17 August 2022

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

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

Patrick Comerford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 17 August 2022

Trinity College Cambridge … Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate here and AE Housman a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am returning from Sheffield to Stony Stratford later today (17 August 2022) after my consultation in Sheffield Hospital yesterday with the Steretactic Radiosurgery Team at Royal Hallamshire Hospital. This follows my stroke five months ago (18 March 2022) and, hopefully, is going to prepare the way for a surgical procedure within the next few weeks.

But, before I catch the train and my day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 1) … at work in a vineyard in Platanias near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel reading at the Eucharist this morning in the Lectionary as adapted by the Church of Ireland is:

Matthew 20: 1-16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Today’s reflection: ‘Is my team ploughing’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

Throughout this week, I am listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

This morning [17 August 2022], I am listening to ‘Is my team ploughing,’ the third of the six settings by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896.

In reacting to the Boer War, in which his brother Herbert was killed, Housman powerfully anticipated the horror and futility of World War I, and his poems would find fresh relevance to the outbreak of World War I.

His landscape is a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

Vaughan Williams composed On Wenlock Edge – a cycle of six songs for tenor, piano and string quartet – in 1909, a year after he had spent three months in Paris studying under Maurice Ravel, a composer three years younger than him. The first performance took place in the Aeolian Hall, London, later that year.

In the 1920s, Vaughan Williams made an arrangement of On Wenlock Edge for full orchestra that was first performed on 24 January 1924 by John Booth, with the composer conducting. Vaughan Williams preferred this version to his original.

The third of these songs, ‘Is my team ploughing,’ is a conversation between a dead man and his still living friend. Towards the end of the poem it is implied that his friend is now with the girl he left behind when he died.

While writing the poem, Housman borrows from the simple style of traditional folk ballads, featuring a question-and-answer format in a conversation.

The dead man asks first about his animals, then about football, but his girlfriend comes last. The text, along with other poems from A Shropshire Lad, has been set to score by several English composers, including George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney, as well as Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams leaves out these two football stanzas, which Gurney and Butterworth retained in their settings:

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

Vaughan Williams omitted the third and fourth stanzas, to Housman’s annoyance, and wrote to his publisher, Grant Richards asking: ‘I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music?’

Years later, Vaughan Williams said he felt ‘a composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense’ of it. He added: ‘I also feel that a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as: “The goal stands up, the Keeper / Stands up to keep the Goal”.’

Vaughan Williams’s setting is superb, but the stanza does count, and he appears not to have grasped that here we have a coded reference to what is happening in the dead man’s sweetheart’s bed.

The music critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times claimed the omission of these two stanzas by Vaughan Williams destroys Housman’s effect of ‘a gradual, almost casual, transition from the ghost’s questions about the common things of life to the question about his sweetheart.’ But Vaughan Williams was aiming at solemnity and sublimity in this composition, and decided to omit these stanzas so he could achieve this effect.

3, ‘Is my team ploughing

‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies down not to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still my lad, and sleep.

‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right’ (Matthew 20: 4) … vines in the vineyard at Aghia Irini Monastery, south of Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer, Wednesday 17 August 2022:

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Human Trafficking in Durgapur.’ This them was introduced on Sunday by Raja Moses, Project Co-ordinator of the Anti-Human Trafficking Project, Diocese of Durgapur, Church of North India.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the Diocese of Durgapur and their service to communities in Malda, North and South Dinajpur.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 1) … at work in a vineyard in Rivesealtes, near Perpignan in southern France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘He sent them into his vineyard’ (Matthew 20: 2) … grapes in a vineyard in Tsesmes near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)