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 Mary le Bow                                          
          St Mary le Bow                                    
One of the best-known of the City churches, standing proudly among the modern shops and offices of Cheapside with its former burial ground now a square to the west of it. The medieval church was also well-known, its great tower a prominent sight to anyone approaching the city. It was lit up with lanthorns at night. And the bells, of course, are also some of the City's best-known, remembered for supposedly calling, in about the year 1390, the young Richard Whittington back to London as he slinked sorrowfully out of town up Highgate Hill:

Turn again, Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!

Richard Whittington was a fabulously wealthy mercer, an early capitalist who benefited from the radical restructuring of the English economy in the years after the Black Death. In fact, he was Lord Mayor of London four times - in 1407, he was Lord Mayor of both London and Calais at the same time - and financed a number of public projects, such as drainage systems in poor areas of medieval London, and a hospital ward for unmarried mothers. He passed a law prohibiting the washing of animal skins by apprentices in the River Thames in cold, wet weather. In the absence of heirs, Whittington left 7,000 in his will to charity, equivalent to about 300 million in today's money. Among other things, it was used to rebuild Newgate Prison and Newgate, build the first library in the Guildhall, repair St Bartholomew's Hospital and install London's first public drinking fountains.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that he should be celebrated. The English folk tale Dick Whittington and his Cat was based on his life, and it has often been used as the basis for stage pantomimes and other adaptations. It tells of a poor boy in the 14th century who becomes a wealthy merchant and eventually the Lord Mayor of London because of the ratting abilities of his cat. The character of the boy is based on Richard Whittington, but the real Whittington did not come from a poor family and there is no evidence that he owned a cat. Although, of course, he probably did. The large tenor bell of St Mary le Bow, which begins the ring at the start of each line of Turn Again, Whittington, is also the Great Bell of Bow mentioned in the old nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons:

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's
When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be? say the bells of Stepney
I do not KNOW, says the great bell of Bow.

And to be born within the sound of Bow bells is the definition of being a cockney. So here we have a church which was central to the Myth of London long before the Great Fire and Sir Christopher Wren came along. When he did, it was to rebuild the burned-down church on spectacular lines, the most obvious of which is the tower, perhaps the City's best, thoroughly assured in its Classical self-confidence. Wayland Young notes that Wren used as a foundation for it a Roman causeway he found eighteen feet below ground. He also excavated under the medieval ruins a vaulted crypt, and because of the Roman bricks used in the arches he assumed that this was Roman too. As Young points out, it is in fact 11th Century, and probably the arches gave St Mary its epithet, for St Mary de Arcubus can be translated as St Mary of the Bow.

The Victorians did their best to ruin St Mary le Bow - after all, it was an important civic church. They tore out the galleries, and filled the windows with dull, ponderous glass. But the church was destroyed on the night of Sunday 29th December 1940. Only the tower and outer walls were left standing, the tower with a noticeable slant. The decision was taken, as at St Bride and St Vedast, to rebuild but not to replicate the furnishings that were there before, or indeed those which had been there in Wren's time. The architect chosen for the restoration was Laurence King, and it took place between 1956 and 1964. The result is a large space full of wonderful light, enhanced by the genius of John Hayward's glass. The furnishings are all Hayward's and King's, the rood in the customary light oak style of the day, and a detail easily missed is the Blessed Sacrament chapel shoehorned in to the right of the sanctuary.

Towards the end of this period King also took on the reconstruction of Little Walsingham church in Norfolk, which had been gutted by fire, and there are obvious lessons there learned here, not least that John Hayward was a good man to have on the job. Both churches are full of Festival of Britain confidence, the rich simplicity of post-war Anglo-catholicism, sure of itself but not yet dogmatic. And yet there is never any doubt standing inside St Mary le Bow that this is a Wren church, a civic church with a sense of dignity and gravitas. As, conversely, there is a medieval spirit at King's contemporarily refurbished Little Walsingham church. It was a tremendously successful result for both.

Not long after photographing this church, and being buoyed up again by its sheer feelgood factor, I was excited to find a copy of Charles Cox's English Church Fittings, Furniture and Accessories in a Suffolk book shop. A large hardback volume published by Batsford in 1923, fairly rare nowadays, it was a seminal work for those looking to restore some of the damage caused by Victorian enthusiasm. Turning to the front of it, I found Laurence King's bookplate. It had been his copy. I leave you, the reader, to decide quite how excited I was as I carried the book home.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: Cheapside 3/043
working parish church
access: open Monday to Friday, services on Sunday

St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow Christ in Majesty by John Hayward St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow St Mary le Bow Virgin of the City St Mary le Bow glass by John Hayward Blessed Sacrament chapel Lawrence King furnishings Blessed Virgin and child


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