07 April 2020
A virtual tour of a dozen
Wren churches to visit
when the lockdown ends
During my strolls through London, between Liverpool Street Station and the USPG offices in Southwark, I regularly try to visit Wren churches and the sites of former Wren churches, churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, or one or two guild or city churches I have not visited before
These walks also allow me to enjoy the views of magisterial London architecture in buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, the Mansion House and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to stroll through the side-streets by the Tate Modern, with their cafés, buskers and book shops, to enjoy the vista from the south side of the Millennium Bridge across to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, or the clutter of tourists around the Globe Theatre.
I have had new opportunities to discover parts of London I had not known before, including Old Jewry and Lothbury, and to see some of the many churches that are such an integral part of the architectural heritage of London.
Now we are all in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am missing these self-guided explorations of the churches of London. As all churches are closed for the duration of this pandemic, I thought I would offer a virtual tour of a dozen Wren churches in London – in the same spirit as my recent ‘virtual tours’ of the churches of Lichfield and the pubs and former pubs of Lichfield.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren restored 51 churches in the city, concluding with Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, which he rebuilt in 1695, and is among the simplest of his designs.
There are hyperlinks in the title of each listing to my original blog postings about these Wren churches.
1, Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe:
Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, on Queen Victoria Street, two blocks south of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and close to Blackfriars station, is the last of Wren’s city churches. It was first mentioned around 1170, so it must have been founded considerably earlier. In the 13th century, the church was a part of Baynard’s Castle, an ancient royal residence.
In 1361, King Edward III moved the Royal Wardrobe, which was used to store royal belongings, including arms, clothing and other personal items, from the Tower of London to a building just north of the church. This association gave the church its unique name.
William Shakespeare was a member of the parish for about 15 years while he was working at the Blackfriars Theatre nearby. Later he bought a house in the parish, in Ireland Yard.
Saint Andrew’s has a memorial to Shakespeare in the west gallery, carved in oak and limewood. There is also a matching memorial to one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the famous lutenist, singer and composer John Dowland (1562-1626) who was buried in the churchyard of Saint Ann’s, Blackfriars. Saint Ann’s was not rebuilt after the Great Fire and its parish was afterwards merged with Saint Andrew’s.
In a rather fanciful scene, Shakespeare and Dowland are shown kneeling on a stage while cherubs hold back the final curtain. Under the window between the pair is the following inscription:
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother …
Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense…
Although these lines may be appropriate in Dowland’s case, they have only a slim link with William Shakespeare. Although they come from The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of verse published in 1599 with Shakespeare’s name on the title page, this poem was written by Richard Barnfield.
Both the former royal wardrobe and the church were destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, and, the location of the king’s store room is now only remembered in Wardrobe Place.
After the Great Fire, was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1695. It is among the simplest of his designs, was rebuilt in 1695.
In the following century, the hymnwriter John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, had close links with Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe and its rector, William Romaine.
Changes in parochial boundaries in the 19th century also had an impact on the parish boundaries of Saint Andrew’s. In 1542, the Mercers’ Company bought from Henry VIII the property of the Hospital of Saint Thomas of Acon which included the advowson of St Mary Colechurch at the corner of Cheapside and Old Jewry. The Great Fire destroyed this church and the benefice was united with Saint Mildred Poultry.
In 1871, Saint Mildred’s was pulled down and an exchange of rights was made between the Company and the Crown which gave the Company a share in the presentation of Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe. Under a Deed signed in 1984 the Company became the joint Patrons with the Parochial Church Council of Saint Andrew’s.
The church was again destroyed by German bombs during the London blitz in World War II, and only the tower and the walls survived.
The church, which was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950, was rebuilt and rededicated in 1961.
The Revd Guy Treweek was priest-in-charge in 2011-2015. His wife, Bishop Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, is the first woman to become a diocesan bishop in the Church of England.
The present rector is the Ven Luke Miller, Archdeacon of London. He studied history at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and theology at Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Cross. His wife, the Revd Jacqueline Ann Miller, is the curate at Saint Peter, Eaton Square.
For many years Oswald Clark, a former Chairman of the House of Laity of the General Synod in the Church of England, was parish clerk and a churchwarden here.
A number of City Livery Companies have links with Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe and some of their banners are in the church, including the Mercers, Apothecaries, Parish Clerks and Blacksmiths. Saint Andrew’s has been designated as the Ward Church of the Castle Baynard Ward.
There is a weekly celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe at 12.30 pm on Thursdays. The Saint Gregorios congregation of the Indian Orthodox Church also holds regular Sunday services here. The English Chamber Choir regularly rehearses at the church and sings at special services.
The church offers this prayer for people who have no shelter on the streets of London:
God of compassion,
your love for humanity was revealed in Jesus,
whose earthly life began in the poverty of a stable
and ended in the pain and isolation of the cross:
we hold before you those who are homeless and cold
especially in this bitter weather.
Draw near and comfort them in spirit
and bless those who work to provide them
with shelter, food and friendship.
We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
2, Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf
Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf, the Welsh church close to Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge.
The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and has been described as ‘one of his most successful exteriors.’ It is one of only four churches in the City of London to escape damage during World War II.
Although this church is close to Saint Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge, and just off Queen Victoria Street, it is difficult to access at the bottom of a hill surrounded by traffic and footpaths that are difficult for a pedestrian to negotiate. In addition, apart from Sunday services, the church is only open to the public for a few brief hours on Thursdays, so I never got to see inside.
Since 1879, the Church of Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf has been the Welsh Anglican church in London. Long before that, since 1556, it has also been the official church of the College of Arms, which regulates heraldry and heraldic law in England.
But the story of the church on this site is much older, and a church has stood here since 1111, dedicated to Saint Benet or Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order. Paul’s Wharf was close by on the riverside, and over the centuries was the main landing stage for this part of the City. To the west of the site was the watergate of Baynard’s Castle.
Over time, the name was abbreviated to Saint Benet, just like Saint Bene’t’s in Cambridge. The parish records, dating from the reign of Elizabeth I, contain many references to the Welsh, and the considerable Welsh presence in the parish dated back to at least 1320, when they were evicted from the Tower Hill area by a Papal Bull.
Shakespeare mentions the church in Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene 1. The clown, having received two pieces of gold from the duke, says; ‘Primo, secundo, tertio, is a good play; and the old saying is, “the third pays for all”: the triplex, sir, is a good tripping measure; or the bells of; Saint Bennet, sir. may put you in mind; one, two, three.’ But the duke replies – ‘You can fool no more money out of me at this throw.’
Today there are two bells, one dated 1633 and the other 1685.
Saint Benet has been the Church of the College of Arms since 1555, when Phillip and Mary gave Derby House, at the north-east corner of the churchyard, to the heralds. Since then, they have had their own seats in the church.
The burial of at least 25 officers of arms or heralds, starting with Sir Gilbert Dethick in 1584, is recorded in the registers, along with a large number of domestic staff. There are several memorials in the church – one to the memory of John Charles Brook, Somerset Herald, who was one of 16 people crushed to death when George III and Queen Charlotte visited the Haymarket Theatre in 1794.
In 1652, Inigo Jones, ‘the king’s architect,’ was buried in Saint Benet, with his father and mother. A copy of the inscription on the original memorial has been placed above the site of the original vault.
The church and Baynard’s Castle were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1683 at a cost of £3,328.13s.10d. and has been described as ‘one of his most successful exteriors.’ It was re-built in the Dutch style, although there is evidence that the design was principally by Wren’s assistant Robert Hooke. It was completed by Wren’s master mason Thomas Strong in 1683.
This is a particularly valuable example of Wren’s work, for it is one of only four churches in the City that escaped damage in World War II, and it remains basically as Wren built it.
Unusually for Wren, it is built of red and blue bricks with Portland stone quoins, and with carved stone garlands over the windows. It has a hipped roof on the north side. Most of the original 17th century furniture of Wren’s church is still intact.
Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf narrowly saved destruction in the late 19th century, when the parish was merged with neighbouring Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey. After an energetic campaign by its supporters, Queen Victoria in 1879 granted the church to Welsh Anglicans for services ‘according to the Rites of the Church of England’ in perpetuity. The first Welsh service was held here in 1879 and these services have continued since.
The church is one of only four churches in the City of London to escape damage during World War II. In 1954, in the reorganisation of the City churches and parishes, Saint Benet became one of the City Guild Churches.
Today, Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf is the Metropolitan Welsh Church, with as many as 50,000 Welsh speakers in London. The priest-in-charge is the Revd Dr Aneirin Glyn, who studied theology at Oak Hill Theological College and is also a curate of Saint Helen Bishopsgate.
The church is now in the ‘conservative evangelical’ tradition and Holy Communion is celebrated only once a month. Services are held weekly on Sunday mornings at 11am, with occasional special services on Sunday afternoons at 3pm. Services are conducted in the Welsh language, and with English translation provided.
3, Saint Bride’s, Fleet Street:
The steeple of Saint Bride's, Fleet Street … inspired the tiered wedding cake (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Bride’s is a distinctive sight on London’s skyline, clearly visible throughout the City. At 69 meters, it is the second tallest of Wren’s London churches: only Saint Paul’s Cathedral has a higher pinnacle.
This church is the seventh on the site, one of the most ancient in London. One tradition says the first church was founded by Saint Brigid herself. But it is more likely that it was built by Irish monks who were missionaries in England when the Middle Saxons were converted in the seventh century.
The present Saint Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Building work began in 1673, and the spire, completed in 1703, is 234 feet and the highest built by Wren. The steeple is the model for the now traditional wedding cake, first made by a baker on Ludgate Hill in the 18th century. The design uses four octagonal stages of diminishing height capped with an obelisk that terminates in a ball and vane.
One evening, over 100 years ago, a vicar’s son – who was abandoning his legal profession and becoming a writer – was walking back to his father’s vicarage at Saint Bride’s in London.
At a junction near Fleet Street, he bumped into another man, and as they stared into each other’s face, the two men realised they were doubles, completely similar in features and physiques.
The young writer was disturbed. What if they had got mixed up? What if that stranger returned to the vicarage, and the budding young writer, in his stead, headed out to the suburbs, rus in urbe, each taking on the other’s life?
Back at Saint Bride’s Vicarage, Anthony Hope [Hawkins] sat up all night, concocted a new fantasy country, Ruritania, and penned his romantic, swash-buckling novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.
As a writer and as Vicar of Saint Bride’s, Anthony Hope’s father, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), had developed the tradition of Saint Bride’s providing a spiritual home and refuge for journalists and writers.
Soon after arriving as Vicar of Saint Bride’s, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins published his own history of Wren’s church. His full name appears on the list of vicars inside the porch of Saint Bride’s, and a plaque commemorating him is now in the crypt.
After the church was gutted by firebombs during the Blitz in 1940, it was rebuilt at the expense of newspaper proprietors and journalists.
Over the past three or four decades, the press has abandoned Fleet Street, moving out to Wapping, Canary Wharf, the South Bank and Kensington. But Saint Bride’s remains at the heart of press and media life in London, and the church is still a frequent venue for baptisms, weddings and funerals for journalists and their families.
There were constant vigils in Saint Bride’s in the 1980s and 1990s for John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and other journalists held hostage in Lebanon. When four young journalists were hacked to death in Somalia in 1993, Saint Bride’s was the appropriate place for the Service of Thanksgiving for their lives and work. The journalists’ altar in the north aisle – where those vigils were held – is dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the task of bringing us the news and bringing us the truth.
Today, the Rector of Saint Bride’s is the Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce, a former lecturer in Christian Ethics and Anglican Studies at Queen’s College (now the Queen's Foundation), Birmingham.
4, Saint Edmund the King:
The Church of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr, is the last remaining church in Lombard Street. This is a church in the City of London that I have often passed but have never managed to visit.
This church, dedicated to Saint Edmund the Martyr, was once a parish church, but it is no longer is used for regular worship. It is now home to the London Centre for Spiritual Direction and the Centre for Church Planting and Church Growth.
The church is commonly known as Saint Edmund the King, and also houses the offices of the Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe.
The church is dedicated to the King of East Anglia who was martyred by the Danes in 870. The first church on this site is recorded in 1292, when it is named as ‘Saint Edmund towards Garcherche’ or Grasschurch, after the hay market that gave its name to Grasschurch Street.
The church is named again half a century later as ‘Saint Edmund in Lombardestrete’ in 1348. In his Survey of London (1598), John Stow refers to it also as Saint Edmund Grass Church.
The mediaeval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. After the fire the parish was united with the parish of Saint Nicholas Acons, where the church was also destroyed in the fire but not rebuilt.
The present church was built to designs by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670-1674. A new tower, designed in 1707 by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), is ornamented at the angles by flaming urns in allusion to the Great Fire.
George Godwin described the tower as ‘more Chinese than Italian,’ while James Peller Malcolm called it ‘rather handsome, but of that species of architecture which is difficult to describe so as to be understood.’
5, Saint Lawrence Jewry:
Saint Lawrence Jewry is a guild church on Gresham Street, forming a square with the Guildhall. It was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, and was rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. It is now the official church of the Lord Mayor of London.
There has been a church on the present site since the 12th century. Before the great fire, there were 156 churches in the City, many with the same saint’s name. To distinguish them from another, another title was attached. The first church on the site of Saint Lawrence Jewry is thought to have been built in 1136 and was dedicated to Saint Lawrence, the Deacon of Rome.
There are two paintings of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom in the church: one above the main altar dates from the 1950s and is the work of the architect of the church’s restoration in the mid-20th century, Cecil Brown; the second painting in the vestibule is a 16th century Italian work and survived both the great fire in 1666 and the Blitz in the 1940s. In addition, the weather vane of the church is in the form of his instrument of martyrdom, the gridiron, a symbol of Saint Lawrence.
The church is called Saint Lawrence Jewry because it stands near the former mediaeval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry. The Jewish community lived from 1066, when they came to England with William the Conqueror, until to 1290, when they were expelled from England by Edward I. There are still reminders of their presence and contribution in plaques and street names in the surrounding streets.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was born nearby in Milk Street, then in the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen, and was probably baptised there. One of his early mentors and tutors was the Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry, William Grocyn, the English Renaissance scholar credited with reintroducing Greek to the academic curriculum in England. Erasmus described Grocyn as ‘the patron and preceptor of us all.’
While Grocyn was Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry (1496-1517), Thomas More lectured in the church in 1501 on Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which was formative in his thinking on church-state relations. Appropriately, he is commemorated in a window above the pulpit.
The mediaeval church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. It was rebuilt by Wren between 1670 and 1687, and is said to be his most expensive church in London.
Wren is honoured in a window in the vestibule that also with his master carver Grindling Gibbons and his master mason Edward Strong. A small cameo at the bottom of this window shows the architect Cecil Brown planning the 1950s restoration with the vicar. Sir John Betjeman described this church as ‘very municipal, very splendid.’ It was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950.The church is 81 feet long and 68 feet wide.
Inside, Wren’s church has an aisle on the north side only, divided from the nave by Corinthian columns, carrying an entablature that continues around the walls of the main body of the church, where it is supported on pilasters. The ceiling is divided into sunken panels, ornamented with wreaths and branches.
During World War II, the church was extensively damaged but not completely destroyed during the Blitz on 29 December 1940.
After World War II, the City of London Corporation agreed to restore the church because Balliol College had no funds to carry out the work. It was restored in 1957 by Cecil Brown to Wren’s original design. It is no longer a parish church but a guild church, and the advowson has been transferred to the City of London.
6, Saint Margaret Lothbury:
Saint Margaret Lothbury is a parish church in the City of London, and the parish boundaries lie between Coleman Street Ward and Broad Street Ward. It is known as the Bankers’ Church, because of its proximity to the back door of the Bank of England. The church has many associations with Saint Olave, Old Jewry, which I had visited earlier in the day.
Lothbury is a short street that runs east-west with traffic flow in both directions, from the junction of Gresham Street with Moorgate to the west, and the junction of Bartholomew Lane with Throgmorton Street to the east. The area was populated with coppersmiths in the Middle Ages before later becoming home to a number of merchants and bankers.
The church is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, or Saint Margaret the Virgin. She is known as Saint Marina the Great Martyr in the East, is celebrated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches on 20 July and on 17July in the Orthodox Church.
Her historical existence has been questioned, and she was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius I in 494. But devotion to her was revived in the West during the Crusades, which explains why a church in London was given her name in the 12th century.
There has been a church on this site since the 12th century, and the earliest mention of Saint Margaret Lothbury is from 1185.
It was rebuilt over the Walbrook in 1440, when a stone arch was erected over the brook in 1440 so that the church could be extended. The work was completed mostly at the expense of Robert Large, who was the Lord Mayor of London that year. He is remembered as the Master to whom William Caxton, the printer, served his apprenticeship.
The patronage of the church belonged to the Benedictine Abbess and Convent of Barking Abbey, Essex, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, when it passed to the Crown.
Like so many London churches, this church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1686 and 1690. However, the tower may be the work of Robert Hooke.
When the Church of Saint Christopher le Stocks was demolished in 1781 to make way for an extension for the Bank of England, the parish was united with that of Saint Margaret Lothbury.
In 1839 Saint Bartholomew by the Exchange was added when its church was also demolished. The parishes of Saint Martin Pomeroy, Saint Mary Colechurch and Saint Olave Jewry, which were united to each other in 1670, and Saint Mildred Poultry, which was united to them in 1871, were added in 1886.
The form of this Wren church is a simple rectangle orientated north-south with a vestry to the east and a tower to the west end. The south elevation is faced in Portland stone while the others are rendered with stone dressings. The four-stage tower is topped with a cupola and obelisk.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.
Saint Margaret Lothbury still serves as a parish church in the Square Mile. It is also the official church of five Livery Companies, two Ward Clubs and two professional institutes. It has connections with many local finance houses, all of which hold special services here each year.
Today, Saint Margaret Lothbury and Saint Mary Woolnoth form one parish in the Diocese of London.
7, Saint Martin within Ludgate:
Saint Martin within Ludgate is a Guild Church and a Wren Church on Ludgate Hill, just a few steps west of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and almost opposite City Thameslink station (Ludgate Hill exit). After the Great Fire of London, the church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677-1684.
The church takes its name from Saint Martin of Tours, a patron saint of travellers. Churches dedicated to him often stand within city gates. Ludgate was the westernmost gate in London Wall. The name survives in Ludgate Hill, an eastward continuation of Fleet Street, Ludgate Circus and Ludgate Square.
The Great Fire of London engulfed Saint Martin’s on 4 September 1666. Rebuilding was not immediate, was largely completed by 1680, but not finally until 1703. At the same time the church was set back from the old site, as Ludgate Hill was widened.
Saint Martin’s is one of Wren’s later rebuildings and its slender lead spire was most carefully considered in relation to the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The view eastward from Ludgate Circus towards Saint Paul’s is one of the most memorable in London.
From the lower part of Fleet Street, the steeple of Saint Martin’s stands between the viewer and the dome of Saint Paul’s. Wren’s steeple at Saint Martin’s has a sharp obelisk steeple that has been described as ‘somewhat like an exclamation mark!’
8, Saint Mary Aldermary:
According to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Saint Mary Aldemary on Watling Street and Bow Lane is ‘the chief surviving monument of the 17th-century Gothic revival in the City and – with Warwick – the most important late 17th-century Gothic church in England.’
There has been a church on this site for over 900 years, and it was first mentioned in 1080. The name probably indicates that this is the oldest of the City churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Burials in the early church include Richard Chaucer, said to be the father of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
The mediaeval church was rebuilt from 1510, when Sir Henry Keeble financed the building of a new church. The tower was still unfinished when he died in 1518.
The poet John Milton married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, in the church in 1663. Three years later, Saint Mary Aldermary was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London of 1666, although parts of its walls and tower survived.
The church was mostly rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in a Gothic style. Henry Rogers left a legacy of £5,000 for rebuilding a church, and his widow agreed to use it to fund the rebuilding of Saint Mary’s. According to some sources, she stipulated that the new church should be an exact imitation of the one largely destroyed.
Wren rebuilt the church with an aisled nave, six bays long, with a clerestory and a short chancel. The nave and aisles are separated by arcades of clustered columns, supporting somewhat flattened Gothic arches. The magnificent fan-vaulted plaster ceiling is by Henry Doogood.
The east wall of the chancel is set askew in relation to the axis of the church. The slender piers, slightly pointed arches and clerestory are all typic of the Perpendicular style. The Gothic tower is one of the finest of its kind in England.
During World War II, this Wren church was damaged by German bombs in the London Blitz. All the windows were shattered and some plaster fell from the vaulting, but the building itself remained intact. The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950.
9, Saint Mary-le-Bow:
Tradition says that a true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells and the sound of the bells of Saint Mary’s is said to have persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back at Highgate with his cat and to return to London, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of Mayor.
Saint Mary-le-Bow is one of the many churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But archaeological evidence indicates that a church has stood on this site since Saxon times. This was replaced by the Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, built ca 1080 by Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury who accompanied William the Conqueror from Bec in Normandy.
Archbishop Lanfranc’s church was destroyed by the London Tornado of 1091, and a new church was built, although the newly-built arched crypt survived.
During the later Norman era, the church, known as ‘Saint Mary de Arcubus,’ was rebuilt and was famed for the arches (‘bows’) of stone. At that period, the 12 ft 6 in (3.8 metres) high vaulted crypt – although only accessible from within the church – had windows and buttresses visible from the street. The crypt has been much altered since then, but it gives an idea of how it once looked with its two aisles and a nave.
The name le-Bow or de arcubus may refer to the Norman arches that were something of a novelty. But the crypt really served as an undercroft, or a subsidiary structure on which the upper church was built.
The church was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s principal ‘peculiar,’ although it is in the middle of London, and it remained in the Diocese of Canterbury until 1850. From about 1251, Saint Mary-le-Bow was the home of the Court of Arches, the final appeal court of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England.
Saint Mary-le-Bow acquired additional prominence because its bell was the principal curfew bell, rung at 9 p.m. each day from at least 1363. The church with its steeple became a landmark in London, and the second most important church in the City of London after Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Every monarch, until James II, processed along Cheapside on the way to the coronation.
After the Great Fire in 1666, this was one of the first churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and his office. The current structure was built to Wren’s designs in 1671-1673.
Wren’s design for the upper church was almost square and was based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The entrance is based on the hotel de Conti in Paris and the vestibule at the base of the tower ranks among Wren’s finest designs.
However, Wren took into account the need for a preaching room, rather than designing a place for Catholic liturgy. Similarly, Wren had little interest in the crypt – which he seems to have thought was Roman – and simply encouraged its use as a burial chamber.
An attempt was made to shore up the old tower, but Wren wanted this to be his second tallest structure, after Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and moved the tower to the street. The 68 metre tower was completed in 1680. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation.
Since the early 1940s, a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for the English-language broadcasts. It is still used today preceding some English-language broadcasts.
Much of the current church building was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz on 10 May 1941. During the fire, the bells crashed to the ground.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. The bells resumed ringing in 1961. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964, and the architect Laurence King (1907-1981) also adapted the south aisle of the crypt as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.
Saint Mary-le-Bow is still home to the Court of Arches today. The Vicar General’s court also sits at Saint Mary-le-Bow, and each diocesan bishop in the Province of Canterbury receives confirmation of his or her election at Saint Mary-le-Bow and there takes the Oath of Allegiance, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, before being enthroned.
10, Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey:
Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, standing on what is now Queen Victoria Street, dates from at least the 12th century. When the church was destroyed in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren. The church suffered substantial bomb damage from German bombs during the London Blitz in World War II and was rebuilt by Arthur Bailey in 1961-1962.
The church is named after the fifth century Saint Nicholas of Myra, better known to children around the world as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of both children and fishermen, and the church has special ties with both.
However, this church was never an abbey. The name Cole Abbey is derived from ‘cold harbour,’ a mediaeval name for a travellers’ shelter or shelter from the cold. The earliest reference to the church is in a letter of Pope Lucius II in 1144-1145.
An inventory of the church’s possessions taken at the time of the Reformation includes vestments for children, suggesting that the church maintained the tradition of electing a boy bishop on Saint Nicholas Day, 6 December.
After the accession of Queen Mary I, this was the first church to celebrate Mass again, on 23 August 1553. In the 17th century, the living was owned by the regicide, Colonel Francis Hacker, a Puritan who commanded the execution detail of Charles I.
Over 90 of the 120 parishioners died in the Great Plague in 1665. A year later, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. Charles II promised the site to the Lutheran community in London, but lobbying blocked this and the parish was combined with that of Saint Nicholas Olave, a nearby church that was also destroyed in the fire but not rebuilt.
The church was rebuilt by Wren in 1672-1678 at a cost of £5,042, becoming the first church of the 51 lost in the Great Fire to be rebuilt.
Included in the building accounts are the items: ‘Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company – £2.14s.0d,’ and ‘Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren’s coachmen – 6d.’
The post-Fire church was built with its façade to the north on what was then Fish Street and is now Distaff Lane, and the east on Old Fish Street Hill.
Inside the church, the east wall is dominated by three stained glass windows designed by Keith New, who also involved in designing the stained-glass windows of Coventry Cathedral. They are reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall, and they replace windows by Edward Burne-Jones that were destroyed in 1941. Otherwise, the interior is plain, apart from gilt Corinthian pilasters.
On 10 May 1941, in worst air raid of World War II, 1,436 people killed in London and several major buildings destroyed or severely damaged, including Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The shell of Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey is the scene of the gold bullion heist in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). The church also features in Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954).
But the church remained a shell until it was restored under Arthur Bailey and re-consecrated in 1962. The parish was then combined with that of Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, and Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey served a number of uses, including the headquarters of the Diocesan Council for Mission and Unity, and a church of the Free Church of Scotland (1982-2003).
The Culham Institute planned to move into Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey in 2006. But the move never took place. Instead, after an extensive restoration programme was completed in 2014, the building reopened as the Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey Centre for Workplace Ministry, with a supporting café, ‘The Wren.’
Under the name St Nick’s Church, Sunday services re-started in November 2016, along with midweek meetings. Services are described as ‘contemporary in style,’ with Sunday clubs and a crèche for youth and children. But there is no mention on any of the leaflets or handouts of when the Eucharist is celebrated.
Like neighbouring Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf, the church has close links with Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate and the ‘conservative evangelical’ group Reform, and in none of the publicity is the Revd Chris Fishlock described as the vicar or as a priest. It is a long distance from the approach of the Revd Henry Shuttleworth over a century ago, who was the model for James Morrell, the Socialist preacher in George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida (1898).
11, Saint Stephen Walbrook:
Saint Stephen Walbrook, beside the Mansion House in London, is listed by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner among the 10 most important buildings in England.
This is the parish church of the Lord Mayor of London, but it is best-known for its dome by Sir Christopher Wren, the once-controversial altar by the sculptor Henry Moore, and its associations with the founder of the Samaritans, the late Canon Chad Varah.
Saint Stephen Walbrook stands on the site of a seventh century Saxon church that was probably built on the foundations of a second or third century temple of Mithras.
The church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. The nearby Church of Saint Benet Sherehog was destroyed in the fire but was not rebuilt, and instead its parish was united with the parish of Saint Stephen.
The present church was built in 1672-1679 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, at a cost of £7,692, becoming one of his largest parish churches in London. It is rectangular in plan, with a dome and an attached north-west tower. Entry to the church is up a flight of 16 steps, enclosed in a porch attached to the west front.
Wren also designed a porch for the north side of the church. This was never built, and the north door was bricked up in 1685 because it let in offensive smells from the slaughterhouses in the neighbouring Stocks Market. The walls, tower, and internal columns are made of stone, but the dome is of timber and plaster with an external covering of copper.
The 19 metre high dome, based on Wren’s original design for Saint Paul’s Cathedral, is centred over a square of 12 Corinthian columns. The circular base of the dome is carried on a circle formed by eight arches that spring from eight of the 12 columns, cutting across each corner in the manner of the Byzantine squinch. This all creates what many believe to be Wren’s finest church interior.
12, Saint Vedast-alias-Foster:
Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, on Cheapside, stands close to the north-east corner of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It 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.
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.
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.
The Rector, the Revd James Batty, petitioned the Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury in 1635 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.’
After the Restoration, the church was restored by 1662. Four years later, the Great Fire 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.
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.
Saint Vedast was one of 19 City churches selected for demolition in 1919. The plan was to sell off the land and use the money to build churches in the north-west suburbs.
The church was destroyed internally on the night of Sunday 29 December 1940 by firebombs during the London Blitz, and Saint Vedast was left a burnt-out shell.
But the structure of the church and its tower were deemed to be safe, plans to restore the church began in 1947, and restoration work started in 1953.
The post-war restoration was overseen by the Parochial Church Council, whose members included the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman and the organ builder Noel Mander. The architect was Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-1991).
The priests at Saint Vedast have 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.
The Saddlers’ Company 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 in 1950. The rectory was listed as a Grade II building in 1998.
Next: A virtual tour of some former Wren churches to visit after the lockdown