicholas of Bari and Saint Peter of Verona or San Pedro Mártir (Saint Peter Martyr).

Saint Nicholas of Bari or Myra is the guardian of children and the source of the stories about Santa Claus. Saint Peter Martyr was a 13th century Dominican friar from Verona who was martyred in 1252, and is remembered for miracle involving a dying child in his church.

The frescoes were designed by Antonio Palomino in 1694 and completed ten years later by his pupil Dionis Vidal in 1704.

The reliquary of Saint Nicholas in front of the High Altar(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The stories from the life of Saint Nicholas told in the frescoes include the healing of an old woman, the miracle of the three young women, the restoration of a dying child, the rescue of three children and an innkeeper’s conversion, the humiliation of Arius at the Council of Nicaea, and the death of Saint Nicholas.

The frescoes also include a self-portrait of Antonio Palomino and Dionis Vidal on the west wall. The window on the West Wall is in the shape of the Star of David.

The 18th century reliquary at the High Altar contains a relic of Saint Nicholas.

The altarpieces in the side chapels include works by Juan de Juanes, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa and José Vergara Gimeno.

The baroque organ dates from the 18th century.

The gate overlooking the square of San Nicolás is a neo-gothic 19th-century recreation.

The baroque organ dates from the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Church has been restored recently, revealing a pictorial display that experts have called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia. The restorations were overseen by the former director of the restorations at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The restoration has been classified as ‘the most important architectural and pictorial-ornamental work ever carried out anywhere in the world due to the scale of the work and the techniques used.’

The project was completed in collaboration with the Faculty for Heritage Restoration at the Technical University of Valencia (UPV) and with support from the Hortensia Herrero Foundation.

The church still preserves some traditional devotions, including the famous ‘Walking on Saint Nicholas’ or Devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, patron of lost causes, on Mondays. This means the church is closed to tourist visits on Mondays, but it is open Tuesday to Friday from 10:30 to 19:30, and on Saturdays from 10:30 to 18:30. Tours are available in English and Spanish.

The self-portrait of Antonio Palomino and his pupil Dionis Vidal on the west wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Santos Juanes, two saints
in a church in the market
place in Valencia

The square exterior of the apse of Santos Juanes facing the Plaza del Mercado (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In the heart of Valencia, Santos Juanes is a Roman Catholic church in the Mercat neighbourhood. The church is also known as the Real Parroquia de los Santos Juanes (the Royal Parish of the Saint Johns) or San Juan del Mercado (Saint John of the Market) because it is beside the city Central Market and faces the Llotja de la Seda or Silk Exchange.

The two Saint Johns named in the dedication are Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.

A church was first built here on the site of a former mosque in 1240, two years after the conquest of Valencia by King James and his Christian armies. This follows a pattern found throughout the city, and the church is one of the so-called ‘foundational parishes’ in Valencia.

Inside the Church of the two Saints John, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The first church was built in the Gothic style. However, it was damaged by fire later in the 14th century and was rebuilt.

Major fires in 1552, 1592 and 1603 led to further reconstruction, commissioned by the Archbishop and Viceroy Juan de Ribera. This church was rebuilt in an exuberant Baroque style and completed in the year 1700. Today, the church is an interesting blend of architectural styles, from a Gothic nave to Baroque sculptures.

The church stood in the Boatella neighbourhood, once a working class area outside the town walls, that housed some of the Morisco population, former Muslims and their descendants forced to convert to Christianity under threat of death after the open practice of Islam was outlawed.

Inside the Church of the two Saints John, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The main façade of the church retains a walled-up oculus of a rose window from the older church. This is known locally as the blind eye of Saint John, because the rose window was never opened.

The square exterior of the apse, facing the Plaza del Mercado, has a central niche decorated with a stucco statuary group of the Virgin of the Rosary, attributed to Jacopo Bertesi. The Virgin Mary is holding the Christ Child, who holds the globe, all within a burst of rays, angels, and cherubs.

Other portals contain the symbols of Saint John the Baptist (the lamb) and Saint John the Evangelist (eagle). The centre is surmounted by a clock tower, and the roofline is dominated by statues of Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Francesco Borgia and Saint Luis Bertrán. This façade includes profuse complex iconography including the Lamb on top of the book with five seals, and image from the Book of Revelation.

The clock tower is flanked by the two Saint Johns and a weathervane placed on the upper part of the façade, known as the Pardal de Saint John or Sparrow Bird of Saint John. Legend says the bird watched over children who had been abandoned in the marketplace.

The restoration of the frescoes is sponsored by the Hortensia Herrero Foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Inside, the church interiors, including the frescoes, suffered arson damage in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

The church only has one nave covered by rib vaults, decorated with frescoes depicting the church triumphant by Antonio Palomino, who was King Charles’s court painter, and who also did work in Valencia's Cathedral.

The walls are lined with 12 larger-than-life statues representing the 12 tribes of Israel, also by Jacopo Bertesi.

Twelve larger-than-life statues by Jacopo Bertesi represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The frescoes in the smaller, secondary Capilla de la Comunión or Chapel of the Communion are José Vergara’s masterpiece.

The present restoration works, sponsored by the Hortensia Herrero Foundation, are aimed at recovering the splendour of an important architectural church in the centre of the city.

The main façade of the church has a walled-up oculus of a rose window known locally as the ‘blind eye of Saint John’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

28 January 2020

In search of the ‘Holy Grail’
at Valencia’s Gothic cathedral

Valencia Cathedral was first built in the 13th century but stands on the site of a Roman temple, a Visigoth cathedral and a mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the first places I visited in Valencia yesterday was Valencia Cathedral, the Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia (Iglesia Catedral-Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de Valencia).

The cathedral, which is almost 800 years old, is said to have been consecrated in 1238 by Archbishop Pere d’Albalat of Tarragona after the Reconquista or Christian conquest of Valencia, and was dedicated to Saint Mary on the orders of James I the Conqueror.

However, this was a site of religious worship from many centuries earlier. At first, a Roman temple stood here, later the Visigoths built a cathedral here, and this was converted into a mosque by the Moors.

There is evidence that some decades after the Christian conquest of Valencia in 1238, the mosque-cathedral remained standing, even with Quranic inscriptions on the walls, until 22 June 1262, when Bishop Andreu d’Albalat resolved to knock it down and build a new cathedral in its place to plans by the architect Arnau Vidal.

Inside Valencia Cathedral … the Muslim mosque corresponded to the transepts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Hypothetically, the Muslim mosque corresponded to the current transepts of the cathedral, the ‘Apostles’ Gate’ would be the entrance to the mosque, and the Almoina (‘alms’) gate the mihrab.

Most of Valencia Cathedral was built between the 13th century and the 15th century. The predominant architectural style of the cathedral is Valencian Gothic, although it also contains Romanesque, French Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements.

The Romanesque Almoina (‘alms’) gate may correspond with the mihrab of the Moorish mosque (Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Stones from neighbouring quarries in Burjassot and Godella were used to build the cathedral, but also from other more distant quarries such as those in Benidorm and Xàbia brough by boat.

The simplicity and sobriety of the cathedral are explained by the fact that it was built quickly to mark the Christian territory against the Muslims, and that it was built not by a king but by the local bourgeoisie.

The ‘Apostles’ Gate’ corresponds to the entrance to the mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Although there are several styles of construction, this cathedral is basically a Gothic building, a cruciform plan with north and south transepts, and a crossing covered by an octagonal tower (cimbori), with an ambulatory and a polygonal apse.

This cathedral was begun at the end of the 13th century (1270-1300) at the same time as the mosque was being demolished. The first part to be finished was the ambulatory with its eight radiating chapels, and the Almoina Romanesque gate.

The crossing was finished between 1300 and 1350 and its west side went up as far as the Baroque ‘Apostles’ Gate.’ Three out of the four sections of the naves and transepts were also built. The crossing tower (cimbori) or eight-sided dome was also begun.

The crossing is covered by an octagonal tower or ‘cimbori’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The chapter house (today the Chapel of the Holy Grail Chapel) dates from 1356-1369). The belfry, known as Micalet or El Miguelete, was built in 1381-1425.

Both the chapter house and the belfry were initially separate from the rest of the church, but in 1459 the architects Francesc Baldomar and Pere Compte expanded the nave and transepts in a further section, known as Arcada Nova, and finally joined both the chapter house and the Micalet with the rest of the cathedral. When this work was completed, the cathedral was 94 metres long and 53.65 metres wide.

Looking towards the west end of Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Renaissance in the 15th to 16th centuries had little influence on the appearance of the cathedral, but its influences can be seen in the pictorial decoration, such as the High Altar, and the sculptural decoration, including the Resurrection chapel.

Pope Alexander VI, who was born Rodrigo de Borja near Valencia, was still a cardinal when he petitioned the Pope to have Valencia raised to the status of a metropolitan see, a request granted by Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, shortly before Rodrigo de Borja became Pope.

The ‘Iron Gate’ was added in the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During the Baroque period, the German Konrad Rudolf designed in 1703 the main door of the cathedral in 1703. This is known as the ‘Iron Gate’ because of the cast-iron fence that surrounds it. Rudolf could not finish this because of the War of the Spanish Succession, and this task fell mainly to the sculptors Francisco Vergara and Ignacio Vergara. Its concave shape which gives a unique and studied perspective.

A project to renew the cathedral at the last third of the 18th century aimed to give it a uniform neoclassical appearance, for fashions had changed and the Gothic style was then considered vulgar. Works started in 1774 under the architect Antoni Gilabert Fornés.

During this renovation, the pinnacles were removed outside, and the Gothic structure was masked by stucco and other pseudo-classical elements.

The perspective of the ‘Iron Gate’ was distorted in the 20th century because of the demolition of some adjacent buildings in what was formerly Saragossa Street to expand the square in front of the cathedral, Plaza de la Reina.

The High Altar in Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The cathedral was declared an historic and artistic landmark by the Spanish government in 1931. However, it was burned during the Spanish Civil War and many of its decorative elements were lost. The choir, located in the central part, was dismantled in 1940 and moved to the bottom of the high altar. The organs, which had suffered major damage during the civil war, were never rebuilt.

The Houses of Canons, once attached to the chapels facing Micalet Street, were demolished in 1970 to restore the earlier appearance of the cathedral, and elements of little or no architectural value were removed.

The Neoclassical elements were removed in 1972 to recover the original Gothic aspect. The only Neoclassical elements spared were most of the ambulatory chapels, and some isolated elements, including the sculptures at the base of the dome (cimbori).

The colourful apse in Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

After several restorations, the cathedral is now in a good state of preservation, especially after the exhibition in 1999, ‘The Image’s Light.’

The cathedral has many 15th century paintings, some are by local artists, such as Jacomart, others by artists from Rome.

The shrine of the Holy Grail in the chapter house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

But the cathedral’s greatest treasure is a chalice said to be the true Holy Grail. This chalice with Arabic inscriptions was given to the cathedral by king Alfonso V of Aragon in 1436.

This chalice is held in the Chapel of the Holy Grail, where it continues to attract pilgrims. It is made of dark red agate which is mounted by means of a knobbed stem and two curved handles onto a base made from an inverted cup of chalcedony.

The agate cup is about 9 cm in diameter and the total height, including base, is about 17 cm high. The lower part has Arabic inscriptions. It was most likely produced in a Palestinian or Egyptian workshop between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD.

It is kept with an inventory list on vellum, said to date from AD 262, that came with a lost letter that detailed state-sponsored Roman persecution of Christians that forced the church to split up its treasury and hide it with members, specifically the deacon Saint Lawrence. It is claimed the chalice was used by early Popes.

Christ of the Eucharist by Juan Juanes … a 16th century painting depicting the Valencia Chalice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

However, the first explicit reference to the present Chalice of Valencia is in an inventory of the treasury of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña drawn up by Don Carreras Ramírez, Canon of Zaragoza, on 14 December 1134, when the chalice is described as the one in which ‘Christ Our Lord consecrated his blood.’

The chalice is referred to again in 1399, when it was given by the monastery of San Juan de la Peña to King Martin I of Aragon in exchange for a gold cup.

Pope John Paul II celebrated mass with the chalice in Valencia in 1982. At the closing Mass of the fifth World Meeting of Families in Valencia in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated Mass with the chalice, on this occasion saying hunc praeclarum Calicem (‘this most famous chalice’), words in the Roman Canon said to have been used by popes in Rome until the 4th century.

The belfry, known as ‘Micalet’ or ‘El Miguelete’, was built in 1381-1425 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Two days in Valencia,
the third city of Spain
with a Gothic heart

Fresh oranges on sale in the Mercado Central or central market in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I am spending two days in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. This is my seventh time to visit Spain, but like many people I have long overlooked Valencia.

Valencia is Spain’s third city, but for tourists and travellers, it is almost as if Valencia lives in the shadows of Barcelona. Both Valencia and Barcelona are Catalan-speaking cities, and Valencian is the Catalan dialect spoken throughout the ethnically Catalan Valencia region, just south of Catalonia.

The port city of Valencia is on Spain’s south-east Orange Blossom Coast, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea. Valencia also has several beaches, including some within nearby Albufera park, a wetlands reserve with a lake, walking trails and bird-watching.

Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, covering about 169 hectares.

Valencia has a relatively dry subtropical Mediterranean climate with very mild winters and long warm to hot summers. In recent years, more people are discovering this friendly haven and the sites that make Valencia special and one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations.

The similarities with Barcelona, which I visited in 2016, are striking. Each Mediterranean port has a massive harbour full of cruise ships, a pretty beachfront promenade, an atmospheric Gothic core, a picturesque central market, and attractive, futuristic glass architecture along the waterfront.

The flag of Valencia shows the city’s and the region’s identity with Catalonia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The heart of Valencia is its Barrio Carmen, a labyrinth of mediaeval lanes full of dusty Art Nouveau pharmacies, crumbling castle walls, Gothic archways, airy plazas full of café tables, and bubbling fountains.

The architectural sites in the heart of the city include La Catedral, the centrepiece of the old town, which claims the original Holy Grail among its treasures; La Lonja, the 15th century Gothic silk and commodities’ exchange; the Mercado Central or central market; and the 100-year-old Estación del Norde, the city’s beautiful Modernista train station.

Valencia’s Museum of Fine Arts specialises in works from Spain’s Golden Age, with pieces by Goya, Velázquez, Sorolla and the Flemish masters.

The Alameda is a green river of lawns and gardens that snakes through the ancient city. Wherever you stroll, a breath of fresh air is nearby, along with shady paths and benches ripe for picnicking.

Barcelona has long had the tourism edge over other cities with Gaudí’s distinctive architecture, cheap flights and a better soccer team. But lately Valencia has come into its own as a destination for things not seen farther north, and as a less suffocating, more tranquil alternative.

I also hope to visit the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by the Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava, and Felix Candela who have produced a cultural complex of glittering glass structures that soars above the waterfront, just a short stroll from the Roman walls.

At the height of a property boom in the early 2000s, Valencia decided it wanted to raise its profile through the kind of hyper-ambitious, grandiose architectural project that would attract a new kind of tourism.

Close by is Calatrava’s opera house, which has attracted Plácido Domingo, world-famous conductors, and a dance series with features from flamenco to zarzuela.

I am conscious that back in Ireland there is snow, ice and freezing temperatures. But here, the oranges are ripening on the trees, the skies are blue, and the temperatures are in the high teens, even though this is still January. I arrived on a direct flight with Ryanair from Dublin and I am staying at the Senator Parque Central Hotel, just a short walk from the city centre. Join me over these few days as I walk around the streets of Valencia.

«Καλόν ταξείδιον» … ‘Travel Well’ … greetings in Greek at the Estación del Norde, Valencia’s architecturally beautiful train station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

27 January 2020

Saint Botolph without
Aldgate, a City church on
the edge of the East End

Saint Botolph without Aldgate, a parish church in the City of London that is also a part of the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The churches I visited in London last week included Saint Botolph without Aldgate, a parish church in the City of London that is also a part of the East End, standing on the edge of Whitechapel.

The parish was united with the Church of Holy Trinity, Minories, in 1899, so that the full name of the church is Saint Botolph without Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories. But it is sometimes known simply as Aldgate Church.

The church stands at the junction of Houndsditch and Aldgate High Street, about 30 metres east of the former position of Aldgate, a defensive barbican in London’s wall.

This was one of four churches in mediaeval London dedicated to Saint Botolph or Botwulf, a 7th century East Anglian saint, each of which stood by one of the gates to the City. The other three were Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, which I have visited regularly; Saint Botolph’s-without-Aldersgate in the west, which I also visited last week; and Saint Botolph’s, Billingsgate, by the riverside, which was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and was never rebuilt.

Before the legend of Saint Christopher gained popularity, Saint Botolph was revered as the patron saint of travellers, which explains why he gave his name to so many churches at the City gates.

An icon of Saint Botolph without Aldgate in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The parochial foundations may very well date from before 1066, so there has been a church on the site for over 1,000 years. The first Rector, known only as Norman, is recorded in 1108. Soon afterwards, the church was received in 1155 by the prior and canons of Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate which had recently been founded by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I.

Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the parish in the 1370s in rooms above Aldgate gatehouse.

Inside Saint Botolph without Aldgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The original Saxon church was enlarged in 1418 and almost entirely rebuilt in the 16th century with funds received at the dissolution of Holy Trinity Priory in 1532.

The poet Edmund Spenser, author of ‘The Faerie Queene,’ was born in the parish in 1552.

The church was renovated in 1621, and escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Daniel Defoe was married in the church in 1684. In a novel, he gives an horrific account of the Great Plague of 1665 when over 5,000 bodies were buried in a pit in the churchyard.

The church was described at the beginning of the 18th century as ‘an old church, built of Brick, Rubble and Stone, rendered over, and ... of the Gothick order.’ At the time, the building was 24 metres long and 16 metres wide. There was a tower, about 30 metres high, with six bells.

The organ by Renatus Harris was built in the early 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The organ by Renatus Harris was built in the early 18th century, and is said to be the oldest church organ in Britain. It was donated by Thomas Whiting in 1676, and was built between 1702 and 1704. It was enhanced for the new church (the current building) by Harris’s son-in-law, John Byfield, in 1740. It has recently been rebuilt and restored by the organ builders Goetze and Gwynn, who have returned it to its 1744 specification using many of the original components.

The Revd Thomas Bray (1658-1730), the founder of the Anglican mission agencies SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) in 1698 and SPG (now USPG, the United Society Partners in the Gospel) in 1701, was rector from 1706 to 1730.

A carving shows King David playing the harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Botolph’s was demolished as unsafe in 1739 and was completely rebuilt between 1741 and 1744, to a design by George Dance the Elder, who also built Mansion House, the official home of the Lord Mayor of London.

The exterior is of brick with projecting stone quoins, stone window casings and a stone cornice. The tower, also of brick, has rusticated quoins, and a stone obelisk spire.

A surviving monument in the church porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Inside, the church is divided into a nave and aisles by four widely spaced piers supporting a flat ceiling. There are galleries along three sides. The church is lit by two rows of windows in each side wall, one above and one below the gallery. The monuments from the old building were preserved and reinstalled in the new church.

The interior was redecorated by John Francis Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral, in the late 19th century. He made the carved ceiling and added the decorative plasterwork, created the chancel by adding the side screens, replaced the gallery fronts with a pierced balustrade and replaced the large box pews with the present seating. His work survived the bombs which fell on this part of London during the World War II.

In the late Victorian period, Saint Botolph’s was often referred to as the ‘Church of Prostitutes.’ The church stands on an island surrounded by roadways and it was usual in these times to be suspicious of women standing on street corners. To escape arrest the prostitutes would parade around the island, now occupied by the church and Aldgate tube station.

The interior was redecorated by John Francis Bentley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The parish was united with the parish of Holy Trinity, Minories, when it closed in 1899. From that church, Saint Botolph’s inherited a preserved head, said to be the head of Henry Grey (1517-1554), 1st Duke of Suffolk, who was executed for treason by Queen Mary I in 1554. He was the father of Lady Jane Grey, known as the ‘Nine-Days Queen’ because she held the throne briefly between Edward VI and Mary I in 1553.

The church was severely bombed at intervals during the Blitz in World War II. In 1941 a bomb pierced the roof near the organ but failed to explode. The rector slept among the coffins in the crypt, coming out onto the church roof during air raids to put out incendiary bombs.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. Following its restoration by Rodney Tatchell, the church was much damaged by an unexplained fire in 1965, and needed further restoration. Saint Botolph’s was rehallowed on 8 November 1966 by the Bishop of London

In the early 1970s, the crypt served as a homeless shelter at night and by day a youth club for Asian boys.

The three reredos panels were designed by Thetis Blacker in 1982 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The three reredos panels, made in a method of batik using dye and wax resist were designed by Thetis Blacker in 1982. Inspired by Saint John’s account of the Holy City (Revelation 21), she has placed the Tree of Life in the centre panel. From the roots of the tree flows the River of Life.

The foundations of the city are coloured according to their stones. In the side panels are angels guarding the gate, holding Alpha and Omega, symbolising the beginning and the end of creation.

The stoneware ceramic pyx holding the Blessed Sacrament was designed and made in the shape of a dove by Juliet Pilkington.

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was founded at Saint Botolph’s in 1976 and through the 1980s and 1990s the church was a safe space for people who felt excluded from other churches because of their sexuality. The church continues to be a place where LGBT people are welcomed as an integral part of the community.

During an archaeological investigation of the crypt in 1990, the preserved head, reputed to be that of the Duke of Suffolk, was rediscovered and buried in the churchyard.

‘Shalom’ on the doors of the Peace Chapel … the church is long associated with the work of the Revd Ken Leech (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

For me, the church will always be associated with the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech (1939-2015), a priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the ‘slum priests.’

For many years, the crypt at Saint Botolph’s was synonymous with the work for the homeless in the East End. Through the work of the rector at the time, the Revd Malcolm Johnson, and Ken Leech, Saint Botolph’s cared for hundreds of people each day, providing food, medical care and advice. Churches and businesses across the country supported the work. This work came to an end in 2004 but the parish is now looking at ways to use the crypt for community use.

He set up the charity Centrepoint, which became a leader in working with the young homeless people. As Rector of Saint Matthew’s, Bethnal Green (1974-1979), he was active in challenging the National Front. With Rowan Williams, later Archbishop of Canterbury and others, he established the Jubilee Group, a network of Christian socialists, in 1974.

He also worked on race relations with the British Council of Churches and at Church House, Westminster, and was director of the Runnymede Trust. His books include Soul Friend (1977).

In 1990 he moved to Whitechapel as a community theologian attached to Saint Botolph’s Aldgate. After retiring in 2004, he returned to Manchester and died on 12 September 2015.

Saint Botolph’s Aldgate is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 3 pm, although it is closed on Bank Holidays.

Saint Botolph’s Aldgate is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 3 pm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)