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

                                 
          home   index   map   latest   e-mail   about this site   resources   small print   simonknott.co.uk   norfolkchurches.co.uk   suffolkchurches.co.uk
                               
         

London City Churches: an introduction

                                         
         
There is no collection of churches anywhere in the world like the City of London churches. Eighty-seven of the city's one hundred and seven medieval churches were destroyed by fire in one fearful week in early September 1666. More than fifty of them were rebuilt in one single campaign from about 1670 to 1710. It is thanks to the genius of Christopher Wren and the artists and architects of the Wren workshop like Robert Hooke and Nicholas Hawksmoor that they form an intricate whole, whether seen from a distance (increasingly difficult) or appearing fleetingly between other buildings. They were meant to be seen as such, their steeples providing a foil to Wren's proudest creation, St Paul's Cathedral.

In general, they are unequivocably protestant churches. The medieval street pattern, in many cases the medieval parishes, remain as a reminder of lost Catholic London. But Wren's churches were intended for the increasingly mature protestant theology and liturgy that had grown out of the Elizabethan settlement, tempered by the puritan fires of the Commonwealth period when the world was briefly turned upside down. They were built as preaching houses, but as more than this. The parishes were the basic unit of local administration, overseeing the welfare of both the souls and bodies of their parishioners, and the churches were intended as the Government of the Kingdom made flesh in stone. Their shape and furnishings were designed for the Prayer Book ceremonials of the established Church of England. There are few English churches outside of London which were built from scratch with the same imperatives, and certainly no group like this.

Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city
'Hell broke loose upon this Protestant City': stone formerly sited at the spot in Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of 1666 began.

Internally, the City churches are opulent. Most interiors were rebuilt in the period from 1945 to 1965 after extensive German bombing. There are a few precious surviving interiors that predate this, but in fact hardly any medieval furnishings survive at all, anywhere in the City. In some of the restored churches you'll find fixtures and fittings brought out of store which had formerly been inside churches demolished in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. But when you stand inside the wonderful interiors of St Bride and St Mary le Bow, for example, you need to remind yourself that nothing you see was made before 1950. Some of the City interiors are even more recent - terrorist bombs in the 1990s wrecked the lovely medieval churches of St Ethelburga and St Helen Bishopsgate, both of which have been restored and reinvented in new, perhaps controversial ways.

There has always been plenty of money in the City. Under the circumstances, it is surprising that the hands of the Victorian restorers did not fall more heavily here, although at St Sepulchre and St Michael Cornhill they were certainly enthusiastic. However, the City churches are all essentially civic churches, without much in the way of a resident population - a large proportion of those who live in the city today are all in one parish, St Giles Cripplegate. The churches were status symbols of the Corporation, of 17th and 18th Century merchants, of 19th Century banking houses, of 20th Century livery companies. Very few City church interiors could not be described as grand. Everything is of the highest quality. Even the surviving medieval churches have undergone constant transformation in this way. Those churches built after Wren's time by the likes of George Dance always looked back at his work as if trying to fit in with the pattern.

St Bride provided me with my first experience and memory of the City churches. It was the late 1970s. I was about fifteen years old. One late autumn afternoon as the light began to fade, I wandered along Fleet Street through the bustle of the journalists and printworkers rushing between pubs and newspaper houses (all long gone now, alas) and stepping into an alleyway I found myself standing below the towering presence of St Bride. I had been on my way back to Liverpool Street station past St Pauls, but I was brought up short by an open door, and so I stepped inside. My breath was taken away by the atmosphere, and that is I think the key to understanding and loving the City churches - their architecture and their atmosphere. And each one is so singular! It is most unusual to stand inside a City church and say, why, this is just like...! There is nothing like the interior of St Mary Aldermary or St Mary le Bow anywhere else in London, or hardly anywhere in England.

This site is a work in progress - although I have visited all the City Churches, I haven't been inside all of them yet, and there are plenty I look forward to going back to. Some of the entries are still pretty basic, but they'll be fleshed out in time. There are loads of photographs, with more to come. Once the current entries have been beefed up a bit, I'll start adding entries to City churches which no longer exist and of which no trace survives except perhaps a plaque.

However, the site will still remain a fairly self-indulgent exercise in aimless wandering. It is not intended as an architectural guide. Why would you need one? Looking along my bookshelves when planning this site, I found no fewer than eighteen books principally concerned with the City of London churches. There is a list of some of these on the resources page. I have used some of them for background information, especially the older ones, and all quotes are indicated as such and credited to the writer. But there was no point in copying out great chunks. Far better for you to track down the books for yourself. And the Friends of the City Churches website will give you far more information than this one.

No, this site is more a way of reflecting on the experience of a visit, a kind of wondering aloud and imagining, and sharing thoughts and photographs. All the photographs are hosted at flickr, and each has its own flickr page. If you want to add your own thoughts to any of the photographs then you can do so if you are a flickr member - it's free to join. All in all I hope my site provides a small amount of entertanment.

As I say, the resources page has a list of books that I think are useful. I have scanned and included some old photographs and drawings of the churches, but all these come from books which are at least ninety years old. I am assuming that they are all out of copyright, but if you know different or own the copyright to any of them yourself and would like them credited differently or even removed altogether, please let me know.

This site is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents, all of whom avoided London as a noisy, dangerous place, but one which has thrilled me constantly ever since I was young.

 

The Monument
The City, circa 1900

Looking for The Friends of the City Churches? Their website is here.

       
          home   index   map   latest   e-mail   about this site   resources   small print   simonknott.co.uk   norfolkchurches.co.uk   suffolkchurches.co.uk
     
An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                              
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

                                 

 

Commission from Amazon.co.uk supports the running of this site