27 January 2020
Saint Botolph without
Aldgate, a City church on
the edge of the East End
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.