An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

                                 
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          St Ethelburga                                          
          St Ethelburga                                    
         
To all intents and purposes, this is a tiny medieval church sandwiched between office blocks and cowering under the City's largest towers off of Bishopsgate. Early 20th Century photographs show it fronted by shops as at St Peter Cornhill and St Mary Moorgate, the large spectacles of the opticians particularly pleasing. The west wall was extended northwards to cover the gap between the church and the shops next door, making the building seem somewhat out of kilter. This is what many small City churches were like at the start of the 20th Century.

The conventional narrative of the City is one of more than a hundred little parishes served by medieval churches, the Great Fire destroying them, and the consequent rebuilding of some of them, especially by Wren. Certainly, before the Great Fire there were lots of little medieval churches scattered throughout the City, but those on the edge like St Ethelburga survived the advance of the flames. However, many of these were later demolished, being in the way of huge building projects like the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and Queen Victoria Street, and St Ethelburga was one of the few survivors. There was a major restoration in the early 20th Century by Ninian Comper, the rood screen being his, the glass too. When the shops in front were removed, the false wall that extended to the north was removed from the frontage, restoring a sense of balance but also perhaps taking away something of the character. As Simon Bradley notes, its atmosphere was that of a sleepy village church. The church survived the Blitz intact, and with its frontage onto Bishopsgate it was a visible reminder of the City's long past. It would be fair to say that it was much loved.

On Saturday 24th April 1993, the Irish Republican Army parked a one tonne ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bomb in a truck outside the front of St Ethelburga. Warnings were given more than an hour before the device was timed to go off - as with the Baltic Exchange bomb the previous year, the main idea of the attack was to cause as much damage to buildings as possible. When it exploded just before half past ten, the little church was vaporised. All that survived was the arcade and part of the south wall.

The explosion caused more than 350 million worth of damage in the Square Mile - the Baltic Exchange bombing a hundred yards off the previous year had caused 800 million worth of damage. There's no doubt that the insurance companies told the Major government that the City was unsustainable if attacks continued. A ring of steel was enforced around the Square Mile, and by 1997 the Good Friday agreement had been signed.

But where did this leave St Ethelburga? A number of schemes were put forward, including that the site should be enclosed in a glass box as a memorial to the victims of terrorism. However, it was eventually decided that the church should be rebuilt as far as possible on its pre-bomb lines, and that is how you see it today. Many of the furnishings salvaged from the wreckage were reinstated, although of course the Comper glass was lost. The church is now a centre for reconciliation and peace. I noticed recently that it is also being used for the services of the Orthodox Church on a Saturday evening.

Simon Knott, December 2015


location: Bishopsgate EC2N 4AG 3/025
status: reconciliation centre
access: open Friday 11-3, other times by arrangement. Probably, you could just knock on the door.

St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga St Ethelburga

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An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
                               
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile