Changing London

City churches: Uncovering London’s early Christian religious houses

Despite fires, bombings, natural disasters, de-population and falling attendance, the City of London’s long-standing churches remain open and ready to visit. They are fascinating places to while away some time, whether you are there to participate in a service or merely take stock of the surroundings that tell us so much about the history of our great capital. In the first part of a new six-part series, I take a look at London’s early Christian religious houses.

On a Friday night, when office workers have logged out from their computers at the end of the working week, the churchyard of St Peter’s Cornhill becomes a buzzing beer garden. Drinkers spill out from a nearby pub and leave a trail of cigarette butts in their wake. It must be a nightmare to clean up once the last punters have gone home.

But what most revellers probably don’t realise is that they are standing on top of an old graveyard. When it became illegal to bury bodies in the City of London a century and a half ago a garden was created in its place. Charles Dickens, writing in A Mutual Friend, described what he saw on the site as “a churchyard; a paved court, with a raised bank of earth about breast high, in the middle enclosed by iron rails”.

St Peter’s Cornhill

St Peter’s occupies a special place in London’s ecclesiastical history in that it stands near what some say is the oldest site of Christian worship in the capital. While the name ‘Cornhill’ was first mentioned in the 11th century (the ‘hill’ relating to one of the two hills that formed the basis of Roman Londinium, while the ‘corn’ relating to a corn market that was once held there), there is said to have been a church here much earlier than that. Some suggest that King Lucius founded a religious institution here in AD179.

The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and re-built by Wren, but further changes were made during the 19th century, which were somewhat controversial given that 17th century furnishings were removed (although a rare Wren chancel screen remains, in its original position). It is no longer laid out as a traditional church and is not used for regular services, but instead operates as a Christian study centre so it not normally open to the public.

As for the for the church’s supposed ancient origins, there are differing views. Some have questioned whether it was founded by King Lucius and there is little evidence even for him existing. Historian John Stow, who was born in 1525, also refers to the church’s early history, but again makes little attempt to back up his points. Despite the claims, there is in fact very little surviving evidence for churches in the late Roman period when the Empire converted to Christianity.

The citizens of Londinium abandoned the walled City after the collapse of Roman Britain and settled in modern-day Covent Garden. Little happened in the vacated urban area until 604AD when Ethelbert, King of Kent, began to construct the first St Paul’s cathedral. There is no evidence of any other churches in old Roman Londinium until after the walled City was re-settled in the late 9th century. Faced by an increasingly threat of attack by the Vikings, Alfred thought this vacant area would offer a stronger defence compared to the more open landscape of Covent Garden.

Early churches

St Bride’s in Fleet Street will look familiar to anyone who has been to a British wedding. The church’s 18th century steeple provided the inspiration for the design of the traditional tiered cake that is served at celebrations week in, week out across the country. Created by a pastry chef of Ludgate Hill, he did a good trade selling sweet delicacies based on the 234ft structure until his death in 1811.

St Bride’s, Fleet Street

As well as having a ‘wedding cake’ steeple, St Bride’s is also known as the ‘journalist’s church’ and uses the tagline the “spiritual home of media” on its website. The church’s association with the trade harks back to the early 16th century when Wynkyn de Worded, apprentice of the printer of the first English book (William Caxton), moved his printing press from Westminster to Fleet Street. By the time of his death in 1535 when he was buried at St Bride’s, many others had set up presses in the area.

Fleet Street opened taverns and coffee shops on the back of its literary fame which became popular with writers, attracting the likes of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Many newspapers opened here as well and although they mostly re-located in the 1980s traces of their heritage can still be seen etched on the front of buildings, as I discovered on an excellent tour some time back run by Unreal Audio City.

At St Bride’s make sure you check out the ‘Journalist’s Altar’, which became the Hostage Altar when John McCarthy was captured in Beirut between 1986 and 1991, and candle-lit vigils were held here. Today it serves as a memorial to the journalists who have died in the 21st century bringing news back to Britain. As you explore the building and see will see, noted on various plaques, the money that publishing companies have put into the structure over the years.

St Bride’s is very much a working church, holding services not only on Sundays, but throughout the week as well. It boasts a professional choir which participates in the weekly Choral Eucharist services and there are also dedicated quiet times allowing opportunities for quiet reflection. And despite journalists no longer working on Fleet Street, St Bride’s continues to hosts dedicated services for the profession, including a Christmas carol concert where the church is packed to the rafters.

But there is more to St Bride’s than its media and wedding connections. The church, originally built by St Bridget of Kildare (hence the name), provides evidence for one of the earliest known places for Christian evidence in the City. In the crypt – where there is a small exhibition about Fleet Street – you will be able to see the traces of a Norman and Saxon churches that have stood on the site. Colour coded panels explain the various periods of history that the different sections of masonry relate to.

It is said that the history of St Bride’s goes back even further in that the first church (there have been eight on the site over the years) is believed to have been built on the site of Roman graveyard and buildings (you can see a Roman mosaic pavement in the southeast corner of the crypt, providing the earliest evidence of a place of worship on the site).

St Bride’s crypt

The Normans re-built the church, which was used by King John for his first parliament of 1210, and after being destroyed Great Fire of 1666, the new building designed by Sir Christopher Wren was said to be one of his most lavish and expensive. The Blitz resulted in the church being gutted so all of the interiors on show date from the remodelling after then.

Although there is little concrete evidence for churches in the late Roman period, it is fascinating that during the period after Alfred brought Londoners back to live in the City we quickly start to see these religious institutions flourishing. St Bride’s is a great place to visit, as is All Hallows By The Tower (which I’ll cover in a later blog and itself claims to be the oldest church in the City), to see these traces.

City churches live on

Until relatively recently I had regularly walked past countless churches in the City of London without batting an eyelid. It was only when I picked up a map printed by the excellent Friends of the City Churches organisation, which is based at St Mary Abchurch and produces a jam packed programme of services and events, that I realised how many there were and I made it my mission to visit as many as possible.

Some survive in prominent positions, others are tucked away in quiet positions down narrow alleyways. While a handful hold Sunday services, many are just open on weekdays for City workers. Some are no longer used as churches in the traditional sense, but occupied by a range of charitable organisations. What however brings all of the City’s religious houses together is that taken in their entirety, they help us remember the wider history of London.

Next week: London’s churches experience rapid medieval growth

Inside St Bride’s

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